National Council for History Education Conference, October 18-20, 2001 At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
Presentation by Cynthia Bittinger, Executive Director, The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation
In your teacher packets, please refer to the timeline. You will see that Calvin Coolidge held many offices on the way to the governorship. He ran for office 19 times and won 17 of those contests. He ran hard, campaigned hard and reached out to independents and Democrats, even though he was a Republican. He gave as many as 15 speeches a day when he ran for Lt. Governor and he did not campaign in a negative mode.
At the 1998 conference on Coolidge at the Kennedy Library, Michael Dukakis, former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, called Coolidge’s speech “Have Faith in Massachusetts” given in 1914, “the most eloquent ever delivered under the State House dome.” It is included in your packet.
Coolidge said, “statutes must appeal to more than material welfare”, but he went on, with Governor Walsh, to obtain legislation for injury compensation, reorganization of the state government, compulsory arbitration of labor disputes, taxes on out of state corporations, and tax reform.
As governor, Coolidge’s progressive policies included urging higher teacher salaries (see speech).He was a progressive who supported women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, labor unions, curbing Standard Oil, and championing the rights of African Americans. Ironically, Coolidge’s progressive policies did not make him a presidential candidate in 1920, his strong stand against the Boston Police Strike did.(When the Boston Police tried to organize in a union, they were not allowed to do so by the city authorities. They went on strike in 1919 and left their posts. Mobs looted shops and the citizens were scared. Governor Coolidge sent out the State Guard to re-establish order.) Coolidge’s clear language can be seen in his telegram to AF of L President Samuel Gompers. “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” In the popular imagination, Coolidge was a strong leader defending traditional values under attack by subversives in society. Coolidge thought this telegram ended his career. He was wrong; it was the beginning of his national one. Coolidge’s national popularity started in 1919 and never stopped in his lifetime.
One reason historians may have trouble with Coolidge’s legacy is that he had a progressive Massachusetts record but became famous for his “law and order” stand. Thus he is difficult to pigeonhole.
Coolidge’s Massachusetts history includes the start of his own family. You heard about his Vermont roots and close knit village from our video and Sue Pollender. When Calvin Coolidge read the law in a Northampton, MA firm and opened his own law office, he finally had enough money to consider marriage. He spotted a lovely young teacher watering flowers outside his window. When he sought out Grace Goodhue who taught deaf children at the Clarke School for the Deaf, he found a kindred spirit from Burlington, VT who enjoyed poetry, books and classical themes. For our 1998 conference, I read Coolidge’s courting letters to Grace. He wrote her twice a week complimenting her on her looks, clothes and interests. She was the sportive one, loving hikes and baseball, but he continually encouraged her interests and made them his. He served on the Board of the Clarke School for the Deaf and raised money for the school as he retired from his presidency in 1929. Instead of a presidential library, his friends gave $4 million to the Clarke School for the Deaf.
“We thought we were made for each other.” “For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces.” These were Coolidge’s words characterizing their relationship. Historian Susan Ware labels this presidential couple as the first companionate marriage. I think she means they had a lot in common, but Grace clearly states in her writings that each family must have one head and Calvin was that, for sure. She did encourage his humor; she gathered many animals under the White House roof, even Reuben and Rebecca Raccoon, to please Calvin and her own heart which had a chamber for the love of animals.
Turning to their sons, I did know one, John Coolidge, in his twilight years. I interviewed him three times about his family. He and Calvin Jr. were close. His brother was more retiring and bookish than he. The death of Calvin Jr. at the age of 16 was a deep challenge to all three. (John and Calvin had been playing tennis in June of 1924 and Calvin got a blister which then turned into septicemia. Calvin was treated by the best doctors they could find; antibiotics were not invented at the time. Calvin died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.) Some historians say that President Coolidge plunged into depression and truncated his progressive presidency. Grace had deep religious faith and soldiered on. John had to go on to Amherst College, live with a Secret Service protector, and start dating a Mt. Holyoke girl. All missed Calvin Jr. and continued to lament his passing.
“When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” wrote Coolidge in his Autobiography. Historians might look to that sentence for clues as to why Coolidge did not run in 1928 and stepped away from power.