Calvin Coolidge, thirtieth president of the United States, is an understudied president whose achievements warrant greater consideration. Coolidge’s appreciation of civility, traditional federalism, individual initiative, political bipartisanship and common sense stand out in today’s rough political environment. Providence, the rule of law and values of our forefathers all guided Coolidge throughout his life.
Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, the only president to share a birthday with the country. Growing up in the Vermont hamlet of Plymouth Notch, the boy watched as his father, John Coolidge, and grandfather— Calvin Galusha Coolidge, made their living in rocky Vermont through a variety of trades. Coolidge also learned the importance of local government by attending town meetings and observing his father’s service as town sheriff or selectman. Additionally, the family ran the town post office.
After graduating from Amherst College, Coolidge read law at a firm, Hammond and Field, in Northampton, Massachusetts and worked his way up the ladder of the Bay State’s politics, eventually becoming governor of the state. While governor, Coolidge made a tough decision: he backed up his police commissioner in the firing of Boston policemen who had broken their contract by walking off the job to strike. Riots ensued, and Coolidge called in the national guard, declaring “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Coolidge’s actions brought peace to Boston and elevated Coolidge to the national spotlight. Soon after, the Republican Party named the Bay State governor to the second spot on the 1920 Republican presidential ticket. The Republican platform called for a reduction in high taxes, a legacy of World War I, as well as government cutbacks. The pair advocated, after the tumult of the war and the influenza pandemic, a return to what the presidential candidate, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, termed “normalcy.”
The sudden death of President Harding in 1923 found the Coolidges in Vermont on vacation. As presidential inaugurations go, Coolidge’s was therefore most unusual. Coolidge’s father John, a notary public, swore him in by kerosene light. As President, Coolidge vowed to pursue the policy aims to which his party had committed “to perfection.” The new president devoted himself to both tax and budget cuts, with the White House going so far as to dub twin lion cubs received as a gift “Budget Bureau” and “Tax Reduction.” The 1920s economy thrived, and Coolidge was resoundingly elected in 1924, taking more votes than the other two parties combined. In good measure because he achieved the goals that he set for himself and the country— the federal government actually shrank under Coolidge. Coolidge became even more popular in his second term, so Americans expected that he would run again in 1928. Coolidge, however, demurred and later wrote in his Autobiography that it was better for the country to change leadership from time to time.
At every stage, Calvin Coolidge’s wife, Grace Anna Goodhue, aided him. Grace, who had trained as an instructor of the deaf, was as vivacious as her husband was solemn. She shared his love of their home state, and carried its down-to-earth spirit with her throughout their 28-year marriage.
Both his dry Yankee wit and his frugality with words made Coolidge legendary, earning him the nickname “Silent Cal.” But that doesn’t mean he didn’t speak when he felt like it, as the volumes of Coolidge press conferences attest. He was concerned about all Americans, especially working-class men and women. He wanted them to be free, independent, and self-reliant. Like Jefferson, he wanted every American to be able to rise as far as their abilities permitted.
“The people see in him one of their own. The powerful turn to him because he is an intellectual aristocrat and the weak because he is also a plain farmer. He is one of them all.” – R.M. Washburn, Calvin Coolidge: His First Biography (100)
President Coolidge never sought to make history for himself. He wished for Americans to be independent of government, which is why the Coolidge Foundation itself does not accept federal funds. In recent decades, his Constitution-based principles of government, deep-rooted integrity and achievements in the White House have provoked renewed interest and praise from former presidents and ordinary citizens alike.