A Reference Resource
A quiet and somber man whose sour expression masked a dry wit, Calvin Coolidge was known as "Silent Cal." After learning of his ascendancy to the presidency following the death of Warren Harding in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a justice of the peace, in the middle of the night and, displaying his famous "cool," promptly went back to bed.
Calvin Coolidge was born on Independence Day, 1872, and raised in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father was a pillar of the community, holding a variety of local offices from tax collector to constable. From him, Coolidge inherited his taciturn nature, his frugality, and his commitment to public service. The early death of his mother and sister contributed to his stoical personality.
Climbing the Political Ladder
While practicing law in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge began to climb the ladder of state politics. From a spot on the City Council in 1900, he became chairman of the Northampton Republican Committee in 1904 and joined the state legislature in 1907. His term as governor of Massachusetts placed him in the national arena just in time to benefit from the return to power of the Republicans at the end of World War I. As governor, he called in the state guard to break a strike by city police in Boston, claiming that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." This bold action won him public acclaim and swept him onto the Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee with Warren Harding. As vice president, Coolidge kept a low profile, sitting silently during cabinet meetings and seldom speaking in his constitutional position as presiding officer of the U.S. Senate.
After Harding's death in 1923, Coolidge became President. Intent on running for reelection in 1924, he dispatched his potential Republican rivals with relative ease. He had emerged unscathed from the scandals that plagued the Harding administration, earning a reputation for being honest, direct, and hardworking. The Democrats were split in 1924, finally settling on a compromise candidate, John W. Davis of West Virginia. With a rebounding economy to help him, Coolidge won handily with the slogan "Keep Cool With Coolidge."
A Visible Yet Passive Presidency
In contrast to his disdain for small talk, Coolidge was a highly visible leader, holding press conferences, speaking on the radio, and emerging as the leader among what one survey called "the most photographed persons on earth." Reveling in what would become known as the "photo op," he posed before the cameras dressed in farmer overalls, a cowboy hat and chaps, and an Indian headdress. But his prominent profile was not matched by a commitment to activism. He believed in small government, especially at the federal level, and practiced a passive style of leadership. He saw little need to intervene in issues that Congress or the states could handle without him.
Nonetheless, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had changed the presidency into an activist institution, and public opinion fairly demanded a modicum of leadership from the White House. Coolidge did have an agenda. His chief concern was economics, where he favored low taxes, reduced regulation of business, and a balanced budget. Alongside his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist who advocated "trickle-down" economics, as critics called it, Coolidge secured reductions in rates for wealthy Americans (most citizens at the time paid little federal tax). Although many observers at the time gave the President and Secretary Mellon credit for the so-called "Coolidge Prosperity" that characterized the seven years of his presidency, in retrospect he came under criticism for having failed to try to stop the feverish stock-market speculation toward the end of his term that contributed to the stock market crash of 1929. Coolidge also fought against farm-relief legislation that might have shored up the depressed farm economy.
Like Harding, Coolidge allowed his cabinet a free hand in foreign affairs, delegating authority to Treasury Secretary Mellon, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, all holdovers from Harding's cabinet. The President believed that the United States should seek out foreign markets and refrain from entangling alliances and participation in the League of Nations. He supported the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as a means of settling international differences, a largely symbolic pact that nonetheless became an important precedent in fostering reliance on international law. In Latin America, Coolidge's administration tended to support the interests of U.S. businesses, although the President made steps toward a less adversarial posture than his predecessors had typically maintained.
Coolidge chose not to run for a second term because his republican political philosophy led him to value highly the unwritten two-term precedent (toward which he counted the balance of Harding's term that he served). Moreover, the death of his teenage son in 1924 had taken much of the joy out of his work. True to his simple tastes, he imagined he would be happier in retirement in Northampton, Massachusetts.
First Lady Grace Coolidge was as sunny and sociable as her husband was taciturn and sardonic. The press photographed her at every opportunity, and she once joked that she was the "national hugger." Having been trained as an instructor for the deaf, Grace Coolidge brought national attention to the plight of the nation's hearing-impaired and became a close personal friend of the author and activist, Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind.
Although the public admired Coolidge during his time in office, the Great Depression turned public opinion against him. Many linked the nation's economic collapse to Coolidge's policy decisions. He vetoed the problematic McNary-Haugen bill to aid the depressed agricultural sector while thousands of rural banks in the Midwest and South were shutting their doors and farmers were losing their land. His tax cuts worsened the maldistribution of wealth and overproduction of goods, which destabilized the economy. Although in the 1980s, conservatives, led by Ronald Reagan--who hung Coolidge's portrait in the White House--revived something of a cult of Coolidge, most historians look upon the Coolidge presidency with skepticism, considering him to have offered little in the way of a positive vision, however strong his personal integrity.
He was born John Calvin Coolidge on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. He grew up helping his storekeeper father tend accounts, selling apples, and doing other chores around the store and at home on the family farm. As a boy, Coolidge had little ambition in life beyond hoping to follow his father as a good, honest small-town merchant.
A fair to average student in the Plymouth elementary school, he eventually managed to obtain entry to the prestigious Amherst College in nearby Amherst, Massachusetts, where he blossomed over his four years. He graduated with honors in 1895, racking up good to excellent grades in his last two years and graduating cum laude. A member of the Republican Club and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, Coolidge won a reputation on campus for his wit and his public speaking skills. He shared the junior prize for oratory, and in his senior year his classmates elected him to deliver the Grove Oration, a humorous send-up of the senior class at graduation. He also took first prize in a national contest for his senior essay, "The Principles Fought for in the American Revolution." A loyal Amherst alumnus, he relied throughout his political career on men who were classmates or fellow alumni, including Boston businessman Frank Stearns, advertising guru Bruce Barton, financier Dwight Morrow, and Harlan Fiske Stone, whom he appointed Attorney General and later as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After college, Coolidge read law in a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts, passing the bar in the summer of 1897. He then opened a law office and began participating in local Republican politics in Northampton.
Political Legacy and Involvement
Both Coolidge's mother, Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge, a sentimental and poetic woman, and younger sister, Abigail Gratia Coolidge, died while he was a teenager. He was close to both of them, and their deaths contributed to what was already a fatalistic and taciturn temperament. His father, John Calvin Coolidge, Sr., then married Carrie A. Brown, a local schoolteacher in 1891. She grew very close to Calvin over the years. The senior Coolidge, a man of stern appearance and a pillar of the community, served six years in the Vermont House of Representatives and a term in the Vermont Senate. He also held a variety of local offices from tax collector to peace officer. Known in the county and state as a prosperous and thrifty farmer and storekeeper, the elder Coolidge's quiet nature and commitment to public service greatly influenced his son. So too did his prudence with money.
Coolidge's rise in politics was methodical and steady. Beginning around 1900, his work in the local Republican Club in Northampton won him a spot on the City Council, appointment as city solicitor in 1900, election as county clerk in 1903, and the chairmanship of the local Republican Party organization in 1904. He ran for and lost a bid for a seat on the Northampton School Board in 1905--the only loss he ever experienced at the polls. Two years later, he was elected to the state legislature. In 1910, the citizens of Northampton selected him as their mayor, and then he won a statewide race for the Massachusetts Senate in 1912, serving as Senate President in 1914. Moving up the ladder of state politics, Coolidge became the lieutenant governor in 1916, serving until 1918, when he moved into the executive's chair.
His narrow victory for Massachusetts governor over Democrat Richard H. Long placed Coolidge in the national arena just in time to benefit from the Republican Party's return to national power at the end of World War I. As governor, he won national attention when he called out the state's National Guard to break a strike by Boston city police, exclaiming to the American Federation of Labor union leader Samuel Gompers, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." Although later seen as a reactionary move, the action was widely popular in the wake of the lawlessness brought on by the strike, and overall as governor, Coolidge pursued a fairly progressive agenda. He supported a cost-of-living pay increase for public employees, limited the workweek for women and children to 48 hours, and placed limits on outdoor advertising, measures largely welcomed by reformers in both parties. His most important feat, restructuring and consolidating the state government, married progressivism's efficiency to conservatism's taste for small government.
While advancing in local politics, Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue on October 4, 1905. The two were wed at her parent's home in Burlington, Vermont. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Vermont, she was a teacher at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton. Coolidge first caught her eye one morning when she saw him through the open window of his boardinghouse in Northampton, standing in his underwear and wearing a hat while shaving. She thought that he looked ridiculous, laughed loud enough for him to notice her, and then turned away. He later said that he was wearing the hat to keep his uncombed hair out of his eyes while shaving. His marriage proposal in the summer of 1905 came in the form of a romantic prophecy: "I am going to be married to you." Grace loved the silent but blunt young lawyer and immediately consented. A son, John, was born in 1906; Calvin, Jr. followed in 1908.
Ascending to the White House
Coolidge came to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, as his state's favorite-son candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, but he received only 34 votes on the first ballot at the convention. In the backroom deal among party leaders that helped ensure Warren G. Harding's nomination, Coolidge's was not among the names discussed for the second spot, and party leaders hoped to nominate Senator Irving Lenroot of Wisconsin. When Coolidge's name was entered into nomination, however, a stampede of support by rebellious delegates swept him onto the ticket.
In the ensuing campaign, Harding waged a "front porch" campaign from his native Marion, Ohio, while Coolidge did a modest amount of stumping, notably in the South, in a vain effort to sway that loyally Democratic region. In contrast, the Democratic Party candidate, James M. Cox, traveled 22,000 miles while speaking to two million people, while his running-mate, former assistant navy secretary Franklin Roosevelt, spoke out frequently. The election, a referendum on the Wilson administration, the Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations, gave the Republicans 61 percent of the vote. As vice president, Coolidge played little role in the Harding administration, although he attended cabinet meetings. He kept a low profile as President of the Senate—in those days the vice president's chief duty--and mainly devoted himself to making public speeches.
On August 2, 1923, John Coolidge woke his vacationing son and daughter-in-law at the family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, to tell them of President Harding's death from a heart attack. Coolidge knelt, prayed, and went downstairs. Although the old house had no phone, it was soon abuzz with reporters. At 2:24 a.m., with the newspaper men settled and a copy of the Constitution retrieved, the elder Coolidge, a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office to his son by the light of a kerosene lamp. Soon after, Calvin Coolidge went back to bed as the 30th President of the United States.
The Campaign and Election of 1924
After a year in the office he inherited from Harding, Coolidge was ready to assume the presidency in his own right. Historically, vice presidents who had finished out their predecessors' terms did not seek the presidency in their own right; only Theodore Roosevelt, in 1904, had done so successfully. But Coolidge ably muscled out potential challengers, including automaker Henry Ford, for the 1924 Republican nomination. He had emerged unscathed from the Teapot Dome scandals that plagued the Harding administration; indeed, his investigations of the corruption, although faulted by some as half-hearted, bolstered his reputation as a man of simplicity and rectitude--precisely what the country seemed to be craving in the economically and culturally dynamic 1920s. Coolidge's team carefully stage-managed the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, that summer, and it was a veritable coronation, presaging the frictionless affairs of the late 20th century.
"Silent Cal," as Coolidge was becoming known because of his disdain for making small talk at social affairs, hoped to balance the ticket with Senator William E. Borah of Ohio as his running mate. Borah was a firm isolationist from the Midwest and a strong progressive on the domestic front. When Borah declined the offer, the party turned to the colorful and charismatic Charles G. Dawes of Illinois--former aide to William McKinley, director of the newly created Bureau of the Budget under Harding, and the author of the Dawes Plan to ease Europe's post-World War I credit problems. Their Republican platform emphasized reducing taxes, collecting foreign debts, passing the protective tariff, opposing farm subsidies for crop prices, enacting the eight-hour workday, banning child labor, and passing a federal anti-lynching law.
Compared to the smooth Republican convention, which looked forward to the media-age spectacles, the Democrats' strife-ridden gathering in New York was a throwback to the heyday of party politics. Former Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo of California--President Wilson's son-in-law--fought Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for more than 100 ballots. McAdoo represented the interests of the West, the rural South, and "Drys," those who supported Prohibition. The aging William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and still politically powerful, delivered a powerful convention speech voicing his support for McAdoo. On the other side, the New York political machine Tammany Hall, representatives from Eastern cities, and the "Wets"--those opposed to Prohibition--cheered with great enthusiasm when the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was attempting a comeback after being stricken with polio, electrified the convention in a lively nomination speech depicting Smith as the "Happy Warrior." Adding to the drama, the convention was suspended in respect for the death of Coolidge's son, Calvin, Jr., who had developed a blood blister playing tennis a week before and, in a time just before the discovery of penicillin, died precipitously of an infection.
For the next 100 ballots, the longest deadlock at any major party convention in U.S. history, neither McAdoo nor Smith could gain the necessary two-thirds majority. Finally, on the 103rd ballot, the convention nominated a compromise candidate, Wall Street lawyer John W. Davis of West Virginia. Davis had served as solicitor general and as ambassador to Britain under President Woodrow Wilson. In a nod to Bryan, the Democrats selected his brother, Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, as their vice presidential candidate. The Democratic platform favored a reduction in the tariff, a graduated income tax, farm relief with easier credit and farm subsidies for crop prices, independence for the Philippines, a national referendum on the League of Nations, strict enforcement of antitrust laws, and public works projects to reduce unemployment.
Given the general conservatism of both nominees, a number of discontented politicians reconstituted Theodore Roosevelt's old Progressive Party, the breakaway vehicle he had established in 1912, but it drew nowhere near the support TR had. With Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr., of Wisconsin and Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana on their ticket, they offered what was becoming an old-fashioned Progressive reform agenda, including action against industrial monopolies, public ownership of water resources and the national railroads, a substantial increase in the inheritance tax, an excess-profits tax debt relief for farmers, and government subsidies to support crop prices.
In the election campaign, the Republicans urged the nation to "Keep Cool with Coolidge," a popular slogan that reflected the public's sense of optimism, based on the strong economy and prospects of the endurance of peace in Europe. President Coolidge took advantage of the new medium of radio to reach millions with his campaign speeches, while the advertising executive Bruce Barton helped promote an appealing, homespun image of the President through interviews, magazine profiles, and the publication of his speeches. Davis waged an aggressive campaign, attacking the Republicans as the party of corruption and bravely denouncing the Ku Klux Klan where Coolidge would not, but he fared poorly outside the South. In the end, Coolidge won 54 percent of the vote compared to 28.8 percent for Davis and a healthy 16.6 percent for LaFollette. He compiled 382 electoral votes in 35 states.
Calvin Coolidge brought a unique style to the White House. Although known for his public discomfort with chitchat and for his philosophical dislike of excessive leadership, Coolidge was a highly visible president. During his 67 months as President, he held 520 press conferences or an average of nearly eight each month, "bringing himself almost daily," wrote a reporter in 1927, "into the American home." He spoke on the radio at least monthly to national audiences. Coolidge also enjoyed having himself photographed. To the delight of cameramen, the President posed in old-fashioned overalls (when working on his father's farm), full Indian headdress (speaking to a crowd of ten thousand Sioux), and cowboy chaps and hat (on vacation in South Dakota). He was the first President to appear in a talking film--a recording of one of his speeches. He liked to make people laugh, and he used his dry, lean wit to punctuate his silence with pithy slogans. In formal addresses, in contrast, he was high-minded, serious, and dignified.
Although mocked for his afternoon naps, Coolidge was hardly slothful. He worked diligently, relying heavily on his Cabinet, but devoting serious attention to issues that crossed his desk. But his view of the presidency, like that of Harding immediately before him, marked a departure from the activism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge's political philosophy and personal temperament conveniently aligned in his belief that the President should not undertake sweeping new reforms to address the challenges of the modern, industrial age. He favored instead a hands-off leadership style and a restrained view of the executive, delegating tasks to his Cabinet, leaving most issues to the states to resolve, and even on federal matters frequently deeming restraint to be the wiser course than bold action.
Yet Coolidge was no reactionary. He is better understood as a transitional figure between the 19th century and the 20th. He embodied the small-town values of thrift and industry and a philosophy of minimal government, but at the same time he celebrated the economic boom over which he presided, and he embraced the new media of the modern culture.
Coolidge's domestic legacy can generally be described as conservative. His main concern was to sustain the economic prosperity that was returning when he took office. He favored a light hand in regulating business, strove hard to balance the budget (even managing to run a surplus), and cut the national debt. His fiscal restraint led him to veto two bills, both popular in Congress, that would have given bonuses to veterans--only to see them passed with a two-thirds majority.
The centerpiece of Coolidge's domestic agenda was his tax cutting. He championed the Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926, a pet issue of his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist whose "trickle-down economics" would later fall into disrepute. The Revenue Acts sharply reduced income taxes, especially surtaxes on the wealthy (taxes on most Americans were already very low). They also cut gift, excise, and inheritance taxes. At the time, many observers credited the cuts for what was widely called the "Coolidge Prosperity": robust growth, rising wages, declining unemployment and inflation, and a bull market. In fact, such propitious conditions probably had more to do with the effects of wartime spending and economic mobilization several years before.
It would be unfair to blame Coolidge for sharing the prevalent optimism of his time. In retrospect, however, it became apparent that his policies contributed to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. His fiscal policy encouraged speculation and ignored inequality, as the flow of dollars into the pockets of the wealthy helped tip the healthy investment of the mid-1920s into the gambling that followed. His hands-off regulatory policy took its toll especially in the financial arena, where the dangerous practice of margin trading was allowed to flourish unrestrained. And for all the heady growth of the 1920s, Coolidge's policies exacerbated the uneven distribution of income and buying power, which led to the overproduction of goods for which there were not enough affluent consumers.
Making matters worse, Coolidge failed to address the worsening economic plight of farmers. Many farm-state progressives embraced a panacea known as McNary-Haugenism, based on a proposal dating back to 1921 that would have established a government corporation to buy surplus crops at artificially set prices (to be held or sold abroad when market prices rose). Although the scheme might have shored up the depressed farm economy, it would have encouraged overproduction, hurt consumers, and posed dangers to the international system. Congress passed versions of the McNary-Haugen bill twice, but Coolidge vetoed them. Still he failed to champion any alternative legislation, thus worsening the farm crisis when the Great Depression struck.
Coolidge was not always doctrinaire. He put aside his political conservatism on several issues, particularly when prodded by his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who ironically was considered at the time to be fairly activist and progressive in his views. Coolidge thought Hoover boastful and derided him as "Wonder Boy." "That man," he said, "has offered me unsolicited advice every day for six years, all of it bad." But he allowed Hoover to establish a new regulatory regime for the emerging industry of radio by signing the Radio Act, which declared the airwaves to be public property and subject to governmental control by the new Federal Radio Commission (later the Federal Communications Commission). He also reluctantly sent Hoover to the Midwest to undertake a massive rescue, relief, and reconstruction effort after the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster in the United States until Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Congress sought federal legislation, Coolidge balked, believing cities and states should bear the costs, but ultimately acquiesced in a compromise that spared the localities that burden.
On cultural matters, Coolidge tried to walk a fine line between the gaudy, freewheeling, new culture of the Jazz Age--many aspects of which he despised--and the resurgent fundamentalism represented by Prohibition, anti-evolutionists, and the Ku Klux Klan. He came under criticism for condemning the Klan only tepidly when it marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1925. He signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas on the number of eastern and southern Europeans allowed into America and excluded the Japanese altogether. On controversies that set the nation abuzz such as the Scopes Trial and the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, he kept a low profile.
Coolidge himself was not versed or deeply interested in world affairs. To handle international issues, Coolidge looked to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, and his Secretaries of State, Charles Evans Hughes and, in the second term, Frank B. Kellogg. Neither a Wilsonian internationalist nor an isolationist, Coolidge believed in expanding America's commercial interactions with other nations, policing the Western Hemisphere in keeping with the Monroe Doctrine, and refraining from entangling alliances and participation in the League of Nations. But he favored joining the World Court (although he could not get Congress to agree), and he authorized American representatives--first Charles Dawes, then Owen Young--to help settle continuing European financial issues stemming from World War I. The Dawes Plan introduced mechanisms to balance the German budget, reorganize the Reichsbank, and stabilize the currency. It was later replaced by the Young Plan during the Hoover administration.
Coolidge also signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced war as a means of solving conflicts. Named for the U.S. Secretary of State and for French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, the proclamation carried with it no means of enforcement. Coolidge recognized the essentially symbolic nature of the pact and had doubts that it would actually prevent war. But the pact, which won the signatures of fourteen countries, nonetheless represented a step toward the creation of global protocols that would serve as norms for international behavior in later years, and it brought a Nobel Peace Prize to Kellogg--the second Coolidge administration official, after Charles Dawes for the Dawes Plan, to be so honored.
During Coolidge's term in office, the United States continued to maintain a strong presence and assert influence in Latin America. Direct investments, which rose from $1.26 billion in 1920 to $3.52 billion in 1928, inextricably tied the economies of those countries to America. For example, the United Fruit and Standard Fruit companies controlled most of the revenue of Honduras, and U.S. firms dominated Venezuelan oil production. Control of the Panama Canal and a policy of using troops, when necessary, to safeguard U.S. interests also worked to give the United States the upper hand in the region. In a direct show of influence, U.S. troops trained and maintained a pro-American National Guard in the Dominican Republic and occupied Nicaragua and Haiti with a peacekeeping force of U.S. soldiers throughout the decade. Americans also controlled Cuban politics and the Cuban economy, and the United States nearly came to blows with Mexico over the ownership of Mexican oil fields by American companies.
So embittered were most Latin American leaders over America's policies that the republics of the Western Hemisphere assembled for their triennial conference in Havana, Cuba, in 1928 eager to demand changes in American conduct. In a rare trip overseas, President Coolidge personally traveled to Havana to address the conference and extend an olive branch. Former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, serving as a special envoy, gave a tour de force of a speech that persuaded the delegates to refrain from passing a strong anti-U.S. resolution. Afterward, Kellogg had his legal adviser draft a white paper that argued against direct military intervention in Latin America. Although not a change in policy, it reflected a dawning awareness of the need for change, which would finally come when President Franklin Roosevelt announced a "Good Neighbor Policy" of nonintervention in 1933.
Coolidge announced his decision not to seek reelection in a sharp and typically playful statement: "I do not choose to run for President in 1928." He delivered the statement on handwritten strips of paper to reporters traveling with him on his summer vacation in 1927. The announcement took many people by surprise. On the day of the decision, Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas, who was present when Coolidge informed the reporters, asked Grace Coolidge what she thought of the announcement. "What announcement?" she replied.
Laconic to the end, Coolidge never explained his decision at length. But because he remained extremely popular and almost certainly would have won another term, pundits and historians had fun speculating about his motives, sometimes offering elaborate theories. In fact, as he wrote in his autobiography, he was never one who loved power or fame and was ready to be "relieved of the pretensions and delusions of public life." In keeping with his republican outlook, he wanted to honor the unwritten custom that Presidents should serve only two terms and looked forward to a simple retirement in his old hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. He also had been devastated by the death of his 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., in 1924. Calvin Jr. had contracted an infection after developing a blister while playing tennis. With penicillin yet to be discovered, he died within a week. Upon his death, Coolidge said, "the power and the glory of the presidency went with him."
In his retirement, Coolidge returned to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he spent the next four years writing his autobiography and articles for national magazines. His nationally syndicated column for the McClure Newspaper chain, "Thinking Things over with Calvin Coolidge," ran for a year in 1931. On January 5, 1933, just after lunch, Coolidge collapsed in his bedroom where he had gone to take his usual two-hour nap. His wife found him dead from coronary thrombosis (heart failure). Characteristically, Coolidge's last will was brief and to the point: "Not unmindful of my son John, I give all my estate, both real and personal, to my wife, Grace Coolidge, in fee simple." It amounted to about $700,000. Poignantly, his passing came just before the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt and the start of both a new view of economics and a new presidential activism that would consign Coolidge's policies to a bygone era.
When Coolidge moved into the White House, he installed a rocking chair on the front porch, in which he enjoyed sitting in the early evening and smoking his cigars. Alice Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, liked to remark that Coolidge looked as if he had been "weaned on a pickle." When he smiled, someone once said, it was "like ice breaking up in a New England river." But much of his reputation for silence was deliberately cultivated; in speech, as in so many areas, Coolidge deemed discretion not only the better part of valor but also an instrument of sound leadership.
Despite his sharp wit, Coolidge was not a natural at socializing in small circles. At White House dinners, he said little and often looked bored. One oft-told story about Coolidge's dour behavior concerns an enthusiastic female dinner companion who said to him, "You must talk to me, Mr. Coolidge. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." Coolidge replied: "You lose." Yet for all of his reported quietness, Coolidge loved company and never dined alone or seldom spent an evening alone with his wife. He and Grace Coolidge entertained more than any previous family in the White House.
The President's typical day followed a set routine: breakfasting early, working until noon, having lunch followed by a walk and a long nap, some more business, evening social affairs, a little reading before bed, and then to sleep for at least seven or eight hours. For recreation, he enjoyed the presidential yacht, vacationing in the mountains or at home in Plymouth Notch, horseback riding, golf, and long walks. The stationary mechanical horse that President Coolidge had installed in the White House amused his wife and others who observed him riding the machine.
In his first year in the White House, Coolidge had the company of Calvin, Jr. but after his death, the White House was childless. The Coolidges' older son, John, was seventeen and a trainee at a citizen's military camp at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, when Coolidge became President. He spent the presidential years as a student at Amherst College.
Although the public liked and admired Calvin Coolidge during his tenure, the Great Depression that began in 1929 seriously eroded his reputation and changed public opinion about his policies. Many linked the nation's economic collapse to Coolidge's policy decisions. His failure to aid the depressed agricultural sector seems shortsighted, as nearly five thousand rural banks in the Midwest and South shut their doors in bankruptcy while many thousands of farmers lost their lands. His tax cuts contributed to an uneven distribution of wealth and the overproduction of goods. Many Americans were deeply in debt for having purchased consumer goods on easy installment credit terms.
Coolidge's foreign policy also fell into some disrepute when it became clear that his signature achievements, including the Dawes Plan and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, did little to prevent the rise of Nazism in Germany or the resurgence of international hostilities. The peace of the 1920s faded almost as quickly as the prosperity. But Coolidge also led the nation, if passively, into the modern era. He was a bridge between two epochs.
In the conservative 1980s, Coolidge regained some of his stature, at least in conservative circles. President Ronald Reagan returned his portrait to the Oval Office. Reagan also praised Coolidge's political style and hands-off leadership for producing seven years of prosperity, peace, and balanced budgets. Nevertheless, scholarly opinion looks upon the Coolidge presidency with skepticism, ranking him relatively low among American chief executives in terms of his administration's positive impact and legacy. Despite his personal integrity, he offered no sweeping vision or program of action that the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had led the public to associate with presidential greatness.