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Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the 30th U.S. president, led the nation through most of the Roaring Twenties, a decade of dynamic social and cultural change, materialism and excess. He took office on August 3, 1923, following the sudden death of President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), whose administration was riddled with scandal. Nicknamed “Silent Cal” for his quiet, steadfast and frugal nature, Coolidge, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, cleaned up the rampant corruption of the Harding administration and provided a model of stability and respectability for the American people in an era of fast-paced modernization. He was a pro-business conservative who favored tax cuts and limited government spending. Yet some of his laissez-faire policies also contributed to the economic problems that erupted into the Great Depression.
A Quiet and Serious Young Man
John Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, in the small village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father, also named John Calvin Coolidge (1845-1926), was a hardworking and frugal businessman who ran a general store and post office. His mother, Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge (1846-85), died when her son was just 12 years old. He was raised to be honest, industrious and conservative, with a deep respect for business.
Coolidge graduated from Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont, in 1890, and went on to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating with honors in 1895. He studied law and passed the Massachusetts bar exam in 1898. After opening a law office in Northampton, he spent the next 20 years handling real estate deals, wills and bankruptcies. On October 4, 1905, Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue (1879-1957), a teacher at a local school for the deaf. They had two sons, John (1906-2000) and Calvin Jr. (1908-24), who died from blood poisoning as a teenager.
Coolidge launched his career in politics in 1898, when he was elected to the Northampton, Massachusetts, city council. He then began a quiet but methodical climb up the political ladder, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, as mayor of Northampton, as a state congressman, as a state senator and as lieutenant governor. During this period, Coolidge studied public policy questions, made speeches and steadily gained influence with Republican Party leaders. He developed a reputation as a pro-business conservative who strove to make government lean and efficient.
In 1918, Coolidge was elected governor of Massachusetts. He was catapulted into the national spotlight the following year, when the Boston police force went on strike and riots broke out across the city. Coolidge sent in the state guard to restore order and then took a strong stand against rehiring the striking police officers. In a telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), he famously declared that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Coolidge’s handling of the situation captured the imagination of the American public. As the 1920 U.S. presidential election approached, rank-and-file delegates to the Republican National Convention chose him as the vice presidential candidate on a ticket headed by U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.
Coolidge in the White House
The Harding-Coolidge ticket won the 1920 election in a landslide and the men took office in March 1921. Coolidge quickly grew frustrated with his largely ceremonial duties as vice president, but just two years later, Harding’s sudden death on August 2, 1923, unexpectedly vaulted him to the Oval Office.
Coolidge’s no-nonsense approach and somber nature stood in stark contrast to his predecessor’s genial personality and casual leadership style. The differences served Coolidge well as he worked to clean up the corruption that had plagued the Harding administration. He appointed a special counsel to investigate the Teapot Dome oil-lease scandal (in which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior was accused–and later convicted–of accepting bribes to lease federal oil reserves without competitive bidding), and he dismissed Harding’s tarnished U.S. attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty (1860-1941). Coolidge’s reputation for honesty and integrity helped him restore public faith in the government.
Coolidge ran for president in 1924 and won decisively over the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative John W. Davis (1873-1955) of West Virginia, and the Progressive Party candidate, U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925) of Wisconsin. Coolidge’s policies in office continued to be guided by his strong belief in private enterprise and small government. He cut taxes, limited government spending and stacked regulatory commissions with people sympathetic to business. Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” He also rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations and set high tariffs on imported goods to protect American industry.
Coolidge remained popular throughout his presidency. The Roaring Twenties were a time of fast-paced social, cultural and technological changes, and many Americans lived boisterously and spent extravagantly. Some young women adopted the “flapper” lifestyle, and drank alcohol, smoked, danced and wore shorter skirts, makeup and bobbed hair. Women also voted, having won that right with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Jazz music and Art Deco architecture flourished. Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) made his pioneering solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. More people owned automobiles and purchased mass-produced goods such as canned foods. During this era of societal transformation, Coolidge served as a sort of father figure. The quiet, respectable and frugal president provided a comforting symbol of old-fashioned responsibility and virtue.
Although many people believed that Coolidge could have won re-election in 1928, he publicly announced his decision not to run on August 2, 1927, in a simple note delivered to reporters at a press conference. The physical strain of the job, as well as the death of his father and his youngest son, had depleted his energy and interest in another term. The Republican Party turned to Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), who had served as secretary of commerce under both Harding and Coolidge, as its candidate.
After departing the White House, Coolidge retired to Northampton, where he occupied himself by writing his memoirs and contributing political commentary to magazines. Less than a year after he left office, the U.S. stock market crashed and the economy plummeted into the Great Depression. Although Coolidge had received a great deal of credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, he recognized that he bore some responsibility for the severe economic downturn. He admitted to friends that he had spent his presidency “avoiding the big problems,” as William Allen White quoted him as saying in his biography, “A Puritan in Babylon.” Coolidge died of a heart attack at the age of 60 at his Northampton home on January 5, 1933.
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Calvin Coolidge: Impact and Legacy
Although the public liked and admired Calvin Coolidge during his tenure, the Great Depression that began in 1929 seriously eroded his reputation and changed public opinion about his policies. Many linked the nation's economic collapse to Coolidge's policy decisions. His failure to aid the depressed agricultural sector seems shortsighted, as nearly five thousand rural banks in the Midwest and South shut their doors in bankruptcy while many thousands of farmers lost their lands. His tax cuts contributed to an uneven distribution of wealth and the overproduction of goods. Many Americans were deeply in debt for having purchased consumer goods on easy installment credit terms.
Coolidge's foreign policy also fell into some disrepute when it became clear that his signature achievements, including the Dawes Plan and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, did little to prevent the rise of Nazism in Germany or the resurgence of international hostilities. The peace of the 1920s faded almost as quickly as the prosperity. But Coolidge also led the nation, if passively, into the modern era. He was a bridge between two epochs.
In the conservative 1980s, Coolidge regained some of his stature, at least in conservative circles. President Ronald Reagan returned his portrait to the Oval Office. Reagan also praised Coolidge's political style and hands-off leadership for producing seven years of prosperity, peace, and balanced budgets. Nevertheless, scholarly opinion looks upon the Coolidge presidency with skepticism, ranking him relatively low among American chief executives in terms of his administration's positive impact and legacy. Despite his personal integrity, he offered no sweeping vision or program of action that the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had led the public to associate with presidential greatness.
John Calvin Coolidge Jr. was born the son of a village storekeeper in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on July 4, 1872. Upon graduating from college, he dropped his first name. Coolidge`s mother, Victoria, died when he was 12 years old. The next year, he entered Black River Academy and graduated in 1890. Following a short stint at St. Johnsbury Academy, he entered Amherst College in 1891 and graduated cum laude in 1895. Calvin Coolidge established a law practice in Northhampton, Massachusetts, but soon developed an interest in politics. A conservative Republican, he moved steadily through the political ranks, from Northampton City Councilman (1899), City Solicitor (1900-01), Clerk of Courts (1904), Member of Massachusetts Legislature (1907-08), Mayor of Northampton (1910-11), Member of Massachusetts Legislature (1912-15), Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts (1916-18) to Governor of Massachusetts (1918-20). He married Grace Anna Goodhue in 1905. Her personality was the opposite of Coolidge`s she was outgoing and talkative. Her husband would later be known as "Silent Cal." The couple had two sons, John and Calvin Jr. Calvin Coolidge became famous nationwide during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, when nearly three fourths of that force left work. Mobs roamed Boston, breaking windows and looting stores for two nights. The mayor managed to restore order with local militias. Then Coolidge called in the entire state militia, which broke the strikers` will. Coolidge made a famous declaration: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." Coolidge won reelection for governor by a record vote. In 1920, he garnered some votes for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention. The delegates chose Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio, but gave Coolidge the vice-presidential nod on the first ballot. Harding and Coolidge won a big victory over their Democratic opponents, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. Coolidge was a stolid Yankee conservative, given to utterances that left no nuanced gray areas. Speaking less than three months before he would be thrust into the presidency, Coolidge declared:
Peter Clements evaluates the thirtieth president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge.
‘Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had he attained that desire’ (Irving Stone). The man who achieved this back-handed compliment took over as president on the death of Warren Harding, in 1923. He served one term in his own right from 1924 to 1928, and departed the stage before the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and concomitant depression. Coolidge was entitled to stand for a second term of office in 1928. Some critics have argued he decided not to do so because he saw what was coming. Others have blamed him in part for the depression because he did nothing to avert it and pursued policies that made it inevitable. Hence in his history of the USA, in a chapter on the 1920s entitled ‘Irresponsibility’, Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge:
As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.
Irving Stone’s view, quoted above, dating from 1949, is typical of the way Coolidge’s presidency has been viewed for much of the time since his death. He has been seen as a chief executive who did nothing while, just below the surface, the signs were increasingly evident that the economy was in deep trouble.
It is a testimony to Coolidge’s apparent inactivity that so much has been written about his foibles and personality rather than his actual work as president. He was taciturn, known as ‘Silent Cal’ he enjoyed childish practical jokes such as buzzing for his bodyguards and then hiding under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped. He was indolent: he liked to nap in the afternoons and would depart early to bed even at state dinners. He was difficult to please and had a fierce temper. His long suffering wife once wrote that if he came home in a foul mood, she was relieved that at least an employee had been spared his venom if he come home genial he would almost certainly have lashed out at someone earlier in the day. Coolidge himself said that he was ‘hard to get along with’. These traits have been deployed by many over the years to explain his unfitness for the office of president.
However, Coolidge’s reputation as President is in the process of being reexamined. One cannot, for example, blame him for not foreseeing, in its severity, a depression few others foresaw either. The period of his presidency saw real improvements in the lives of many Americans. Although not universal throughout the country, ‘Coolidge prosperity’, while ended by the depression, was real at the time to those who could afford to buy their own homes - 11 million by 1924 – and to the 30 per cent of Americans who owned cars by the end of the decade. His presidency was the age of the Roaring Twenties, of ‘flappers’, prohibition and ‘speakeasies’, jazz music and movie stars. It saw a massive growth in consumer goods, particularly electrical appliances, which made domestic life much easier for millions, and motor cars, which facilitated both tourism and the growth of suburbs so that people could live away from the bustle of city centres and the pollution of the industrial workplace.
If Coolidge has been criticized severely later, he was not at the time. If not exactly popular, he enjoyed widespread respect and engendered a confidence that has led one historian more recently to call him an ideal leader for many Americans who wished ‘to explore the new land of materialism and self indulgence, but also feared the loss of traditional values’. The period of Coolidge’s presidency coincided with a period of dramatic changes in American life. The 1921 census showed that for the first time most Americans lived in urban areas. There was concern that these urban areas were centres of lawlessness and vice. Many people feared the diminution of religion and moral values, particularly among the young - although subsequent research has shown, despite these fears, that most young people shared the traditional values of marriage, family and work. The issue here, however, is that in these times of uncertainty, many Americans were relieved that such an unflappable figure as Calvin Coolidge was at the helm.
Calvin Coolidge’s background
Calvin Coolidge was born in the New England state of Vermont in July 1872, placing him very much in the nineteenth century. His father was a public official and farmer, but the son became a lawyer, showing his independence by setting up his own law firm by the age of 25. One commentator has argued that it was the Vermont background that in part made him so taciturn. According to this analysis, the state has extremes of climate with cold evenings in autumn and spring that make socializing difficult. It is a state where people work hard and have few luxuries, a state where people say what they think and don’t talk unnecessarily. Coolidge, however, took silence to extremes. ‘The things I don’t say’, he once said, ‘never get me into trouble’. Beneath the silence, however, there could be steely determination. He successfully wooed a vivacious girl whom many thought above him many more would wonder how she put up with him over the years, although his private life was kept intensely private and they appear to have loved each other devotedly. Coolidge rose gradually but unspectacularly up the political ladder until he became Governor of Massachusetts. Here he came to national attention by his stern handling of a police strike where he fired the strikers and brought in the State Guard to maintain order. ‘There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time’, he said as he refused to reinstate the ringleaders once the strike was over. It was this show of determination that probably won him the vice presidency in 1921, although under Warren Harding he did nothing to distinguish himself until he unexpectedly became president on the latter’s sudden death.
Coolidge’s presidential style
The means by which Coolidge learned of his elevation to the presidency set the tone for his administration. He was staying at his father’s home where there was no telephone and no electricity. A messenger delivered the news. His father, as a local notary, swore him in by the light of a kerosene lamp he may have got the words of the oath wrong. This was a very nineteenth-century scene and Coolidge effectively operated a nineteenth-century presidency. His view of administration was that it should avoid harm rather than promote good. It was the job of the president to enforce the law as it stood not to change it. This led to his being what has been called a ‘minimalist politician’. He never did what someone else could have done instead. He said, ‘The way I transact the cabinet business is to leave to the head of department the conduct of his own business.’ Indeed when his Secretary of Labor, James L Davis, asked him to read some papers and offer his advice, Coolidge said to the secretary bringing them, ‘You tell ol’ man Davis … if he can’t do the job I’ll get a new Secretary of Labor.’ Coolidge held regular press conferences but they were small and he only accepted questions in advance. If he didn’t like the questions he wouldn’t answer them.
Coolidge’s reluctance to speak did make life awkward. He attempted to control Congress by holding working breakfasts but his silence made them self-defeating. Invited Congressmen left no wiser as to what was expected of them and indeed came up with more and more imaginative excuses not to attend - although when Coolidge had Senator Johnson’s claim that his barn had burned down investigated, it was found to be true! Similarly he received his appointees’ reports in silence and often sent them away without a word. They never knew whether he had listened or not, although perhaps months later they might recognise their suggestions in something he said or did as president.
Perhaps H.L. Mencken summarised best the Coolidge presidential style when he said Coolidge’s ideal day ‘would be one in which nothing happens’.
Issues faced by Coolidge’s administration
Much was happening both at home and abroad, and one must ask whether Coolidge’s policy of apparent inertia was really appropriate for a twentieth-century presidency. He once said that if ten troubles came along the road towards him, nine would fall into the ditch before they neared him. Others suggested that even if this were true, he couldn’t deal with the one remaining. There was initially much scepticism among his fellow politicians as to his ability to run the office of president,and - noting his reluctance to do anything but uphold the law - many felt he would be better sitting on the Supreme Court. However, Coolidge’s reputation was soon to improve. The USA did appear very prosperous, and while Coolidge could take no credit for this, the reputation of all leaders is enhanced when their country appears to be doing well.
He presided over what appeared, on the surface, to be good government but which, with hindsight, has been summarised as ‘minimum government regulations, tax cuts, balanced budgets, low interest rates and cheap foreign policy’.
Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address of problems such as lynching, child labour and low wages for women. Yet he did nothing to overcome any of these issues. His government saw successive tax reductions and yet a surplus of revenue. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent, and in 1927 $607 million. The result was cutbacks in government agencies, with fewer investigators to research unfair practices and less money for government departments to do their work. The Interior department, for example, saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928. The Federal Trade Commission, with responsibilities to root our unfair business practices, was given a new boss who had constantly opposed its work and spent much of his tenure restricting its powers.
Yet many problems were presenting themselves. Agriculture, for example, had not shared in the prosperity. More efficient farming techniques and the growth of bigger farms - ‘agribusinesses’ - introduced largely as a result of necessities during the First World War meant farms were overproducing. Prices therefore fell and inevitably it was the smaller farmers, for many of whom the cost of harvesting was greater than the revenue from the sale of their product, who suffered in the ensuing agricultural depression. In 1924, Congress proposed the McNary-Haugen Bill. By its terms an Agricultural Export Corporation would be set up to buy surplus farm produce to sell abroad. Coolidge vetoed the bill, arguing that goods should be produced at a profit not a loss. While this may seem eminently sensible, the banks took over farms whose mortgages could not be paid and people lost land their families had farmed for generations.
Abroad, Coolidge refused to give any leeway to countries having difficulty in repaying their loans. While he probably never actually said, ‘They hired the money, didn’t they?’, these were his sentiments – and those of many other Americans too. However, the policy was short-sighted because, in being so burdened by debt, foreigners could not afford to buy American goods, and increasingly firms needed to export to maintain their profitability.
Nevertheless Coolidge’s cautious approach sometimes appeared to work well, particularly in terms of foreign relations. In 1925 Chinese nationalism led to attacks on Americans in Shanghai and a call for the end to unfair privileges for foreigners in China. Coolidge agreed and gave the Chinese more or less what they wanted. This undoubtedly saved lives: in the Coolidge White House a show of force was not an option. Whether or not its main application was due to budget cutting, the use of negotiation in disputes rather than sending in the troops resulted in a higher opinion of the USA particularly in central and southern areas and presaged the ‘Good Neighbour’ policies of the 1930s. Hence civil war was averted in Nicaragua in 1926 through the good offices of American negotiator Henry Stimson, while better relations came about with Mexico and most disagreements between the two countries were defused.
The biggest criticism levelled against Coolidge is that he did nothing to avert the coming depression. Low interest rates encouraged unwise speculations particularly in stocks and shares and ‘Get Rich Quick’ schemes such as the Florida Land Boom. The Stock Market in particular seemed to be running out of control, with many investors buying their stock on the ‘margin’ - 10 per cent down and the rest in installments. This meant that even if the stock purchased should fall in value it would still have to be paid for at the original price. When Coolidge had been alerted in 1927 to the fact that the Stock Market was in danger of crashing, he had privately commented that anyone investing in shares was a fool. However, publicly he made reassuring noises, partly because he believed it was not the job of the government to get involved but also because he believed it was the job of the government to make positive and optimistic noises.
It is this attitude, coupled with the increasing severity of the problems the USA was facing, that perhaps gets to the heart of Coolidge’s presidency. Minimalism in government may be all right in the unlikely event that the country is facing no major problems, but on certain issues – whatever the philosophy of the chief executive – only the government can take the lead. Yet Coolidge would not countenance any idea of government intervention in the economy. He once famously said, ‘The chief business of the American people is business’. He believed that business and government were quite separate, and the less the government involved itself in business the more profitable business would become and the wealthier everyone would be. The job of government was therefore to do as little as possible: and if it cut taxes people would have more disposable income and become more self-reliant, while business would continue to make profits for the benefit of all.
Of course we now understand that the economy does not work like that, but Coolidge was too much a man of the nineteenth century to embrace twentieth-century economic truths - which indeed few in the 1920s did understand. In this scenario it is unlikely that Coolidge decided not to stand for the presidency again in 1928 because he foresaw the onset of depression in all its severity – although according to his wife he did foresee a downturn in the economy. Perhaps Coolidge, who had almost died of tuberculosis as a boy, knew that he was in poor health (he died in 1933) and judged that he couldn’t physically survive another four years at the White House. Perhaps he had lost much of what energy he did have after the tragic death of his son - although that was in 1924. More likely, with his background of inertia and inactivity, he had simply grown tired of being president – and, as he told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, ‘It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.’
Irving Stone overstepped the mark when he blamed Coolidge for the world depression and rise of the dictators in the 1930s. However, there is little doubt that with his ‘masterly inactivity’ in the face of approaching problems, Coolidge may have been the president many Americans wanted, but he clearly was not the president most of them needed.
Why did Calvin Coolidge go to Cuba?
Thirty years before Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, the United States, empowered by the Platt Amendment, reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. (The 1903 amendment also leased Guantanamo Bay to the Americans.)
By 1928, attitudes toward the Americans had soured. Even Coolidge, who expressed little interest in foreign affairs, recognized the need for action. His term in office lasted between 1923 and 1929—a lull of a decade between WWI and WWII—and many of the foreign affair issues of the day had to do with American intervention in Latin America. (Coolidge himself had only left the country once before—for his honeymoon in Canada.)
Coolidge went to Cuba in 1928 to attend the Pan American Conference in Havana. The president and his entourage sought to persuade delegates away from passing anti-U.S. resolutions. Many Latin American countries critiqued American military interventions in places like Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti, and Coolidge wanted to keep the peace. (This was not helped by the fact that Coolidge ordered an invasion of Nicaragua as he prepared to depart for Cuba.)
In Cuba, Coolidge extended an olive branch. He emphasized—in an attempt to quell criticism—that all the countries in the Pan American conference were equal. Coolidge focused on “peace and goodwill” in his public remarks—although he arrived in Cuba on a massive WWI battleship called Texas.
Overall, Coolidge saw the trip to Cuba as a way to begin a campaign for world peace. The ensuing Kellogg-Briand Pact, a worldwide peace treaty that banned war, hoped to avoid the violence of WWI in the future. Of course, sadly, the world leaped into the bloody conflict of WWII not soon after the Pact was created in 1928.
Calvin Coolidge: The Disabled Chief Executive
Mr. Gilbert is Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and author of The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression (Praeger, 2003).
Scholars often speak of Calvin Coolidge in unflattering terms. He is referred to as "a figurehead president," as having had "no drive," as having been a "do nothing president," as a president "almost totally deficient in powers of leadership," as a "spectator president" and as "lackadaisical."
However, a closer analysis of Coolidge reveals that he is perhaps the most misunderstood chief executive in American history and that his presidency was far more complex and tragic than earlier realized. Despite his image now as a deficient, lackadaisical president, Coolidge had previously been industrious and reliable. As a boy, law student, mayor, state legislator, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, governor and vice president, he impressed others consistently with his diligence, conscientiousness and competence.
When he succeeded Warren Harding in August, 1923, Coolidge moved quickly to take charge. He instituted regular press conferences and was praised widely by reporters for his great knowledge and astuteness. He launched a series of breakfasts and dinners with members of Congress of all political leanings so that he could persuade them to support his programs. Over the objections of the American Legion, he pardoned thirty people who had been convicted and imprisoned during World War I for violating the Sedition Act because he wanted to cultivate members of Congress who supported such a pardon. He convened a White House meeting for all state governors so that he could discuss with them the narcotics, immigration and prohibition laws. He set up a committee to investigate the scandals associated with the Harding administration and then fired Harding's attorney general who was suspected of impropriety.
In foreign policy, he restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, which he described as "our sister republic," and asked Congress to provide funds to settle claims resulting from the 1914 American invasion. In September 1923, he sent the Pacific Fleet to Japan to help provide relief for the earthquake that had killed 130,000 people, acting so quickly that the American ships arrived there even before their Japanese counterparts.
Probably the most notable thing that Coolidge did during his first months in office was to deliver a stunning State of the Union address to Congress in December 1923. He spoke in person to a joint session and made thirty identifiable requests in bold and forthright language. In addition to a tax cut, he asked for such measures as the enactment of environmental legislation, the expansion of health benefits for veterans, the passage of a constitutional amendment limiting child labor, the creation of a separate cabinet department of education and welfare, the expansion of the civil service system, the reorganization of the U.S. foreign service, the creation of a new reforestation policy, the establishment of reformatories for women and young men serving their first prison sentence, the funding of medical courses at Howard University and the establishment of a permanent Court of International Justice.
By the time Congress adjourned in June 1924, many of Coolidge's proposals essentially had been enacted. The Foreign Service was reorganized, taxes were cut, veterans' benefits were expanded, reformatories for women and young men were authorized, an oil slick law was enacted, and a new reforestation policy was established. In his first year, then, Coolidge's legislative record was more then respectable.
In June 1924, Calvin Coolidge was overwhelmingly nominated for president by the Republican Party, the greatest political triumph of his life. Within days, however, his world would crumble. On June 30, Coolidge's two sons, eighteen-year-old John and sixteen-year-old Calvin Jr., played tennis on the south grounds of the White House. Young Calvin had worn sneakers but no socks. A blister developed on one of his toes but he ignored it. When he fell ill on July 2, White House physician Joel Boone discovered red streaks running up the boy's leg. Laboratory tests soon showed that Calvin Jr. was suffering from pathogenic blood poisoning. In less than a week, the boy was dead.
The president was overwhelmed with a deep and enduring grief. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institutes of Health have specified symptoms of a major depressive episode. These include hypersomnia or insomnia, changes in appetite, decreased energy, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts of death, indecisiveness, loss of interest in nearly all activities, complaints of bodily indispositions, increased irritability, spitefulness and suspiciousness, deterioration in work performance. After his son's death, Calvin Coolidge showed signs of all of these symptoms.
He began to sleep as many as fifteen hours out of every twenty-four and ate incessantly, sometimes to the point of abdominal distress. He complained of exhaustion and of feeling much older than his years. He experienced severe guilt feelings, blaming his own ambitions for the boy's death. Even though only fifty-two at the time, he began to refer to his own death, telling his father that soon they would both be reunited in heaven with deceased relatives, including little Calvin. He complained often of feeling ill and of not being able to breathe. His irritability became explosive and he would fly into rages at staff members and secret service agents, often for petty reasons. He engaged in temper tantrums aimed at his wife and embarrassed her with his screaming tirades. He was irritable and mean-spirited toward his surviving son, leading John to complain to his mother that he did not understand how she could possibly put up with the president. He also showed spitefulness and rudeness to staff members and was seen as unpleasant, and selfish. Apparently, Coolidge even became suspicious of his wife, guessing in 1927 that she had become romantically involved with a secret service agent and summarily relieving the agent of his duties as her bodyguard.
More serious was that Coolidge essentially abdicated his presidential responsibilities after his son died. He now shied away from interactions with Congress, made few and generally modest legislative requests and indicated that Congress should determine the legislative agenda for itself because it was closer to the people. His annual messages became leaner and leaner and were not even delivered in person, as in 1923, but now were read to each House by clerks. He withdrew from interactions with his own cabinet, telling cabinet members to handle the affairs of their own departments without help or guidance from him, or he would get new cabinet members.
The lifetime pattern of hard work was abandoned as the president's workday shrank to about four hours. No longer did he have any interest in foreign policy, telling his secretary of state on one occasion that: "I don't know anything about this. You do and you're in charge. You settle the problem and I'll back you up." No longer were his press conferences showcases for an informed and involved leader but instead revealed one who was disinterested and neglectful. For example, in November 1924, when asked a question about Nicaragua where he had sent peace-keeping forces, he responded:
I haven't any great detailed and precise information about Nicaragua. I know that there had been some trouble and it was my impression that we had sent some marines in to guard the delegation and that the difficulty was in relation to a presidential election. As I have heard nothing about it from the State Department for some time, I had taken it for granted that the situation is all cleared up. I think this is the case but I haven't any definite information.
On another occasion, he was asked about agriculture bills being considered in Congress and answered, "I don't know as I can make any particular comment about the rejection of the conference agriculture bills. I don't know enough about the details of those bills to discuss the details with any intelligence."
More ominous, as economic storm clouds were gathering, Coolidge revealed in his press conference remarks a stunning degree of uninterest and ignorance about the rampant stock speculation that was ravaging the economy. When Congress, in 1928, was considering legislation to rein in such speculation, Coolidge told the press: "I have no information relative to proposed legislation about loans on securities. I saw by the press that there was a bill pending in the House or the Senate. I don't know what it is or what its provisions are or what the discussion has been."
Such words have been seen as the sign of an absentee and incompetent president. But in contrast to his earlier political career and even his first year as president, and judged against the other behavior changes that engulfed his life, Coolidge emerges as a disabled president, one suffering from a paralyzing and persistent clinical depression. Clinical depression was little understood in the 1920s but those closest to Coolidge saw a major change in his life after young Calvin died. His wife indicated that the president had "lost his zest for living" after July 7, 1924. His son, John, revealed that "my father was never the same again after my brother died." Coolidge's White House physician described him as showing many signs of "mental disturbance" and of being temperamentally deranged. His secretary told his doctors that the president was definitely showing signs of "mental illness." The chief usher at the White House reported that White House employees who came in contact with the president noticed that he was "highly disturbed."
Coolidge himself explained the change in his presidency perhaps best of all when he wrote in his autobiography that when Calvin Jr. went, "the power and glory of the presidency went with him." In a very real sense, then, when Calvin Coolidge lost his son, the nation lost its president.
Follow the links below to explore related topics.
Read the article From Vermont Farm to the White House from Green Mountaineer Magazine
Read the article The Farmer in the White House from Historic Roots Magazine
Listen to the program Memories of Silent Cal from Green Mountain Chronicles
Watch a silent movie with Calvin Coolidge at Plymouth Notch from the Library of Congress
Watch the video Grace Goodhue Coolidge from This Place in History
Learn more about the Flood of 1927
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President Calvin Coolidge Historic Site
The President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth Notch preserves the birthplace and childhood home of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States. Brought to the world’s attention on August 3, 1923, when Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath of office in the parlor of his family home, the historic village appears much as it was during Coolidge’s lifetime. The homes of the Coolidge family, their relatives, and friends edge the small village green, joined by the 1840 church, 1890 school house and cheese factory, pre-1835 store with post office and dance hall, and historic agricultural structures and barns. The bucolic image is completed by the 1924 Summer White House office and the tourists’ cabins constructed in 1927 for the first of many visitors making the pilgrimage to explore the rural environs that shaped Coolidge’s life and those of his ancestors who first settled here in the 1780s. A Museum & Education Center, added in 1972 and enlarged in 2010, houses the exhibits and archives recounting Calvin Coolidge’s private and public lives. Visitors to the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site will also enjoy two museum stores, walking trails, restaurant serving breakfast & lunch, and sheltered picnic area. A journey to the Notch ends at the steep hillside cemetery where Calvin Coolidge rests amongst seven generations of his family.
Creation of the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site began in 1947, when the State of Vermont purchased the Wilder House and Barn. Wilder House, built about 1830 as a tavern, was the childhood home of President Coolidge’s mother, Victoria Josephine Moor. This first of several rehabilitation projects at Plymouth Notch provided visitors with an information center and lunch room. The Wilder Barn was restored to include an agricultural exhibit and public accessibility was improved at the Plymouth Notch Cemetery, which is owned by the town. Urged by the public and following the wishes of Grace Coolidge, John and Florence Coolidge donated the boyhood home and its contents to the State of Vermont in 1956. The 1½-story farmhouse with connected barn had been purchased in 1876 by Colonel John Coolidge, who added the front porch and 2-story front bay. Today, the Coolidge Homestead is furnished exactly as it was when Vice President Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office following the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding. Over the next 40 years, the State of Vermont obtained ownership of the major parcels of land and significant buildings comprising the village to ensure preservation of Plymouth Notch as Calvin Coolidge remembered it. This was a vision begun just a month after the former president’s death in 1933.
In 1960, the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation was formed by John Coolidge and fellow Coolidge enthusiasts. Headquartered at Plymouth Notch, the Foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy and promoting the values of America’s 30th president. The Foundation owns and maintains the Union Christian Church, which was constructed in 1840 in the heart of the village. The church was gifted in 1970 to the Foundation by the congregation to ensure preservation of the building within the Village of Plymouth Notch Historic District.
Enjoy our newest video: Vermont is a State I Love.
President Calvin Coolidge returned to his home state of Vermont in September 1928 to inspect the 1927 flood recovery efforts. He made these impromptu remarks, "Vermont is a state I love," from the observation platform of his train in Bennington on September 21, 1928.
View a presentation by Historic Sites Regional Administrator William Jenney, October 6, 2020. Courtesy of the Ludlow Vermont Rotary Club and Okemo Valley TV.
Enjoy a virtual experience of our 2019 Holiday Open House at the Coolidge Presidential Site here!
Vice Presidency and Presidency
After 10 ballots, Republican delegates settled on Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their presidential nominee in 1920, and Coolidge was nominated as vice president. Harding and Coolidge beat opponents James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide, taking every state outside of the South.
Coolidge was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings, in addition to giving speeches and performing other official duties. The Coolidges attended Washington parties, where guests remarked on the terse and quiet demeanor of "Silent Cal.”
On August 2, 1923, President Harding died while traveling in California. Coolidge was in Vermont visiting his family home, which had neither electricity nor a telephone, when a messenger brought word of Harding’s death. He was sworn in by his father, who was a notary public.
Coolidge addressed Congress in December, giving the first presidential speech to be broadcast to the nation over the radio. His agenda mirrored Harding’s to a large extent. Coolidge signed the Immigration Act later that year, restricting immigration from southern and eastern European countries.
President Coolidge was nominated for the presidency in 1924. Shortly after the convention, however, he experienced a personal tragedy. Coolidge&aposs younger son, Calvin Jr., developed an infected blister and, several days later, died of sepsis. Coolidge became depressed. In spite of his subdued campaigning, he won a popular vote majority of 2.5 million over his two opponents&apos combined total.
Calvin Coolidge: Life Before the Presidency
He was born John Calvin Coolidge on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. He grew up helping his storekeeper father tend accounts, selling apples, and doing other chores around the store and at home on the family farm. As a boy, Coolidge had little ambition in life beyond hoping to follow his father as a good, honest small-town merchant.A fair to average student in the Plymouth elementary school, he eventually managed to obtain entry to the prestigious Amherst College in nearby Amherst, Massachusetts, where he blossomed over his four years. He graduated with honors in 1895, racking up good to excellent grades in his last two years and graduating cum laude. A member of the Republican Club and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, Coolidge won a reputation on campus for his wit and his public speaking skills. He shared the junior prize for oratory, and in his senior year his classmates elected him to deliver the Grove Oration, a humorous send-up of the senior class at graduation. He also took first prize in a national contest for his senior essay, "The Principles Fought for in the American Revolution." A loyal Amherst alumnus, he relied throughout his political career on men who were classmates or fellow alumni, including Boston businessman Frank Stearns, advertising guru Bruce Barton, financier Dwight Morrow, and Harlan Fiske Stone, whom he appointed Attorney General and later as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After college, Coolidge read law in a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts, passing the bar in the summer of 1897. He then opened a law office and began participating in local Republican politics in Northampton.
Political Legacy and Involvement
Both Coolidge's mother, Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge, a sentimental and poetic woman, and younger sister, Abigail Gratia Coolidge, died while he was a teenager. He was close to both of them, and their deaths contributed to what was already a fatalistic and taciturn temperament. His father, John Calvin Coolidge, Sr., then married Carrie A. Brown, a local schoolteacher in 1891. She grew very close to Calvin over the years. The senior Coolidge, a man of stern appearance and a pillar of the community, served six years in the Vermont House of Representatives and a term in the Vermont Senate. He also held a variety of local offices from tax collector to peace officer. Known in the county and state as a prosperous and thrifty farmer and storekeeper, the elder Coolidge's quiet nature and commitment to public service greatly influenced his son. So too did his prudence with money.
Coolidge's rise in politics was methodical and steady. Beginning around 1900, his work in the local Republican Club in Northampton won him a spot on the City Council, appointment as city solicitor in 1900, election as county clerk in 1903, and the chairmanship of the local Republican Party organization in 1904. He ran for and lost a bid for a seat on the Northampton School Board in 1905--the only loss he ever experienced at the polls. Two years later, he was elected to the state legislature. In 1910, the citizens of Northampton selected him as their mayor, and then he won a statewide race for the Massachusetts Senate in 1912, serving as Senate President in 1914. Moving up the ladder of state politics, Coolidge became the lieutenant governor in 1916, serving until 1918, when he moved into the executive's chair.
His narrow victory for Massachusetts governor over Democrat Richard H. Long placed Coolidge in the national arena just in time to benefit from the Republican Party's return to national power at the end of World War I. As governor, he won national attention when he called out the state's National Guard to break a strike by Boston city police, exclaiming to the American Federation of Labor union leader Samuel Gompers, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." Although later seen as a reactionary move, the action was widely popular in the wake of the lawlessness brought on by the strike, and overall as governor, Coolidge pursued a fairly progressive agenda. He supported a cost-of-living pay increase for public employees, limited the workweek for women and children to 48 hours, and placed limits on outdoor advertising, measures largely welcomed by reformers in both parties. His most important feat, restructuring and consolidating the state government, married progressivism's efficiency to conservatism's taste for small government.
While advancing in local politics, Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue on October 4, 1905. The two were wed at her parent's home in Burlington, Vermont. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Vermont, she was a teacher at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton. Coolidge first caught her eye one morning when she saw him through the open window of his boardinghouse in Northampton, standing in his underwear and wearing a hat while shaving. She thought that he looked ridiculous, laughed loud enough for him to notice her, and then turned away. He later said that he was wearing the hat to keep his uncombed hair out of his eyes while shaving. His marriage proposal in the summer of 1905 came in the form of a romantic prophecy: "I am going to be married to you." Grace loved the silent but blunt young lawyer and immediately consented. A son, John, was born in 1906 Calvin, Jr. followed in 1908.
Ascending to the White House
Coolidge came to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, as his state's favorite-son candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, but he received only 34 votes on the first ballot at the convention. In the backroom deal among party leaders that helped ensure Warren G. Harding's nomination, Coolidge's was not among the names discussed for the second spot, and party leaders hoped to nominate Senator Irving Lenroot of Wisconsin. When Coolidge's name was entered into nomination, however, a stampede of support by rebellious delegates swept him onto the ticket. In the ensuing campaign, Harding waged a "front porch" campaign from his native Marion, Ohio, while Coolidge did a modest amount of stumping, notably in the South, in a vain effort to sway that loyally Democratic region. In contrast, the Democratic Party candidate, James M. Cox, traveled 22,000 miles while speaking to two million people, while his running-mate, former assistant navy secretary Franklin Roosevelt, spoke out frequently. The election, a referendum on the Wilson administration, the Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations, gave the Republicans 61 percent of the vote. As vice president, Coolidge played little role in the Harding administration, although he attended cabinet meetings. He kept a low profile as President of the Senate—in those days the vice president's chief duty--and mainly devoted himself to making public speeches.
The Medical Context of Calvin Jr.’s Untimely Death
This week marks the 90 th anniversary of the sad and untimely death of Calvin Coolidge, Jr., President Calvin Coolidge’s younger son. The general story is well-known: while playing lawn tennis with his brother on the White House grounds, sixteen-year-old Calvin, Jr. developed a blister atop the third toe of his right foot. Before long, the boy began to feel ill and ran a fever. Signs of a blood infection appeared, but despite doctors’ best efforts, young Calvin, Jr. was dead within a week.
The suddenness of this loss causes many to wonder about the medical-historical context of his death.
The microorganism that took the President’s son was Staphylococcus aureus, a relatively common bacterium. On the skin, Staph can lead to minor irritations and infections. In the bloodstream, however, Staph can result in sepsis, a serious condition that can affect the major organs and be potentially fatal.
Deaths from sepsis unfortunately were quite common in Coolidge’s time. Ordinary wounds, accidents, and childbirth were all ways in which bacteria could get into one’s normally sterile blood.[i] Patients presenting with fever, low blood pressure, and an obvious site or cause of infection could be diagnosed with relative ease, but the treatment options available were minimal, and the mortality rates were high. Success with the application of antiseptic chemicals was mixed, with healthy tissue often being damaged in the attempt to control the infection.
The Coolidge case was not the first time that blood infection struck a Presidential family. In 1890, Abraham Lincoln’s only grandson, Abraham “Jack ” Lincoln II, also 16 years old, died from a similar blood poisoning after a French surgeon performed a procedure to remove an abscess under his arm. [ii] Nine year s before that, President Garfield famously died not from the assassin’s bullet that was lodged in his body, but from the infection that ensued after repeated unsanitary attempts to remove it. Antibiotics could have easily treated the infection that killed Calvin, Jr. But in 1924 Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was still four years awa y. The realistic clinical use of penicillin to treat such an infection was even further away, as it was not until the early 1940s that the use of penicillin started to become practical, and it was not until the war effort hit its stride that the drug was finally available in adequate quantities. As late as 1940, the entire nationwide stock of penicillin, produced by Merck & Co., had been enough to treat approximately ten patients. [iii]
Hindsight or not, there was little that the Coolidges could have done to save Calvin, Jr. They sought the opinions of multiple doctors, confirmed the diagnosis with numerous laboratory tests, and admitted the boy to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which was one of the best hospitals of the day. As is often the case, the best guard against this tragedy would have been prevention, i.e., to take precautions against acquiring the blister in the first place. Today, although sepsis is still a major concern in certain hospital settings (e.g., post-operative areas and intensive care units), and although some antibiotic-resistant forms of Staph have emerged and are causing concern, we can be relatively free of the worry that we might succumb under the same unfortunate circumstances as the President’s beloved son.
Jared Rhoads is a health policy researcher and graduate student in public health at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. He lives in Lebanon, NH, with his wife and young son.
[i] Funk, et al. “Sepsis and Septic Shock: A History” Critical Care Clinics, 25:1, pp 83-101, January 2009
[ii] Schwartz, Thomas F. “A Death in the Family : Abraham Lincoln II ‘Jack’ (1873–1890)” For the People. Abraham Lincoln Association. 9:30, Autumn 2007
[iii] Rutkow, Ira. Seeking the Cure. Scribner, New York, 2010. p223
7 Responses to “The Medical Context of Calvin Jr.’s Untimely Death”
Did you know? Calvin Coolidge was the only U.S. president to be sworn in by his own father. In 1923, while visiting his childhood home in Vermont, Coolidge learned of President Warren Harding s death. As it was the middle of the night, Coolidge s father–a notary public–administered the oath by lamp light.
I think his younger son death lead to coolidge premature death.
No doubt about it. He said all the light went out of the White House when his son died. I also believe all plans for another term in 1928 also ended.
I was one of the very lucky ones — a foot infection in 1947 led to blood poisoning, which was able to be treated with the new drug – penicillin. First administered in a solution containing bee’s wax, I developed a severe allergic reaction – not to the penicillin but to the bee’s wax. They than found it in an aqueous vehicle and at 89 I’m still ticking away. Many thanks to the much maligned pharmaceutical industry.
Such fascinating facts and details about the president. Thanks for taking the time to write and share.
It is my feeling that in an era when adolescent boys frequently went barefoot all summer such infections must have been common. Doctors have always promoted a clean personal environment but this can undermine the body’s immunity system. Boys growing up with exposure to the outdoors would have had a far higher capacity for resisting infections. Both of the victims cited here were brought under wealthy rather than circumstances. Their lifestyle from birth afforded no opportunity to develop a healthy capacity for resisting the spread of infection. Wealthy Europeans have long sent their boys to spend summers with a peasant family and this prolonged annual exposure to the elements was observed to have a strengthening effect.