The austere president who presided over the Roaring Twenties and whose conservatism masked an innovative approach to national leadership
He was known as "Silent Cal." Buttoned up and tight-lipped, Calvin Coolidge seemed out of place as the leader of a nation plunging headlong into the modern era. His six years in office were a time of flappers, speakeasies, and a stock market boom, but his focus was on cutting taxes, balancing the federal budget, and promoting corporate productivity. "The chief business of the American people is business," he famously said.
But there is more to Coolidge than the stern capitalist scold. He was the progenitor of a conservatism that would flourish later in the century and a true innovator in the use of public relations and media. Coolidge worked with the top PR men of his day and seized on the rising technologies of newsreels and radio to bring the presidency into the lives of ordinary American a path that led directly to FDR's "fireside chats" and the expert use of television by Kennedy and Reagan. At a time of great upheaval, Coolidge embodied the ambivalence that many of his countrymen felt. America kept "cool with Coolidge," and he returned the favor.
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December 01, 2006
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Excerpt from Calvin Coolidge by David Greenberg
Out of Plymouth Notch
Calvin Coolidge remembered the rustic world of his boyhood, not altogether romantically, as a lost arcadia. He was born on the Fourth of July, in 1872, seven years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up, like his parents, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, a village of farmhouses nestled in the Green Mountains. It had 1,300 residents, almost all of Yankee descent.
Typical of rural America, living conditions in Plymouth Notch were rough and rugged. Frigid winters dragged on for months. No gas lamps, running water, or coal furnaces relieved the hardship. Taxing labor--building fences, tending the animals, tapping trees to make syrup--fell even upon young boys like Calvin.
Coolidge, however, remembered not the hardship but an idyllic life of county fairs, bobsledding on snowy slopes, romps over the green hills, a well-taught pride in executing his chores, and blissful nights under starry skies. "Vermont is my birthright," he later reminisced. "Here one gets close to nature, in the mountains, in the brooks, the waters of which hurry to the sea."1
The Coolidge family shared the attitudes common to the region: the Puritan piety, the esteem for hard work and thrift, and what Coolidge recalled as the refusal to show disdain toward others "except toward those who assumed superior airs." The Yankee political culture included both conservative and progressive strains. The first state to abolish slavery, Vermont prided itself on its religiouslyrooted egalitarianism, though its lack of racial and ethnic diversity made such tolerance a mostly abstract affair. Indeed, Vermonters looked warily upon the unruly, ethnically diverse Democratic Party, with its immigrants, wage earners, and urbanites. For them, the Party of Lincoln embodied their values of civic duty and robust individualism. Though hardly shrill in his partisanship, Coolidge never questioned which party merited his loyalty. Even when he was a teenager, he recalled, party affinities among Vermonters were sufficiently monolithic that Republican Benjamin Harrison's presidential victory in 1888 over the incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland gave rise to unalloyed festivity at his high school. "Two nights were spent parading the streets with drums and trumpets," Coolidge wrote, "celebrating the victory." Vermont would retain its Republican allegiance even through the New Deal--favoring the GOP presidential candidate in every election until Lyndon B. Johnson won the state for the Democrats as part of his 1964 landslide.2
Yankee Republicanism seemed to run in the Coolidge blood. Before Calvin's birth, the town of Plymouth and the outlying "Notch" had served as home to four generations of Coolidges; the family traced its ancestry to the Puritans who first came to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. Plymouth was where Calvin's parents, John Calvin Coolidge and Victoria Moor, first met and where in 1868 they were married. When their first child, the future president, arrived four years later, the Coolidges gave him John's full name but chose to refer to him as Calvin. (Later, in an act of mildest rebellion, Coolidge would drop the "John" altogether.) In 1875, Victoria gave birth to a sister for Calvin named Abigail.
John Coolidge was a jack-of-all-trades. Though tending a farm was a full-time job, he rarely went without other work. He ran the town's general store when Calvin was born but soon sold it and bought the farmhouse across the way. Moved by the New England esteem for public service, John went on to hold, as one admirer remarked, every local or state office "except the undertaker": he served as selectman, school commissioner, tax collector, constable, deputy sheriff, and eventually state representative and state senator.3
Calvin revered his father and imbibed his sense of duty and mission. "My father had qualities that were greater than any I possess," Calvin later insisted. "He was a man of untiring industry and great tenacity of purpose." As a boy Calvin accompanied John to the courthouse and to town meetings. These experiences instilled what he called "a good working knowledge of the practical side of government" and a view of politics as noble.4
Coolidge was close to his mother as well. Fair-haired and sentimental like her son, she loved to plant flowers, "gaze at the purple sunsets, and watch the evening stars," he recalled. But as long as he could remember, she suffered from tuberculosis, and she died in 1885, at the age of thirty-nine, after having been injured by a runaway horse. Following her death, Coolidge wrote, "life was never to seem the same again." Although he rarely disclosed his emotions, he spoke effusively about her throughout his life. To Edmund Starling, the president's bodyguard and friend, Coolidge seemed able to recall "every day he had spent with her." "I wish I could really speak to her," the president told Starling. "I wish that often." Coolidge kept his mother's photograph on his desk and carried with him a locket that held a lock of her hair.5
Five years after the loss of his mother, Coolidge's sister, Abbie, also died, probably from appendicitis, at the age of fourteen. She had recently joined Calvin as a student at the Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow, where she was his favorite companion. Her sudden loss--she died within a week of taking ill--was nearly as shattering as that of his mother. Beyond the obvious grief, the precise effect of these traumas on Calvin is hard to determine. They didn't create his inclination to diffidence or his fear of the unplanned, which had been in evidence from a young age. But they must have reinforced those traits. For the rest of his life, Calvin would remain deliberate in his decisions, conservative in his temperament and ideology, and restrained in his personal style.