Donald R. McCoy
CALVIN COOLIDGE, a shrewd, taciturn, and publicly dignified New Englander, occupied the presidency during the generally prosperous and peaceful period from August 1923 to March 1929. The variety of his accomplishments in the White House was impressive even if their substance was not.
Born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on 4 July 1872, he was named John Calvin Coolidge after his father, variously a teacher, storekeeper, farmer, mechanic, and politician, doing whatever would contribute to his modest prosperity. Calvin's mother, Victoria Moor Coolidge, a handsome woman and a lover of poetry and nature, died when the boy was twelve.
Calvin Coolidge's childhood was simple and idealistic. Although his religious ideas were vague, he was taught to believe in a divine intelligence that imposed upon man a duty to give public service. In rugged, rural Vermont, he acquired the attributes of caution, fairness, frugality, honesty, industry, reliability, tolerance, and unpretentiousness. He clung to these qualities throughout his life, and they stood him well in his rise to the presidency. Calvin was the first of the Vermont Coolidges to attend college, going to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His Amherst years strengthened his conviction that harmony and stability were essential in the affairs of society. The college also helped him to develop into something of a gentleman, a scholar, an occasionally droll fellow, and an adequate speaker.
After being graduated cum laude from Amherst in 1895, Coolidge read law with John Hammond and Henry Field in Northampton. He was admitted to the bar two years later, after which he opened a law office in Northampton, which he considered his home for the rest of his life. Although he never achieved eminence or riches at the bar, Coolidge was able to earn enough as a lawyer to become financially independent of his father.
The law was only Coolidge's first profession. His second career was politics, which satisfied his craving for civic service and supplemented his income. He found his entry into politics easy because his father had been a frequent officeholder in Vermont and because his legal mentors, Hammond and Field, were political leaders in Northampton. In 1896, Coolidge became active in the local Republican party, and in 1898 he was elected to the Northampton city council. From then on, his progress up the political ladder was almost constant. He became city solicitor in 1900, clerk of the Hampshire county courts in 1903, and chairman of Northampton's Republican committee in 1904. Coolidge suffered his only defeat at the polls when he ran for school committeeman in 1905.
That was the year Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher in Northampton's Clarke Institute for the Deaf. The quiet Coolidge hoped that this charming young woman "having taught the deaf to hear, . . . might perhaps cause the mute to speak." Grace Coolidge was a vivacious, good-humored woman of varied interests who was willing to follow her husband's lead in all things. As such, she was the perfect helpmeet for her affectionate but domestically autocratic mate. Their first son, John, was born in 1906, and another, Calvin, in 1908.
Coolidge resumed his advancement up the political ladder in 1906 with his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where during his two terms he established a mildly progressive legislative record. His ability to appeal unostentatiously to varied ethnic, religious, and economic interests was confirmed in 1909 when he became mayor of Northampton. In 1911, Coolidge was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, where for the first time he attracted notice on the state scene by helping to arrange a fair settlement of the great textile strike in Lawrence. Reelected to the state senate in 1912 and 1913, he was chosen president of that body in 1914, becoming the most prominent Republican holding state office. Coolidge performed effectively as senate president in 1914 and 1915, advising his colleagues to "do the day's work" and "be brief." In 1915 he was elected lieutenant governor.
Coolidge gave insight into his political success in a letter to a friend in 1915: "I think I have a reputation of being conservative, which I am, because I do not make so loud a noise as some others. I think I have been in sympathy with practically all legislation intended to improve living conditions." This could be translated into Coolidge's creed throughout his political career: something for everyone so long as it did not cost too much. Add to this the fact that he was a man who got along with almost everybody, who was compassionate with ordinary people while identifying with the well-to-do, and who was effective as an officeholder and remarkably shrewd in his political timing, and one has a politician who, while few could be enthusiastic about him, was acceptable to the majority.
After three years in the lieutenant governorship, Coolidge, recognized as a loyal, astute, and effective wheelhorse of his party in Massachusetts, had acquired enough support to run successfully for governor in 1918. He proved an able governor, one adept at riding the tides of the stormy post-World War I period, in part by skillfully manipulating the platitudes that he believed in and that people wanted to hear. He labored to hold down the escalating cost of living, to increase supplies of items in short supply, to penalize profiteers, to encourage reasonable pay increases, and to settle labor disputes. He successfully advocated ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (for woman suffrage) and restriction of the work-week of women and children, among other reform measures. Moreover, Coolidge was instrumental in the efficient reorganization of the state's government.
His national reputation did not derive from such accomplishments but from his identification with settling the highly publicized Boston police strike of 1919. The police of Boston had serious grievances, which the authorities largely ignored. Thus, in September 1919 the police walked off their jobs, and disorder came to the Massachusetts capital. Coolidge did not intervene in the situation until peace had been substantially restored. Then the governor took command of the various forces that had been brought into Boston to maintain order. He upheld the police commissioner in refusing to allow the strikers to return to their jobs. When Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, contested him, Coolidge wrote to him, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." For this, during a time when disorder seemed to threaten the nation, Coolidge received America's acclaim. Moreover, that fall he was overwhelmingly reelected governor.
In 1920, Coolidge became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but the efforts on his behalf amounted to little more than a favorite-son movement. After a sharp contest among many candidates, the Republican convention finally nominated Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio for president. The delegates, in a surprise move, chose the Massachusetts governor to run for vice president. The Harding-Coolidge ticket won a landslide victory that November over Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As vice president, Coolidge was un-impressive. He sat in on cabinet meetings, but he played no significant role in the Harding administration. He was an uninspiring presiding officer of the Senate, and his speeches were little noted. By 1923, Coolidge was little more than a cipher on the national political scene.
Succession to Presidency
All that quickly changed. President Harding died the evening of 2 August 1923, and Coolidge was thus catapulted from relative obscurity to instant prominence. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts exclaimed, "My God! That means Coolidge is President!" In a dramatic ritual in his Vermont home, John Coolidge, who was a notary public, swore in his son as the new president by the light of an oil lamp at 2:47 a.m. on 3 August. Calvin Coolidge left for Washington a few hours later to assume his new duties. The style of the presidency would change, if not the administration's basic principles.
Calvin and Grace Coolidge would present a great contrast to their immediate predecessors. The extrovert Harding had worked and played hard, and mixed with people of questionable integrity, while his wife, Florence, had presided over the White House in an imperious, brittle manner. William Allen White wrote in 1925, Coolidge was "not like the run of the herd." The new president was frugal with words, money, and action; easily fatigued; unostentatious; cautious, even secretive; and very much a private person. He had little time for those who were pretentious or of questionable character. His sense of humor was keen, but it was pointed. One example of it was his response to a woman who told him, "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." "You lose," Coolidge retorted. All this made him into a capital character, "Silent Cal," the man whose idea of a perfect day was one during which absolutely nothing happened. It also made the atmosphere of the White House after Harding, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth observed, "as different as a New England front parlor is from a backroom in a speakeasy."
There was, in fact, more to Coolidge than this. He could be kind, particularly with ordinary people. He could be talkative and loving with his family. If he was sparing in his activities, he did focus his attention conscientiously on public business. If he believed that the government should not act unless necessary, he also believed that when it did act, it should act well. Little of this made him seem less angular, but it did encourage public awareness that Coolidge was doing his job. Moreover, Grace Coolidge was a charming, enthusiastic, and popular First Lady. Although she was limited by the president's control of her schedule and of White House functions, she was an effective counterpoint to her husband's taciturnity, as was the attractiveness of their two teenage sons, John and Calvin. Young Calvin's death in July 1924 from a foot infection stunned the nation and the family, especially the president. The country's outpouring of sympathy was no substitute for the Coolidge family's loss.
Coolidge's administrative technique was simple, direct, and effective. After consulting with appropriate parties, he laid down the policies that he thought the federal government should follow. He made it clear that he expected his subordinates in the executive branch to do their jobs within those guidelines. He expected appointed officials to run their operations efficiently and economically. If they could not do these things, and do them well, Coolidge impressed upon them that he would find people who could. For civil servants, the president relied heavily on the concept of the merit system in recruitment, retention, and promotion. He made it clear, therefore, that he expected meritorious performance from those who had the security of a federal civil service position. Thanks to his reiterations of these points, Coolidge usually received excellent service from those employed in the executive branch.
In all this, Coolidge made good use of his power of appointment. Equally important, he effectively employed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the agency established to administer this law, the Bureau of the Budget. The legislation had for the first time given the president substantial control over the appropriations requests of executive agencies and even over their spending of funds, enabling Coolidge to keep a tight rein on the funds, personnel, and programs of the various agencies and therefore on the system of rewards and punishments. Compared to later presidents, he did not have a great deal to administer, but what he did have he administered very well.
Coolidge also proved to be effective at publicizing his policies and activities. Central to this was his regularization of press conferences—his only innovation as president—which he usually held twice a week. Although Coolidge manipulated the news in his press conferences, he made himself a valuable and steady, though normally off-the-record, source of copy. His ability to establish an admirable rapport with news people was to help Coolidge considerably during the 1924 election campaign as well as throughout his presidency.
Coolidge came to the presidency with three obvious disadvantages. First, except for Secretary of War John Weeks of Massachusetts, he was not well acquainted with any of the members of the cabinet. Second, the cabinet he inherited varied considerably in quality. And, third, as a vice president succeeding to the presidency, Coolidge did not feel free to discharge summarily any of Harding's appointees. The new president set out methodically to become acquainted with his chief subordinates and their programs. Moreover, he made it plain to them that he was delegating considerable authority and responsibility to them as well as expecting them to he successful in doing their jobs. He emphasized that he would rely heavily upon them for information and advice, which he expected to be well considered.
This was a good start, but not good enough, considering the character of Harding's appointees. Some, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, were outstanding by any measure. Others, such as Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, easily found accommodation with the new chief executive. Still others were able but independent, such as Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace. Coolidge's great problem would be with those who would prove to be embarrassments, such as Harding's close associate, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. These embarrassments would prove to be substantial, and soon in coming. They pointed up the flaw in the new president's idea: "If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you will have to battle with only one of them."
Scandal had touched the Harding administration before the president's death, in the form of massive corruption in the Veterans Bureau and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Harding had fired the head of the Veterans Bureau, who later was sent to prison, as was the alien-property custodian. After Coolidge became president, members of Congress probed for the weaker links around Harding. They found them by early 1924.
Senate investigators discovered a remarkable pattern of ineptitude and corruption revolving around Attorney General Daugherty. Sufficient evidence was never found to convict him of anything, but the revelations quickly siphoned off public and official confidence in the attorney general. Coolidge believed that he could not ask Daugherty, especially as Harding's favorite, to resign just on the grounds that he was an embarrassment. Soon Daugherty went beyond the pale when he refused in his own defense to open the files of the Justice Department to Senate investigators. The president could not allow Daugherty to act both as attorney general and as his own defense counsel. "These two positions," Coolidge wrote, "are incompatible and cannot be reconciled." Therefore, on 27 March he demanded that Daugherty resign. Coolidge replaced him with an Amherst friend, Harlan F. Stone, a former dean of the Columbia University Law School.
An even greater scandal had developed earlier in 1924. Senate investigations indicated that oil magnates Harry F. Sinclair and Edward Doheny had bribed Albert Fall, while he was interior secretary, in order to gain leasing rights to the government's Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and Elk Hills oil reserve in California. Many Democrats and dissident Republicans had a field day with this, and attacks on the administration quickly became vituperative. Soon there were those who charged that the entire cabinet and even Coolidge had been involved in the oil transactions that had taken place during the Harding administration. President Coolidge remained calm in the face of mounting accusations. He acted quickly, though not precipitately.
While others were hastily arriving at judgments of guilt, Coolidge decided on 26 January to appoint two special counsel, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, to investigate the situation and to take appropriate action. His timing was impeccable, for the Senate was on the verge of taking more extreme action. His appointees, Owen J. Roberts and Atlee Pomerene, were perfect, for they had the professional expertise necessary to conduct an investigation that was neither a whitewash nor a flurry of vindictiveness. Because of their work, Fall was convicted for receiving bribes and so became the first cabinet member sent to prison for misconduct in office. Sinclair was found guilty of contempt of court. Moreover, the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills oil leases were canceled after exhaustive judicial proceedings. The investigations also revealed that Democrats as well as Republicans had been involved in the scandal.
This was not all that resulted from the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills scandal. Much of the investigation of Daugherty stemmed from it. Then, in February 1924, Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby was forced from office by Senate pressures, although there was no evidence that he was culpable of wrongdoing. Coolidge had refused to ask for his resignation, making clear that he would not "sacrifice any innocent man [or] retain in office any unfit man for my own welfare." Denby volunteered his resignation so that he would not be a burden to the president. Coolidge made a good choice for the new navy secretary in Curtis D. Wilbur, chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Denby's resignation led the administration's Democratic and Republican critics to try to connect the leadership of the executive branch, including Coolidge, with the oil scandal. Indeed, they sought to find scandal in other situations, especially the Treasury Department's handling of tax rebates to business and Henry Ford's proposal to develop federal property at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The first of these succeeded in embarrassing its Senate sponsor more than the Treasury Department; the second led to extended debate over the development of Muscle Shoals and Ford's withdrawal of his proposal, but not to a scandal. In all, Coolidge handled the situation masterfully and with little help from the generally timid Republican regulars in Congress. He kept his head while his critics often lost theirs, and he acted as much to retain his self-respect as to win the next election. Moreover, the president benefited from the fact that the investigations demonstrated that, as Charles Evans Hughes said, "corruption knows no party."
The Election of 1924
Coolidge would reap an abundant political harvest from the way in which he met the charges of scandal. He emerged not only as a man of probity but also of coolness under fire. This explains much of the attractiveness of his chief campaign slogan in 1924, "Keep Cool with Coolidge." He apparently had decided soon after he succeeded to the presidency to run for election to the office in his own right. This seemed confirmed by his appointment of C. Bascom Slemp, a professional politician and former Virginia congressman, as his chief White House secretary. Although Coolidge had no significant power base outside Massachusetts, he quickly acquired a team of supporters who worked effectively in raising campaign funds and enlisting convention delegates for him. Moreover, it was his good fortune that by January 1924, Senator Hiram Johnson of California was the only prominent Republican who was striving to contest with him their party's presidential nomination. The crucial showdown between Coolidge and Johnson came in May 1924. Then the president defeated the senator in his home state in the primary election, thanks largely to the efforts of another Californian, Commerce Secretary Herbert C. Hoover. Coolidge was easily nominated by the Republican National Convention in June.
The only mistake of the president's supporters was that they got their wires crossed as to who should be nominated for vice president. The convention delegates took advantage of this to choose a former Illinois governor, Frank O. Lowden, who refused the nomination. The delegates then selected another Illinois figure, the banker Charles G. Dawes, who had recently returned from a highly publicized mission to resuscitate the economy of Germany.
The Democrats in 1924 had a seemingly perfect campaign issue in Teapot Dome, but they managed to carry it too far in both their logic and language. Moreover, their national convention was bitterly divided over issues such as oil-tainted Democrats (of whom there were not supposed to be any), Prohibition, and the Ku Klux Klan. During the record-setting 103 ballots it took the Democratic delegates to agree on a presidential nominee, they laid bare every weakness in their party and knocked out of contention every well-known candidate for the nomination. Their nominee was a relatively obscure Wall Street lawyer from West Virginia, a "dry," John W. Davis, whose running mate, Governor Charles Bryan of Nebraska, seemed to contradict much that Davis stood for. Republican Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin also ran for president, on the Progressive ticket, with Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as his vice presidential nominee.
Coolidge's strategy in the 1924 campaign was to stick to presidential business and to ride the rising economic trend. He let Dawes, a colorful and energetic speaker, point up the flaws in their opponents. The conservative Davis was unable either to present much of a contrast to Coolidge or to pull his party together; the aging La Follette succeeded in attracting votes from the Democrats as well as the Republicans, but not in matching the strength of the major parties. The president won election handily, polling 15,718,211 votes to 8,385,283 for Davis and 4,831,289 for La Follette. The electoral vote was divided 382–136–13.
The Early Coolidge Program
During his first fifteen months in office, Calvin Coolidge had shown himself to be an astute administrator and politician. This quality, as well as his basic conservatism, affected his policies. He had no serious disagreement with the policies of the Harding administration. Equally important, he believed that disaster would be visited on an "acting president" who made any wrenching changes in the course being sailed by the administration or the country. Coolidge was fully committed to seeking efficient and economical government. For him, this did not mean cutting back on existing programs, only in making them more effective. He could further cut federal taxes and the national debt in the belief that this would promote the nation's prosperity. This would be augmented by encouragement of business development, for the president believed that the "chief business of the American people is business." Yet Coolidge, no less than Harding, was interested in making changes, however modest.
In Coolidge's first message to Congress, on 6 December 1923, he had called for a moderate development of flood control, reforestation, electric power, and transportation facilities; the strengthening of the civil service; encouragement of farm cooperatives; and increased regulation of labor disputes, Alaskan fisheries, coastal water pollution, radio, and aviation. He showed his concern for black Americans by requesting action against lynching, increased support of their education, and establishment of a commission to seek harmony between the races in industrial areas. Immigration should be restricted, for, as he knew the great majority of members of Congress agreed, "America must be kept American." Whereas Harding had talked of establishing a federal department of welfare, Coolidge called for a department to encourage character development and education among the people. He also proposed constitutional amendments to set a minimum wage for women and to restrict child labor in industrial employment. All this, of course, was to be achieved within the guideline of having a surplus of federal revenues to apply to reducing the national debt.
The foreign policy goals that Coolidge outlined in his first message to Congress differed little from Harding's. Coolidge reiterated that the United States would not join the League of Nations, although he requested American membership on the World Court. The United States would not cancel the debts of other countries to it, although the administration was willing to negotiate further the terms of those obligations. There would be no recognition of the Soviet Union until it made amends for its perceived transgressions. The merit system should be extended to the nation's foreign service personnel. Overall, there would be a continuation of the Harding administration's foreign policy of promoting peace, goodwill among nations, commercial friendship, and negotiation of disputes. In large part, Coolidge asked Congress for what his executive agencies had recommended. He was to get little of it because of the preoccupation of senators and representatives with questions of scandal in 1924.
Relations with Congress
Coolidge tried valiantly to get along with members of Congress. He was solicitous of the suggestions on legislation and appointments of the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Moreover, he would listen to Democrats who sought his ear. He was cordial to most members of Congress, even to many who embarrassed and opposed him. And the Coolidges so often played host to senators and representatives that the White House sometimes resembled a congressional club. Yet, however shrewd the president was in administration and electoral politics, he was seldom able to achieve harmony with Congress.
This was in part the result of the unfavorable impression Coolidge had made on senators during his lackluster vice presidency. More important was the independent nature of Congress during the 1920s. This, of course, had contributed significantly to the uproar over Teapot Dome and related matters that poisoned relations between president and Congress in 1924. There was also the Republican leadership upon which Coolidge had to rely. Initially, there were the independent Henry Cabot Lodge in the Senate and the genial Speaker Frederick Gillett in the House, both from Massachusetts and both aging. Lodge was no longer a very effective leader and Gillett never had been. In 1925 the congressional leadership passed to Senator Charles Curtis and Speaker Nicholas Longworth, who proved to be more effective than their predecessors, though seldom outstandingly so. Vice President Dawes was of little help. The president regarded him as too independent, and because of his strong opinions, the senators viewed him with suspicion.
As time passed, Coolidge became adept at making friends on Capitol Hill, but he was often unable to convert them into significant legislative allies. Many Democrats and progressive Republicans were unable to forget the scandals of the Harding presidency. Neither could they support the policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. For many of these members of Congress, not only had the government pursued economy too far, but its farm and business policies were bones that stuck in their throats. The administration's tax rebates to business, attempt to allow private development of Muscle Shoals, conservative appointments to office, and staunch opposition to a veterans' bonus and to the proposed McNary-Haugen farm legislation—which would have authorized federal purchase of surplus farm commodities at parity and then resale of them abroad at lower prices—had already been points of conflict with Congress in 1924. These issues would return, in one form or another, to plague Coolidge throughout his presidency.
Coolidge would enter his second term in 1925 with a larger Republican majority in Congress—sixty in the House and sixteen in the Senate—which would prove to be of no immediate advantage to him. First of all, after the 1924 elections he had to face a lame-duck session of the Sixty-eighth Congress. The president made it clear that he had abandoned none of his legislative goals, which did nothing to mollify his opponents. Moreover, Coolidge did not discourage the Senate Republicans from reading out of the party caucus and stripping of their committee seniority Robert M. La Follette and three other Republican senators who had supported the Wisconsinite for president in 1924. These senators and their several sympathizers in the upper chamber would repeatedly embarrass the administration during the next four years.
Early in 1925 the dissenters helped deal the president two major setbacks. Most notable was the passage of Senator George Norris' legislation providing for public development of Muscle Shoals. Although there would be no action on this authorization during Coolidge's presidency, the administration was unable to gain congressional support for private development of the area. Eventually, in 1933, the property became the centerpiece of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The second problem arose with the president's nomination of Charles Beecher Warren to become attorney general. Earlier Coolidge had easily secured confirmation of William Jardine, an agricultural scientist, to become secretary of agriculture and had encountered some senatorial opposition to his appointment of Attorney General Harlan F. Stone to the Supreme Court, but in nominating a longtime representative of the sugar trust, he presented Democrats and progressive Republicans with a perfect target. Not only did the Senate reject Warren, the first time since 1868 that a cabinet nominee had failed of confirmation, but Coolidge renominated him. Again the Senate rejected Warren. When the president offered him a recess appointment, Warren wisely turned it down. This was hardly shrewd conduct on the part of a president who had been so astute at politics the year before.
Coolidge quickly learned to be more cautious. If his nominees continued to be generally conservative, they were also above reproach. Coolidge replaced one friend, Stone, in the attorney generalship with another, John Garibaldi Sargent of Vermont. The ambassador to Great Britain, Frank B. Kellogg, was appointed secretary of state, and the businessman Dwight F. Davis became secretary of war. Coolidge's cabinet was by 1925 his own. He either had men in it whom he wanted or had tested Harding's holdovers and found them acceptable. The exception was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Although he was far from disciplined in Coolidge's eyes either in thought or in minding his own business, Hoover was brilliant, popular, and usually useful to his master in the White House. These two very different men would learn to live with each other, however often they vexed one another. Coolidge also shifted secretaries in the White House. With the 1924 election over, Slemp was replaced as chief secretary by a man of various talents, Everett Sanders, a former Indiana congressman.
However one may assess the members of Coolidge's official family, many of them reached a high level of distinction. Hughes and Stone would become chief justices of the United States; special counsel Owen J. Roberts would also ascend to the Supreme Court; Dawes and Kellogg would receive the Nobel Peace Prize; Hoover would become president; and Interior Secretary Hubert Work and presidential secretary Sanders would become chairmen of the Republican National Committee. Moreover, Henry L. Stimson added luster to his reputation as Coolidge's special envoy by bringing peace to Nicaragua, and Dwight Morrow won fame for his remarkably effective embassy to Mexico.
Coolidge was able to maintain his popularity with the public, to a considerable extent through his astute manipulation of the press and of platitudes acceptable to the people. The only president to have spoken more often in public was Theodore Roosevelt. Coolidge had acquired such a knack for speaking that even if few Americans felt uplifted, few were offended. He seemed always visible, dignified, and full of integrity, even if what he said was seldom memorable.
Coolidge's chief problem remained his inability to bend Congress to his will. Yet he did have his victories, and for him they were usually the essential ones. In his annual messages to Congress between 1925 and 1929, Coolidge largely hewed to his original policies. He told Congress in December 1925, "The country does not appear to require radical departure from the policies already adopted as much as it needs a further extension of these policies and the improvement of details." His key policy was "economy and efficiency." If Congress could restrain itself from meddling in administration, which it largely did after 1924, the executive could provide efficiency. It was also Coolidge's task to persuade Congress not to get carried away with funding new programs or substantially increasing funds for established programs. In this he was remarkably successful. Appropriations remained low during the Coolidge years, and the officials of the executive branch used the funds allotted them well. With federal revenues constantly exceeding spending, the administration was able to cut the national debt substantially, confident that it was preserving the government's credit for a rainy day as well as curbing inflation.
Neither federal economy nor paring the national debt was significantly controversial during the Coolidge years, but the corollary to these policies, tax cutting, was. Some members of Congress wanted to use the surplus to fund new programs; others charged that the administration's tax-cutting plan favored the rich. Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Mellon did espouse tax cuts that would benefit wealthy Americans, believing that the rich would invest their extra funds in ways that would increase production and therefore jobs and wealth at home. They also believed that this would expand American trade abroad, which would benefit the domestic economy and help stabilize the world economically and politically.
The Coolidge-Mellon plan, which was an outgrowth of Harding's policies, was a clear illustration of the trickle-down theory of national prosperity. It seemed to work, as Coolidge's years in office encompassed a period of increasing prosperity for most Americans. Moreover, Coolidge and Mellon were careful to make sure that all American taxpayers were favorably affected by the proposed tax cuts. Indeed, not only were federal taxes reduced for all, but many low-income Americans wound up not paying any taxes at all by 1929. It is little wonder that, despite sharp debate on Capitol Hill, Coolidge was able to gain legislative approval of his tax program in 1926. Then Congress repealed the gift tax, halved estate taxes, substantially cut surtaxes on great wealth, and reduced income taxes for all.
The tax program was Coolidge's major legislative victory in 1926. It was his best year in Congress, partly because he focused on this major issue. Yet the president also won on a number of other issues. Coolidge kept Prohibition from becoming a major issue by the expedient of occupying the middle ground between drys and wets. As a consequence, wets were slow to criticize the president for fear that he would become an ardent dry, and most drys were reluctant to criticize him too much for fear that he would do even less to enforce the law. As for the farm
issue, Coolidge could not avoid it. He was able to scatter support for the McNary-Haugen bill so that it would not pass, while he gained enough votes to advance federal support for cooperative marketing.
In the same year, Coolidge also secured modest increases in appropriations for inland waterways, public buildings, and highway construction as well as additional funding for national parks and forests and Indian programs. It should not be overlooked that 1926 was the year that Coolidge and Congress approved initial funding for the National Archives. The president also astutely exploited the furor created by the court-martial of Colonel William Mitchell for insubordination to develop sentiment for orderly progress in civil and military aviation. The result was that Congress approved subsidies for the growth of the aircraft industry and most of Coolidge's recommendations for the coordination of military aviation and for the regulation of civil aviation.
The president would not do as well with Congress in 1927 and 1928, partly because of Republican losses in the congressional elections of 1926 and partly because of growing support on Capitol Hill for programs that the administration found unacceptable. He persuaded Congress in 1927 to establish the Federal Radio Commission to regulate the use of wavelengths by radio stations, which had become chaotic. Besides that, in 1927 and 1928 Coolidge asked for some additional funds for public works and national parks and forests, improvement of existing federal farm programs, federal conciliation of labor disputes, and authorization of branch banking, all of which he received, but Congress refused to act on his proposal to consolidate the nation's railways. Coolidge won his chief victory in 1928 when Congress approved additional cuts in income taxes and reductions in corporation taxes.
Besides taxes, the big domestic issues between president and Congress in 1927 and 1928 were the McNary-Haugen legislation, flood control, and public power development. Sentiment had been growing for federal purchase of surplus crops and the selling of them abroad at whatever price they could command. Although the administration offered an alternative proposal—to use cooperatives to extend cheap credit to farmers who would restrict their production—Congress enacted the McNary-Haugen legislation. Even Vice President Dawes championed the McNary-Haugen bill. Coolidge vetoed it in both 1927 and 1928 as unconstitutional class legislation that would benefit neither the nation nor farmers. It would, he contended, only encourage the growing of surpluses and the rearing of tariffs abroad to prevent the dumping of American agricultural commodities. Although much that Coolidge said was correct, the administration did not present an effective plan to deal with the nation's farm problems. Certainly, the administration's cooperative credit plan, which Congress finally accepted in 1929, failed to meet America's agricultural problems.
A time-consuming and heated debate arose over flood control after the inundation of vast areas by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers during the spring of 1927. The administration moved rapidly to provide relief and loans for reconstruction, but when this proved insufficient, pressure rose for a federal flood control program. Coolidge responded in December 1927 by asking for such a program along the Mississippi. He made a mistake by giving no specifics, and soon Congress was considering a $1.4 billion program instead of the $180 million one he had in mind. By April 1928 the fight between president and Congress had become intense. Only after great effort was he able to get the price marked down to $500 million and thus block legislation that would have jeopardized his stringent economic program.
There was, moreover, the long-standing question of development of the Colorado River basin, which involved not only large appropriations but also the issue of private versus public control. After six years of work and debate, Coolidge finally approved in December 1928 the construction of Boulder Dam, which was central to the Colorado River basin development. He had artfully spun out the issue and passed on to his successor the spending of the $125 million involved as well as the controversial issue of whether the dam would be operated publicly or privately.
Domestic questions were not, of course, all that concerned the Coolidge administration. Foreign policy issues also had to be addressed. Coolidge had inherited certain guidelines from Harding, among them that the United States would not join the League of Nations and that foreign debts to America would not be forgiven. The latter he adhered to faithfully, supposedly saying in justification, "They hired the money didn't they?" Nevertheless, Coolidge continued Harding's policy of negotiating lower interest rates, deferral of payments, and other terms relating to foreign debts. The administration also encouraged private American loans to foreign nations in order to help them with their financial problems. Particularly significant in this respect was the Dawes Plan of 1924 to alleviate Germany's economic emergency, which had created an international crisis.
As for the League of Nations, the government gradually increased its unofficial cooperation with the world organization's activities, especially those concerned with promoting disarmament. In this and other things, Coolidge generally followed the advice of his secretary of state. The president did not do so thoughtlessly, for he had his own staunch convictions, his well-developed political sense as to what the American people might accept, and his keen though narrow analytical powers. He was decidedly opposed to war for his own country or any other. War, he believed, only resulted in killing, destruction, and general instability in human affairs.
Although it was not politically feasible for the United States to join the League of Nations, there was interest in finding some other path to international cooperation. Coolidge therefore espoused American membership on the World Court. In January 1926 the Senate agreed to American adherence to the protocol of the World Court, but with five reservations. One of the reservations provided that the United States would not be bound by advisory opinions of the court rendered without American consent. This one many member nations of the court would not accept, and so the question of American membership on the court was ended.
There was continued American interest, too, in forwarding disarmament. When other nations moved too slowly on this, the United States sought to follow up on the naval disarmament arrangements arrived at in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922. Coolidge therefore sponsored an international conference at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. It was ill fated at the start, for France and Italy refused to participate. At Geneva, Great Britain and the United States failed to agree, particularly on cruiser tonnages, and the conference collapsed. As a consequence, Congress authorized increased American naval expenditures in 1928.
A prominent and assertive group of Americans had been pressing on the administration the idea of the world's nations agreeing to outlaw war. Coolidge had kept talking to these people for political reasons, but he refused to commit himself to their cause, which he regarded as naive. Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France saw in the outlawry of war a way in which he might secure a defense alliance with the United States. Therefore, on 6 April 1927, the tenth anniversary of America's entry into World War I, Briand proposed that France and the United States join together to outlaw war. Since Briand had broached the idea publicly, Coolidge could not ignore it, especially as there was considerable public interest in it. The administration stalled the French, hoping that interest in Briand's proposal would wither. This did not happen, so Coolidge and Secretary of State Kellogg in December adopted Senator William Borah's idea that the outlawry of war be multilateral. This was not what Briand wanted, but by now he was so well identified with the outlawry of war that he could not withdraw. So in 1928 the representatives of fifteen nations met in Paris to pledge their countries to "condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another." In 1929, Coolidge successfully pressed the Senate for ratification of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The agreement turned out to be a swordless sheath, although it seemed dazzlingly promising at the time.
If the Coolidge administration failed to guarantee world peace and to achieve further disarmament, it did meet most of its special problems well. In part this occurred because of the government's improvement of the quality of American representation abroad. This was seen in the passage of the Rogers Act in 1924, which provided for the professionalization of the foreign service, and in Coolidge's increased appointment of professional diplomats to be ambassadors and ministers. It was also a result of the president's concern for avoiding the possibility of conflict. For example, the level of American intervention abroad dropped during the Coolidge presidency, largely because such incursions were expensive and, worse, could lead to war.
China, Mexico, and Nicaragua were the three major instances of the application of Coolidge's policy. During the 1920s, China was plagued by civil strife and threats of foreign intervention; it was also a time when several foreign countries enjoyed special rights that impaired Chinese sovereignty. The United States avoided supporting any of the rivals for power in China and acted to discourage military intervention by foreign nations. In addition, the Coolidge administration insisted, with some effect, on the reduction of the special treaty rights of foreign countries, especially with respect to tariff determination and extraterritoriality in China.
Mexico posed larger problems. Diplomatic relations between America and Mexico had been ruptured in 1920, but Coolidge was able to restore relations in 1923 after agreements had been made to settle property claims and to protect the rights of Americans in Mexico. Rebellion by anti-American elements still plagued Mexico, and its new government under Plutarco Calles soon called upon the United States to lift its embargo on the sale of arms and to encourage the granting of private loans. These things Coolidge did in 1924. This honeymoon did not last long, for in 1925 Mexico restricted American oil operations, and in 1926 President Calles and the Roman Catholic Church were at odds over the government's curbs on religious activities. Moreover, banditry was at a high pitch in Mexico. These developments resulted in hostile reactions in the United States and even pressure for American intervention. Coolidge went to great lengths to calm the American public and to reassure Mexico that disputes would be negotiated. In 1927 he sent Dwight Morrow to Mexico with instructions to "keep us out of war with Mexico." Morrow not only did that but soon reduced tensions between the two countries to their lowest point in decades.
Events in Nicaragua had complicated Mexican-American relations. By the end of 1926 that country was in a state of civil war, with Mexico and the United States backing opposite sides. In 1927, after reversing a decision to settle matters by force in Nicaragua, Coolidge sent Henry L. Stimson, Taft's secretary of war, to Nicaragua to arrange for peace. By May, Stimson had secured agreement to the suspension of hostilities, the restoration of civil rights, and the recognition of an interim government until elections could be held in 1928.
Relations with Japan were another story. Directly upon learning of the disastrous earthquake and typhoon of 1 September 1923, Coolidge ordered the Asiatic fleet to Yokohama to render assistance. This well-received gesture was followed by further private and public American aid. Japanese-American relations became strained when Congress voted overwhelmingly to exclude Japanese from the quotas established in the new Immigration Act of 1924. Despite the strenuous efforts of Coolidge and Secretary of State Hughes, Congress would not budge on the issue and indeed made very clear in debate its strong anti-Asian sentiment. Relations between the two nations would remain touchy thereafter, although the administration took great care in negotiating other issues with Japan.
Coolidge declined to run for reelection as president in 1928. He was satisfied, if not elated, to be succeeded in the White House by Herbert Hoover. After returning to Northampton in 1929, Coolidge busied himself with literary activities, which resulted in the production of his autobiography, some magazine articles, and, for a year, a syndicated newspaper column. He occasionally engaged in civic and political activities, but he was not a political force, nor did he try to be. He was bothered by minor ailments after he left Washington, and he increasingly complained of ill health in 1932. Nevertheless, his death of coronary thrombosis on 5 January 1933 was unexpected. He was buried in the family plot in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Coolidge was fortunate that his administration faced no great emergencies. It can be said that he met well most of the crises that occurred during his presidency. He astutely handled the Teapot Dome and other scandals, as he did crises in Mexico, China, and Nicaragua and the uproar over the court-martial of Mitchell. Coolidge was shrewd in his efforts to win nomination and election as president in 1924. Moreover, he showed outstanding talents as an administrator and fiscal manager. Although his personality made him seem a throwback to an earlier time, he was skillful at gaining the respect of the public. He was also adept at exploiting America's growing prosperity for political purposes.
Despite all this, Coolidge was not outstanding at exercising leadership. Most of his successes on Capitol Hill were transitory, such as the tax measures of 1926 and 1928, or were routine. He intended to be a president representative of his time and society, and in this he was successful. Speaking for large numbers of Americans, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "While I don't expect anything very astonishing from [Coolidge] I don't want anything very astonishing." Coolidge obliged. He did the day's work very well, but he felt little motivation to look ahead, to meet future problems. Admittedly, his was not a promising time to do so. He was, moreover, not one to borrow trouble by taking on unnecessary tasks or launching crusades. In sum, what Coolidge did, he usually did as well as could be expected and without indulging in theatrics. He was largely content to preside over the nation, willing to try to rule only when crisis called for it. Americans during his presidency were generally satisfied with that.
Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (New York, 1929), is dry and only seldom revealing. Have Faith in Massachusetts: A Collection of Speeches and Messages, by Calvin Coolidge (Boston, 1919) and The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses, by Calvin Coolidge (New York, 1924) vary in quality and subject matter; both were intended as election campaign documents.
Claude M. Fuess, Calvin Coolidge, The Man from Vermont (Boston, 1940), is a starchy, almost defensive scholarly biography of Coolidge. William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (New York, 1938), is superbly written but often inaccurate. Donald R. McCoy, Calvin Coolidge, the Quiet President (New York, 1967; Lawrence, Kans., 1988), is a recent biography of Coolidge. Hendrik Booraem V, The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge and His World, 1885–1895 (Lewisburg, Pa., 1994), and John Almon Waterhouse, Calvin Coolidge Meets Charles Edward Garman (Rutland, Vt., 1984), are good accounts of Coolidge's formative years.
Philip R. Moran, ed., Calvin Coolidge, 1872–1933: Chronology, Documents, Bibliographical Aids (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., 1970), and Clifford A. Pease, Jr., Calvin Coolidge and His Family: An Annotated Bibliography (Plymouth, Vt., 1987), are useful to anyone interested in Coolidge studies. Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era (New York, 1973), provides a general background to the policies of Coolidge's presidency.
Edward Connery Lathem, ed., Your Son, Calvin Coolidge: A Selection of Letters from Calvin Coolidge to His Father (Montpelier, Vt., 1968), is a fine collection of letters, sometimes witty, sometimes sad, but almost always revealing of Coolidge's personality. Howard H. Quint and Robert H. Ferrell, eds., The Talkative President: The Off-the-Record Press Conferences of Calvin Coolidge (Amherst, Mass., 1964), offers splendid documentation of how Coolidge handled the press and is also valuable for the content of the president's comments. C. Bascom Slemp, ed., The Mind of the President, as Revealed by Himself in His Own Words (Garden City, N.Y., 1926), is a mundane but thoughtful selection of Coolidge's comments. Ishbel Ross, Grace Coolidge and Her Era: The Story of a President's Wife (New York, 1962), a good popular biography, supplies interesting insights into the life of the Coolidge family.
Recent works include Robert H. Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (Lawrence, Kans., 1998); Peter Hannaford, comp. and ed., The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: Sensible Words for a New Century (Bennington, Vt., 2001), and Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (Washington, D.C., 1998).
30th president, 1923–1929
Born: July 4, 1872
Died: January 5, 1933
Vice President: Charles G. Dawes
First Lady: Grace Goodhue Coolidge
Children: John, Calvin
Calvin Coolidge was the 30th president of the United States. He was born in 1872 in Vermont. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and became a lawyer. In 1905, he married Grace Goodhue, who was then a teacher for the deaf. They later had two sons, John and Calvin. In 1919, Coolidge became the governor of Massachusetts.
Coolidge served as President Harding's vice president. He was at his family's farm when he learned of President Harding's death. He got up during the middle of the night to take the oath of office and then went back to sleep. Coolidge finished out Harding's term, and was re-elected in 1924.
- Coolidge was a man of few words—hence his nickname, "Silent Cal."
- When Coolidge took office, he forced the resignation of officials who had been involved in the scandals and corruption of Harding's administration.
- Coolidge supported an international treaty that outlawed war—the Kellogg Pact.
- Coolidge was the first president to be sworn into office by a former president—William H. Taft, who was then chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Coolidge's years in office were known as the "Roaring 20s" and were generally a time of economic growth. Unlike some of his predecessors in office, Coolidge did not believe that the government should interfere with the growth of business. To back up his beliefs, Coolidge named business executives to fill government posts on the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve.
When Coolidge Was in Office
- Jazz, the only form of music that originated in the United States, achieved widespread popularity. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith were well-known jazz musicians.
- Czech dramatist Karel Capek's play R.U.R. contained the first usage of the word "robot."
- Congress passed a law that made Native Americans citizens.
- John Scopes, a Tennessee teacher, was convicted of violating a state law by teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby.
- Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett made the first flight over the North Pole.
- Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Jazz Singer, the first movie with sound, was released.
- British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered the penicillium mold, from which penicillin is made, paving the way for the development of antibiotics.
Though he was popular, Coolidge declined to run again in 1928. Part of his decision was due to the death of his son, Calvin, 16. Shortly after the election of 1924, Coolidge's son died of blood poisoning that resulted from a blister on his heel. Coolidge, himself, died on January 5, 1933.
On Coolidge's Inauguration Day
Calvin Coolidge took office as a firm believer in the principle that the best government is that which governs least. After the tremendous power that government had under Wilson during World War I, many Americans wanted a leader who believed in smaller government, lower taxes, and economic freedom.
Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address
In Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 4, 1925
NO one can contemplate current conditions without finding much that is satisfying and still more that is encouraging. Our own country is leading the world in the general readjustment to the results of the great conflict. Many of its burdens will bear heavily upon us for years, and the secondary and indirect effects we must expect to experience for some time. But we are beginning to comprehend more definitely what course should be pursued, what remedies ought to be applied, what actions should be taken for our deliverance, and are clearly manifesting a determined will faithfully and conscientiously to adopt these methods of relief. Already we have sufficiently rearranged our domestic affairs so that confidence has returned, business has revived, and we appear to be entering an era of prosperity which is gradually reaching into every part of the Nation. Realizing that we can not live unto ourselves alone, we have contributed of our resources and our counsel to the relief of the suffering and the settlement of the disputes among the European nations. Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity.
These results have not occurred by mere chance. They have been secured by a constant and enlightened effort marked by many sacrifices and extending over many generations. We can not continue these brilliant successes in the future, unless we continue to learn from the past. It is necessary to keep the former experiences of our country both at home and abroad continually before us, if we are to have any science of government. If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations. We must realize that human nature is about the most constant thing in the universe and that the essentials of human relationship do not change. We must frequently take our bearings from these fixed stars of our political firmament if we expect to hold a true course. If we examine carefully what we have done, we can determine the more accurately what we can do.
We stand at the opening of the one hundred and fiftieth year since our national consciousness first asserted itself by unmistakable action with an array of force. The old sentiment of detached and dependent colonies disappeared in the new sentiment of a united and independent Nation. Men began to discard the narrow confines of a local charter for the broader opportunities of a national constitution. Under the eternal urge of freedom we became an independent Nation. A little less than 50 years later that freedom and independence were reasserted in the face of all the world, and guarded, supported, and secured by the Monroe doctrine. The narrow fringe of States along the Atlantic seaboard advanced its frontiers across the hills and plains of an intervening continent until it passed down the golden slope to the Pacific. We made freedom a birthright. We extended our domain over distant islands in order to safeguard our own interests and accepted the consequent obligation to bestow justice and liberty upon less favored peoples. In the defense of our own ideals and in the general cause of liberty we entered the Great War. When victory had been fully secured, we withdrew to our own shores unrecompensed save in the consciousness of duty done.
Throughout all these experiences we have enlarged our freedom, we have strengthened our independence. We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction.
But if we wish to continue to be distinctively American, we must continue to make that term comprehensive enough to embrace the legitimate desires of a civilized and enlightened people determined in all their relations to pursue a conscientious and religious life. We can not permit ourselves to be narrowed and dwarfed by slogans and phrases. It is not the adjective, but the substantive, which is of real importance. It is not the name of the action, but the result of the action, which is the chief concern. It will be well not to be too much disturbed by the thought of either isolation or entanglement of pacifists and militarists. The physical configuration of the earth has separated us from all of the Old World, but the common brotherhood of man, the highest law of all our being, has united us by inseparable bonds with all humanity. Our country represents nothing but peaceful intentions toward all the earth, but it ought not to fail to maintain such a military force as comports with the dignity and security of a great people. It ought to be a balanced force, intensely modern, capable of defense by sea and land, beneath the surface and in the air. But it should be so conducted that all the world may see in it, not a menace, but an instrument of security and peace.
This Nation believes thoroughly in an honorable peace under which the rights of its citizens are to be everywhere protected. It has never found that the necessary enjoyment of such a peace could be maintained only by a great and threatening array of arms. In common with other nations, it is now more determined than ever to promote peace through friendliness and good will, through mutual understandings and mutual forbearance. We have never practiced the policy of competitive armaments. We have recently committed ourselves by covenants with the other great nations to a limitation of our sea power. As one result of this, our Navy ranks larger, in comparison, than it ever did before. Removing the burden of expense and jealousy, which must always accrue from a keen rivalry, is one of the most effective methods of diminishing that unreasonable hysteria and misunderstanding which are the most potent means of fomenting war. This policy represents a new departure in the world. It is a thought, an ideal, which has led to an entirely new line of action. It will not be easy to maintain. Some never moved from their old positions, some are constantly slipping back to the old ways of thought and the old action of seizing a musket and relying on force. America has taken the lead in this new direction, and that lead America must continue to hold. If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice.
If we are to judge by past experience, there is much to be hoped for in international relations from frequent conferences and consultations. We have before us the beneficial results of the Washington conference and the various consultations recently held upon European affairs, some of which were in response to our suggestions and in some of which we were active participants. Even the failures can not but be accounted useful and an immeasurable advance over threatened or actual warfare. I am strongly in favor of continuation of this policy, whenever conditions are such that there is even a promise that practical and favorable results might be secured.
In conformity with the principle that a display of reason rather than a threat of force should be the determining factor in the intercourse among nations, we have long advocated the peaceful settlement of disputes by methods of arbitration and have negotiated many treaties to secure that result. The same considerations should lead to our adherence to the Permanent Court of International Justice. Where great principles are involved, where great movements are under way which promise much for the welfare of humanity by reason of the very fact that many other nations have given such movements their actual support, we ought not to withhold our own sanction because of any small and inessential difference, but only upon the ground of the most important and compelling fundamental reasons. We can not barter away our independence or our sovereignty, but we ought to engage in no refinements of logic, no sophistries, and no subterfuges, to argue away the undoubted duty of this country by reason of the might of its numbers, the power of its resources, and its position of leadership in the world, actively and comprehensively to signify its approval and to bear its full share of the responsibility of a candid and disinterested attempt at the establishment of a tribunal for the administration of even-handed justice between nation and nation. The weight of our enormous influence must be cast upon the side of a reign not of force but of law and trial, not by battle but by reason.
We have never any wish to interfere in the political conditions of any other countries. Especially are we determined not to become implicated in the political controversies of the Old World. With a great deal of hesitation, we have responded to appeals for help to maintain order, protect life and property, and establish responsible government in some of the small countries of the Western Hemisphere. Our private citizens have advanced large sums of money to assist in the necessary financing and relief of the Old World. We have not failed, nor shall we fail to respond, whenever necessary to mitigate human suffering and assist in the rehabilitation of distressed nations. These, too, are requirements which must be met by reason of our vast powers and the place we hold in the world.
Some of the best thought of mankind has long been seeking for a formula for permanent peace. Undoubtedly the clarification of the principles of international law would be helpful, and the efforts of scholars to prepare such a work for adoption by the various nations should have our sympathy and support. Much may be hoped for from the earnest studies of those who advocate the outlawing of aggressive war. But all these plans and preparations, these treaties and covenants, will not of themselves be adequate. One of the greatest dangers to peace lies in the economic pressure to which people find themselves subjected. One of the most practical things to be done in the world is to seek arrangements under which such pressure may be removed, so that opportunity may be renewed and hope may be revived. There must be some assurance that effort and endeavor will be followed by success and prosperity. In the making and financing of such adjustments there is not only an opportunity, but a real duty, for America to respond with her counsel and her resources. Conditions must be provided under which people can make a living and work out of their difficulties. But there is another element, more important than all, without which there can not be the slightest hope of a permanent peace. That element lies in the heart of humanity. Unless the desire for peace be cherished there, unless this fundamental and only natural source of brotherly love be cultivated to its highest degree, all artificial efforts will be in vain. Peace will come when there is realization that only under a reign of law, based on righteousness and supported by the religious conviction of the brotherhood of man, can there be any hope of a complete and satisfying life. Parchment will fail, the sword will fail, it is only the spiritual nature of man that can be triumphant.
It seems altogether probable that we can contribute most to these important objects by maintaining our position of political detachment and independence. We are not identified with any Old World interests. This position should be made more and more clear in our relations with all foreign countries. We are at peace with all of them. Our program is never to oppress, but always to assist. But while we do justice to others, we must require that justice be done to us. With us a treaty of peace means peace, and a treaty of amity means amity. We have made great contributions to the settlement of contentious differences in both Europe and Asia. But there is a very definite point beyond which we can not go. We can only help those who help themselves. Mindful of these limitations, the one great duty that stands out requires us to use our enormous powers to trim the balance of the world.
While we can look with a great deal of pleasure upon what we have done abroad, we must remember that our continued success in that direction depends upon what we do at home. Since its very outset, it has been found necessary to conduct our Government by means of political parties. That system would not have survived from generation to generation if it had not been fundamentally sound and provided the best instrumentalities for the most complete expression of the popular will. It is not necessary to claim that it has always worked perfectly. It is enough to know that nothing better has been devised. No one would deny that there should be full and free expression and an opportunity for independence of action within the party. There is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship. But if there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office. Unless those who are elected under the same party designation are willing to assume sufficient responsibility and exhibit sufficient loyalty and coherence, so that they can cooperate with each other in the support of the broad general principles, of the party platform, the election is merely a mockery, no decision is made at the polls, and there is no representation of the popular will. Common honesty and good faith with the people who support a party at the polls require that party, when it enters office, to assume the control of that portion of the Government to which it has been elected. Any other course is bad faith and a violation of the party pledges.
When the country has bestowed its confidence upon a party by making it a majority in the Congress, it has a right to expect such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government. This Administration has come into power with a very clear and definite mandate from the people. The expression of the popular will in favor of maintaining our constitutional guarantees was overwhelming and decisive. There was a manifestation of such faith in the integrity of the courts that we can consider that issue rejected for some time to come. Likewise, the policy of public ownership of railroads and certain electric utilities met with unmistakable defeat. The people declared that they wanted their rights to have not a political but a judicial determination, and their independence and freedom continued and supported by having the ownership and control of their property, not in the Government, but in their own hands. As they always do when they have a fair chance, the people demonstrated that they are sound and are determined to have a sound government.
When we turn from what was rejected to inquire what was accepted, the policy that stands out with the greatest clearness is that of economy in public expenditure with reduction and reform of taxation. The principle involved in this effort is that of conservation. The resources of this country are almost beyond computation. No mind can comprehend them. But the cost of our combined governments is likewise almost beyond definition. Not only those who are now making their tax returns, but those who meet the enhanced cost of existence in their monthly bills, know by hard experience what this great burden is and what it does. No matter what others may want, these people want a drastic economy. They are opposed to waste. They know that extravagance lengthens the hours and diminishes the rewards of their labor. I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
If extravagance were not reflected in taxation, and through taxation both directly and indirectly injuriously affecting the people, it would not be of so much consequence. The wisest and soundest method of solving our tax problem is through economy. Fortunately, of all the great nations this country is best in a position to adopt that simple remedy. We do not any longer need wartime revenues. The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny. Under this republic the rewards of industry belong to those who earn them. The only constitutional tax is the tax which ministers to public necessity. The property of the country belongs to the people of the country. Their title is absolute. They do not support any privileged class; they do not need to maintain great military forces; they ought not to be burdened with a great array of public employees. They are not required to make any contribution to Government expenditures except that which they voluntarily assess upon themselves through the action of their own representatives. Whenever taxes become burdensome a remedy can be applied by the people; but if they do not act for themselves, no one can be very successful in acting for them.
The time is arriving when we can have further tax reduction, when, unless we wish to hamper the people in their right to earn a living, we must have tax reform. The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. 1 Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor. This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful. The verdict of the country has been given on this question. That verdict stands. We shall do well to heed it.
These questions involve moral issues. We need not concern ourselves much about the rights of property if we will faithfully observe the rights of persons. Under our institutions their rights are supreme. It is not property but the right to hold property, both great and small, which our Constitution guarantees. All owners of property are charged with a service. These rights and duties have been revealed, through the conscience of society, to have a divine sanction. The very stability of our society rests upon production and conservation. For individuals or for governments to waste and squander their resources is to deny these rights and disregard these obligations. The result of economic dissipation to a nation is always moral decay.
These policies of better international understandings, greater economy, and lower taxes have contributed largely to peaceful and prosperous industrial relations. Under the helpful influences of restrictive immigration and a protective tariff, employment is plentiful, the rate of pay is high, and wage earners are in a state of contentment seldom before seen. Our transportation systems have been gradually recovering and have been able to meet all the requirements of the service. Agriculture has been very slow in reviving, but the price of cereals at last indicates that the day of its deliverance is at hand. 2
We are not without our problems, but our most important problem is not to secure new advantages but to maintain those which we already possess. Our system of government made up of three separate and independent departments, our divided sovereignty composed of Nation and State, the matchless wisdom that is enshrined in our Constitution, all these need constant effort and tireless vigilance for their protection and support.
In a republic the first rule for the guidance of the citizen is obedience to law. Under a despotism the law may be imposed upon the subject. He has no voice in its making, no influence in its administration, it does not represent him. Under a free government the citizen makes his own laws, chooses his own administrators, which do represent him. Those who want their rights respected under the Constitution and the law ought to set the example themselves of observing the Constitution and the law. While there may be those of high intelligence who violate the law at times, the barbarian and the defective always violate it. Those who disregard the rules of society are not exhibiting a superior intelligence, are not promoting freedom and independence, are not following the path of civilization, but are displaying the traits of ignorance, of servitude, of savagery, and treading the way that leads back to the jungle.
The essence of a republic is representative government. Our Congress represents the people and the States. In all legislative affairs it is the natural collaborator with the President. In spite of all the criticism which often falls to its lot, I do not hesitate to say that there is no more independent and effective legislative body in the world. It is, and should be, jealous of its prerogative. I welcome its cooperation, and expect to share with it not only the responsibility, but the credit, for our common effort to secure beneficial legislation.
These are some of the principles which America represents. We have not by any means put them fully into practice, but we have strongly signified our belief in them. The encouraging feature of our country is not that it has reached its destination, but that it has over-whelmingly expressed its determination to proceed in the right direction. It is true that we could, with profit, be less sectional and more national in our thought. It would be well if we could replace much that is only a false and ignorant prejudice with a true and enlightened pride of race. But the last election showed that appeals to class and nationality had little effect. We were all found loyal to a common citizenship. The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We can not permit any inquisition either within or without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. 3 The mind of America must be forever free.
It is in such contemplations, my fellow countrymen, which are not exhaustive but only representative, that I find ample warrant for satisfaction and encouragement. We should not let the much that is to do obscure the much which has been done. The past and present show faith and hope and courage fully justified. Here stands our country, an example of tranquillity at home, a patron of tranquillity abroad. Here stands its Government, aware of its might but obedient to its conscience. Here it will continue to stand, seeking peace and prosperity, solicitous for the welfare of the wage earner, promoting enterprise, developing waterways and natural resources, attentive to the intuitive counsel of womanhood, encouraging education, desiring the advancement of religion, supporting the cause of justice and honor among the nations. America seeks no earthly empire built on blood and force. No ambition, no temptation, lures her to thought of foreign dominions. The legions which she sends forth are armed, not with the sword, but with the cross. The higher state to which she seeks the allegiance of all mankind is not of human, but of divine origin. She cherishes no purpose save to merit the favor of Almighty God.
Quotes to Note
- "We can not finance the country..." Coolidge is saying that taxing the people with the most money is unfair. He suggests, instead, a smaller government and policies that offer as many people as possible the opportunity to become rich.
- "Agriculture has been very slow..." Farmers were one class that did not share in the boom of the 1920s. Congress developed a plan to buy certain crops at a set price to protect farmers' incomes. Coolidge, however, vetoed the bill because of his belief that government should not interfere with the economy.
- "We can not permit any inquisition..." Coolidge is referring to Democrat Al Smith, his opponent in the 1924. Smith was the first Roman Catholic to run for president, and some unscrupulous Republicans suggested during the campaign that if Smith were elected he would be more loyal to the pope than to the American people. Coolidge is criticizing those in his party who made an issue of Smith's religion.
Born July 4, 1872 (Plymouth Notch, Vermont)
Died January 5, 1933 (Northampton, Massachusetts)
"The business of American is business."
President Calvin Coolidge presided over the Roaring Twenties, a decade when a thriving U.S. economy was sometimes called Coolidge Prosperity. Thrust into the presidency when Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23; see entry) died suddenly, Coolidge soon had to confront several scandals involving members of Harding's administration. His quick, firm response helped to restore the public's faith in the nation's highest office. A man of few words, he was known as "Silent Cal," Coolidge was also a leader of little action. Deeply conservative, he believed that government should stay as far out of business affairs as possible. Although some blame the laissez-faire (hands-off), probusiness policies of Coolidge's presidency for the stock market crash (which occurred after he left office), the majority of U.S. citizens approved of his ideas at the time.
Hard work and thrift
Coolidge's ancestors arrived from Great Britain in the seventeenth century, and one of them served as a soldier in the American Revolution (1775–83). The future president was
born John Calvin Coolidge (he later dropped his first name) in the quiet Vermont village of Plymouth Notch. His father, also named John Calvin Coolidge, worked at various times as a farmer and shopkeeper and held a number of local political offices. From his father, Coolidge learned the values of hard work, honesty, and thrift and the idea of public service as a duty. His mother, Victoria Moor Coolidge, a sensitive woman who appreciated poetry and nature, died when he was twelve; a beloved sister also died in childhood.
Coolidge was a shy boy who would become a reserved, uncommunicative man. He suffered from allergies and did not make friends easily. Coolidge attended his village's oneroom school until he was fourteen, when he entered Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont. Later he went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he studied hard and developed strong debating skills. It took some time for his classmates to get to know him, but eventually they came to appreciate his dry wit. Coolidge was chosen to speak at his 1895 graduation, and he also won first prize in a national essay contest.
Having decided to become a lawyer, Coolidge prepared himself by reading law in the office of two attorneys in Northampton, Massachusetts. Two years later he passed the state's bar examination (a qualifying test for lawyers). He opened his own office in Northampton, where he made a decent living but never became rich. His carefully kept records show, for example, that in the first year he earned five hundred dollars. Never one to spend much money, Coolidge never owned his own house and did not own a car until he was vice president of the United States.
Beginning a career in politics
Coolidge's father had often been involved in politics, and Coolidge seems to have considered this a natural role for himself as well. He was active in the Republican Party in 1896 and 1897, and the next year he was elected as a Northampton city councilman. For the next thirty years Coolidge would rarely be out of political office. From the beginning he took a conservative approach to the issues, but he did support two important reform measures of the period: amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would allow for the direct election of senators and give women the right to vote.
While living a somewhat lonely life in Northampton, Coolidge was renting a room across from the Clarke Institute for the Deaf. By chance he met one of the school's teachers, Grace Anna Goodhue, whose outgoing, sunny personality was in stark contrast to his own. As quoted in Nathan Miller's NewWorld Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, Coolidge later remarked that he had hoped that, "after having made the deaf to hear, Miss Goodhue might perhaps teach the mute to speak." Although many people found them an unlikely pair, the two were married in 1905. About a year after their marriage, the couple's first son, John, was born, followed in 1908 by the birth of Calvin Jr.
Despite his reserved, quiet nature, Coolidge was able to attract the support of a variety of voters, especially those from the working class. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1906 and again the following year. In 1909 he was elected mayor of Northampton. In this position he worked to make city government more efficient, to lower taxes, and to reduce the city's debt; these are some of the same goals he would later bring to the office of the presidency. The voters sent Coolidge to the Massachusetts state senate in 1911, where he eventually achieved such a prominent leadership role that he was elected president of the senate. This made Coolidge the highest-ranking Republican officeholder in Massachusetts (the state's governor and lieutenant governor were Democrats).
Receiving national attention
Coolidge continued his upward climb in Massachusetts politics when, beginning in 1915, he spent three years as lieutenant governor. In 1918 he was elected governor. In this office he attracted little national attention until 1919, when his handling of a local crisis brought him widespread praise. In Boston, the state's largest city, the police force had long complained of low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Having received no response from the city government, they voted to form a union under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor, or AFL (an organization made up of unions from a variety of industries and professions).
After nineteen Boston police officers who had been union organizers were suspended from their jobs, the police force voted to stage a strike. This action caused near-chaos in Boston, with rioting and violence erupting; three people were killed, and much property was damaged. Boston's mayor appealed to Coolidge for help, but at first he was told that this was a local matter that the governor could not resolve. Eventually Coolidge did send in additional troops to help restore order. Then he informed the striking officers that they would not be allowed to return to their jobs.
In a telegram to AFL president Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), who had protested the governor's action, Coolidge made the famous statement, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." Although union leaders and members criticized this harsh response, almost everybody else in the nation approved of it. Coolidge won universal admiration (even Democratic president Woodrow Wilson [1856–1924; served 1913–21] praised him) and was easily reelected the following fall.
A quiet vice president
As the 1920 Republican Party convention (when party delegates gather to select a nominee for the presidential election) approached, Republicans around the nation had high hopes of winning the presidency. Having been made famous by the Boston police strike, Coolidge was among those discussed as a possible candidate. When the convention began, however, the Republicans nominated Ohio senator Warren G. Harding as its presidential candidate. For the position of vice president, the party leaders favored Senator Irving Lenroot of Wisconsin, but the general delegates rebelled and elected Coolidge. It was felt that this serious, unsmiling New Englander would bring balance to a ticket headed by an outgoing, friendly native of the Midwest.
The 1920 election marked a major shift in mood and focus in the United States. Following the end of World War I (1914–18), a particularly bloody and devastating conflict that seemed to shake the foundations of society, people were ready for a change. The reforming spirit of the Progressive Era (which lasted roughly from 1900 to 1914) was replaced with a strong desire both to stay out of other nations' troubles and to maintain the status quo (keep things as they are).
In this kind of atmosphere, the traditional conservatism of the Republican Party appealed to voters, and the Democrats were unable to provide an attractive alternative. The Democratic candidate, Ohio governor James M. Cox (1870–1957), was a wealthy newspaper publisher who lacked any strong ideas about what
direction the United States should take. A few months before the election, Harding promised a "return to normalcy," which he later defined (as quoted in Geoffrey Perret's book America in the Twenties) as "a regular steady order of things.… normal procedure, the natural way, without excess." The people of the United States demonstrated their faith in Harding's philosophy, electing him by a wide margin.
As vice president, Coolidge was a quiet presence in Harding's administration. He presided over the U.S. Senate, the traditional role of the vice president, and made a few speeches. He was not part of the inner circle of a president who had surrounded himself with personal friends (which would later be to his advantage). As Harding's presidency continued, rumors of corruption at the highest levels of government began to circulate. It seems likely that Harding was aware of some wrongdoing by several members of his administration, although his own honesty has never been questioned. In any case, while touring the West in the summer of 1923, Harding died suddenly of an apparent heart attack.
Coolidge was visiting his father in Vermont when, on August 2, he was awakened in the middle of the night with the news of the president's death. At 2:47 am, Coolidge's father, who was a justice of the peace (a person authorized to perform certain legal formalities), gave him the oath of office (the official, verbal promise a president makes to fulfill the duties of his office). The oath was administered again later at an official ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Realizing that the U.S. public was shaken by the sudden death of their president, Coolidge immediately vowed to continue the policies that Harding had put into place. He also planned to keep most of Harding's appointed officials, especially such important and competent men as Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (1855–1937) and Commerce Secretary (and future president) Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; see entry). Soon after becoming president, however, Coolidge was faced with a crisis.
The scandals that had been lurking beneath the surface during the last months of Harding's presidency finally emerged. The worst of these, known as the Teapot Dome scandal because it involved oil reserves near Teapot Dome, Wyoming, was investigated during congressional hearings held in late 1923 and early 1924. It was revealed that Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall (1861–1944) had leased drilling rights on several government oil reserves in the West to private oil companies in exchange for money. These pieces of oil-rich land were supposed to be used only by the U.S. military, but Fall had arranged for their transfer from the Department of the Navy to the Interior Department.
Fall was convicted of bribery and was sent to prison. Another close adviser of Harding, Harry Daugherty (1860–1941), also had to leave the administration under a cloud of suspicion. Coolidge, meanwhile, had successfully distanced himself from the corruption. By moving quickly to ensure that the scandals were investigated and the wrongdoers punished, he had helped to restore U.S. citizens' faith in the office of the president. His low-key manner and reputation for honesty also did much to calm the public.
Just as he had promised, Coolidge continued with the probusiness policies that Harding had established. He backed Mellon's proposals to cut taxes, reduce the national debt, and keep tariffs (taxes on imports, which were meant to benefit U.S. companies) high. He also supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which put restrictions on the number of newcomers from other nations who could move to the United States.
Despite his reputation for being uncommunicative, Coolidge was actually quite a visible leader. He was always willing to pose for photographs, sometimes dressed in silly costumes, and he spoke to the U.S. people often through the new medium of radio. In fact, he was the first U.S. president to use radio to express his ideas and policies. Coolidge also held two press conferences a week, although he chose ahead of time the questions he would answer.
Winning a second term
As the 1924 election approached, Coolidge looked forward to a chance to become president by winning votes, rather than by circumstance. By this time, many of the people of the United States identified Coolidge with the traditional values of common sense and thrift. His honesty and integrity made him a comforting presence in a world that seemed to be changing rapidly. On top of all this, the economy was booming. It seemed that the laissez-faire approach to government that Coolidge supported was working, and it was hard for Democratic nominee John Davis (1873–1955) and Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette (1855–1925) to prove otherwise.
Coolidge did not put a lot of effort into campaigning, partly because he did not need to and partly because, in the summer of 1924, he was grieving the loss of his youngest son. Sixteen-year-old Calvin Jr. had died from blood poisoning that resulted from a blister he received while playing tennis on the
Charles Dawes: A Distinguished Public Servant
Charles Dawes had a successful career as a businessman and public servant. His involvement in federal government culminated with the vice presidency under Calvin Coolidge. When Coolidge became president after the 1924 election, Dawes entered the vice president's seat with his usual dynamic energy, turning what had usually been a quiet role into one of strong advocacy.
The son of a Civil War hero and one-term member of Congress, Dawes was born in 1865 in Marietta, Ohio. He earned a law degree in 1886 from the Cincinnati Law School and began practicing law the next year in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dawes published an influential book on U.S. banking practices in 1894, which helped establish his reputation as a financial theorist.
In 1893 Dawes moved to Chicago, Illinois, and met William McKinley, whom he supported in the 1896 presidential election. President McKinley rewarded Dawes for his support by appointing him comptroller of the currency. This position placed Dawes in charge of the system for producing money. Dawes soon resigned the post to run for the Illinois senate. Upon his defeat, he turned his attention to business and became a prominent figure over the next decade. He served as president of a new and successful bank, was involved with many Chicago-area charities and civic organizations, and also wrote essays and lectured.
During the 1910s and 1920s, Dawes served successfully in several government posts. After being appointed to lead the new Bureau of the Budget in 1921, Dawes helped to reduce federal government spending by more than one-third. In 1923 he played an important role in the Allied Reparation Commission, established to deal with Germany's economic collapse following its defeat in World War I. Dawes earned the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on what was called the "Dawes plan," a five-year program to help Germany stabilize its economy and repay its debts.
Dawes was chosen as the Republican vice presidential nominee to run alongside Calvin Coolidge in his 1924 bid for reelection. During the campaign Coolidge, whose teenaged son had recently died, played a low-key role while Dawes made many speeches and appearances. He railed against the Ku Klux Klan and accused the Progressive Party's candidate, Robert M. LaFollette, of being a political radical.
As vice president, Dawes took his role as head of the U.S. Senate more seriously than had many of his predecessors. He actively urged action on a number of proposed laws and measures, including the Kellogg-Briand Pact, banking reform, and relief for farmers.
Dawes left the vice presidency in January 1929. He went on to serve as ambassador to Great Britain (1939–32) and then as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (1932), which was established to provide relief to the banking industry following the October 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Dawes served only a few months in that position before returning to his banking job in Chicago. He remained active in business affairs and charity work until his death in 1951.
White House court. Despite Coolidge's low-key approach, the campaign that had as its slogan "Keep Cool with Coolidge" was successful. The election results showed that Coolidge had won an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote, while Davis had won 29 percent and La Follette 17 percent.
In a 1925 speech to newspaper publishers, Coolidge made one of his most famous statements, declaring that "the business of America is business." He remained true to this belief. During Coolidge's second term, his cabinet continued to be dominated by conservative Republican businessmen who believed that the government did best by doing little. That meant not restricting companies by making them follow a lot of regulations. It also meant reducing income taxes, in order to give ordinary consumers more money to spend while also allowing the wealthy to make more investments. This economic strategy, known as "trickle-down economics" because the benefits are supposed to seep down through all levels of society, would become popular again in the 1980s during the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89). In fact, Reagan so admired Coolidge that he replaced a White House portrait of President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) with one of "Silent Cal."
Domestic and foreign affairs
Despite Coolidge's general opposition to government interference in business affairs, his presidency saw the passage of some laws that imposed restrictions on two new and important industries: radio broadcasting and aviation. With the farming sector, however, Coolidge took a more detached approach. U.S. farmers had experienced a major decrease in demand for their products after World War I. Their profits had dropped drastically, and they were among those who did not share in the general prosperity of the 1920s (the coal-mining and textile industries were also suffering during this decade). Twice Coolidge vetoed (refused to sign) the McNary-Haugen Bill, which would have provided farmers with federal assistance.
Coolidge left much of the responsibility for foreign affairs to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) and Hughes's successor, Frank Kellogg (1856–1937). He did not support U.S. involvement in the League of Nations (an organization set up after World War I to foster cooperation between countries). He opposed the effort to cancel the war debts of several European nations, which had borrowed money from the United States to pay for the conflict but were having trouble paying it back.
Coolidge's somewhat vague wish to encourage peace in the world led him to sponsor the 1927 Geneva Naval Conference, which was supposed to result in agreements to reduce the size of participating nations' naval forces. The conference was unsuccessful, though, due to several countries' inability to agree on terms. The next year, Coolidge supported the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, through which fifteen countries (later joined by a number of others) renounced war as a means of resolving conflicts. Because the agreement included no means of enforcement, however, it was virtually meaningless. The outbreak of World War II in the late 1930s would prove just how empty the promise had been.
Another foreign-affairs accomplishment of Coolidge's presidency was the restoration of good relations with Mexico after a dispute involving oil lands. Coolidge appointed a new ambassador, Dwight Morrow (1873–1931), who helped to smooth over the conflict. In a move that was criticized by those who resented U.S. interference in other countries' affairs, Coolidge sent five hundred Marines to Nicaragua to restore order after a revolution replaced that country's government with a new, more conservative administration.
As the election of 1928 approached, it seemed likely that Coolidge's popularity would ensure his reelection. While on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, however, Coolidge surprised his supporters by announcing that he would not run for president. Some believed that Coolidge's depression over the death of his son, added to the physical exhaustion from which both he and his wife were suffering, had led to this decision. It has also been suggested that Coolidge foresaw the economic crisis that would soon occur. The out-of-control speculation and lack of regulation of the banking and credit industries that occurred during Coolidge's administration would be cited as major factors in the October 1929 stock market crash.
In any case, Coolidge left his successor, Herbert Hoover, to face the disaster (and to take most of the blame). After leaving office Coolidge returned to Northampton, where he spent much of his time writing newspaper and magazine articles. He died of heart disease on January 5, 1933.
For More Information
Abels, Jules. In the Time of Silent Cal. New York: Putnam, 1989.
Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Haynes, John Earl. Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998.
Kent, Zachary. Calvin Coolidge: Thirtieth President of the United States. Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1988.
McCoy, Donald R. Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1998.
Stevens, Rita. Calvin Coolidge: 30th President of the United States. Ada, OK: Garrett Education Corp., 1990.
Webb, Kenneth. From Plymouth Notch to President: The Farm Boyhood of Calvin Coolidge. Taftsville, VT: Countryman Press, 1978.
"Calvin Coolidge: 30th President of the United States." The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Available online at http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/index.html. Accessed on June 22, 2005.
"Calvin Coolidge." The White House. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/cc30.html. Accessed on June 22,2005.
"The Press under a Free Government"
Published in 1925
One of the ideas most often associated with the 1920s is that "the business of America is business." These words, spoken by President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) in a speech to newspaper editors, did indeed capture the pro-business spirit of this economically well-to-do decade. A closer look at this speech, however, reveals a more complex picture of Coolidge's ideas about his nation.
Coolidge climbed the political ladder slowly and steadily, reaching the presidency unexpectedly when President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) died in office before the end of his first term. Born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Coolidge attended Amherst College and later established a law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts. He served as a city councilman and state legislator and eventually as governor of Massachusetts. In that position Coolidge gained national recognition and praise from the Republican Party for his firm handling of a police strike in Boston. That led to his nomination as Harding's vice presidential running mate in the 1920 election. As vice president, Coolidge was a quiet presence. Thrust into the office of
the presidency, he vowed to carry on the policies begun by Harding.
Soon after Coolidge took office, the corruption that had riddled Harding's administration started to become public knowledge. Coolidge managed to distance himself from the scandals, partly by supporting the prosecution of the culprits and partly by his reputation for honesty and integrity. In 1924 Coolidge was re-elected on his own merits, running under the slogan "Keep Cool with Coolidge" and winning an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote.
Coolidge's laissez-faire approach (a policy of noninterference) was clearly in line with the times and with the beliefs of most U.S. citizens, as was the pro-business stance evident in this excerpt. But the speech is more than just pro-business. Coolidge highlights the importance of a free press in a democracy and, responding to fears that newspapers run by large, powerful corporations would not present the news in a fair, balanced manner, asserts that the business and editorial departments of newspapers can and should be kept separate. Coolidge is remembered for the famous line that "the business of America is business." Yet what followed was the claim that money is not everything, and that idealism is the most important characteristic of the American people.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from "The Press under a Free Government" …
Even though this speech contains one of Coolidge's often-quoted phrases, it is not usually noted that he goes on to qualify the idea of business as the chief concern of the United States. He suggests, in fact, that values like peace, honor, charity, and idealism are more important than wealth.
According to New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944), as quoted on the White House Web site, Coolidge was "distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history."
Although Coolidge generally opposed government intervention in business affairs, some important laws were passed during his administration that imposed restrictions on two major new industries. The Air Commerce Act put aviation under the Commerce Department's control. The Radio Commission was set up as a federal agency to regulate use of the airwaves by radio stations.
Excerpt from "The Press under a Free Government"
The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Whereverdespotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press. It has always been realized, sometimes instinctively, oftentimes expressly, that truth and freedom are inseparable. Anabsolutism could never rest upon any thing save a perverted and distorted view of human relationships and upon false standards set up and maintained by force. It has always found it necessary to attempt to dominate the entire field of education and instruction. It has thrived on ignorance. While it has sought to train the minds of a few, it has been largely with the purpose of attempting to give them a superior facility for misleading the many. Men have been educated under absolutism, not that they might bear witness to the truth, but that they might be the moreingenious advocates and defenders of false standards and hollow pretenses. This has always been the method of privilege, the method of class and caste, the method of master and slave.
When a community has sufficiently advanced so that its government begins to take on that of the nature of arepublic , the processes of education become even more important, but the method is necessarily reversed. It ils all the more necessary under a system of free government that the people should be enlightened, that they should be correctly informed, than it is under an absolute government that they should be ignorant. Under a republic the institutions of learning, while bound by the constitution and laws, are in no waysubservient to the government. Theprinciples which theyenunciate do not depend for their authority upon whether they square with the wish of the ruling dynasty, but whether they square with the everlasting truth. Under these conditions the press, which had before been made an instrument for concealing or perverting the facts, must be made an instrument for their true representation and their sound and logical interpretation. From the position of a mere organ, constantly bound to servitude, public prints rise to a dignity, not only of independence, but of a great educational and enlightening factor. They attain new powers, which it is almost impossible to measure, and become charged withcommensurate responsibilities.…
Our American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to their readers, and at the same time they play a most important part in connection with the business interests of the community, both through their news and advertising departments. Probably there is no rule of your profession to which you gentlemen are more devoted than that which prescribes that the editorial and the business policies of the paper are to be conducted by strictly separate departments. Editorial policy and news policy must not be influenced by business consideration; business policies must not be affected by editorial programs. Such adictum strikes the outsider as involving a good deal of difficulty in the practical adjustments of every day management. Yet, in fact, I doubt if those adjustments are any more difficult than have to be made in every other department of human effort. Life is a long succession of compromises and adjustments, and it may be doubted whether the press is compelled to make them more frequently than others do.
When I have contemplated these adjustments of business and editorial policy, it has always seemed to me that American newspapers are peculiarly representative of the practicalidealism of our country. Quite recently the construction of arevenue statute resulted in giving publicity to some highly interesting facts about incomes. It must have been observed that nearly all the newspapers published these interesting facts in their news columns, while very many of them protested in their editorial columns that such publicity was a bad policy. Yet this was not inconsistent. I am referring to the incident by way of illustrating what I just said about the newspapers representing the practical idealism of America. As practical newsmen they printed the facts. As editorial idealists they protested that there ought to be no such facts available.
Some people feel concerned about thecommercialism of the press. They note that great newspapers are great business enterprises earninglarge profits and controlled by men of wealth. So they fear that in such control the press may tend to support the private interests of those who own the papers, rather than the general interest of the whole people. It seems to me, however, that the real test is not whether the newspapers are controlled by men of wealth, but whether they are sincerely trying to serve the public interests. There will be little occasion for worry about who owns a newspaper, so long as its attitudes on public questions are such as to promote the general welfare. A press which is actuated by the purpose of genuine usefulness to the public interest can never be too strong financially, so long as its strength is used for the support of popular government.
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side apurveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. 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. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. …
Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, thedissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means towell nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars asendowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feelsure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth. …
American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people. Therefore, I feel secure in saying that they are the best newspapers in the world. I believe that they print more real news and more reliable and characteristic news than any other newspaper. I believe their editorial opinions are less colored in influence by merepartisanship or selfish interest, than are those of any other country. Moreover, I believe that our American press is more independent, more reliable and less partisan today than at any other time in its history. I believe this of our press, precisely as I believe it of those who manage our public affairs. Both are cleaner, finer, less influenced by improper considerations, than ever before. Whoever disagrees with this judgment must take the chance of marking himself as ignorant of conditions which notoriously affected our public life, thoughts and methods, even within the memory of many men who are still among us.
It can safely be assumed that self interest will always place sufficient emphasis on the business side of newspapers, so that they do not need any outside encouragement for that part of their activities. Important, however, as this factor is, it is not the main element which appeals to the American people. 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. No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life. It is in this direction that the public press can lend its strongest support to our Government. I could not truly criticize the vast importance of thecounting room , but my ultimate faith I would place in the high idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.
What happened next …
Coolidge's administration was marked by conservatism. He supported tax cuts for the rich (believing that more money would thus be poured into investments, which would eventually benefit all of the nation's citizens), isolationism (keeping out of other countries' affairs), and restrictions on immigration. He believed that the government should not interfere in business and private affairs. Coolidge opposed efforts to provide the struggling farmers of the rural United States with more government support, which some historians feel helped to bring about the economic collapse known as the Great Depression (1929–41). Republican Party leaders were surprised when Coolidge announced that he would not run for reelection in 1929. He died in 1933.
President Calvin Coolidge exercised a policy of what many refer to as "trickle-down economics," or supply-side economics. The policy is based on the theory that the pace of economic growth depends on the willingness of producers to create goods and services.
Those who follow this economic theory support government noninterference in the economy, lower income taxes, and tax incentives for businesses and the wealthy. They believe that these measures encourage producers to invest more in their industries and encourage laborers to work more. Laborers who work more will have more money to spend on products, feeding into the economic growth cycle. This is the "trickle-down" effect, where the benefits received at the top spread into and eventually benefit the overall economy. In theory, such incentives result in the generation of more jobs and the higher production of goods and services.
President Ronald Reagan, a great admirer of Coolidge, followed this economic theory throughout his two terms in office during the 1980s. Reagan's economic policies were dubbed "Reaganomics." He followed the supply-side model of tax cuts and benefits for businesses and the wealthy, and the economy experienced significant growth during his administration. Critics, however, connect the massive federal deficits incurred during this same period, from under $1 trillion before Reagan took office to $2.6 trillion at the end of his presidency, as a direct result of Reagan's economic policies.
The Keynesian theory, named after British economist John Maynard Keynes (1884–1946), proposes that consumer demand, not production, is the driving force of the economy. When demand for products falters, the economy can experience slow or negative growth. Consumers may buy fewer products for a variety of reasons, such as a loss of wages due to unemployment or an increase in the price of goods. According to the Keynesian theory, government involvement in the economy is welcome when the economy experiences difficulties.
Did you know …
- It was Vice President Coolidge's own father, a notary public (a person authorized to perform certain legal formalities), who gave him the oath of office (the official, verbal promise a president makes to fulfill the duties of his office). Coolidge was vacationing at his family home in Vermont when, at 2:30 am on August 3, 1923, he received word that President Harding had died. Coolidge took the oath of office again in Washington, D.C., two weeks later.
- Despite his nickname of "Silent Cal," Coolidge was an active president who gave many press conferences and radio broadcasts and who was even willing to pose for silly photographs, dressed in cowboy or farmer costumes.
- Coolidge's reputation suffered somewhat in the years following his administration, but he was greatly admired by the nation's fortieth president, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89). In fact, Reagan took down a portrait of President Harry Truman that hung in the White House and replaced it with one of Coolidge. Like Coolidge, Reagan believed in what has been called "trickle-down economics": the idea that relieving the tax burden on the wealthy frees them to put more money into investments, with benefits eventually "trickling down" to the rest of the population.
Consider the following …
- In another speech, Coolidge suggested that business was a temple at which U.S. citizens worshipped. Do you think that Coolidge believed that business was the best thing about the United States? Find evidence in the excerpt to support your answer.
- First, find a place in this speech where Coolidge addresses the issue of corruption. Then think about why Coolidge was reelected in 1928.
For More Information
Abels, Jules. In the Time of Silent Cal. New York: Putnam, 1989.
Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Haynes, John Earl. Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998.
McCoy, Donald R. Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1998.
"Calvin Coolidge: 30th President of the United States." The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Available online at http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/index.html. Accessed on June 20, 2005.
"Calvin Coolidge." The White House. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/cc30.html. Accessed on June 20, 2005.
Despotism: Rule by absolute power.
Absolutism: The idea that government should have complete, absolute authority.
Ingenious: Original, inventive.
Republic: State in which power is held by the people and their elected representatives and in which leaders are elected by the people.
Subservient: Ready to obey others unquestioningly.
Commensurate: Equal to.
Dictum: A statement expressing a principle.
Idealism: The practice of forming and trying to live up to high ideals.
Revenue statute: Alaw regarding a state's income.
Commercialism: Putting the strongest emphasis on earning profits.
Purveyor: Provider or supplier.
Dissemination: Spreading out widely.
Well nigh: Almost.
Endowments: Gifts, usually of large amounts of money.
Partisanship: Strongly supporting one side of an issue, person, or cause over another.
Counting room: The business department.
Coolidge, William David
COOLIDGE, WILLIAM DAVID
(b. Hudson, Massachusetts. 23 October 1873; d. Schenectady, New York, 3 February 1975)
Coolidge spent most of his career doing and managing research in industry, making inventions of major commercial importance in the fields of lighting and X rays, and later directing the General Electric Research Laboratory. He was the only child of Albert Edward Coolidge, a farmer and shoe factory worker, and Martha Alice Shattuck Coolidge, a dressmaker. On 30 December 1908 he married Ethel Woodward; they had two children, Elizabeth and Lawrence. His wife died in 1915, and on 29 February 1916 he married Dorothy Elizabeth Machaffie.
Coolidge attended the public schools of Hudson and earned a state scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in 1896 with a degree in electrical engineering. Summer work in a factory inclined him against an industrial career, and he chose the position of assistant in physics at M.I.T. He won a fellowship to study physics at the University of Leipzig in 1897 and 1898, under Gustav Wiedemann and Paul Drude, and earned his doctorate in 1898 with a dissertation on the determination of the dielectric constant of liquids.
Returning to M.I.T. in 1899. Coolidge taught physics for a semester before accepting a position as assistant to Professor Arthur A. Noyes, a physical chemist. When Noyes established the Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry at M.I.T. in 1902, Coolidge joined him, focusing on the ionic theory of solutions. Coolidge’s contributions were primarily experimental; for example, he designed a pressure vessel capable of sustaining high temperatures and pressures that Noyes and Coolidge used to study the properties of solutions at high temperatures.
A chemist and M.I.T. colleague, Willis R. Whitney, also served as director of the Research Laboratory of the General Electric Company, founded at Schenectady, New York, in 1900. After unsuccessfully trying to recruit Coolidge in 1902, he succeeded in 1905. Lures included a doubling of Coolidge’s M.I.T. salary (he was still in debt from his years of graduate study) and a promise that he could bring his pressure vessel to Schenectady and spend one third of his time there doing pure research of his own choosing.
Coolidge brought the vessel, but immersed himself full-time in the most pressing problem facing the GE laboratory, the development of higher efficiency incandescent lamps. One route was by raising the melting point of the lamp’s filament (hotter wires emit more visible light than cooler ones). Researchers in Europe had developed processes for mixing the refractory but brittle metal tungsten with a binder to make a ductile mixture, and forcing it through a diamond die to form a filament. Theresulting filaments were usable but brittle after heat treatment had driven the binder off.
In 1906 Coolidge invented an improved version of this process, employing metallic rather than organic binders. Then, in an arduous empirical effort over the years 1907 to 1910, he developed a new continuous process for making tungsten wire. Blocks of hot sintered tungsten passed through a series of swaging, rolling, and drawing steps at gradually reduced temperatures. The tungsten grains gradually deformed from cubes to extended fibers, which yielded a wire that was ductile at room temperature. The great majority of all the incandescent lamps made in the world today are made by this “Coolidge process,” which was one of the first inventions made by a scientist in a U.S. industrial laboratory to achieve large commercial success.
In 1911 Coolidge used tungsten as a heat-resistant target for bombardment by a high-voltage discharge to produce X rays. In 1913 he combined this with discoveries by GE colleague Irving Langmuir in electron physics to invent an X-ray tube based on a tungsten target bombarded in high vacuum with a discharge consisting overwhelmingly of electrons, rather than the previous mixture of electrons and ions. This made possible much more precise control over the frequency of X rays produced than in the previous tubes and also facilitated development of higher-voltage tubes. The improvements were so pronounced that this’ Coolidge tube’ became and remains the main type used in medical diagnostics.
During World War 1. Coolidge helped develop a portable X-ray unit for field use and invented a shipboard acoustic device for locating submarines (the’ C tube’) that saw combat use. Over the next twenty years, he made many improvements in the technology of generating X rays and electron beams at high voltage, carrying those technologies up to millions of volts. Out of this work came the majority of his total of eighty-three patents, including techniques widely used in early experimental nuclear physics.
In 1932 Coolidge succeeded Whitney as director of the GE Research Laboratory. His reticence, modesty, formality, and quiet authority contrasted with his predecessor’s outgoing enthusiasm. He continued Whitney’s policy of putting most of the laboratory’s effort into work of immediate commercial importance while maintaining a few smallscale efforts in purely scientific research of possible long-range industrial impact, such as electron and high-energy physics, and polymer and surface chemistry. The polymer work, in particular, paid off with later business successes in engineering plastics and silicones. Coolidge also served on several government advisory bodies, including the federal government’s 1940–1941 Advisory Committee on Uranium, which concluded (though with less urgency than the recommendations of subsequent committees, which led to the Manhattan Project) that research on the possibility of an atomic bomb be pursued. He postponed retirement to direct the GE Research Laboratory throughout World War II, during which it was devoted to war-related efforts ranging from electronic devices for radar countermeasures to silicone rubber gaskets for battleship searchlights. After retiring from GE in 1945, he devoted the remainder of a long and active life to such hobbies as travel and photography.
I. Original Works. Coolidge published more than fifty papers in scientific journals, of which the most important describe his two major inventions: “Ductile Tungsten,” in Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 29 , pt. 2 (1910), 961–965; and “A Powerful Röntgen Ray Tube with a Pure Electron Discharge,” in Physical Review. 2nd ser. 2 (1913), 409–430. Other significant scientific papers include “Electrical Conductivity of Aqueous Solutions at High Temperatures,” in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 39 (1903) 163–219, with Arthur A. Noyes: and “High Voltage Cathode Ray and X-Ray Tubes and Their Operation,” in Physics, 1 (1931), 230–244, with L. E. Dempster and H. E. Tanis, Jr.
His papers are in the possession of his daughter, Eliz abeth Coolidge Smith, in Portland, Oregon.
II. Secondary Literature. Biographies of Coolidge include Herman A. Liebhafsky, William David Coolidge: A Centenarian and His Work (New York, 1974), which focuses on the invention of ductile tungsten; John Anderson Miller, Yankee Scientist: William David Coolidge (Schenectady, N.Y., 1963), the most complete; and C. Guy Suits, “William David Coolidge,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 53 (1982), 141–157, Coolidge’s work is put into the context of the historical development of industrial research at GE and in the United States by Kendall A. Birr, Pioneering in Industrial Research: A History of the GE Research Laboratory (Washington. D.C. 1957); Leonard A. Reich. The Making of American Industrial Research: Science and Business at GE and Bell 1876–1926 (New York, 1985): and George Wise, Willis R. Whitney, General Electric, and the Origins of U.S. Industrial Research (New York, 1985).
Calvin Coolidge (July 4, 1872–January 5, 1933) was vice president of the United States in the administration of President Warren G. Harding and became president upon Harding's death on August 2, 1923. Elected in his own right the next year, Coolidge served a full term, until March 4, 1929.
Coolidge was born and raised in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, a tiny locality, and after graduation from Amherst College in Massachusetts he moved to nearby Northampton, where he read for the law in a local law office. Passing the bar at the age of twenty-five he soon turned to Republican politics and thereafter occupied a series of local offices, eventually ascending to the houses of the state legislature, the mayoralty of Northampton, and lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts.
In the politics of Massachusetts Coolidge was by no means a conservative and took interest in issues of workers' rights, voting for them during the Progressive era. He came to believe, however, that social and economic legislation had advanced too rapidly and he withdrew his support of it. As governor of Massachusetts he chose to reorganize the state's bureaucracy, abolishing dozens of departments in the name of efficiency.
It was the Boston police strike of 1919 that catapulted Coolidge into national prominence. His statement that "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time" caught the attention of the nation.
As vice president Coolidge was almost invisible, so much so that when he became president the nation's reporters at first were at a loss to define his personality, not to mention his economic ideas, and took refuge in descriptions of "Silent Cal." They predicted a tight-fisted chief executive of pure Vermont lineage. To be sure, Coolidge's economic ideas were largely the truisms and prejudices of the time. He was against government spending to stimulate the economy. He appears to have agreed with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon that taxation, institutional and personal, should be held at a minimum, not to stimulate spending but to encourage investment, especially by wealthy Americans. He and Mellon agreed that the wealthy needed to take chances in investment while low-income citizens should invest cautiously, in only the most conservative ways.
During Coolidge's years in the presidency the expenditures of the federal government hovered around $3.3 billion. In 1923 the top five percent of the population received 22.89 percent of the national income and in 1929 it received 26.09 percent. Married couples with incomes below $3,500, a very comfortable income for the time, paid no taxes (leaving only 2.5 million taxpayers).
The above arrangements were no prescription for the debacle of the stock market in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The best that can be said for President Coolidge's leadership was that he followed the nation's leaders, business and financial, who beheld ever higher plateaus of prosperity. The president did not give much attention to the Federal Reserve System, presuming that everything was all right, and when the system moved timidly against the speculation already visible in 1927, he did nothing. Against the rising numbers of holding companies and investment trusts he said little beyond telling a press conference in January, 1926, that he had spoken with William Z. Ripley of Harvard University, who was complaining about holding company excesses. The president advocated installment buying, saying it was better than allowing credit at his father's Vermont store. He offered no criticism of the rise of brokers' loans, relating that they were not too large, a remark that lifted stock prices the next day.
Not long before Coolidge died, he told a reporter friend that he had lived beyond his time—the Great Depression was then reaching its lowest point—which was true enough.
See Also: CAUSES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION; MONETARY POLICY; REPUBLICAN PARTY; TAXATION.
Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. 1998.
Fuess, Claude M. Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont. 1940.
McCoy, Donald R. Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President. 1967.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. 1998.
Robert H. Ferrell
Calvin Coolidge was born in the backroom of his father's general store in Plymouth, Vermont , on the Fourth of July in 1872. His only sister died when she was fifteen, and without close neighbors in his rural hometown of Plymouth, Coolidge formed close relationships with both
of his parents. As a child, he was painfully shy, a trait he struggled with throughout his life.
Coolidge graduated from Amherst College and was admitted to the bar in 1897. His law practice was in Northampton, Massachusetts , but work as a lawyer soon took a back seat to politics. Within a year, he became a city councilman, and from there he worked his way up through local and state offices. Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts from 1919 to 1921.
Coolidge attracted national attention as governor when he called in the National Guard to end a Boston police strike that had become violent. This move made him unpopular with labor unions (formally organized associations of workers that advance their members’ views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions), but it also made him a hero to Americans who considered labor protests a threat to public safety.
From vice president to president
Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) was elected president in 1920. Coolidge was his vice president, and the two balanced each other well, with Harding being the more outgoing, social politician. When Harding suddenly died of heart failure in 1923, Coolidge, known to Americans as “Silent Cal,” took over the presidency and reassured the mourning nation.
Coolidge inherited from his boss an administration that was rife with scandal and corruption. He managed to distance himself from the scandals, of which he was not a part, and earned himself a reputation for honesty and frugality. His successful efforts improved the much-tarnished image of the Republican Party , and he was easily elected to a full term as president in 1924.
Continues in the Harding tradition
Coolidge ran his presidency along the same basic lines as Harding: The role of government was not to get involved in business and industry. To that end, he kept taxes low, protective tariffs (taxes on imported goods) high, and immigrants to a minimum. The U.S. economy during Coolidge's presidency was strong. In foreign relations, he made sure European war debts were paid and focused on peace-keeping treaties and alliances to help prevent another war.
Coolidge did not seek reelection in 1929. Instead, he returned with his wife to Massachusetts, where he wrote his memoirs and published magazine articles explaining his philosophy of limited government. The former president died in his home of coronary thrombosis (obstruction of blood flow to the heart due to a clot) in January 1933.
Born John Calvin Coolidge—after his father—on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth, Vermont, he shortened his name to Calvin Coolidge after leaving college. Coolidge became the thirtieth president of the United States upon the death of President warren g. harding. He was educated at Amherst College, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1895 and a doctor of laws degree in 1919. He also received doctor of laws degrees from several other institutions, including Wesleyan University and Tufts University.
"Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business."
In 1897, Coolidge was admitted to the bar and established his legal firm in Northampton,
Massachusetts, where he practiced until 1919. He became councilman in Northampton in 1899, then city solicitor from 1900 to 1901, clerk of courts in 1904, and member of the General Court of Massachusetts from 1907 to 1908. In 1910, he was elected mayor of Northampton, a post that he held for one year.
Coolidge served in the Massachusetts Senate from 1912 to 1915, acting as president during 1914 and 1915. He was the lieutenant governor of the state from 1916 to 1918 and the following year became governor. As governor, he gained public recognition for his strong policy regarding the Boston police strike of 1919, regarding which he denied the right of any individual or group to strike if the public welfare is jeopardized.
With such extensive experience in state government, Coolidge was a natural choice for a federal position. In 1921, he was elected to the vice presidency of the United States. On August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died suddenly and Coolidge became president. He was sworn in by his father, a notary public, on August 3, 1923, at 2:47 a.m. in his hometown of Plymouth, Vermont. In the next presidential election, held in 1924, Coolidge was elected, and so his administration lasted for five years.
As president, Coolidge adopted policies that favored business and discouraged government intervention in the economic system. He influenced the speculative activity of the stock market toward the end of the 1920s, which, some believe, precipitated the crash of 1929. When Coolidge left office in that year, the country was on the brink of economic disaster.
Coolidge spent his last years in retirement, writing articles. His Autobiography was published in 1929. He died January 5, 1933, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Gilbert, Robert E. 2003. The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge and the Trauma of Death. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.
Sobel, Robert. 2000. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery.
Coolidge, William David
Coolidge, William David
William Coolidge (1873-1975) was born in Hudson, Massachusetts, the son of a fanner and a dressmaker. As a youth, he worked in a shoe factory to help support his family. After attending public schools, Coolidge funded his own college education by borrowing money and earning scholarships and fellowships. With a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Coolidge went to Germany to study physics. After earning his doctoral degree with high honors, he returned to MIT to do research.
Although Coolidge was content at MIT, in 1905 he was lured to General Electric Company's research laboratory with an offer to double his MIT salary. Coolidge had avoided a career in industry after experiencing factory work, but General Electric (GE) promised him freedom to pursue his own interests as well as the company's commercial research goals.
In just a few years, Coolidge solved one of the greatest technological problems of the time—developing a better filament for incandescent (very bright) light bulbs. Early electric light bulbs used carbon filaments, which were not only delicate to handle but also limited in the amount of light they could produce. Scientists knew that tungsten (the metal with the highest melting point), would perform better than carbon, but because tungsten is brittle, no one could figure out a way to make filaments from it. Coolidge invented a process for making tungsten bendable. As a result, modern electric light bulbs are still made with tungsten.
Coolidge also invented an X-ray tube that is still used by doctors and dentists. His revolutionary tube was based on a tungsten "target," which is bombarded in a vacuum by a stream of electrons to produce X-rays. Coolidge's tube allowed much more precise control over the X-ray wave length and could also accommodate much higher voltages.
During World War II (1939-1945), Coolidge contributed his expertise to various war-related projects. He postponed his retirement until 1945 in order to work throughout the war. Coolidge lived to the age of 102, continuing to enjoy hobbies such as travel and photography.