by David Greenberg Henry Holt, 2006
Calvin Coolidge, U.S. president from 1923 to 1929, was famously a man of few words. “Silent Cal” didn’t like being the center of attention, and Coolidge’s reticence became a running national joke. When the satirical writer Dorothy Parker heard about Coolidge’s death in 1933, she cracked, “How could they tell?” The nation’s leading critic and newspaperman, H.L. Mencken, wrote, “No august man of his station ever spoke less.”
Coolidge also became well-known for his lax work habits. Coolidge believed, says historian David Greenberg (author of Nixon’s Shadow), that most problems facing the president would simply go away if he ignored them. Coolidge usually turned in early, a routine that also became a running joke. “Once, when he attended the live Marx Brothers revue Animal Crackers,” Greenberg relates, “Groucho spied the president in the audience and from the stage quipped: ‘Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?’”
Yet, as Greenberg makes clear in this concise and eminently readable biography, Coolidge’s silence and casual work habits meshed well with the national mood: “Coolidge’s reserve impressed the public as the hallmark of a safe, steady leader. It allowed different citizens to project onto him their own commonsense wisdom.”
The 1920s was a time of economic prosperity. “The business of America is business,” Coolidge said, and he firmly believed in minimal federal regulation of the economy, as well as tax cuts, which later made him a hero to Ronald Reagan. Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon repeatedly lowered tax rates on those in higher income brackets. He spoke of “reducing, rather than expanding, government bureaus which seek to regulate and control the business activities of the people….It is too much assumed that because an abuse exists it is the business of the national government to remedy it.” Coolidge’s public approval boomed along with the national economy. “Coolidge Prosperity,” writes Greenberg, “became the central issue in determining how people viewed the president and experienced the mood of public life under his leadership.”
In 1927 a massive flood struck Mississippi. Coolidge, who believed in the Jeffersonian ideal that “the government that governs least, governs best,” faced loud calls for federal flood relief. Coolidge acted wisely, notes Greenberg, sending his most competent cabinet member, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, to the region and reaching a compromise with Congress on funding relief efforts. Coolidge could be pragmatic, even if it meant increasing the role of the federal government.
Greenberg gives us an excellent description of the future president’s early life. He was born in 1872 in Vermont to a Protestant family. He worked hard as a boy and learned the value of thrift and quiet perseverance. Young Coolidge was devastated when his beloved mother and sister died; as president, Coolidge would also be emotionally bereft after the death of his 16-year-old son Calvin Jr.
After graduating from Amherst College, Coolidge began practicing law in nearby Northampton, Mass. He soon won a seat on the City Council and began his long political ascent. Greenberg skillfully describes the event that made Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, a national figure. In 1919, Boston police walked off the job, and the city’s police commissioner fired the strikers. Coolidge came out in support of the firings, citing the need for public safety. At a time of labor unrest across the nation, Coolidge’s stance was seen as courageous and resolute.
In 1920 the Republican National Convention nominated Coolidge as the running mate to presidential candidate Warren Harding. When Harding died of a heart attack in 1923 and Coolidge became president, a popular joke poked fun at Coolidge’s rise to power and cast him “as a baseball player who reached first base on a walk, stole second base, got to third on an error, and reached home because the catcher died.”
Coolidge luckily became president during a time of unprecedented prosperity, and his hands-off style of governing fit the nation perfectly. The public didn’t want a grandstanding, activist president fueled by high ideals. They’d had that in Woodrow Wilson and, after years of war and hardship, wanted “normalcy.” The relaxed Coolidge, much like President Dwight D. Eisenhower later, suited the public mood.
Yet the horrible events in the decade after Coolidge left office served to diminish his reputation. When the Great Depression arrived in 1929, it was Herbert Hoover’s problem, but Coolidge’s philosophy of a minimalist federal role in the economy became increasingly unpopular. In many ways, Franklin Delano Roosevelt can be seen as the anti-Coolidge, yet FDR also fit the public mood of the time.
Greenberg finishes this excellent biography by asking whether it’s fair to blame Coolidge for the Depression. Could he, or should he, have seen it coming and done something to prevent it? Could increased federal regulation of American business in the 1920s, anathema to Coolidge, have prevented the economy from crashing in 1929? Historians have disagreed. Some view Coolidge as being asleep at the wheel; others see him as simply letting the good times roll. It seems unfair to blame Coolidge for not seeing into the future and moving aggressively to regulate business. Silent Cal liked things quiet.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.