Calvin Coolidge: Life Before the Presidency

Calvin Coolidge: Life Before the Presidency

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.

Governor Coolidge

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 parents' 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.