You are on page 1of 8

The Life o f Calvin Coolidge

Michael Platt

IN 1928, had President Calvin Coolidge


chosen to run for re-election, the American people would surely have chosen
him again, and thus he would have served
as President into early 1933. What the
consequences of that choice would have
been, for America and the world, is hard
to say. Mr. Coolidge did not choose to
run, h e was not elected, he did not serve.
Instead, he chose to d o other things,
among them to write his Autobiography.
The book is not readily available today and is not much read, yet it is a good
book, a good book for statesmen and
citizens, ladies and gentlemen, women
and men, and also girls and boys to read.
In places the writing is as good as
Willa Cathers. Riding over the fields
and along the country roads by himself,
where nothing interrupts his seeing and
thinking, is a good occupation for a boy.
The silences of Nature have a discipline
all their own. What he lauds in his
fathers work-The lines h e laid out
were true and straight, and the curves
regular-is true of his own prose. It has
the same quality he attributes t o his
aunt Sarah-The sweetness of her nature was a benediction to all who came
in contact with her. Sweet as Mr.
Coolidge is, he is also spare. Garrulity
itself would fall silent, for one minute at
least, upon hearing: What the end of
the four years of carnage meant those

who remember it will never forget and


those who do not can never be told. And
one of Mr. Coolidges sentences rivals
the Psalms: The break of day saw them
stirring. Their industry continued until
twilight.2
Just as hay in a full barn in September
and jam in the pantry are the concentrates of all the sun, water, and the work
of the summer, so the sentences that
make up Coolidges Autobiography are
the fruits of a good life.
About six score years ago, Calvin
Coolidge came into the world. The day of
his birth was already a holiday. He was
born on the Fourth of July in 1872. For the
rest of his life, the annual joyous return
of the nations birthday coincided with
his own. Thus, from childhood, Calvin
Coolidges happiness was absorbed in
something greater than himself, and so it
was t o be his whole life long; his happiness, and his sorrow, served something
greater, in truth a fair portion of the
good.
Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch
in the middleof Vermont. Then and now,
the Notch lies in a high valley surrounded
by sixlow mountains with two entrances.
Streams rush strong and cool down the
defiles,green meadows slope up to dark
forests, and snows drift high. There the
lights are turned off early, the nights are
dark, and over all the peaks there is

Modern Age

351

LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

peace. A thousand free men could hold


the Notch against an army.
Coolidge found it a clean place and a
place for clean living. While I can think
of many pleasures we did not have, and
many niceties of culture with which we
were unfamiliar, yet if I had the power t o
order my life anew I would not dare t o
change that period of it. If it did not
afford m e the best that there was, it
abundantly provided the best that there
was for me. Reading that, one does not
know which is more worthy, Coolidges
insight or his gratitude.
Like most of America then, Plymouth
was a community of farmers. Work was
scheduled by nature; the sun directed
the day and presided over the seasons.
Farm labor was long, difficult, regular,
and v a r i ~ u s .It~ filled life with things
worth doing, it supported families, and it
made them more family; members labored together, within sight of each
other, or within range of a story at supper; and parents worked to pass on t h e
blessings of this life to their children. In
this community of families, Calvins father was prominent. Thrift and industry
brought him prosperity. There was n o
skill, in carpentry, masonry, farming, handling horses, and a hundred ancillary
arts, that he did not possess. Trust in his
fellow man, forbearance of ills, and service to others brought him the respect
of his fellow townspeople, and with that
theirvotes,forVermont was thenastate
of self-governing towns and even selfgoverning school districts.
Young Coolidge learned self-government by watching, by listening, and by
doing. He watched his father and others,
helistened to theirdiscussions, and practiced all he beheld: industry in work and
in studies, thrift in his own economic
enterprises,and civil sagacity much later.
Liberty was, for his elders and for him, a t
Nonce something you must strive to get
for yourself, by industry and thrift, and
something that as a father, a citizen, a

Selectman, or Representative you should


support in others. The right to that Liberty is best protected by all living it, and
by some gaining the votes of the others
to office, so that the consent and the
virtue of the people are kept together.
As important was t h e love of his
mother, who died when he was twelve,
whose grave he visited in the night, and
who, whenever he thought of her, was
with him. Whatever was grand and beautiful in form and color attracted her.
Also important was the loving support of
his stepmother. Thinking of her, Coolidge
writes, I am convinced that the good
predominates and that it is constantlyall
about us, ready for our service if only we
will accept it.
Coolidge was very grateful for the
schooling he received. What he learned
at home fit with what he learned in the
fields; both fit with what he learned in the
general store, in the town meeting and in
the church; and all this in turn fit with
what he learned when he went away to
Black River Academy, thirteen walking
miles from home in Ludlow. There teachers were hired for what they knew, students advanced by their achievements,
and the chance to learn was valued as a
privilege. Had Coolidge gone no further
than Black River, he would have gone
forth to live a good life. It is a good school
of which you can say that.
Yet there was more in store for this
man and a college was the way to it. At
Amherst, Coolidge first discovered what
a man might be, but not right off. Up until
his junior year, Coolidge was a fair, but
not a fine student, hardworking and faithful, but nothing special. He felt it and
thought of withdrawing. He yearned for
something, he didnt know quite what,
and was weary, even despondent, but his
father counseled him to return. He did
and found what he wanted in the classes
of Professor Charles E. Garman. From
the spring of Junior all the way through
Senior year, Garman taught psychology,
Summer 1994

352
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

which meant the soul, and philosophy,


which meant the good. Witherspoon at
Princeton taught a similar course t o
James Madison, but Garman was probably more important t o Coolidge. In
Garmans classes students learned that
they could reason on their own. Of course,
geometry, especially Euclid, can d o that,
and has done it for many, including Lincoln, but Garman taught students that
they could reason about life. Of Garman,
you might say he made boys into men, or
that he made men into human beings,
truly rational animals.
This fine teacher valued intellectual
virtue as much as true opinion; not all
students appreciated this, certainly not
at the beginning of the course, when in
place of the answers they expected, they
encountered questions, when in place of
a textbook, they met pamphlets. With his
own salary Garman printed these up,
sworethestudents tosecrecy, and asked
each to think about the matters in them,
reason about them, at first alone in their
essays, which Garman commented on
copiously, and then together in class;
only after that did Garman say something about his answer. Garman began
with matter and the self, showed the
students that materialism cannot account
for the materialist, emphasized choices,
thus proceeded to ethics, and from ethics on to politics. Students such a s Calvin
Coolidge came away convinced that they
could know truth, were bound to revere
Truths God,and placed on earth to serve
the good.
Read someof Garmans pamphlets and
the testimonials of his students and you
will see why William James called him
the best teacher in A m e r i ~ a He
. ~ was
constantly reminding us that the spirit
was willing but the flesh was strong, but
that nevertheless, if we would continue
steadfastly t o think on these things we
would be changed from glory to glory
through increasing intellectual and moral
power. He was right, testifies Coolidge.

The four pages on his teacher in his


Autobiography are just the kind of appreciation that a true teacher hopes t o deserve, not clapping immediately, or even
esteem into the next term, but years
after, abiding gratitude, for setting one
on the right path, one that leads toagood
life and that is, when you consider it, the
beginning of that good life. For the rest of
his life, Coolidge kept a collection of
Garmans pamphlets by his b e d ~ i d e . ~
Sent into the world by that teacher,
Coolidge chose law to serve others. The
transition from accomplished Senior to
unregarded beginner is often painful, but
not for Coolidge. It was the happiest of
his life. I was full of the joy of doing
something in the world. There is no
greater pleasure than finally to be doing
what you have prepared for and seeing
that you are doing it well. As practiced
then, the law was learned, orderly, and
responsible. It tended to encourage justice, its usages trained reason, and its
ways instilled moderation in the people.
N o self-hawking advertisements, no calling cards at accident scenes, and no
predatory charges by the minute. The
profession was respected and its general
standing elevated those in it who were
most trusted. Coolidge was one, and, as
Hamilton had predicted, trust for the
good lawyer helped to elect him t o a
series of political offices. On the way he
met his beloved Grace. We thought we
were made for each other. For almost a
quarter of a century she has borne with
my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her
graces. By saying no more, Coolidge
makes us wonder if there has been a finer
lady in our White House.
Now as it happened, while Governor
of Massachusetts, Coolidge was faced
with a strike by the police in the city of
Boston. No great defender of the Res
Publica of old Rome faced down a
mutineering legion with firmer justice.
What -he ordered put down rebellion in
Boston and what he telegraphed to

Modern Age

353
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

Gompers made him known in the nation.


There is no right to strike against the
public safety by anybody, any time, any
where. In this aphorism the people recognized one of the cornerstones of their
self-governing Liberty. And in the aphorist, they recognized a pillar they might
trust with greaterweight. Coolidges firmness, in deed and in word, made him Vice
President.
It is a remarkable fact that since Lincoln many of the best presidents have
come tothePresidencythrough thedeath
of t h e i r p r e d e c e s s o r : T h e o d o r e
Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry
Truman. The Vice-presidency is a Platonic notion. It asks of the political man,
often a most ambitious type and always
an active one, whether he is willing t o
spend his time sitting still and put the
remunerated leisure provided by t h e
people to good use. Coolidge, as you can
see from his account, passed this test of
leisure well.
Everyone knows how the death of
Harding then made Coolidge President,
how his own father administered t h e
oath in the night in Plymouth, how he let
impartial justice remove thescandal surrounding the dead executive, and how in
appreciation, the people elected him in
his own right. The other events of his
administration are less well known, and
Coolidge says little of them. The most
well known, the remarkable prosperity
of the nation, achieved through reduction of the national debt and the Mellon
taxcuts, Coolidgedoes not mention, probably because it was everywhere obvious
to most everyone.
One way to begin to appreciate these
achievements, despite the calumny of
certain historians and the neglect of others,jis by reading Coolidges speeches.
Reading them you never feel uncertain
what he thought. You know that he could
think, that he alone wrote them, and that
he did so for others. Thus, whatever t h e
topic or the audience, Coolidge leads his

fellow citizens to the fraternal amity that


justice and common sense promote.
There is a reason why CoolidgesAutobiogruphysays little about the particular
acts of his presidency, reveals none of
his secrets, and thus disappoints some
historians. The good statesman focuses
all his mind on his acts and their results,
not on how to make it come out right in
the memoirs. In place of such details
Coolidge devotes a chapter to the general precepts of executive prudence, a
warning of how encroachments upon the
appointive power will lead to bureaucratic despotism, and how to govern the
day.
The restless contemporary wits who
criticized Coolidge for napping after lunch
d o not appreciate how happy a land may
be when presided over by a man who can
nap. The wisdom of the Framers made
our chief executive a president, not a
leader. It is a Macbeth who is sleepless
and it is agreat napper, such as Churchill,
whom you can count on to win great
wars. Neglect is another thing. These
wits never criticize Coolidge for what he
might be criticized for.*Coolidge cannot
be much hurt by calumny. As he says of
his living critics, I shall always consider
it the highest tribute to my administration that the opposition have based so
little of their criticism on what 1 have
really said and done. It is we who are
hurt by the calumny to him. Of all the
departed presidents Mr. Coolidge is probably the one who most shouldst be living at this hour deep in debt, waste, and
agitation.
In 1928 if Calvin Coolidge had chosen
to run for re-election, he would surely
have been re-elected, and had he been in
office at the time of the Crash, he might
have averted the Depression that followed. Perhaps one day I shall write an
essay entitled, lf Coolidge Had Not Been
Re-elected in 1928. In it I shall contrast
the wisdom of what Coolidge did in his
second full term with the folly of what

354

Summer 1994
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

Hoover would surely have done, how the


stock market crash would have been prolonged under Hoover into a depression,
how as a consequence a desperate people
might have elected a frivolous revolutionary as their next president, setting
off new rounds of compassionate folly,
equally unable to restore prosperity, and
instituting constitutional innovations that
by changing the relation of people and
government, would gradually sap their
self-reliant strength and inevitably lead
t o either a national bankruptcy o r a national socialism, or both, and I would go
on to speculate how all the while under a
Hoover and high tariffs the American
Depression would have become worldwide bringing down civil regimes and
replacing them with socialist tyrannies,
especially in Germany where a bellicose
hater might well wage world war, happy
in the deaths of millions, and oblivious t o
all the unforeseen consequences, win or
lose, generation unto generation. This is
speculation, of course, but not without a
basis.g
To the degree that one discovers in
Coolidge the virtues of the statesman,
that is, the firm grasp of principles, t h e
penetrating insight into conditions and
men, and the gifts, in a democracy, t o
persuade the governed and their representatives to embrace that wisdom, often against the gusts of their desires and
the designs of their demagogues-to the
degree that one finds the statesman in
Coolidge, one must conclude that in office h e might have averted the Great
Depression and thus all its terrible consequences. There is considerable reason to think that Coolidge did have that
virtue. In 1929Americawas considerably
more prosperous, more content, and
more peaceful-war with Mexico having
been averted-than
in 1923 w h e n
Coolidge accepted the presidency. One
reason was that Coolidge vetoed foolish
and expensive legislation.
Did Coolidge also see into the future?

His wife reports he saw a slump coming


and others report he thought Hoover
imprudent. Certainly he would have done
many things differently than his successor. Yet as the convention approached,
Coolidge did not put his weight behind
another candidate, say for example
Dwight Morrow, and h e did not, more
responsibility still, allow himself to be
nominated. One seems compelled toconclude that this inactivity marks the limit
of his virtue. Of course, lapses of omission are much harder to assert than blunders of commission.
Why did Mr. Coolidge not choose to
run for the presidency in 1928? In his
Autobiography he devotes a whole chapter to this question. H e says it would be
too bad if the good of the country depended on one man. The man who lives
in the White House is tempted to think
himself more important than he is. The
office attracts flatterers. But the main
reason, Coolidge is silent about, and yet
it is revealed. Coolidge says that The
Presidential office takes a heavy toll of
those who occupy it and those who are
dear t o them. Who was dear to Calvin
Coolidge? His wife, Grace, without a
doubt. And his children, no question.
Indeed, in an earlier chapter, Coolidge
tells about the son of his who died from
a slight accident right on the south lawn
of the White House. Coolidge tells us
young Calvin had a remarkable insight
into things. The day I became President
he had just started to work in a tobacco
field. When one of his fellow laborers
said t o him, If my father was President I
would not work in a tobacco field,Calvin
replied, If my father were your father,
you would. That son not only understood America the way his father did but
expressed his understanding with the
family brevity. Coolidges mere re-telling
of the story tells u s how pleased he was
with his son.
Yet the boydied, and his death tested
the faith of his father. In his suffering he

Modem Age

355
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

was asking m e to make him well. I could


not, Coolidge reports with terrible simplicity. From o t h e r s we learn that
Coolidge caught a rabbit on the White
House grounds and brought it to his boy,
and that he held him in his arms as he
died.
Coolidge hated waste and here was
waste of the most precious. It seemed to
me that the world had need of the work
that it was probable he could do. The
death of such a boy questioned all
Coolidge lived by, every thing he had
seen in Plymouth Notch, all he learned to
reason about at Amherst under Garman,
and all he thought he had proven in his
own life. Why should the Lord take a boy
so disposed to serve Him? There was no
answer. When he went the power and
the glory of the Presidency went with
him. Why does Coolidge write power
and glory? Does he mean that the power
of the Presidency went because power
went from the President? I t seems so.
(And yet Coolidge did faithfully execute
the Office of the President and preserve,
protect, and defend the Constitution.)
Then Coolidgeadds one more thought.
I d o not know why such a price was
exacted for occupying the White House.
Sheltered in this sentence is a question:
Why was such a price exacted for my
occupying the White House? It is very
rare for a politician to ask a question that
he does not have an answer to. Coolidge
was a politician, but much more, and
thus no politician. Coolidge was n o
casual Christian; the addressee of this
question can only be God. Yet Coolidge
tells us that he never received an answer.
I d o not know why such a price was
exacted for occupying the White House.
There it is, one little sentence. It is so
sudden and so unset in its surrounding,
that it would be easy to skip on and not
note it. What it says is that Coolidge
thought the Lord had punished him for
occupying the White House. The connection to his decision not to run in 1928 is

stunning: it must surprise all those who


d o not share his faith; yet it is clear. Had
he run for office again, had he won, had
he occupied the White House again,
Calvin Coolidge would have thought it
just for the Lord to take John, his other
boy.InWhen Coolidgeannounced that he
did not choose to run in 1928, he did not
mean he would not if the American people
insisted and if the Lord chose him to run.
The contrast with Lincoln, who lost a
son in the White House, but proceeded
to Gettysburg that week, and did choose
to run in 1864, is instructive. Perhaps the
contrast measures the virtue of Coolidge,
marks its high limit. However, we d o not
know whether the Lord in the one case
purposed Lincoln to persist in office and
in the other equally purposed Coolidge
to desist. The victory of the Union in the
one case may be as in accord with Divine
Providence as the Depression and the
Second World War were in the other.
One may even wonder if Coolidge, the
man most able to encourage prosperity
and peace, was withdrawn by the Lord
from the almost chosen American people
because they did not heed his constant
teaching, that there is something infinitely more important than prosperity.
Perhaps they heard Coolidges observation the chief business of the American
people is business as if it were complacent praise, not attending to what completes it: The ideal of American is idealism. In the view of Coolidge and of his
teacher Carman, the prosperity secured
by progress is the natural consequence
of the daily practice of virtue by a Christian people, and yet God in His wisdom
can intervene. In the view that the American people elected in the New Deal and
after, prosperity is mainly the consequence of a national social government.
According to the old deal, fear of the
Lord is the beginning of wisdom. According to the new, theonlysalutaryfear
is the fear of fear itself. Perhaps by withdrawing Coolidge, the Lord wished to
Summer 1994

356
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

tempt this people with a choice, to recall


them to their true foundation,and, if they
did not, to chastise them with the consequences.
Instead of running in 1928, Coolidge
wrote his Autobiography. By doing so, he
prepared for death. Thus the deaths of
o t h e r s a r e often mentioned in it.
Coolidges mother died when he was a
child, his sister Abbie when he was a boy.
During his grandfathers last illness,
young Coolidge read the Gospel of John
to him, as his grandfather had read it to
his grandfather. (No one who appreciates that story can say he does not understand what tradition is.) But the special quality of Calvin Coolidge comes out
in a slight addition to another story, of a
smithy whom young Coolidge used to
assist. He always pitched the hay on to
the ox cart and I raked after. If I was
getting behind he slowed up a little. He
was a big-hearted man. Quite a few persons could have written thosesentences,
only Coolidge the next: I wish I could see
that blacksmith again. This man was
passionate, and the fact that it only comes
out, against his reserve, and then only in
a corner, is merely testimony to how
very passionate he was. In Shakespeare,
in Tolstoy, in Dostoevsky, the greathearted are always ready to speak what
they feel, but some great souls cover
their hearts with adarksuit, a right hand,
and a dry wit.I2
Coolidge is certainly the shyest of our
presidents, even more than Lincoln, and
of all public men, save Christ, perhaps
the shyest. Silent he was not. When he
spoke to persons he did not know, they
knew he thought and felt more than he
said to them. This reticence from depth,
be it grief, thought, or peace, they sometimes called silence. Certainly Coolidge
had no chit-chat, never called something
cute, and even when playing was reserved. A lot of persons liked Coolidge,
but I d o not believe he confided in any
one. I doubt we will ever know. Any one

he chose to confide in would have had


the good sense to keep mum. The person
who knew and loved him best, Grace
Coolidge, did not repeat what he chose
t o say to her only.
What Coolidge wished the American
people to know, he wrote t o us. H e is one
of the few presidents to write his own
speeches or to write his own life. Ulysses
S. Grant did both and most of his predecessors make you suppose they could
have too. Certainly the first six, and later
Theodore Roosevelt. Coolidge is one of
the last presidents to have done either.13
One wonders how long we can go without another. Teaching school in a land
where the chief elected executive does
not write for himself and every child
soon knows it, is hard, for the teachers
and on the children. One of the best ways
t o measure an era is the quality of the
letters. Read them and you will see how
many people know their own thoughts
and feelings. If they can describe significant events in their lives, then they will
understand others as well. This is the
true basis of self-government. The fundamental assumption of democracy is that
every adult not demented knows enough
t o make his own decisions. Democracy
demands self-knowledge. It requires persons who understand themselves. The
letters back home during our Civil War,
the least rancorous civil war in the history of the world, show we once could
understand ourselves, and so d o e s
Coo 1id ge s A ut0biography.
Of Vermont, Coolidge once said, If
the spirit of Liberty should vanish in
other parts of this Union and support of
our institutions should languish, it could
all be replenished from the generous
store held by the people of this brave
little state of Vermont. I d o not know
that his assertion remains true of Vermont; self-government lives still in the
Town Meetings, but is lately under some
duress; but 1 d o say confidently that if
Liberty does vanish from these United
35 7

Modern Age
LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED

States, it might be recovered by the


people reading this story of an American
life and practicing the virtues of its author. Although Coolidge did not run for
re-election, the story he chose to write
instead gave to the people of America a
measure to judge all aspirants t o that
sacred trust.
1. This was the annual address to the Coolidge
Foundation in 1992; thanks to the Foundation and
its Executive Secretary, Mrs. Cynthia Bittinger, to
the Liberty Fund, for whom I conducted a meeting
on Coolidge, Thrift and Liberty, and t o John
Karol, maker of a forthcoming film on Coolidge, for
opportunities to share and improve it. 2. The AutobiographyofCalvinCoolidge (1929; reprint, Rutland,
Vermont, 1984) is always available from the Coolidge
Foundation in Plymouth Notch (05056). 3. I feel
fortunate to have seen some of this close up, as a
boy in summers, living across from a farm not far
from the Notch; the same farmer, Mr. Howard
Bixby, still farms there now. I can hear him calling
the cows now. (As a boy I thought Yalta was the
name of the cow who gave him the most trouble
and, as a consequence, was spared the rod least,
his blows coincidingwith her name.) 4. See Charles
E. Garman, Letters, Lectures, andAddresses (Boston,
1909) and the Festschrift, Studies in Philosophy and
Psychology (Boston, 1906). Apamphlet of Garmans
addressed to Coolidges class will appear in the
Spring 1994 issue of Continuity: Journal o f History,

no. 17 with remarks by the present author. 5. Mrs.


Coolidge reports the two other works were the
Bible and Paradise Lost; (Meet Calvin Coolidge, ed.
Edward Connery Lathern [Brattleboro, 19601, p.
66). 6. Thomas B. Silver, Coolidge and the Historians
(Durham, 1982). 7 . The three collections of
Coolidges speeches, Have Faith in Massachusetts
(1919), The Price ofFreedom (1924). and Foundations o f the Republic (1926), can be bought secondhand. 8. For not appointing Dwight Morrow Secretary of State, not confronting the folly of disarmament directly, not detecting the clandestine monetarystabi1ization of Strong and Norman, and not
opposing the corrupting influence of that most
intemperate of idealisms, Prohibition, which Morrow did oppose. 9. For the view that Hoovers
philanthropic feelings, wage interventions, and
protective tariffs turned the Crash into the Depression, see Paul Johnson, Modern Times (New York,
1983), S.V. 10. In a letter to his father, 23 October
1924, a few months after young Calvins death and
a few weeks before the Presidential elections,
Coolidge writes, I hope this is the last time I shall
ever have to be a candidate for office. See Your
Son, Calvin Coolidge: A Selection ofJetters from
Calvin Coolidge to his Father, ed. Edward Connery
Lathem (Vermont Historical Society, 1968), 194-95.
11. The Press Under a Free Government, in Foundations o f the Republic (New York, 1926). 12. Consider Dorothy Parkers small-hearted remark upon
hearing of Coolidges death. 13. President Hoover
wrote all his important speeches; see his Memoirs,
vol. Ill, 233. (Thanks t o Mr. George Nash for this
reference.)

Summer 1994

358

LICENSED TO UNZ.ORG
ELECTRONIC REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED