Roaring: Silent Cal
On President Calvin Coolidge In 1920s America
Plymouth Notch, Vermont. It’s 2:30 in the morning on Aug. 2, 1923. Fifty-one-year-old Vice President Calvin Coolidge is awoken from his sleep. His father, John, has some news: President Warren G. Harding has died from a sudden heart attack. Coolidge would now have to take the oath to become the new president. John Coolidge, a notary public and justice of the peace, administered the oath to his son by candlelight and with their humble family Bible in tow. It was the only time in history that a U.S president was sworn in by their own father.
Coolidge was being given a country in the middle of waning faith in its government, with scandals such as Teapot Dome plaguing Washington D.C. The economy was bouncing back from depression, but not at the speed the public wanted. His political party was on the verge of losing control of everything after a rough midterm nearly a year before. No doubt many top presidential prospects and party bosses, who were basically forced to begrudgingly pick him as Harding’s running mate in 1920, would be looking for a replacement with the 1924 presidential election on the horizon.
Yet, even with all these pressures and troubles inherited, with a simple and quickly taken oath in the middle of the night, the no-nonsense politician simply went back to sleep as his first order of business.
Coolidge is perhaps on the top of the list of our least likely commanders in chief. The only president born on the Fourth of July, and growing up as a farmer’s son in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, he experienced a rough life in his younger years. He lost his mother at age 12 and his younger sister at the age of 18. He was afflicted with a crippling shyness, once remarking in his later life about his great fear of hearing strange, foreign voices on the other side of the kitchen door — absolutely horrified by the thought he would have to greet these visitors his father was hosting.
He eventually attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. There, he became a skilled member of the debate team and forged relationships that would help him later on in his political life. When his classmates voted on who would be the most likely to succeed, their choice was Dwight Murrow, a future U.S. Ambassador and U.S Senator for New Jersey. Murrow’s vote was for Coolidge.
In 1897, Coolidge became a country lawyer, and a year later he established his own law office in Northampton, Massachusetts . That same year, Coolidge entered the city council. A year later, he was elected city solicitor. He envisioned returning to private life in 1903, but the sudden death of the clerk of courts led him to have the job for a year.
It was at this time that Coolidge met his wife and future first fady, Grace Goodhue, a teacher for the deaf. They met when she couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the young man shaving across the street from her, the window to his boarding room opened. He had his bowler hat on, his suspenders hanging from his waist — basically shaving in what would be considered underwear at the time. When Coolidge overheard her reaction, he simply tipped his hat towards her.
Shortly after, he began courting her, even though she had come close to marriage with another young man, Frank Joyner. Because he was a young attorney making little with a thankless non-paying political career on the side, he couldn’t take her out to any extravagant dates. Instead they did simple (free) things — walks, friends’ parties and the like. Coolidge’s family loved her, although her mother did not approve of him and never would. She would do everything in her power to stop it, but eventually Calvin and Grace married in 1905.
During this time, Coolidge ran for a position in the Northampton School Board, suffering his only electoral defeat. When he learned that friends and neighbors voted against him because he had never had children at that point, he commented, “You might have given me some time!”
But after that, Coolidge’s political career soared. In 1906, he won an upset victory over an incumbent Democrat to the Massachusetts State House. In 1912, he joined the State Senate; two years later he was president of it. In 1916, he was elected the lieutenant governor of the state. Two years later, he had achieved the office of governor.
During his re-election year in 1919, he was given the task of the Boston police strike. His decision to take control of the police force and fire those who were striking would be echoed when President Ronald Reagan dealt with the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike over half a century later. This crisis management catapulted the governor to fame going into the 1920 presidential election.
Coolidge was chosen as Harding's running-mate in 1920, mainly as a way to keep some parts of the base happy after it was felt the party bosses, the GOP senators, were attempting to take too much control of the White House. As I wrote about before in Chapter 1, Harding and Coolidge then won office in a landslide.
Coolidge made no friends as vice president. As head of the U.S Senate, they grew tired and frustrated with his consistent refusal to give them pet projects to pitch to the president, his answer of “No” becoming an expected response. His weekly breakfasts with them soon became affairs of regular non-attendance; you can still track down and read the list of excuses given. This led to a feeling that he should be replaced in the upcoming 1924 election.
Chief among these detractors was another Massachusetts political giant — Henry Cabot Lodge, the senate majority leader who had gone to war with and beaten former President Woodrow Wilson over the League of Nations. Lodge saw Coolidge as a lower class politician who was beneath him, and was probably not shedding any tears over the ire Coolidge drew with other senators.
But plans changed on that early August night, when the man who had given these senators such great headaches was sworn into the Oval Office by candlelight.
Coolidge very quickly went into action, refusing to allow his administration to continue to wallow in scandal, cleaning up the environment in the White House and restoring public trust. Whereas half a century later, Watergate would even haunt Nixon’s successor, Teapot Dome never haunted Coolidge. After a barn-burner of a speech to Congress, he had gained the trust of his party and became the heavy favorite to be nominated for an elected term of his own in 1924.
Coolidge quickly moved on fiscal policy. He believed in even less government, even less spending and even lower taxes than under Harding. He promoted one of the most pro-business, pro-entrepreneur environments in history. Coolidge’s obsession with saving the country money went to the extreme of his never having a chair for a visitor to the Oval Office available, so as to cut down on their time to ask for things from him.
This laissez-faire atmosphere has led to speculation that the decade end’s depression has some beginnings in Coolidge’s time in office. It has also fostered a very politically polarized view of his administration. Those who favor more government see him as a cautionary tale, while those who favor less see him as proof of success.
Regardless what side of the debate you fall on, we know the country’s overall Economic Performance Index under him was averaging in the excellent to superior rates that would not be seen again until the late 1990s. Under him, the debt only got smaller and the budget was running a surplus. The jobs situation was better than ever, reaching full employment levels. GDP growth was as large as six percent at some points, even. This would become known as “The Coolidge Prosperity.”
But the great economy wasn’t the only reason Coolidge would end up being one of the most consistently popular presidents during their contemporary times in office. Coolidge, the man who came to be known as “Silent Cal” for his quiet and stoic demeanor, also connected with the public through radio. Long before FDR’s “fireside chats,” Coolidge used radio to give the public regular updates from the president, entering the office into a new era where the ability to appeal personally and make the public comfortable enough with hearing you for four to eight years would become important.
Coolidge could have easily sat on the great economy, his popularity with the public that tuned into his radio addresses and his ability to win back public trust in the executive mansion to win re-election. But he took risks as well, particularly on the issue of civil rights and race, and just in time for the 1924 election.
The Ku Klux Klan was a major force during the early 1920s. They were influential in many political circles, and just years before had a major propaganda victory in the critically successful film “Birth Of A Nation,” a film endorsed by former President Wilson himself. In 1924, they wanted a say in whom the Democratic party would nominate.
Their power was showcased when Democrats met for their national convention in New York City. Wilson’s son-in-law and former 1920 nomination favorite William Gibbs McAdoo ended up in a titanic battle with New York Gov. Al Smith. The KKK’s refusal to accept Smith, a Roman Catholic, was key in this never-ending struggle. And they sure wouldn’t accept anti-KKK U.S Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who started out in the top five in the balloting.
The KKK was then placated with a compromise candidate in West Virginia’s John W. Davis, a former U.S Ambassador to the U.K. and the man who would defend segregation’s “separate but equal” argument in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, turning back the challenge of Smith and a respectful fight from 1920 nominee James Cox, who was attempting a comeback. When all was said and done, thanks to the KKK’s trouble-making, it took more than 100 ballots to decide the Democratic nominee that year, undoubtedly, one of the most shameful chapters in the party’s long history.
The most positive thing to happen to the blue team in New York City that year was FDR’s infamous “happy warrior” speech in support of Smith that would launch his political comeback and begin his path to the White House in the next decade.
On Coolidge’s side of things, he was a champion against the kind of bigotry the Klan championed. He supported anti-lynching laws, and when a voter wrote to him in distress over a black man making the decision to seek the Republican nomination for a congressional seat, he responded to the man with the following words in a letter:
“Leaving out of consideration the manifest impropriety of the President intruding himself in a local contest for nomination, I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. They took their places wherever assigned in defense of the nation of which they are just as truly citizens as are any others.
The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a great group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party.
Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color, I have taken my oath to support that Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race. A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy in a party primary, as is any other citizen. The decision must be made by the constituents to whom he offers himself, and by nobody else. . . .”
Coolidge then published his reply. Black newspapers and activist groups praised him. He won the black vote at a time the black vote was turning from a Republican to a swing vote. Unfortunately, Coolidge’s legacy as a supporter of civil rights has become forgotten when accessing his presidency. The controversial 1924 Immigration Bill doesn’t do him any favors either.
Coolidge’s decision to publicly get involved in racial issues didn’t stop him from easily winning nomination from the Republicans come their convention in Cleveland. Ironically, during the 1924 election, The New York Times, now known today as a progressive newspaper, endorsed the segregationist Davis over Coolidge, even when most expected an easy Coolidge re-election.
It did not matter. The economy was too good, the country was (pardon the reference) roaring and Coolidge was too popular. As if it were a sign of fate, Coolidge’s wife’s love of baseball led them to a warm reception by the Washington Senators during the World Series that year — Grace’s favorite team. The Senators upset the favored New York Giants in a seven-game classic, and weeks later Coolidge won re-election in a landslide.
Even with a third party progressive protest vote available to draw votes from him, Coolidge got 65 percent of the two-party vote, won 35 of 48 states and even won his Democratic foe’s home state. He also won New York City, the last Republican to do so. Everyone was choosing to do what his campaign slogan wanted: Stay cool with Coolidge.
Coolidge had many other successes. He refused to recognize the Soviet Union even while under pressure to do so, something history can look back fondly on in hindsight. Although he was more of an isolationist than today’s modern Republican, he supported letting the country be part of the World Court and helped broker a deal known as “The Dawes Plan” to help ease the war debt for Europe. One of his biggest achievements was giving Native Americans U.S. citizenship.
But his ideological and policy-driven steadfast belief in limited government, alongside the controversial 1924 immigration policy, has dominated his legacy. Unfortunately, his inability to get through anti-lynching laws has also hurt him; one must wonder what kind of legacy he would have had if he had succeeded there.
It is unfortunate that arguably Coolidge’s most famous quote is “The business of America is business.” What that quote does not put into context was what he said afterwards:
“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence, but we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it
But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”
It is equally unfortunate his signing of the 1924 Immigration Bill has eclipsed his record of fighting for civil rights, whether it be his championing for anti-lynching laws or the letter he publicly sent the racist demanding action from him.
Between the debates of who or what caused the Great Depression after he left office and his lack of charisma or great progressive lawmaking achievements, he has suffered in historical rankings as a below average president. Quite frankly, I find myself having to admit openly I strongly disagree; he should be ranked much higher than he is.
Coolidge’s defacto second term was more sleepy than the constant policy in motion he showcased from his ascension to the presidency in 1923 to his 1924 mega landslide election victory. His son’s sudden death from blood poisoning during the summer of 1924 took away all of his passion for the job, according to many around him.
Though he would have won another election easy and was massively popular, he ultimately skipped on running again in 1928. He would instead call it a political career then, leaving a prosperous nation enjoying one of its greatest economic periods.
It is quite something that in a decade known as “roaring” with society enjoying excesses and making progressive social changes, that a quiet stoic middle-aged man who was faithful to his wife and never sought outright glory would be the man presiding over such a period. A silent man for a loud age.
“Who might live there?” he was asked in jest once by a senator pointing to the White House.
Coolidge replied, “Nobody. They just come and go.”