Biography for Calvin Coolidge
Following the scandalous and corrupt administration of Warren Harding, the taciturn, frugal, and honest Calvin Coolidge seemed the perfect antidote when he succeeded to the presidency in 1923. His determination to foster old-time morality, big business, and isolationism at a time of material prosperity took the form of doing nothing, a talent that "suits the mood and certain needs of the country . . . suits all the businesses which want to be left alone . . . and suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy," wrote the journalist Walter Lippmann in 1926. Three presidents—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe—died on July 4; but only one, Calvin Coolidge, was born on the Fourth of July (in 1872). His father ran the general store in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Coolidge spent his childhood there, attended the Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow, Vermont, and then graduated from Amherst College in western Massachusetts in 1895. After being admitted to the bar and marrying in 1905, he practiced law in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. Although he longed "to keep store like my father had done," the lure of politics proved irresistible. He began his political career in 1898 as an unsalaried member of the Northampton city council. In 1906, he was elected as a Republican to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then elected to two terms as mayor of Northampton before winning a seat in the state Senate in 1911. He was elected president of the Senate in 1913. Coolidge's conservative antigovernment brand of politics can be summed up in his observation: "It is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones." A shy, quiet man, Coolidge avoided the public limelight until he was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1915. Then, his efforts to develop a statewide following were so successful that he was reelected in 1916 and 1917. He was elected governor in 1918. As governor, Coolidge broke into the national spotlight in 1919 when he refused to reinstate striking Boston police officers and uttered the oft-quoted statement, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." After the Boston police strike, Coolidge thought his political career was over. Instead, an enthusiastic press boosted him to reelection and then into the 1920 presidential race as the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee. When President Harding died in 1923, Coolidge became the nation's 30th president, sworn in—his hand on the family Bible—by his father, who was a notary public. He inherited the oil lease (Teapot Dome) scandals from Harding but managed to avoid being tainted with corruption himself. In the 1924 presidential campaign, Coolidge said and did very little. Incapable of small talk, "Silent Cal" Coolidge was known for his brevity. Once, when asked why he said so little in public, he replied, "I never felt sorry about something I didn't say." The rural, small-town, back-to-old-fashioned-values Coolidge personified a longing among many Americans for a simpler life after a period of extravagance and waste. He won the election with an electoral vote of 379 to Democrat John Davis' 139 and Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette's 13. Content to be an administrator and not a leader, Coolidge made few recommendations to Congress. The fact that those he did make were usually ignored did not bother Coolidge. That was the way he thought it should be. "If the federal government should go out of existence," he said, "the common run of the people would not detect the difference for a considerable length of time." According to Coolidge, it was profitable businesses that made the whole nation happy and prosperous. "The man who builds a factory builds a temple there," he said. Regulatory agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Board, were put in the charge of men who would help the businesses. Coolidge's laissez-faire attitude extended to farmers, who were suffering from low prices. "Farmers have never made money. I don't believe we can do much about it," he explained, as he vetoed the McNary-Haugen Bill in 1927 and again in 1928, which would have authorized the government to buy and store crop surpluses. Coolidge left the management of foreign policy mainly to his Cabinet officials and followed a policy of noninvolvement with most international cooperative plans. He refused to consider refinancing European World War I loans and to reduce import tariffs on foreign goods. He did, however, support passage of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international peace plan outlawing war with no commitment to enforcement. The nation was stunned when the popular president, never able to recover fully from the tragic death of his son, decided in 1928 not to seek reelection with the simple statement, "I do not choose to run." The country was prosperous, and people associated the good times with Coolidge. During the profligate Jazz Age of the 1920s, he championed the traditional values of diligence and thrift. He reduced taxes and managed to reduce the $20 billion national debt by a billion dollars a year, but he failed to control the speculation in business that would lead to the great stock market crash only months after he left office. The secret of his political success, Coolidge once explained, was in "avoiding the big problems." It was a phrase many critics would recall to sum up what was wrong with his administration after the United States had plunged into the Great Depression. After leaving the White House, Coolidge retired to a modest house in Northampton to write until his death from a heart attack four years later on January 5, 1933. Half a century later, his antigovernment sentiments would make him the hero of another popular Republican president, Ronald Reagan.