Calvin Coolidge: Life in Brief

Calvin Coolidge: Life in Brief

A quiet and somber man whose sour expression masked a dry wit, Calvin Coolidge was known as "Silent Cal." After learning of his ascendancy to the presidency following the death of Warren Harding in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a justice of the peace, in the middle of the night and, displaying his famous "cool," promptly went back to bed.

Calvin Coolidge was born on Independence Day, 1872, and raised in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father was a pillar of the community, holding a variety of local offices from tax collector to constable. From him, Coolidge inherited his taciturn nature, his frugality, and his commitment to public service. The early death of his mother and sister contributed to his stoical personality.

Climbing the Political Ladder

While practicing law in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge began to climb the ladder of state politics. From a spot on the City Council in 1900, he became chairman of the Northampton Republican Committee in 1904 and joined the state legislature in 1907. His term as governor of Massachusetts placed him in the national arena just in time to benefit from the return to power of the Republicans at the end of World War I. As governor, he called in the state guard to break a strike by city police in Boston, claiming that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." This bold action won him public acclaim and swept him onto the Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee with Warren Harding. As vice president, Coolidge kept a low profile, sitting silently during cabinet meetings and seldom speaking in his constitutional position as presiding officer of the U.S. Senate.

After Harding's death in 1923, Coolidge became President. Intent on running for reelection in 1924, he dispatched his potential Republican rivals with relative ease. He had emerged unscathed from the scandals that plagued the Harding administration, earning a reputation for being honest, direct, and hardworking. The Democrats were split in 1924, finally settling on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis of West Virginia. With a rebounding economy to help him, Coolidge won handily with the slogan "Keep Cool With Coolidge."

A Visible Yet Passive Presidency

In contrast to his disdain for small talk, Coolidge was a highly visible leader, holding press conferences, speaking on the radio, and emerging as the leader among what one survey called "the most photographed persons on earth." Reveling in what would become known as the "photo op," he posed before the cameras dressed in farmer overalls, a cowboy hat and chaps, and an Indian headdress. But his prominent profile was not matched by a commitment to activism. He believed in small government, especially at the federal level, and practiced a passive style of leadership. He saw little need to intervene in issues that Congress or the states could handle without him.

Nonetheless, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had changed the presidency into an activist institution, and public opinion fairly demanded a modicum of leadership from the White House. Coolidge did have an agenda. His chief concern was economics, where he favored low taxes, reduced regulation of business, and a balanced budget. Alongside his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who advocated "trickle-down" economics, as critics called it, Coolidge secured reductions in rates for wealthy Americans (most citizens at the time paid little federal tax). Although many observers at the time gave the President and Secretary Mellon credit for the so-called "Coolidge Prosperity" that characterized the seven years of his presidency, in retrospect he came under criticism for having failed to try to stop the feverish stock-market speculation toward the end of his term that contributed to the stock market crash of 1929. Coolidge also fought against farm-relief legislation that might have shored up the depressed farm economy.

Like Harding, Coolidge allowed his cabinet a free hand in foreign affairs, delegating authority to Treasury Secretary Mellon, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, all holdovers from Harding's cabinet. The President believed that the United States should seek out foreign markets and refrain from entangling alliances and participation in the League of Nations. He supported the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as a means of settling international differences, a largely symbolic pact that nonetheless became an important precedent in fostering reliance on international law. In Latin America, Coolidge's administration tended to support the interests of U.S. businesses, although the President made steps toward a less adversarial posture than his predecessors had typically maintained. Coolidge chose not to run for a second term because his republican political philosophy led him to value highly the unwritten two-term precedent (toward which he counted the balance of Harding's term that he served). Moreover, the death of his teenage son in 1924 had taken much of the joy out of his work. True to his simple tastes, he imagined he would be happier in retirement in Northampton, Massachusetts.

First Lady Grace Coolidge was as sunny and sociable as her husband was taciturn and sardonic. The press photographed her at every opportunity, and she once joked that she was the "national hugger." Having been trained as an instructor for the deaf, Grace Coolidge brought national attention to the plight of the nation's hearing-impaired and became a close personal friend of the author and activist, Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind.

Although the public admired Coolidge during his time in office, the Great Depression turned public opinion against him. Many linked the nation's economic collapse to Coolidge's policy decisions. He vetoed the problematic McNary-Haugen bill to aid the depressed agricultural sector while thousands of rural banks in the Midwest and South were shutting their doors and farmers were losing their land. His tax cuts worsened the maldistribution of wealth and overproduction of goods, which destabilized the economy. Although in the 1980s, conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan--who hung Coolidge's portrait in the White House--revived something of a cult of Coolidge, most historians look upon the Coolidge presidency with skepticism, considering him to have offered little in the way of a positive vision, however strong his personal integrity.