Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933)

Calvin Coolidge, Jr.
Figure 1.--Here Govenor Calvin Coolidge is helping his 12-year old son Calvin, Jr. build a soap box car, a popular father-son activity at the time (July 2007). They are in the backyard of their Northampton, Massachusetts home. Notice the front and back porches. Calvin Jr. died tragically only 4 years later. Wide World Press Photo. Source: Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library.

Calvin Coolidge was the 30th president of the United States. Some presidents are known for their charisma. Coolidge was known for his flinty lack of it. And the public after Wilsonian moral idealism and Harding's croynism found Coolidge's integrity and low-key approach refreshing. Coolidge served at a time of unparalled prosperity -- The Roaring Twenties. Economists debate to what degree he was resonsible, but there is no dispute about one achievement. He actually reduced the Federal budget during presidency. He was a president of few words, was so famous for saying so little that a White House dinner guest made a bet that she could get the president to say more than two words. She told the president of her wager. His reply: "You lose." Coolidge was a laconic New Englander who strongly favored frugality in Government. His major goals as president were to reduce government spending. cut taxes, and to keep America from any foreign entanglements. He succeeded in these efforts. Cooldlidge had other achievemnts, he put a stop to the post-World War I Red Scare and called for Americans to wirk for themselves and not the Government. Coolidge in contrast to Wilson spoke out for civil rights. He restored faith in the Federal Government after the unbridled corruption of Harding's cronies. He changed policy during his presidency and called for American naval suprenecy, beginninga a naval building program. Despite the prosperity of the 1920s, Coolidge did not get much credut for the prosperity by the political commentators of the day, but he became popular with the public. He was widely lampooned at the time. And historians have not treated him much better. He is largely known to history through several satrical jibes by various contemprary writers. Perhaps the most telling was penned by Walter Lippmann who descripred the President's philosophy as "Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences." Coolidge is most famous for his comment, 'the chief business of the American people is business'.


Calvin's parents were John Calvin Coolidge and Victoria Josephine Moor. Both grew up in Plymouth Notch, a small town in a rural farming area. They married a few years after the Civil War (1868). Both came from families that had settle in the area after the Revolutionary War. John was was the village storekeeper. He sold the store (1877). After this he served in various capacities. He was a selectman, school superintendent, state legislator, constable and Justice of the Peace. He received the honorary title of "Colonel" when he worked on Governor William Stickney's staff. Calvin's mother was not well through much of Calvin's boyhood. She played, however, an important part in his early education, teaching him to read. Clvin's grandmother was known as Aunt Mede and helped raise Calvin when his mother died. Calvin was only 12 years old.


Calvin was born in Plymouth, Vermont, on July 4, 1872. Calvin had one sister, Abbie (1875- ). The two were very close. Both Calvin and Abbie had chores around the house. Calvin was expected to make sure the woodbox was full. Homes at the time needed a lot of wood, both for cooking and heating the house in the fall and winter. He did not have farm chores as his father was not a farmer. His grandfather, howver did farm and Calvin would help out on the farm. Like many New England boys, Calvin enjoyed maple sugaring. Both Calvin and Abbie liked to visit their grandparents. Calvin Galusha Coolidge raised Arabian horses. Calvin recalled the peacocks he also kept. Like his grandfather, Calvin loved to play practical jokes. As he was so quier and well behaved, he often was not sispected of playing pranks like locking a mule up in the schoolroom. Their grandmother taught Sunday school and would read Bible stories aloud to Calvin and Abbie. Calvin was painfully shy as a boy. This probably was a factor in his reserve aa an adult and his presidential mivkname--Silent Cal.


Calvin attended a local primary school in Plymouth Notch. It was as was common at the time in rural areas. Thus the teacher had to oversee the varies lessons for all the differentv age groups at the sane time. The older children helped the teacher by assisting the younger ones with the lessons. Some of the children, especially the older boys, attended sporadically because they were needed on the farm. Calvin was an excellent student and applied himself. His father had been careful with money and had the resources for a private education. Calvin at age 12 was sent to Black River Academy, a boarding school in Ludlow, Vermont (1886). He studied at Amherst College (1891-95). He graduated from Amherst with honors. After geaduating he studied law and was admitted to the bar (1897).

Political Career

Coolidge entered law and politics in Northampton, Massachusetts. He slowly and methodically went up the political ladder from councilman in Northampton to Governor of Massachusetts, as a Republican. He acquired a thoroughly conservative outlook.

Election of 1920

The 1920 presidential election of 1920 was dominated by the aftermath of World War I. Americans had already begun to question the country's participation in the War. The economic boom during the War had disappeared with a recession. The Denocrats were still arguing for American participation in the League of Nations. The Europe Ameruca left was convulsed with wars and revolutiobs of which most Americas wanted no part. Strikes, race riots, and terrorist incidents frightened many Americans. As a result, President Wilson had become very unpopular. Former President Theodore Roosevelt who hasd waged the third party Bull Moose canpaign in 1916 hoped to get the Republican nomination, but he died in 1919. The Republican nimomination became a free fight. The Republicans after a lengthy convention fight turned to Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding , a former newspaper editor, primarily because he had so few enemies. After several ballots, party bosses in a “smoke-filled room” settled on Harding. Harry M. Daugherty, Harding's political manager played a major role in these negotiations. Harding appointed him Attorney General after the election. The party bosses wanted Wisconsin Senator Irvine Lenroot as vice president, but a revolt broke out on the convention floor. The delegates chose Massachusetts Givernor Calvin Cooldige whose handling of the Bost Police Strike (1919) had made him a popular figure. The Democrats also selected another Ohio candidate, newspaper publisher and Governor James M. Cox. Harding virtually ignored Cox and ran against Wilson. He called for a return to "normalcy". While not an actual word, it proved to be a successful campaign slogan. Harding also had a huge campaign spending advantage. Harding proved a popular choice for the Republicans in 1920. Harding won the Presidential election by an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote, a Republican landslide after 8 years out of office.

Harding's Death

Vice-President Cooldidge was vacationing in Vermont when he was informed of President Harding's death (August 3, 1923). It was 2:30 in the morning. He took the oath of office by a kerosene lamp, His father, who was a notary public, administered the oath of office using the family Bible.

Restoring the Government's Image

Coolidge's first task was to clear up the mess left by President Harding. Here he was notably successful. Even his detractors cocede this point. Democratic Governor of New York and future Dempcratic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith wrote, Coolidge was "distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history ... in a time of extravagance and waste...."" The result was the Roaring 20s, a period of growth and optimism. [Shlaes]

Progressive Critics

There was intensive critics of America duruing the Progressive Era. Many Americans despite the country's success lived in poverty. Sweat shops were common in New York and other big cities. There was extensive child labor. Many children had to leave school and work. Immigrants lived in unhealty tenaments. Workers fond it difficult to organize. Monopolies dominated a great deal of industry. Women could not vote. These were all issues addrssed by reformers in both the Semocratic and Republican Pries as well as arogressive Party. All of these and other problems are deakt with at some length in American history books. What the liberal historians who write these books rarekly mention is that as bad as conditions wre for many workers, conditions in America were better than in any other country. This is why Europeam emigrants flocked to America. Living conditions and wageswere higher in America than Europe. Commonly the approach is to compare America in the early-20th century to America after World War II. And with this approach, of course conservative politicans like Cooolidge come off badly. But that is an historically flawed approach. America at the time should be compred to Europe at the time. And historians and economists need to ask why if the Progressives were correct was America much more succeabout America's faiklings was this country so much more successful than Europe in raising the conditions of the working class. The readers assessment here will lsrgely determine their assessment of the Cooldidge presidency.

Election of 1924

The Republicans were worried about their prospects for the 1924 elections. After Hardings's death scandals had tarnished the Republicans. To the suprose of many, the laconic Coolidge was an ibstant hit with the public. The Roaring 20s had brought good times to many and the public saw it as the "Coolidge Prosperity". The Party remominated him on the first ballot at their Cleveland Convention. They also nominated Charles G. Dawes of Illinois for vice-president. The Party emerged from the Convenbtion united and confident about the election. The Convention was notable for being the first to be broacast on radio. The Democrats met in New York. They still maintained a two-thirds vote rule which made it virtually impossible to achieve agreement on a nominee. The leading candidate was the progressive govenor of New York--Alfred E. Smith. He was opposed by the southern Democrats who saw Smith as a Yankee, a Catholic, and the product of corupt political machine politics. His leaading opponent was William G. McAdoo of Tennessee who was less outgoing, but was a Protesant. He generated little enthusiasm among the northeastern delegates. The Democrats held over 100 ballots, a convention record. The Ku Klux Klan became an especially devisive issue at the Convention. John Davis of West Virginia eventually emerged as compromise candidate. Robert LaFollete of Wisconsin ran a third party campaign as the candidate of the Progressive party. The Republican's campaign slogan was "Keep Cool With Coolidge". The heady properity of the 20s along with the division of the Democrats helped ensure a Coolidge victory. The Harding Administration scandals did not affect Coolidge. He received 54 percent of the popular vote and a massive Electoral College victory.

Presidency (1923-29)

Coolidge's major goals as president were to cut taxes which had been raused during World War I, reduce government spending. and to keep America from any foreign entanglements. He succeeded in these efforts. President Coolidge in his first message to Congress proposed a domestic policy of tax cuts, limited spending, and limited aid to farmers and a foreign policy of isolation in foreign policy (December 1923). President Coolidge in his Inaugural Adressed told Americans that the country had achieved "a state of contentment seldom before seen," and pledged himself to maintain the status quo (March 1925). He was true to his word and continued the policies established in his first term. American immigration lawswere reformed during the Coolidge presudency, but this was primarily a Congressional iniative. The Coolidge Afministratiin did not have an active foreign policy, but continued to finnce German World War I reparations, The major foreign policy iniative ilusionary was the Kellog-Briand Pact. The Bonus Bill for veterans was passed over the President's veto.

Decesion Not to Run (August 1927)

President Coolidge proved to be a very popular president. The Republican nomination was his for the asking. Very few presidents have been denied the nomintionof their party for a second term. And Coolidge was a popular president. The President was perhaps best known for a dry Yankee wit. Unlike msny presidents, he was not verbose. His short, terse statements became legendary. Mrs. Coolidge delighted in telling a story about a bubbly young woman sitting next to the President at a dinner party. She explined to the President that she had made a bet that she could get at least three words out of him in conversation. He didn't blink an eye and replied, "You lose." Few presidents had turned down a sure second term. It is unclear when and why Collidge decided aginst a second term. Coolidge never explained his decesion. Historians speculate about why he decided not to run. Some have posited that economists had warned him that there were potential economic problems developing and he did not want to have to be the president to deal with them. That sounds far fethched, but it is possible. A more plausible explnation is personal issues. Coolidge had known personal tragedy as youth. Some relatives died while he was quite young. This included his mother and sister. And his younger son, Calvin, died of blood poisoning at the White House (1924). Although given his laconic personality, it was difficult to tell, his son's death had a deep impact on him. One author write,'part of him seemed to die at the same time'. Some believed it was at this time that he decided not to seek a second term, although he did not announce his decesion at that time. While vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his famous laconic statements (August 2, 1927). It read simply, "I do not choose to run for President in 1928." Most Republicans were startled. They were sure that he was going to run. This suddenly threw the Republican nomination wide open. Some authors believe that he secretly hoped that the Party would demand that he would run again. Most Republicans, however, accepted his announcement and the race was on. Some organized a draft Coolidge effort and because of the President's populrity, he had to actively discourage it.


He served at a time of unparalled prosperity. Economists debate to what degree he was resonsible. One biographer belueves his policies played an important role. [Shlaes] Other historians are less willing to conced this. There is no dispute about one achievement. He actually reduced the Federal budget during presidency. Coolidge's economic reciord and his legacy is largely afubction as to how one views the Great Depression causes. And here there is no concensus. There is a tendency among Liberal historians to describe the free market ecomomy of the 1920s and capitalism in general as somehow flawed and responsible for the Great Depression. We note statements like, "Coolidge was president during the interim between the two world wars. During this time, the economic situation in America seemed to be one of prosperity. However, the foundation was being laid for what would become the Great Depression." [Kelly] This is just one example. Such statements are common in histories covering the period, dominted by Liberal thinkers. The point being made is that free market capitalism was reponsible for the Great Depression of the 1930s. The historian here adds the absurd statement in connection with tax cuts, "The money that individuals were able to keep and spend helped contribute to the speculation that eventually would lead to the fall of the stock market and contribute to the Great Depression." [Kelly] Now it is certainly true that capitalism is prone to periodic booms and recession. And it also true that capitalism to function properly needs government regulation to ensure a fait market place and the stability of financial institutions. And there was inadequate regulation of corporations and banks before the Depression. Income was not well distributed. What far too many historians and economists fail to point out, however, is that Government action following the Stock Market Crash (October 1929), probably turned what was an ordinary recession into the Great Depression. Thus a good case can be made for the proposition that it was misguidef governental action that was the main cause of the Great Drpression.

Contemporary Assessments

While popular with the public during his presidency, journalists loved to lampoon him. Some of those who found him a wonderful target were journalistrs H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann and humorist Will Rodgers. I supose if you are going to be lampooned, it might as well be done by the best. H.L. Mencken wrote, "His ideal day is one on which nothing whatsoever happens." Walter Lippmann commented in 1926 that Cooldidge's political genius was his talent for oing nothing, "This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone.... And it suits all those whohave become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy ...." Perhaps the most telling was penned by Lippmann who descripred the President's philosophy as "Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences." Coodlidge was noted for his brief one-liners. His critics produced sone one liners of their own. The redoubtable daughter of President T. Roosevelt, Alice Longsworth Roosevelt said of Coolidge, he looks as if he had been "weaned in a pickle". (Alice was herself the subject of a classic Presidential one-liner, or axctually two-liner. When asked whether he couldn't do something about his unruly daughter, President Roosevelt replied, "I can either manage Alice or the country. I can't do both.") Gossip collumnist Dorthy Parker upon hearing that Coolidge had passed away, asked "How could they tell?"

Presidential Approach

Coolidge was a contasdiction to many journalists. He was approachable. Few presidents have been photographed in more different hats. The most famous was a Native American war bonnet, but there were also cowboy hats and other regalia. He also willingly received a sucession of delegations at the White House. He frustrated journalists, however, by never saying much. He was noted for sitting silently when receiving visitors advcating various policies. He explained his approach to Bernard Baruch. "Well, Baruch, many times I say only 'yes' or 'no' to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for 20 minutes more." He also advised Herbert Hoover, "If you keep dead still they will run down in 3 to 4 minutes. If you even cough or smile they will strt up all over again." It was his dry Yankee wit and his disinclination to say little that most impressed journalists. At this was not just his public persona. That was just his general approach. Mrs. Coolidge reported that at a inner party a young lady sat next to her husband and bet him she could get him to speak at least three words during their conversation. Ge didb't even look at her before replying confidently, "You lose." True to form, he ended his political career while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He issued a single sentence announcement. "I do not choose to run for President in 1928."

Family Life

Calvin Coolidge met Grace Goodhue as a young lawyer in Northampton, Massachusetts and he spent the rest of his life with her. Her lively personality was a needed offset to his sicial retience. They lived modestly in Northampton except for the 8 years in Washington. She as First Lady was the most popular hostess in Washington. The Coolidges had two children. Their youngest son, Calvin Jr., died tragically while they were in the Whute House.

Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957)

Grace Goodhue was born in 1879. She was raised in Burlington, Vermont. This was the largest town in the Green Mountains. Her parents were Andrew and Lemira B. Goodhue. Her father was a mechanical engineer and steamboat inspector. Grace was an only child and endulged by her loving parents, but perhaps because of outgoing personality never becane spoiled. Her father was injured in an accident when Grace was only about 4 years old. She went to stay with family friends--the Yales for almost a year. Grace was ena,ored by the older Yale daughter, June, who taught at the Clarke School for the Deaf. It began a life-long interest in teaching and a special interest in teaching deaf children. Grace graduated from Burlington High School (1897). She went on to the University of Vermont where she graduated (1902). She got a job teaching at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was at Northampton that she met Calvin Coolidge, young lawyer just beginning his practice. They moved in the same social set (boating, picnicking, and whist playing club) and both went to the Congregational Church. They married a few years later at her parent's home (1905). The young couple moved into a modest duplex. Soon their first son arrived. Like a number of future first ladies, she played an important role in her husband's political career. Her husband was shy and aloof, not the best personality for an aspiring politican. Grace was in constrast a bubly personality who helped maked friends. She plunged into community life, actively participated in church affairs, and maintained asocial life that helped Coolidge make friends. Their second son arrived (1908). More than likely it was Grace who would be found playing baseball with the boys in the backyard. As Coolidge's legal and political career developed, they countinued to live in their modest duplex. Coolidge was elected Massachusetts govenor (19??). Grace and the boys stayed in Northampton when Coolidge went to Boston. He rented a room fir $1.50 during the week and came home every weekend. Coolidge's selection as vice president meant that Grace Coolidge who was essentially a well educated small-town housewife was transported into the middle of the Washington social swirl (1921). She was an immediate success. Her outgoing personality and modest simplicity charmed Washington. The Coolidges continued to live modestly, but Mrs. Coolidge did like to dress well. She enjoyed her dog Rob Roy. After a very short time as the vice-president's wife, President Harding died unexpectedly. This propelled her Husband into the White House and she became first lady. She was responsible for the President's official entertaining. He wanted it to be dignified, but unpretentious and that is what Mrs. Coolidge gave him. The Coolidges were rocked by the death of their younger son at only age 16 (1924). Neither let the tragedy interfere with their official duties. She was throughout her term as First Lady the most popular hostesses in Washington. One of her public duties was the honary president of the Girl Scouts. Er're not sure how active she was. When the Coolidges left Washington was one of the most respected an admired women in the contry. The Coolidges moved back to Northampton (1929). They bought a larger home--"The Beeches". It was a larger house with ample grounds which provided the Coolidges greater privacy. President Coolidge died (1933). The President with his usual bent for getting to the point had describe their marriage, "For almost a quarter of a century she was borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces." [C. Coolidge] Mrs. Coolidge sold The Beeches and purchased a small house. She embarked in some new adventures. She took an airplane flight. She traveled to Europe. She stayed out of the public eye. Her major public service was serving as a trustee of the Clarke School. She ramined close to her son and his family. She passed away (1957).


The Coolidges had two sons. John (1906- ) was born right after their marriage. Calvin Jr (1908-24) died tragically while the Coolidges were in the White House. He and Willie Lincon were the only two presidntil children to die in the White House.
John (1906-2000): The first son John Coolidge was born right after their marriage. He attended Amherst. John married Floence Trumbull whose father was the Governor of California. They had two children. He became a railroad executive and then in 1941 President of Connecticut Manifold Forms. He sold the company (1958) and used the funds to revive the Plymouth Cheese Company, a company his grandfather founded. After retirement he played a major role in restoring old buildings in the small town of Plymouth, Vermount. This was the birth place of his father, President Coolidge. The buildings he helped restore are now part of a state historical park.
Calvin Jr. (1908-24): Their second son Calvin Coolidge Jr. died tragically while the Coolidges were in the White House, only a year or so after his father became president. He was home from school on his summer vacation. He and his brothr John decided to pay a barefoot game of tennis (June 30). He played all afternoon and developed a blister. It became infected and he died from blood poisoning (July 7). That seems today so incomprehensible, that a blister would cause the death of a young person--especially an individual of means. Times were different then and doctors did not have antibiotics. He was only 16 years old. His parents took him home to be buried in Plymouth, Vermont. Gis brother later wrote that his father never fully overcame his grief for his younger son.

The Depression

Coolidge could have run for a third term. He simply explained, "I do not choose to run again." The Republicans nominated Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover who won handily. Six months after leaving office, the New York Stock Market crashed (September 1929). The Crash developed into the mose severe Depression in American history. Mencken later wrote, "Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored." Coolidge in retirement commented to a close friend, "I feel I no longer fit in with these times." A telling comment to a President who had been precisely in tune with the America of the 1920s. Coolidge died after the 1932 election, but before the onset of the New Deal (January 1933),


The public blamed Hoover for the Great Depression, but Cooldige and the Republuican Party were tarnished.. And historians and economists did blame Coolidge for failing to tamper down the excesses in the economy and ignoring structural weaknesses. Coolidge did have one presidential admirer--Ronald Reagan who persued comservative policies, restricting Federal programs and cuting taxes. Reagan hung Coolidge's portrait in the White House Cabinent Room. One biographer calls Coolidge a "proto-Reagan". In foreign policy they were very different. Coolidge wanted to withdraw from the world, advocaing isolationism. Reagan persued an active foreign policy aimed at ebding the Soviet tyranny.


Coolidge, Calvin. Autobiography.

Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge (Times, 2007), 202p.

Kelly, Nartin. "Calvin Coolidge - Thirtieth President of the United States" Guide

Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge (2013), 576p.

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
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