John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His family were among the branch of the Coolidge clan who stayed in Vermont while others left its steep, rocky, and often bleak land for opportunity in the Wild West of Ohio and beyond when the Erie canal opened up these new territories to settlement. His father and namesake made his living by cutting wood, tapping trees for sugar, and small-scale farming on his modest plot of land. He diversified his income by operating a general store in town and selling insurance. There was a long tradition of public service in the family. Young Coolidge’s great-grandfather was an officer in the American Revolution and his grandfather was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. His father was justice of the peace and tax collector in Plymouth Notch, and would later serve in the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate.
Although many in the cities would consider their rural life far from the nearest railroad terminal hard-scrabble, the family was sufficiently prosperous to pay for young Calvin (the name he went by from boyhood) to attend private schools, boarding with families in the towns where they were located and infrequently returning home. He followed a general college preparatory curriculum and, after failing the entrance examination the first time, was admitted on his second attempt to Amherst College as a freshman in 1891. A loner, and already with a reputation for being taciturn, he joined none of the fraternities to which his classmates belonged, nor did he participate in the athletics which were a part of college life. He quickly perceived that Amherst had a class system, where the scions of old money families from Boston who had supported the college were elevated above nobodies from the boonies like himself. He concentrated on his studies, mastering Greek and Latin, and immersing himself in the works of the great orators of those cultures.
As his college years passed, Coolidge became increasingly interested in politics, joined the college Republican Club, and worked on the 1892 re-election campaign of Benjamin Harrison, whose Democrat opponent, Grover Cleveland, was seeking to regain the presidency he had lost to Harrison in 1888. Writing to his father after Harrison’s defeat, his analysis was that “the reason seems to be in the never satisfied mind of the American and in the ever desire to shift in hope of something better and in the vague idea of the working and farming classes that somebody is getting all the money while they get all the work.”
His confidence growing, Coolidge began to participate in formal debates, finally, in his senior year, joined a fraternity, and ran for and won the honour of being an orator at his class’s graduation. He worked hard on the speech, which was a great success, keeping his audience engaged and frequently laughing at his wit. While still quiet in one-on-one settings, he enjoyed public speaking and connecting with an audience.
After graduation, Coolidge decided to pursue a career in the law and considered attending law school at Harvard or Columbia University, but decided he could not afford the tuition, as he was still being supported by his father and had no prospects for earning sufficient money while studying the law. In that era, most states did not require a law school education; an aspiring lawyer could, instead, become an apprentice at an established law firm and study on his own, a practice called reading the law. Coolidge became an apprentice at a firm in Northampton, Massachusetts run by two Amherst graduates and, after two years, in 1897, passed the Massachusetts bar examination and was admitted to the bar. In 1898, he set out on his own and opened a small law office in Northampton; he had embarked on the career of a country lawyer.
While developing his law practice, Coolidge followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and entered public life as a Republican, winning election to the Northampton City Council in 1898. In the following years, he held the offices of City Solicitor and county clerk of courts. In 1903 he married Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton. The next year, running for the local school board, he suffered the only defeat of his political career, in part because his opponents pointed out he had no children in the schools. Coolidge said, “Might give me time.” (The Coolidges went on to have two sons, John, born in 1906, and Calvin Jr., in 1908.)
In 1906, Coolidge sought statewide office for the first time, running for the Massachusetts House of Representatives and narrowly defeating the Democrat incumbent. He was re-elected the following year, but declined to run for a third term, returning to Northampton where he ran for mayor, won, and served two one year terms. In 1912 he ran for the State Senate seat of the retiring Republican incumbent and won. In the presidential election of that year, when the Republican party split between the traditional wing favouring William Howard Taft and progressives backing Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, although identified as a progressive, having supported women’s suffrage and the direct election of federal senators, among other causes, stayed with the Taft Republicans and won re-election. Coolidge sought a third term in 1914 and won, being named President of the State Senate with substantial influence on legislation in the body.
In 1915, Coolidge moved further up the ladder by running for the office of Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, balancing the Republican ticket led by a gubernatorial candidate from the east of the state with his own base of support in the rural west. In Massachusetts, the Lieutenant Governor does not preside over the State Senate, but rather fulfils an administrative role, chairing executive committees. Coolidge presided over the finance committee, which provided him experience in managing a budget and dealing with competing demands from departments that was to prove useful later in his career. After being re-elected to the office in 1915 and 1916 (statewide offices in Massachusetts at the time had a term of only one year), with the governor announcing his retirement, Coolidge was unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor and narrowly defeated the Democrat in the 1918 election.
Coolidge took office at a time of great unrest between industry and labour. Prices in 1918 had doubled from their 1913 level; nothing of the kind had happened since the paper money inflation during the Civil War and its aftermath. Nobody seemed to know why: it was usually attributed to the war, but nobody understood the cause and effect. There doesn’t seem to have been a single mainstream voice who observed that the rapid rise in prices (which was really a depreciation of the dollar) began precisely at the moment the Creature from Jekyll Island was unleashed upon the U.S. economy and banking system. What was obvious, however, was that in most cases industrial wages had not kept pace with the rise in the cost of living, and that large companies which had raised their prices had not correspondingly increased what they paid their workers. This gave a powerful boost to the growing union movement. In early 1919 an ugly general strike in Seattle idled workers across the city, and the United Mine Workers threatened a nationwide coal strike for November 1919, just as the maximum demand for coal in winter would arrive. In Boston, police officers voted to unionise and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor, ignoring an order from the Police Commissioner forbidding officers to join a union. On September 9th, a majority of policemen defied the order and walked off the job.
Those who question the need for a police presence on the street in big cities should consider the Boston police strike as a cautionary tale, at least as things were in the city of Boston in the year 1919. As the Sun went down, the city erupted in chaos, mayhem, looting, and violence. A streetcar conductor was shot for no apparent reason. There were reports of rapes, murders, and serious injuries. The next day, more than a thousand residents applied for gun permits. Downtown stores were boarding up their display windows and hiring private security forces. Telephone operators and employees at the electric power plant threatened to walk out in sympathy with the police. From Montana, where he was campaigning in favour of ratification of the League of Nations treaty, President Woodrow Wilson issued a mealy-mouthed statement saying, “There is no use in talking about political democracy unless you have also industrial democracy”.
Governor Coolidge acted swiftly and decisively. He called up the Guard and deployed them throughout the city, fired all of the striking policemen, and issued a statement saying “The action of the police in leaving their posts of duty is not a strike. It is a desertion. … There is nothing to arbitrate, nothing to compromise. In my personal opinion there are no conditions under which the men can return to the force.” He directed the police commissioner to hire a new force to replace the fired men. He publicly rebuked American Federation of Labor chief Samuel Gompers in a telegram released to the press which concluded, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
When the dust settled, the union was broken, peace was restored to the streets of Boston, and Coolidge had emerged onto the national stage as a decisive leader and champion of what he called the “reign of law.” Later in 1919, he was re-elected governor with seven times the margin of his first election. He began to be spoken of as a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920.
Coolidge was nominated at the 1920 Republican convention, but never came in above sixth in the balloting, in the middle of the pack of regional and favourite son candidates. On the tenth ballot, Warren G. Harding of Ohio was chosen, and party bosses announced their choice for Vice President, a senator from Wisconsin. But when time came for delegates to vote, a Coolidge wave among rank and file tired of the bosses ordering them around gave him the nod. Coolidge did not attend the convention in Chicago; he got the news of his nomination by telephone. After he hung up, Grace asked him what it was all about. He said, “Nominated for vice president.” She responded, “You don’t mean it.” “Indeed I do”, he answered. “You are not going to accept it, are you?” “I suppose I shall have to.”
Harding ran on a platform of “normalcy” after the turbulence of the war and Wilson’s helter-skelter progressive agenda. He expressed his philosophy in a speech several months earlier,
America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. It is one thing to battle successfully against world domination by military autocracy, because the infinite God never intended such a program, but it is quite another to revise human nature and suspend the fundamental laws of life and all of life’s acquirements.
The election was a blow-out. Harding and Coolidge won the largest electoral college majority (404 to 127) since James Monroe’s unopposed re-election in 1820, and more than 60% of the popular vote. Harding carried every state except for the Old South, and was the first Republican to win Tennessee since Reconstruction. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House, for a majority of 303 to 131, and 10 seats in the Senate, with 59 to 37. Whatever Harding’s priorities, he was likely to be able to enact them.
The top priority in Harding’s quest for normalcy was federal finances. The Wilson administration and the Great War had expanded the federal government into terra incognita. Between 1789 and 1913, when Wilson took office, the U.S. had accumulated a total of US$2.9 billion in public debt. When Harding was inaugurated in 1921, the debt stood at US$24 billion, more than a factor of eight greater. In 1913, total federal spending was US$715 million; by 1920 it had ballooned to US$6358 million, almost nine times more. The top marginal income tax rate, 7% before the war, was 70% when Harding took the oath of office, and the cost of living had approximately doubled since 1913, which shouldn’t have been a surprise (although it was largely unappreciated at the time), because a complaisant Federal Reserve had doubled the money supply from US$22.09 billion in 1913 to US$48.73 billion in 1920.
At the time, federal spending worked much as it had in the early days of the Republic: individual agencies presented their spending requests to Congress, where they battled against other demands on the federal purse, with congressional advocates of particular agencies doing deals to get what they wanted. There was no overall budget process worthy of the name (or as existed in private companies a fraction the size of the federal government), and the President, as chief executive, could only sign or veto individual spending bills, not an overall budget for the government. Harding had campaigned on introducing a formal budget process and made this his top priority after taking office. He called an extraordinary session of Congress and, making the most of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, enacted a bill which created a Budget Bureau in the executive branch, empowered the president to approve a comprehensive budget for all federal expenditures, and even allowed the president to reduce agency spending of already appropriated funds. The budget would be a central focus for the next eight years.
Harding also undertook to dispose of surplus federal assets accumulated during the war, including naval petroleum reserves. This, combined with Harding’s penchant for cronyism, led to a number of scandals which tainted the reputation of his administration. On August 2nd, 1923, while on a speaking tour of the country promoting U.S. membership in the World Court, he suffered a heart attack and died in San Francisco. Coolidge, who was visiting his family in Vermont, where there was no telephone service at night, was awakened to learn that he had succeeded to the presidency. He took the oath of office by kerosene light in his parents’ living room, administered by his father, a Vermont notary public. As he left Vermont for Washington, he said, “I believe I can swing it.”
As Coolidge was in complete agreement with Harding’s policies, if not his style and choice of associates, he interpreted “normalcy” as continuing on the course set by his predecessor. He retained Harding’s entire cabinet (although he had his doubts about some of its more dodgy members), and began to work closely with his budget director, Herbert Lord, meeting with him weekly before the full cabinet meeting. Their goal was to continue to cut federal spending, generate surpluses to pay down the public debt, and eventually cut taxes to boost the economy and leave more money in the pockets of those who earned it. He had a powerful ally in these goals in Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon, who went further and advocated his theory of “scientific taxation”. He argued that the existing high tax rates not only hampered economic growth but actually reduced the amount of revenue collected by the government. Just as a railroad’s profits would suffer from a drop in traffic if it set its freight rates too high, a high tax rate would deter individuals and companies from making more taxable income. What was crucial was the “top marginal tax rate”: the tax paid on the next additional dollar earned. With the tax rate on high earners at the postwar level of 70%, individuals got to keep only thirty cents of each additional dollar they earned; many would not bother putting in the effort.
Half a century later, Mellon would have been called a “supply sider”, and his ideas were just as valid as when they were applied in the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Coolidge wasn’t sure he agreed with all of Mellon’s theory, but he was 100% in favour of cutting the budget, paying down the debt, and reducing the tax burden on individuals and business, so he was willing to give it a try. It worked. The last budget submitted by the Coolidge administration (fiscal year 1929) was 3.127 billion, less than half of fiscal year 1920’s expenditures. The public debt had been paid down from US$24 billion go US$17.6 billion, and the top marginal tax rate had been more than halved from 70% to 31%.
Achieving these goals required constant vigilance and an unceasing struggle with the congress, where politicians of both parties regarded any budget surplus or increase in revenue generated by lower tax rates and a booming economy as an invitation to spend, spend, spend. The Army and Navy argued for major expenditures to defend the nation from the emerging threat posed by aviation. Coolidge’s head of defense aviation observed that the Great Lakes had been undefended for a century, yet Canada had not so far invaded and occupied the Midwest and that, “to create a defense system based upon a hypothetical attack from Canada, Mexico, or another of our near neighbors would be wholly unreasonable.” When devastating floods struck the states along the Mississippi, Coolidge was steadfast in insisting that relief and recovery were the responsibility of the states. The New York Times approved, “Fortunately, there are still some things that can be done without the wisdom of Congress and the all-fathering Federal Government.”
When Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, Republicans were unsure whether he would run in 1924, or would obtain the nomination if he sought it. By the time of the convention in June of that year, Coolidge’s popularity was such that he was nominated on the first ballot. The 1924 election was another blow-out, with Coolidge winning 35 states and 54% of the popular vote. His Democrat opponent, John W. Davis, carried just the 12 states of the “solid South” and won 28.8% of the popular vote, the lowest popular vote percentage of any Democrat candidate to this day. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, who had challenged Coolidge for the Republican nomination and lost, ran as a Progressive, advocating higher taxes on the wealthy and nationalisation of the railroads, and won 16.6% of the popular vote and carried the state of Wisconsin and its 13 electoral votes.
Tragedy struck the Coolidge family in the White House in 1924 when his second son, Calvin Jr., developed a blister while playing tennis on the White House courts. The blister became infected with Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium which is readily treated today with penicillin and other antibiotics, but in 1924 had no treatment other than hoping the patient’s immune system would throw off the infection. The infection spread to the blood and sixteen year old Calvin Jr. died on July 7th, 1924. The president was devastated by the loss of his son and never forgave himself for bringing his son to Washington where the injury occurred.
In his second term, Coolidge continued the policies of his first, opposing government spending programs, paying down the debt through budget surpluses, and cutting taxes. When the mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa, presented the president with two lion cubs, he named them “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau” before donating them to the National Zoo. In 1927, on vacation in South Dakota, the president issued a characteristically brief statement, “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty eight.” Washington pundits spilled barrels of ink parsing Coolidge’s twelve words, but they meant exactly what they said: he had had enough of Washington and the endless struggle against big spenders in Congress, and (although re-election was considered almost certain given his landslide the last time, popularity, and booming economy) considered ten years in office (which would have been longer than any previous president) too long for any individual to serve. Also, he was becoming increasingly concerned about speculation in the stock market, which had more than doubled during his administration and would continue to climb in its remaining months. He was opposed to government intervention in the markets and, in an era before the Securities and Exchange Commission, had few tools with which to do so. Edmund Starling, his Secret Service bodyguard and frequent companion on walks, said, “He saw economic disaster ahead”, and as the 1928 election approached and it appeared that Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover would be the Republican nominee, Coolidge said, “Well, they’re going to elect that superman Hoover, and he’s going to have some trouble. He’s going to have to spend money. But he won’t spend enough. Then the Democrats will come in and they’ll spend money like water. But they don’t know anything about money.” Coolidge may have spoken few words, but when he did he was worth listening to.
Indeed, Hoover was elected in 1928 in another Republican landslide (40 to 8 states, 444 to 87 electoral votes, and 58.2% of the popular vote), and things played out exactly as Coolidge had foreseen. The 1929 crash triggered a series of moves by Hoover which undid most of the patient economies of Harding and Coolidge, and by the time Hoover was defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, he had added 33% to the national debt and raised the top marginal personal income tax rate to 63% and corporate taxes by 15%. Coolidge, in retirement, said little about Hoover’s policies and did his duty to the party, campaigning for him in the foredoomed re-election campaign in 1932. After the election, he remarked to an editor of the New York Evening Mail, “I have been out of touch so long with political activities I feel that I no longer fit in with these times.” On January 5, 1933, Coolidge, while shaving, suffered a sudden heart attack and was found dead in his dressing room by his wife Grace.
Calvin Coolidge was arguably the last U.S. president to act in office as envisioned by the Constitution. He advanced no ambitious legislative agenda, leaving lawmaking to Congress. He saw his job as similar to an executive in a business, seeking economies and efficiency, eliminating waste and duplication, and restraining the ambition of subordinates who sought to broaden the mission of their departments beyond what had been authorised by Congress and the Constitution. He set difficult but limited goals for his administration and achieved them all, and he was popular while in office and respected after leaving it. But how quickly it was all undone is a lesson in how fickle the electorate can be, and how tempting ill-conceived ideas are in a time of economic crisis.
This is a superb history of Coolidge and his time, full of lessons for our age which has veered so far from the constitutional framework he so respected.
Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper Perennial,  2014. ISBN 978-0-06-196759-7.
Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about the book.