Thoughts On Calvin Coolidge: Living On in the Public Memory
by Jerry L. Wallace
May 14, 2001
Revised August 31, 2007
Jerry L. Wallace is a Coolidge scholar, whose interest in Calvin Coolidge and the 1920s dates back over half a century. He has been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972 and has served as a Trustee and is now a member of the National Advisory Board. He has written extensively on Coolidge, with his latest publication being Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President. By profession, he is an historian and archivist, formerly with the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC. Now retired and living in Oxford, KS, he spends his time researching and writing on Coolidge and local Kansas history.
Since the 1930’s, following the upheaval of the New Deal, Calvin Coolidge has been portrayed in history as an ordinary man who made an unexceptional President: “a modest man, who had much to be modest about,” to use Winston Churchill’s description of an opponent. His failures of leadership and foresight during the 1920’s, said New Deal apologists, paved the way for the Great Depression to come. Yet, in spite of this negative image — which current historical scholarship is challenging and correcting — Mr. Coolidge has never faded from the public memory, as have other worthy Presidents. For instance, there are few today who remember the martyred William McKinley, who, in his day, like Coolidge, was greatly honored and admired. Mr. Coolidge is still remembered; and not only is he remembered, but there exists among those who do remember him a genuine, positive interest in Coolidge the total man, going beyond Coolidge the 30th President and Bay State politician. And not only is Mr. Coolidge himself remembered, but so are his gracious wife and two children, his old father, his Vermont homestead, and even the family pets. This is all the more remarkable in that Mr. Coolidge, unlike Presidents from Hoover on, has no Presidential Library, staffed by federal bureaucrats, dedicated solely to perpetuating the flame of his memory. What factors have kept Mr. Coolidge’s memory alive and well? What accounts for his continuing appeal to today’s Americans? This I explore in this essay.
Calvin Coolidge is different. If there is one thing he is not, it is an ordinary man. This is something one senses almost immediately upon being introduced to him. Because of being different, he has always attracted public interest and curiosity. He stands out in the crowd, even that most select one of Presidents of the United States. Who is this unusual man? He is, no doubt, a true New Englander — his looks, manners, nasal speech, silences, dry wit, all betoken his Green Mountain origin — but, as his fellow New Englanders recognized, his ways of thinking and acting cannot be explained away simply as “concentrated New England.” They represent a unique combination of personal qualities, the product of many different factors, hard to identify, hard to analyze, and hard to interconnect. But one thing is clear: Mr. Coolidge is different, if not unique. In an age of cookie-cutter conformity, people naturally find in Mr. Coolidge an interesting and refreshing personality: someone worth knowing. Almost seven decades after his Presidency ended, John Derbyshire chose Mr. Coolidge to be the centerpiece of his 1996 novel, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream. The reason for the author’s choice? It was, he said, Mr. Coolidge’s “very distinctive and attractive character.”
But there is more. About Mr. Coolidge, there is something of an enigma, an element of mystery, and this has always been so, even to those who knew him best. There is something about him that puzzles and intrigues folks, that makes them want to know more about him, and to discover the man behind the mask. While President, this desire to know more about the man led to an outpouring of Coolidge biographies and numerous articles, consistently focusing more on the man himself — who was he and what made him tick — than on his politics.
Another significant factor in Mr. Coolidge’s appeal is that he looks so good when compared on substantive matters with most politicians of today or his own time. When they get to know him, modern Americans sense that Calvin Coolidge was a man of high character, who could be trusted to steer rightly the Ship of State. They see in him, as did their forefathers, a politician who acted on principle, rather than expediency; who was as honest as the day is long; who was genuinely concerned about individual folks and their well-being; and who made his decisions based on what was right for the country, rather than for himself or his party. These are most exceptional qualities in a politician. Diogenes himself would have been impressed. And they stand out today just as much as they stood out yesterday.
The public also senses that Mr. Coolidge, while high-minded, was a very capable and practical politician, sensitive to and in tune with the political sentiments of his day. In Mr. Coolidge, we are dealing with a man who was proud to call himself a politician. Asked his hobby, he replied, “Running for office.” He once indicated to a writer that only another politician could write his biography; that is, rightly understand him as a political creature, whose life was dedicated to politics. A veteran of more elections than any other President, in which he presented himself annually to varied Massachusetts electorates and often needed Democratic votes to win, he was certainly one of the most skilled and experienced politicians to come to the Presidency. (By way of contrast, his successor, Herbert C. Hoover, had never held prior elective office.) A politician can receive no higher praise than from fellow politician, especially if that politician is a contemporary and a member of the opposition party; and this we find in Al Smith’s warm tribute to Mr. Coolidge, expressing his genuine liking and respect for him, delivered after his death in 1933.
Mr. Coolidge’s continuing attraction owes a great deal to his family. First and foremost, there is Grace Coolidge, his faithful and tolerant and ever vivacious and charming wife. She won for her husband many friends, while blunting the sharper side of his personality. They seem to complement each other perfectly. Still today, her warm and friendly personality radiates from her pictures. In First Lady polls, Mrs. Coolidge consistently comes out near top of the list. The magnificent Howard Chandler Christy portrait of her, in which she wears a striking red dress with Rob Roy, her white collie, by her side, hangs prominently in the White House and remains one of the most popular paintings of a First Lady. Then, there are the children, John and Calvin, Jr. Calvin died young, with the entire nation joining with the Coolidges in their grief; and the story of his tragic death — one in which a powerless President cannot turn away Death when he knocked — can still bring tears to the eyes. John, on the other hand, lived a long and satisfying life, dedicating his later years to restoring and perpetuating his father’s memory. Finally, there is Coolidge’s father, Col. John C. Coolidge, as fine an example of a solid, public-spirited New Englander as there ever was. From him, Mr. Coolidge acquires his basic values, especially a democratic respect for the common man, a sense of public service, and a practical knowledge of politics down-home style. After Mr. Coolidge came into high office, Col. Coolidge was friendly to Plymouth visitors, great and small, and always had a good story for the newsmen, who gave him good press in return. The old man came to symbolize Coolidge’s rural, small town roots. Perhaps, the Coolidge pets — the dogs, cats, birds, raccoons, et al. — should be included in this family account as well, for the Coolidges made them very much apart of their home life, and the public loved these creatures, especially the dogs, then and now.
Americans have never ceased to be intrigued by the Coolidge homestead inaugural. What a marvelous and poignant moment in our nation’s history, when, on that hot night in August of 1923, Col. Coolidge, a notary public, swore in his son, Calvin, as President of the United States of America. All this taking place by the light of a kerosene lamp in the parlor of Coolidge’s home in Plymouth Notch. There are few Americans, who are not deeply moved by this scene; especially, I think, this is true of children. The event is one of those unique moments in the history of the Presidency that will always be recalled.
There is Plymouth Notch, with its homestead, church, store and post office, and other buildings, where Calvin Coolidge’s life began and ended. The place is almost perfectly preserved as it was during Mr. Coolidge’s Presidency. It is a real home and community, having nothing about it of the artificial, Disney-like quality of so many Presidential home sites. Although frozen in time, a kind of Brigadoon, it still lives. Here visitors can get an accurate sense of the world that nurtured a young Calvin Coolidge. They can also visit his hillside grave, where, nearby, he has joined his ancestors, his life a completed circle, and there pay their respects.
The duplex home in Northampton must not be overlooked. It is the home of a respectable lawyer and public servant in a pleasant New England town. This was the house to which he brought his bride, from which he left for Washington in 1921, and to which he happily returned in 1929. Mr. Coolidge’s old house still remains a home. It has not been turned into a dusty memorial, but is still a place in which a family lives, with children’s toys on the front porch. Only a plaque on the side of the house indicates that Calvin Coolidge once lived there. I think that Mr. Coolidge would be very pleased at this.
Lastly, another reason for Mr. Coolidge’s continuing appeal is that as President he presided over the fabulous Nineteen-Twenties. His Administration had much to do with the decade’s making, both in an active and passive way. Looking back, we can now see that it was part of a transition period leading to the America we know today. Few periods in American history are so interesting and so full of exciting and colorful personalities and events as were the Twenties. The American people seemed to explode in a burst of creative energy, as captured in the sounds of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.” There was great progress in many areas of life, but especially in the sciences and the arts; and, of course, to Mr. Coolidge’s delight, a national prosperity that benefited all and laid the foundation for much of the decade’s remarkable achievements. On the world stage, America, now a major economic and military power, had become a cautious player. The Administration’s foreign policy goals were the restoration of postwar Europe and world economic growth, mixed with a hope for continued progress in arms limitations and world peace as envisioned in the Pact of Paris (Kellogg-Briand). In this area, Mr. Coolidge shows himself best in his dealing with Mexico, avoiding hostilities and restoring good relations with our neighbor to the south.
Overall, the decade was a good time for Americans. They were content and happy and proud of their country and its President, whose Administration facilitated and encouraged, as best it could within the limits of the time, this general advancement of the people. Collectively, they had never been so well off, and the future held out so much promise for them. This is why, when the Depression came, it came as a double blow. It involved not just the loss of material wealth and possessions, like all earlier slumps — but, with the great promise seemingly gone, there was also a great psychological loss, to a degree never before experienced, of confidence and hope in the future. This writer sometime wonders if it was not worry and concern over the Depression — with its ever pervasive gloom — that put Mr. Coolidge into an early grave. It must have raised many questions and doubts in his mind; it must have been very difficult for him to bear.
The Twenties was the first decade of the modern period. Thus, it is easy for many of us today to relate to Mr. Coolidge’s decade and enjoy its spectacle. It also another reason for remembering Mr. Coolidge.