Essays, Papers & Addresses

William Allen White and the Origins of the Coolidge Stereotype

by Sheldon M. Stern

Sheldon M. Stern earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard and has been historian at the JFK Library for more than twenty years. He has directed the American History Project for High School Students since 1993 and is currently working on a book on the evolution of the Coolidge stereotype.

PART ONE:

My interest in the origins of the Coolidge stereotype began after seeing Jim Cooke perform at the Kennedy Library in 1989, with a script entirely from Coolidge’s writings, letters and speeches. I was struck by the fact that the words and ideas in the script did not match the stereotype. The conventional view of Coolidge can be summarized in the following 12 points:

1) Calvin Coolidge was an extreme reactionary who believed that things were best exactly as they were. “Coolidge was democratic by habit rather than by intellectual conviction. … He believed in the status quo, and regarded the entire progressive movement since Theodore Roosevelt’s day with cynical distrust.” (Morison and Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, 1962, p. 625).

2) Coolidge had “an unwavering preference for inaction” throughout his career. He deferred to authority, said little and waited for luck and advancement, “winning successively those minor state offices on which undistinguished politicians build their ordinary careers.” (Blum, et al., The National Experience, 1968, p. 633).

3) Coolidge had “an unwavering preference for inaction” throughout his career. He deferred to authority, said little and waited for luck and advancement, “winning successively those minor state offices on which undistinguished politicians build their ordinary careers.” (Blum, et al., The National Experience, 1968, p. 633).

4) Coolidge “worshiped wealth and those who had it. Worldly possessions were for him evidence of divine election…… Coolidge worshiped both God and Mammon.” (Blum, op. cit., p. 633); Cook, Presidents of the United States, 1981, p. 190).

5) Coolidge “lacked energy, initiative or imagination” and “At no time during his political rise had Coolidge ever betrayed any qualities of leadership or vision.” (Cross, Popular Images of American Presidents, 1988, p. 297; Cook, op. cit., 1981, p. 190).

6) Coolidge had a negative approach to the presidency, believing that the federal government should have no role other than protecting the rights, privileges and advantages of business. “No devotee of laissez faire ever abhorred government more than Coolidge did.” (Blum, op. cit., p. 634).

7) Coolidge was a “hatchet, faced ‘”sphinx” and “the most glacial personality ever to appear on the American scene, … he came into the White House a pathological case: cruel, frigid, distrustful, sour, loathing people and human contact.” (Stone, They Also Ran, 1966, pp. 337, 338). “The Washington Monument pierces 555 feet into the sky to symbolize the greatness of George Washington’s contribution to his country. Calvin Coolidge’s monument could be a hole dug straight down into the ground to commemorate all the things he failed to do for his country.” (Stone, The Aspirin Age, p.131)

8) Coolidge was “a misanthrope who froze the government … change was abhorrent to him, he was repelled by the attempt of man to control his own fate by political activity.” (Stone, op. cit., p. 338).

9) Coolidge was lazy and uninvolved in the business of being president. “He slept more–nine hours a night plus a two-hour afternoon nap–and did less work than any other president in history.” (Miller, Star-Spangled Men, 1997, p. 87).

10) Coolidge was silent, dry and lacked any sense of humor. His speeches and Autobiography are “a sure cure for insomnia.” For Coolidge, “words … were not a medium of exchange and whenever he opened his mouth to speak ‘a moth flew out.'” He “had a brain which functioned without words … [and] he maintained an Ice Age silence” between himself and the people. (Miller, op. cit., p. 91; Cook, op. cit., p. 191; Stone, op. cit., p. 337).

11) Coolidge had no concern at all for the welfare and needs of average people. He believed that “only the rich were worthy,” that government should “beware the counsels of the majority,” and ‘should not tax the virtuous rich in order to assist the unworthy and thriftless poor.”(Blum, op. cit., p. 634).

12) “Coolidge’s silences did not cloak a wide, ranging mind.” He had no intellectual curiosity, no interest in reading and no knowledge of history or literature. “A careful examination of his record shows him to be a mediocre mind.” (Miller, op. cit., p. 91; Stone, op. cit., p. 339)

This assessment of Coolidge reminds me of a famous character in literature not politics–Ebenezer Scrooge! Let’s turn now to the origins of this view.

PART TWO:

The conventional wisdom on the thirtieth president is anchored in two books–Calvin Coolidge: The Man Who is President (1925) and A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (1938), plus several essays and articles, totaling more than 750 pages, by Kansas journalist and political activist William Allen White. Popularly known as the “Sage of Emporia,” White became, in a career that spanned the half- century from Populism through the New Deal, one of the most respected and influential newspaper editors and writers in American history. He first emerged on the national scene in 1896, after writing an anti-Populist editorial, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in The Emporia Gazette. Republican newspapers in several cities reprinted the editorial and the McKinley campaign distributed over a million copies throughout the country in their effort to defeat William Jennings Bryan.

Within five years, however, White had undergone an extraordinary political metamorphosis. He became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt and gradually concluded that only the federal government could bring about meaningful political reforms and economic justice through the regulation of private business in the public interest. In 1912, White abandoned his Republican roots to stand at Armageddon with TR and the Bull Moose party, but returned to the GOP after Roosevelt’s defeat. In the 1920s, White supported Harding, Coolidge and Hoover in the three presidential elections of the decade.

White was a prolific writer, publishing, for example, collections of his newspaper editorials and articles, two volumes of short stories and several novels, a collection of sketches of the major political figures of his era, a biography of Woodrow Wilson and two books on the life of Calvin Coolidge. (He planned a study of his political hero, Theodore Roosevelt, but never completed the project.) Today, White’s “hopelessly cluttered desk” has been preserved in the busy offices of The Emporia Gazette. Still hanging on the walls of the newsroom are his personal photos of key political leaders of the era, including Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.

White accepted an offer from Collier’s in 1924 to write an article about Coolidge. “I went east to get it without much thought of him, merely to fill an order, got interested in him, was baffled by him, and bedeviled by his evanescent character, wrote four articles, then made it six, then concluded there was a book in it.” White’s fascination with this “vinegary New England Yankee” continued to grow over the rest of the decade, and, after Coolidge’s sudden death in 1933, White found himself drawn to write a second Coolidge book. Coolidge “interests me deeply as an individual, the last of the Puritans,” he told a friend in describing his research. “I am trying to solve him as a man and fit him into his time…”

Elements of the Coolidge stereotype were, of course, widespread in the 1920s and the 1930s in journals such as the New Republic and the Nation in the writings of H.L. Mencken, Frederick Lewis Allen, Walter Lippmann, and many others. indeed, Coolidge was partially responsible himself for perpetuating the “Silent Cal” myth, much the way Lincoln enjoyed manipulating the notion that he was nothing more than a poor, humble country lawyer. However, the length and scope of White’s writings on Coolidge are unique, and his critique embraces virtually all the themes of what would eventually become the full Coolidge stereotype.

“The almighty dollar,” White declares, “fluctuates in its place in the American esteem…. waves of revulsion against the dollar deity have landed … Roosevelt and Wilson in the White House.” But, the “receding waves have given us … Taft and Coolidge.” Young Calvin, White suggests, internalized the belief in thrift, frugality and “the divine right of capital” from his Vermont childhood. “No part of his being or thinking or feeling is untouched by this mystic faith that civilization as a going concern depends upon the preservation of a healthy commerce” and his belief “in the power of the esoteric and mystical qualities of business to produce a happy people.”

“How natural it was,” White concludes, that the man who above all others in his country believed in the divinity of the horse trade as a national symbol,” should come to a place of power despite the fact that he had “no sense of what the world was actually doing” and did not understand the changes reshaping industrial America. “Out of Vermont, trim, clean, frugal and fastidious, came Coolidge, tinkering at the times. He will construct nothing.” Citing White House chief usher Ike Hoover’s observation that Coolidge worked fewer hours and assumed fewer tasks than any of the presidents he had known, White quipped, “During the [1924] campaign he had little to say and said it well.” White claims that Coolidge interpreted the election as “a mandate to reconstruct American government along the lines of his own deep conviction that the business of America is business.” “It was plain in his first message [to Congress that] he had consecrated his country under the moral government of an orderly universe, to profits.” “Always,” White concludes, “President Coolidge’s emotions have as their basis some cash-register explanation.”

Americans had lost interest, While claims, in the “high goals [and] large altruistic enterprises” of TR and Wilson: “In this mood they turned overwhelmingly to Coolidge” who declared that “Economy will solve the problems of our country” and “refused to recognize problems which economy could not solve.” He did not interpret his presidency “as part of a program, nor as a sequence in the presentation of a cause.” “He may have lived in a dream world,” believing simply in “the cause of prosperity, of property” without understanding its “deeper significance.” Coolidge was “mystical to the point of unreason…[about] the belief that material progress holds in its processes the guarantees of justice.” White asserts that Lincoln believed “the business of America is freedom,” Roosevelt believed “the business of America is justice,” Wilson believed “the business of America is peace,” but Coolidge, “the apotheosis of America today,” believes in “business for its own sake [and] exalts the ideals of the peddler, the horse trader, the captain of industry.”

White derides Coolidge as “The Wizard of a New Order,” declaring that when this Yankee came to Washington, his wit was little more than an “acid effluvia of spiritual dried apples,” “he had no small talk, and quacked his casual sentences in staccato … Washington tittered in his wake with silly stories of … his greenness, his social indifference and zestless acidity.” “He had exhibited absolutely no initiative. He had spoken no memorable phrase (except during the Boston Police strike). … He is negation incarnate. As President he bestraddled progress face backward. … He had no qualities of leadership … in Washington, or in the states or in the cities. He was always an undramatic and unimaginative man……… No Persian potentate was ever more practical in his rejection of the tenets of spiritual progress through altruism and distributive political justice…….. Naturally, reducing taxes for the wealthy was his highest priority.

White rebukes Coolidge for failing to speak out against the speculative frenzy on Wall Street. “Privately market gambling offended his sense of thrift and order,” but as a public figure he was heaven sent to the market. Coolidge was “an attitude rather than an executive.” He once told Will Rogers that he kept fit as president by “avoiding the big problems.” and he did not think that a statement by the president would make any difference. “It was the ideal situation, a chance for that masterly inactivity for which he was so splendidly equipped.” Coolidge’s fundamental values, White asserts, are revealed in his conviction “that brains are wealth and wealth is the chief end of man.” “Because he did not believe that politics should be in business, he let business go its way without hindrance from politics.” He believed too much in “the lust for prosperity,” the Hamiltonian-Republican faith that …”‘the rich’ are indeed the ‘wise and good.'”

Running subtly though all these themes, and of pivotal importance to the ultimate triumph of the Coolidge stereotype, is White’s version of Coolidge’s January, 1925 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Coolidge discussed the potential conflict between the private ownership of newspapers and the obligation to report the news fairly and objectively. In that context he asserted in passing, “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” But, Coolidge then declared that the pursuit of material wealth is legitimate only because it results in:

the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. … It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.
White cites Coolidge’s final sentences and concludes, “In these two statements that ‘the business of America is business’ and that ‘the ideal of the American people is idealism’ are found the keys that unlock the chambers of the Coolidge mind; a mystic faith in the righteousness of a swap.” The first “statement” in White’s version of Coolidge’s speech is, of course, misquoted. White invents a false dichotomy in Coolidge’s argument, and even fails to mention the president’s explicit rejection of wealth for its own sake later in the same speech.

White repeats “the business of America is business” over ten times in his Coolidge books and articles between 1925 and 1938. Neither William Allen White nor Calvin Coolidge could conceivably have imagined the long-term impact of this invention.It is important to note that White was often careless about details: he dates Harding’s death July 29th instead of August 2d, declares that Calvin, Jr. was 14 instead of 16 when he died in 1924; and claims that Grace Coolidge remarked that “Poppa says there’s a depression coming” to explain the president’s decision not to run in 1928. The former first lady later wrote to biographer, Claude Fuess, “I certainly never said anything of the kind for I never heard the word ‘depression’ used at that time.” (GC to CF, 12/3/38, CFPPA) Ironically, just ten days after Coolidge’s address to the American Society of Newspaper editors, which White would brand forever as “the business of America is business” speech, White wrote to the president asking for verification of historical details he planned to include in his first Coolidge book. “I am sorry indeed to be bothering you this way, but to write accurately one must know definitely what he is talking about, and all my life I have striven for accuracy.” (WAW to CC, 1/27/25, CCPFL)

Virtually every component of the Coolidge stereotype as described earlier can be found in White’s writings: the worship of “the dollar deity”; the belief in the “divine right of capital”; the “mystic faith” in economy; the commitment to “the divinity of the horse trade”; the devotion to materialism as “the chief end of man”; the rejection of “altruism and distributive political justice”; the commitment to reducing taxes for the wealthy; the “negation incarnate” which exposed “an attitude rather than an executive”; the absence of initiative, imagination and leadership; the lack of commitment to a program or a cause; the “zestless acidity” and “acid effluvia” of his temperament and wit; the rejection of progress and the belief that “the business of America is business.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of White’s conclusions on historians, journalists, editors and teachers. “‘The business of America is business” appeared in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations just a few years after the publication of A Puritan in Babylon and remained there for more than fifty years. The conviction that Coolidge spoke and believed those words is everywhere–in textbooks, reference works, monographs and study guides. It has become the bedrock of Coolidge’s historical reputation. A Puritan in Babylon, which historian Charles Beard called one of the twelve best histories of the 1930s, had an immense impact on a young and dedicated first generation of New Deal historians and FDR biographers writing in the 1940s and the 1950s. Their work, which has dominated a half-century of presidential scholarship, has been the primary conduit through which White’s portrait of Coolidge has been popularized and embraced at virtually every level of American historical scholarship and education.

PART THREE:

However, White’s negative portrait of Coolidge did not go unchallenged in the 1920s and the 1930s. A contemporary of William Allen White came to radically different conclusions about Coolidge–indeed 180 degrees from the stereotype discussed above. For reasons which will become clear later, I am not going to reveal his name at this point. This author went back to Coolidge’s Vermont origins in an effort to explain him to the American people. “Calvin Coolidge in the White House,” he suggests, “is only the little boy from Vermont … a normal, kindly, most human creature–faulty, of course, and indubitably strong, or he would not be President.” He is impressed by Coolidge’s political success: there “is no better gauge of a man’s capacity for public service than a long series of direct votes of the people. … And when a man has gone into twenty elections and won nineteen, he has something in him which compels confidence and which represents the popular will.” Coolidge was an enigma when he arrived in Washington to become vice president in 1921, but “Vermont knows him and his kind … the cautious, intelligent, courageous, conscientious, conservative Yankee.”

The author discovers six traits which provide the keys to Coolidge’s heritage and character. The first is silence. He cites the terror which Coolidge experienced as a boy going through the kitchen door to greet visitors. “I’m alright now with old friends, Coolidge confessed, “but every time I meet a stranger I have to stand by the old kitchen door a minute. It’s hard!” He also points to the loss of Coolidge’s mother and sister, “the blows of death which rained upon his life in childhood” and the shattering death of sixteen-year old Calvin, Jr. during his first year as president as explanations for his silence. The second trait is economy, an abhorrence of frivolous amenities and waste. The third trait is honesty. The fourth trait is caution: “He was born and bred in the land of caution. … He believes deeply and acts only when he has to.” The fifth trait is idealism. Young Calvin was profoundly influenced by studying history with Anson Morse and philosophy with Charles Garman at Amherst College. They taught him that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” and that history was the story of God’s progress and democracy the climax of human institutions. He learned “that life is not a blank, that it ‘means intensely and means good.'” The sixth trait is service. “The key to Coolidge’s strength,” he declares, “is a passion, a consuming inner fire, to serve–to serve the public……… He overcame the impediments of temperament, inheritance, and environment through his “belief in the sacramental character of public service.” “One who studies him carefully,” he insists, “is forced to the conclusion that here was an affectionate and aspiring man terribly repressed. …the battle before the kitchen door goes on forever in Coolidge’s life.”

One of the most intriguing puzzles in Coolidge’s temperament, he observes, “is how far his sense of humor is suppressed. It flashes out, never for more than a second or two, occasionally in some witty saying, or in some sardonic action unexplained except that it is a humorous protest against grotesque wrongs.” The author delighted in examples of Coolidge’s wit, citing his appearance with the imperious Senator Henry Cabot Lodge at the tercentenary of the landing of the Pilgrims in December, 1920. Lodge, who had never concealed his contempt for Coolidge, told the crowd that he had recently spoken to the Plymouth Society at length but had not fully covered the subject–which he would now do. When Coolidge’s turn to speak came, he observed dryly, “I was likewise present on the occasion the Senior Senator so eloquently refers to and I also spoke on that occasion, but unlike him, I exhausted the subject.” ‘The crowd responded with a “tumult of laughter and applause.” The author points to the “Puckish little devil in Coolidge’s heart” and his obvious pleasure in “tickling the ears” of his rival.

This author recalled his first meeting with the president in December, 1924: “I have never seen a public man who more quickly, shrewdly, efficiently got through a pile of Sunday newspapers than Calvin Coolidge. I was interested in his skill. It revealed a sharp mind … studious, competent, tenacious of facts … modest, wise, kind and resolute” with no patience for fools or self-seekers. The author admits that he had prepared in advance to discuss railroad rates with the president but ended up impressed by Coolidge’s knowledge and grasp of details; “he easily outsmarted me.” “He knew the people, their tricks and their manners, their strengths and their weaknesses. He knew how demagogues could fool them and how honest men could win or lose them …. [he] was a shrewd Yankee, smarter than chain-lightning about the ways of men.” Coolidge’s awkward ways, he observes, “were a mask for exceptional political perspicacity, his sly, shy, subtle clowning … gave him distinction as a ‘character,’ [along with] his sterling qualities of heart and mind, his nerve under fire, his honesty of purpose, his competent New England education, his unfaltering gratitude and his profound belief in the moral government of the universe…… He cites the comment made by then Governor Calvin Coolidge that “only the man of broad and deep understanding of his fellow man can meet with much success in politics.”

Coolidge’s passion for service demanded personal sacrifice: “no office he has held in all these years carried a salary sufficient to keep him in decent comfort.” As a result, he entered the White House “a poor man.” Money did not tempt him. “His acquisitive faculty is marvelously developed. But it is for political service.” He deposited regularly “in some ethical bank” and returned to Northampton “poorer than when he went, poorer in purse, but richer in experience and political standing”‘ after two terms in the legislature. “To him politics is what the sea is to the sailor, the woods to the forester, the family to the mother, an instinctive passion for some kind of service.” He “never has been turned to the accumulation of material things,” observing “some inner monastic vow against owning much property.” He had become the ranking and most powerful Republican in Massachusetts but “he used it, not for Calvin Coolidge, the lawyer of Northampton, not for the father of the Coolidge children that they might have a better home, not for any immediate material gain for Calvin Coolidge the man.”

When a wealthy Massachusetts Republican businessman offered Coolidge a key position in an insurance company with more than ten times his salary as a legislator, he responded simply: “No, that doesn’t lie along my line of influence.” The author affirms that “It takes wisdom, courage and some indomitable faith in his own talents for a man to know his way and go his way past a temptation like that. He was marked and dedicated to politics, a self-consecrated public servant.” Coolidge “associated in a friendly way,” he maintains, “but never upon terms of anything like social intimacy with the very rich.” He recognized the power of Massachusetts industrialists and financiers in business and politics, but “he had no great use and scant respect for the way they lived…… Coolidge bent no limber knee to Mammon … [and] was never the conscious protagonist of the predatory powers.” When he became vice president in 1921 he had been in public office practically all his life” but had to rent a modest apartment so that he could live within his means.

In sharp contrast to the Coolidge stereotype and White’s withering assessment of Coolidge’s career and values, this author characterizes Coolidge in Massachusetts as “a mild progressive,” “a mild liberal” or “a regular Republican with a liberal record” who helped get an anti-monopoly bill passed and supported popular election of senators, the direct primary, women’s suffrage, the six day work week, reduced hours for women and children, discounted railroad fares for working men, pensions for fireman’s widows, half-fares for children on street railways, equipping factories with surgical equipment, the construction of municipal playgrounds, a state income tax, legalized picketing and state aid to help widowed mothers care for their children. The quiet Yankee, he points out, “was uncomfortably progressive for some of his constituents in Northampton.” He got along well with the Irish, who were generally Democrats, “they always respected him and often voted for him. … [he] loves his fellow men because he lives with them and understands them, …a man who walks to work every morning nodding to his fellow townsmen…… He was a dependable Republican who never alienated local Democrats and for decades held his Democratic friends.

While serving on Beacon Hill, he lived in one small room in Boston’s Adams House and kept his rented two-family house in Northampton. The Yankee Brahmins scoffed at his austerity, “but he ignored Back Bay as completely as Back Bay rejected him” and despite “his curious wordless ways bound his [legislative] fellows to him with hoops of steel.” “More than any other man in the legislature he could direct and in a measure control legislation.” As head of a legislative conciliation committee during the bitter 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike, “With great pains he heard strikers and employers. His investigation was thorough. He made his award. It angered the strikers. But is was probably fair.” A Massachusetts labor leader went even further, concluding that Coolidge “was entirely fair and in his conduct of the judicial hearing courteous to all. Certainly he was not a stand patter though he did not give us all we wanted.” (The strikers were rehired without penalty, wages were increased 5.25% and time and a quarter paid for overtime.)

The author asserts that Coolidge understood and sympathized with Theodore Roosevelt’s agitation about more equitable distribution of wealth and “voted with the Rooseveltian Progressives in the Massachusetts legislature.” Coolidge came to the attention of the GOP state machine because he “was interested, quietly but effectively, in those things that Roosevelt clamored for” such as “the regulation of child labor, the recognition of labor unions …. mother’s pensions and those legal ameliorations of the condition of the underprivileged known as ‘social and industrial justice.'” While serving as president of the state senate in 1914, Coolidge wrote the Massachusetts Republican “social and industrial justice platform” which the author describes as “a radical program for those days’ and quotes at length:

The continued support of every means of compulsory public education, cultural, vocational and technical, merited retiring pensions, aid to dependent mothers, healthful housing and fair protection, reasonable hours and conditions of labor, and the amplest protection of public health, workingmen’s compensation and its extension to intrastate railroads; official investigation of the price of necessities, pure food with honest weights and measures; homestead commissions, city planning, the highest care and efficiency in the administration of all hospital and penal institutions, probation and parole, care and protection of children and the mentally defective; rural development, urban sanitation, state and national conservation and reclamation; and every other public means for social welfare consistent with the sturdy character and resolute spirit of an understanding, self-supporting, self-governing free people.

“If Coolidge had appeared before Congress in 1925 with a program as far in advance of the time as that program was in advance of 1914,” the author quipped, “the accredited Republican leaders of Congress would have jumped through the capitol windows to get out of the presence of a Red.” “He knew the roughest and worst of American politics at first hand, but survived unspotted and unscathed… [and] at the end, scandal had not touched his administration from Northampton, through Boston to Washington.”

Elected Governor in 1918, Coolidge became a national hero when he wired the head of the American Federation of Labor during the 1919 Boston police strike, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” But, he insists that the governor’s caution revealed an “economy of words [and] economy of action, which never by any chance may be called laziness and surely is not the result of economy of thought.” He reacted “methodically, coolly, logically and unemotionally.” Ironically, he observes, Coolidge was canonized after the strike by the same forces that made Grover Cleveland a saint for putting down the Eugene V. Debs Pullman strike in 1894 despite the fact that anti-unionism had never been his record in Massachusetts. The governor told a reporter during the strike, “can you blame the police for feeling as they do when they get less than a street car conductor?” He “respected the justice of their grievances” but opposed the strike as a desertion of duty–very shrewd politics. Coolidge also avoided the hysterical red-baiting of reactionaries in Boston and around the country. “It must always be said to the credit of Calvin Coolidge that in his big moment, when fame first touched him, he kept his faith; he refused to be the demagogue…” After the strike, “Coolidge’s soft heart impelled him to help striking policemen to get jobs in other departments of the city and state…… Delegates to the 1920 GOP convention stampeded to Coolidge for the vice presidential nomination. “Not understanding Coolidge,” the author concludes, “they voted for the mythical Coolidge.”

The author concludes that Coolidge was an effective governor. Every item in the social justice plank of 1914 which had not yet been enacted “was taken up by Governor Coolidge and in nearly every instance, whether through legislation or executive action, he did his effective part usually with complete success” to fulfill these promises. The governor backed efforts to reduce the high cost of living, to regulate the prices of the necessities of life and supported labor in winning the 48 hour work week for women and children which had been sought since TR’s day. He asserts that:

Massachusetts under Governor Coolidge was leading the nation in state legislation cramping the power of landlords, checking rent profiteering, authorizing cities and towns to take property by eminent domain in order to provide dwellings for the people. Coolidge himself sponsored laws giving the courts power to stay eviction proceedings in certain cases, laws prohibiting rental increases of more than twenty-five percent a year, laws penalizing landlords who failed to keep agreements regarding heat, light and other services. … Governor Coolidge appointed a commission to study the whole matter of housing. He established the office of fuel administrator and signed a bill [allowing municipalities to]…operate public street railway lines. He enlarged the power and usefulness of cooperative banks and generally was regarded as an open-minded and forward-looking governor for his day and time. … Coolidge listened to social workers who had plans for the betterment of state education for the defective, the feeble-minded, the insane, the inmates of the penitentiaries.

The author stresses Coolidge’s “kindness and good nature,” and the fact that he never tried “to play the demagogue [though] he had a record to rouse the rabble.”

When the governor received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Williams college, the author notes that he cautioned that those who put their faith “merely in greatly increased prosperity … [have been] disappointed through all the ages, [and] will be disappointed now. Men find their true satisfaction in something higher, finer and nobler than all that.” The author comes to the startling conclusion that after the death of TR and the GOP swing to the right in response to national labor unrest, given Coolidge’s record in Massachusetts and “Wilsonian bias for the League of Nations, probably Governor Coolidge was on the whole the most vital candidate of the Progressive hope who had any chance in the Republican National Convention [of 1920].”

“Coolidge was not of the Old Guard,” this author asserts, and never aligned himself with “the messenger boys of Big Business” who had dominated the GOP since 1910. The author recalls that “certain conservative Republican leaders affected to assume that Coolidge would not aspire to the [1924] Presidential nomination. There was a general air of patronizing condescension toward the new President.” But, the Old Guard was “gently, coolly, but rather inexorably frozen into their proper places.” “That group frankly despised Coolidge and his kind. Never did a party leadership take more reluctantly a Presidential nominee than the Republican leaders took Coolidge in 1924.” He describes the president’s 1925 inaugural address as “pure Coolidge,” emphasizing conscience, peace, prosperity, the welfare of the wage earner, developing natural resources, education, justice, honor and faith.

Finally, the author was particularly impressed by Coolidge’s return to Northampton, “the old miracle of democracy in reverse. The ruler returns to the soil, politically earth to earth, ashes to ashes. … [Calvin and Grace Coolidge] were two small town Americans, living again in the little house in which they began housekeeping.” He especially admired the former president’s refusal to sell his name for personal gain:

I would like to get into some kind of business, but I can’t do it with propriety. A man who has been President is not free, not for a time anyway. I wish he were. Whatever influence I might have, came to me because of the position I have held, and to use that influence in any competitive field would be unfair. Some of the offers that have come to me would never have come if I had not been President. That means these people are trying to hire not Calvin Coolidge, but a former President of the United States. I can’t make that kind of use of the office. I’ve had banking offers, but banks sell securities, and securities sometimes go bad. I can’t do anything that might take away from the presidency any of its dignity, or any of the faith people have in it.

Before revealing the name of this author, let me eliminate two possible objections to comparing him to William Allen White. Some of you may be wondering whether he was sufficiently well-known and whether it is misleading to equate him with someone as famous and widely read as William Allen White. Perhaps the New Deal historians never heard of him. Or, perhaps this writer was a biased partisan who was not taken seriously by historians because of his blind devotion to Coolidge. Both concerns are eliminated simply by revealing his identity: the mystery author’s name is William Allen White.

PART IV: CONCLUSION

William Allen White, as this contradictory evidence reveals, was deeply ambivalent, conflicted in today’s jargon, about Calvin Coolidge. He tried to present a balanced portrait of the whole man, but, it would not be an exaggeration to say that he appeared to be writing about two Coolidges–the cold materialist and reactionary vs. the idealistic, skillful and often progressive public servant (especially in Massachusetts). The New Deal historians, however, chose, very selectively, to discuss only those portions of White’s writings which contributed to the stereotype. Coolidge himself did not regard White’s 1925 book as hostile (he died five years before the publication of A Puritan in Babylon). In 1932, when White requested a photo from the former president and sent a check to cover the cost, Coolidge returned the check and decided instead to send a more valuable etching, “I think anyone who took the trouble to write a book about me,” Coolidge responded, “is entitled to an etching.” (CC to WAW, 4/l/32, WAWPLOC)

White clearly admired the progressive legislation which Coolidge had supported in more than two decades in Massachusetts politics. But, the Kansas reformer reluctantly concluded that Coolidge as president had “sloughed off Massachusetts in Washington.” This is perhaps the single most important and revealing line in all of White’s writing on Coolidge. White could not accept President Coolidge’s commitment to the pre-New Deal polity–to a federal government limited in size and scope and a presidency with only marginal influence on the daily lives of the American people. White’s disappointment over Coolidge’s reluctance as president to extend to the federal level many of the progressive reforms he had consistently sponsored or endorsed in the Bay State is, in my view, the key to his ambivalent and conflicted conclusions about this reserved Yankee politician.

After World War II, FDR biographers and New Deal historians, committed to an activist presidency and federal government, drew the sharpest possible contrast between Franklin Roosevelt and the presidents and policies of the 1920s. William Allen White’s negative conclusions on Coolidge provided them with the critical underpinnings for constructing the Coolidge stereotype in the 1940s and the 1950s. We know, however, that these historians also read White’s positive conclusions because they are everywhere in the same books. The FDR revisionists mined White’s work very selectively, erased Coolidge’s Massachusetts record–which White admired–from American historical memory and invented one of the most ubiquitous, persistent and popular myths in American history.