A wholesome regard for the memory of great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall still be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great.
Time for my usual Presidents’ Day rant. Although still officially Washington’s Birthday this day has become commonly known as President’s Day. I see no reason to honor the various incompetents, low lifes, grifters and public thieves who have too often sat in the Oval Office on the same day that should be reserved for truly great Presidents like Washington, Lincoln and Coolidge. Coolidge? Yep, Silent Cal was a truly magnificent President and in this post we will examine why he deserves to be ranked among the very best of our Chief Executives.
Born on the fourth of July in 1872, in Plymouth Notch in the Green Mountains of Vermont, John Calvin Coolidge, (he was always called Calvin by his family so his first name fell by the wayside) was a rock-ribbed Vermont Yankee descended from a line of Yankees that had first set foot in New England in 1630. Thrift was not a virtue in the Coolidge family, but a way of life. His mother died when he was twelve. He would carry a locket with her portrait until the day he died. “The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.” His beloved sister died only five years later, not the last loss of a loved one that would come to Calvin Coolidge. Graduating from Amherst College, he took the advice of his father and skipped law school, too expensive, and became an attorney through the traditional route of “reading law” under an experienced attorney.
In 1898 he opened a law office in Northampton, Massachusetts and gradually attracted business as a transactional attorney rather than an attorney who did litigation in court. He met his wife Grace, a teacher at a local school for the deaf, when she spied him one day in 1903 through an open window at the boarding house where he was staying. Coolidge was shaving, and was wearing his long johns and his hat. (He later explained to her that he used the hat to keep his unruly hair out of his eyes while he was shaving.) In this case opposites did attract, and for life. Grace was talkative and lively, Coolidge quiet and withdrawn. They had a very happy marriage that was blessed by two sons. Shortly after their marriage Grace was presented by Calvin with a sack with fifty-two pairs of hole filled socks in them. She asked him if he had married her so she would darn his socks. He replied no, but that he found it mighty handy that she could darn his socks! (And she did not kill him!)
Coolidge began climbing the political ladder in Northampton. He served a varied political apprenticeship, serving as Councilman, City Solicitor, Clerk of Courts, State Representative, Mayor and State Senator. His only defeat was when he ran for schoolboard, probably because he and his wife did not yet have children. His laconic response was classic Coolidge: Might give me time!
He was ever a friend of Irish Catholics and fought against the discrimination they frequently endured. Most Irish Catholics were Democrats, but that did not stop Coolidge from standing up for them. As mayor of Northampton, he developed a life long friendship with Father Joseph Gordian Daley who shared Coolidge’s love of Latin and Greek. Coolidge helped Father Daley build a mission church in Northampton. There was a great deal of compassion in this dry, unemotional Yankee.
Whatever office he held, he stressed economy, reduction of taxes and reduction of debt. In 1915 he ran for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts and won. In 1918 he was elected governor of Massachusetts, running on a platform of fiscal conservatism, support of female suffrage, opposition to Prohibition and support for American involvement in World War I. 1919 cast him into the national spotlight when a Boston police strike caused lawlessness and rioting to break out. Coolidge ordered in the National Guard and tersely stated that there was no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anytime, anywhere. He won reelection that year with a victory margin seven times greater than 1918. (The Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the Bay State served only for one year terms at that time.)
At the 1920 Republican convention Coolidge found himself unexpectedly the nominee for Vice-President. Harding and Coolidge went on to win by almost a two to one margin.
The office of Vice-President seemed made for a man as quiet as Coolidge. Coolidge quickly earned the nickname of Silent Cal. The archetypal example of his terseness is when a young lady encountered him at a White House reception and said that she had bet a friend of hers that she could get him to speak three words to her. “You lose” was Coolidge’s two-word response. He seemed out-of-place in regard to the Washington social circle. When asked why he came to dinners when he said so little he responded: Got to eat somewhere.
With the sudden death of Harding from a heart attack on August 2, 1923, Silent Cal found himself suddenly President.
Coolidge faced three big tasks: to recover the integrity of the Presidency that had been tainted by the Teapot Dome Scandal during Harding’s term, to increase American prosperity, and to pay down the national debt that had accumulated during World War I. He adopted a go slow approach at first, reasoning that he was a caretaker of Harding until he was elected in his own right. He was nominated by the Republican convention in 1924 and easily won election. Personal tragedy blighted his life when his son Calvin, Jr. died from an infected foot blister that he acquired while playing tennis, dramatic proof as to how precarious life was in the era before antibiotics. Coolidge said that with the death of his son all the power and the glory of the presidency died for him.
However, personal grief did not deter him from doing his job. During his term in office he slashed spending and vetoed 50 bills. That veto total is truly remarkable when it is remembered that Coolidge’s Republican party controlled Congress each year during his term. Why he vetoed these pieces of legislation can be summed up in this quotation:
Of course, a good many proposals are made by people that have very excellent things that they would like to have the Government do, but they come from people that have no responsibility for providing ways and means by which their proposals can be carried out. I don’t think in all my experience, which has been very large with people that come before me in and out of Government with proposals for spending money, I have ever had any proposal from anyone as to what could be done to save any money. Sometimes linked with the proposal for an immediate large expenditure is the suggestion that it ultimately will result in a saving. I think that is about the extent of the outside assistance I have had in that direction.
Coolidge reduced the national debt from 22.3 billion to 16.9 billion. This was at a time when total revenue for the government was approximately four billion a year. He accomplished this while reducing taxes three times during his administration. By the ending of his term only the richest 2% of Americans paid any federal income tax.
He cut Federal spending to the bone. For Coolidge this was not just a fiscal matter, but a moral matter:
I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
During his term in office the American people enjoyed a wave of prosperity unprecedented in either American history or the history of the World. However, Coolidge did not view prosperity as an end in itself:
Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.
Contrary to the spirit abroad in this country today, Coolidge was quite clear that people could not look to government to better their lives:
The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act or resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil. It can provide no substitute for the rewards of service. It can, of course, care for the defective and recognize distinguished merit. The normal must care for themselves. Self-government means self-support.
The Ku Klux Klan, at the height of its power, was a force to be reckoned with during Coolidge’s term, and Coolidge made it clear where he stood. Addressing the Holy Name Society in Washington, Coolidge said:
Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing. Not that this desire always prevails; oftentimes it is overcome and they turn towards evil. But some power is always calling them back. Ever there comes a resistance to wrongdoing. When bad conditions begin to accumulate, when forces of darkness become prevalent, always they are ultimately doomed to fail as the better angels of our nature are roused to resistance.
This was regarded by papers around the nation as a direct attack by the President on the Klan. His attitude towards racial prejudice was made clear in a letter to a gentleman who complained that a black man was seeking a GOP nomination to run for Congress in New York:
My dear Sir:
Your letter is received, accompanied by a newspaper clipping which discusses the possibility that a colored man may be the Republican nominee for Congress from one of the New York districts. Referring to this newspaper statement, you say:
“It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country. Repeated ignoring of the growing race problem does not excuse us for allowing encroachments. Temporizing with the Negro whether he will or will not vote either a Democratic or a Republican ticket, as evidenced by the recent turnover in Oklahoma, is contemptible.”
Leaving out of consideration the manifest impropriety of the President intruding himself in a local contest for nomination, I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. They took their places wherever assigned in defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others. The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a great group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color, I have taken my oath to support that Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race. A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy in a party primary, as is any other citizen. The decision must be made by the constituents to whom he offers himself, and by nobody else. . . .
Coolidge appointed blacks to numerous positions and fought vigorously for anti-lynching legislation in Congress. Democrat filibusters in the Senate prevented the legislation from being enacted.
Emmett Scott, the Secretary-Treasurer of Howard University summed up the feeling of most blacks towards Coolidge in a letter to the President:
This address brought great encouragement to thoughtful representatives of the twelve million colored people of the United States. The principles above stated by you include most or all of what they hold near and dear in connection with their citizenship. The one thing for which they have struggled since the Republican Party conferred upon them … freedom and enfranchisement has been this American ideal of “ordered liberty.”
The colored people suffer many disabilities among them persecution by a hooded order which seeks to exclude them from the privileges of American citizenship. They also suffer from discrimination in the Federal service and from segregation in many Departments of our government. This discrimination is a legacy which has come to your administration.
They know Calvin Coolidge. They know his traditional friendship and they know of his distinguished services in behalf of their race.
In another slap at the Klan, Coolidge coined a formulation that has entered into common usage:
Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine. No matter by what crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.
Coolidge could have easily had another term if he wished, but having accomplished what he set out to do, he did not run in 1928. He did not think much of Herbert Hoover, who had served under him as Secretary of Commerce, noting privately that Hoover had given him unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad. In retirement he resisted all efforts to draw him back into the political arena, including an effort to draft him for President in 1932. Shortly before his death he noted to a friend that he felt that he no longer fitted in with the times. That was a correct assessment, and more the pity for the nation. He died on January 5, 1933, having a heart attack as he was preparing to shave. Grace found him, her life with him beginning and ending with him shaving.
I have a quotation from Coolidge hanging to the door in my office that I have had hanging there since I was a young attorney. I think it sums up the man:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Our problems today are not larger than those that confronted Coolidge. Unfortunately our leaders lack the persistence, determination and honesty that Coolidge brought to the tasks that he confronted. May our nation know his like again.