Peter Clements evaluates the thirtieth president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge.
‘Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained that desire’ (Irving Stone). The man who achieved this back-handed compliment took over as president on the death of Warren Harding, in 1923. He served one term in his own right from 1924 to 1928, and departed the stage before the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and concomitant depression. Coolidge was entitled to stand for a second term of office in 1928. Some critics have argued he decided not to do so because he saw what was coming. Others have blamed him in part for the depression because he did nothing to avert it and pursued policies that made it inevitable. Hence in his history of the USA, in a chapter on the 1920s entitled ‘Irresponsibility’, Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge:
As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.
Irving Stone’s view, quoted above, dating from 1949, is typical of the way Coolidge’s presidency has been viewed for much of the time since his death. He has been seen as a chief executive who did nothing while, just below the surface, the signs were increasingly evident that the economy was in deep trouble.
It is a testimony to Coolidge’s apparent inactivity that so much has been written about his foibles and personality rather than his actual work as president. He was taciturn, known as ‘Silent Cal’; he enjoyed childish practical jokes such as buzzing for his bodyguards and then hiding under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped. He was indolent: he liked to nap in the afternoons and would depart early to bed even at state dinners. He was difficult to please and had a fierce temper. His long suffering wife once wrote that if he came home in a foul mood, she was relieved that at least an employee had been spared his venom; if he come home genial he would almost certainly have lashed out at someone earlier in the day. Coolidge himself said that he was ‘hard to get along with’. These traits have been deployed by many over the years to explain his unfitness for the office of president.
However, Coolidge’s reputation as President is in the process of being reexamined. One cannot, for example, blame him for not foreseeing, in its severity, a depression few others foresaw either. The period of his presidency saw real improvements in the lives of many Americans. Although not universal throughout the country, ‘Coolidge prosperity’, while ended by the depression, was real at the time to those who could afford to buy their own homes - 11 million by 1924 – and to the 30 per cent of Americans who owned cars by the end of the decade. His presidency was the age of the Roaring Twenties, of ‘flappers’, prohibition and ‘speakeasies’, jazz music and movie stars. It saw a massive growth in consumer goods, particularly electrical appliances, which made domestic life much easier for millions, and motor cars, which facilitated both tourism and the growth of suburbs so that people could live away from the bustle of city centres and the pollution of the industrial workplace.
If Coolidge has been criticized severely later, he was not at the time. If not exactly popular, he enjoyed widespread respect and engendered a confidence that has led one historian more recently to call him an ideal leader for many Americans who wished ‘to explore the new land of materialism and self indulgence, but also feared the loss of traditional values’. The period of Coolidge’s presidency coincided with a period of dramatic changes in American life. The 1921 census showed that for the first time most Americans lived in urban areas. There was concern that these urban areas were centres of lawlessness and vice. Many people feared the diminution of religion and moral values, particularly among the young - although subsequent research has shown, despite these fears, that most young people shared the traditional values of marriage, family and work. The issue here, however, is that in these times of uncertainty, many Americans were relieved that such an unflappable figure as Calvin Coolidge was at the helm.
Calvin Coolidge’s background
Calvin Coolidge was born in the New England state of Vermont in July 1872, placing him very much in the nineteenth century. His father was a public official and farmer, but the son became a lawyer, showing his independence by setting up his own law firm by the age of 25. One commentator has argued that it was the Vermont background that in part made him so taciturn. According to this analysis, the state has extremes of climate with cold evenings in autumn and spring that make socializing difficult. It is a state where people work hard and have few luxuries, a state where people say what they think and don’t talk unnecessarily. Coolidge, however, took silence to extremes. ‘The things I don’t say’, he once said, ‘never get me into trouble’. Beneath the silence, however, there could be steely determination. He successfully wooed a vivacious girl whom many thought above him; many more would wonder how she put up with him over the years, although his private life was kept intensely private and they appear to have loved each other devotedly. Coolidge rose gradually but unspectacularly up the political ladder until he became Governor of Massachusetts. Here he came to national attention by his stern handling of a police strike where he fired the strikers and brought in the State Guard to maintain order. ‘There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time’, he said as he refused to reinstate the ringleaders once the strike was over. It was this show of determination that probably won him the vice presidency in 1921, although under Warren Harding he did nothing to distinguish himself until he unexpectedly became president on the latter’s sudden death.
Coolidge’s presidential style
The means by which Coolidge learned of his elevation to the presidency set the tone for his administration. He was staying at his father’s home where there was no telephone and no electricity. A messenger delivered the news. His father, as a local notary, swore him in by the light of a kerosene lamp; he may have got the words of the oath wrong. This was a very nineteenth-century scene and Coolidge effectively operated a nineteenth-century presidency. His view of administration was that it should avoid harm rather than promote good. It was the job of the president to enforce the law as it stood not to change it. This led to his being what has been called a ‘minimalist politician’. He never did what someone else could have done instead. He said, ‘The way I transact the cabinet business is to leave to the head of department the conduct of his own business.’ Indeed when his Secretary of Labor, James L Davis, asked him to read some papers and offer his advice, Coolidge said to the secretary bringing them, ‘You tell ol’ man Davis … if he can’t do the job I’ll get a new Secretary of Labor.’ Coolidge held regular press conferences but they were small and he only accepted questions in advance. If he didn’t like the questions he wouldn’t answer them.
Coolidge’s reluctance to speak did make life awkward. He attempted to control Congress by holding working breakfasts but his silence made them self-defeating. Invited Congressmen left no wiser as to what was expected of them and indeed came up with more and more imaginative excuses not to attend - although when Coolidge had Senator Johnson’s claim that his barn had burned down investigated, it was found to be true! Similarly he received his appointees’ reports in silence and often sent them away without a word. They never knew whether he had listened or not, although perhaps months later they might recognise their suggestions in something he said or did as president.
Perhaps H.L. Mencken summarised best the Coolidge presidential style when he said Coolidge’s ideal day ‘would be one in which nothing happens’.
Issues faced by Coolidge’s administration
Much was happening both at home and abroad, and one must ask whether Coolidge’s policy of apparent inertia was really appropriate for a twentieth-century presidency. He once said that if ten troubles came along the road towards him, nine would fall into the ditch before they neared him. Others suggested that even if this were true, he couldn’t deal with the one remaining. There was initially much scepticism among his fellow politicians as to his ability to run the office of president,and - noting his reluctance to do anything but uphold the law - many felt he would be better sitting on the Supreme Court. However, Coolidge’s reputation was soon to improve. The USA did appear very prosperous, and while Coolidge could take no credit for this, the reputation of all leaders is enhanced when their country appears to bedoing well.
He presided over what appeared, on the surface, to be good government but which, with hindsight, hasbeen summarised as ‘minimum government regulations, tax cuts, balanced budgets, low interest rates and cheap foreign policy’.
Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address of problems such as lynching, child labour and low wages for women. Yet he did nothing to overcome any of these issues. His government saw successive tax reductions and yet a surplus of revenue. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent, and in 1927 $607 million. The result was cutbacks in government agencies, with fewer investigators to research unfair practices and less money for government departments to do their work. The Interior department, for example, saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928. The Federal Trade Commission, with responsibilities to root our unfair business practices, was given a new boss who had constantly opposed its work and spent much of his tenure restricting its powers.
Yet many problems were presenting themselves. Agriculture, for example, had not shared in the prosperity. More efficient farming techniques and the growth of bigger farms - ‘agribusinesses’ - introduced largely as a result of necessities during the First World War meant farms were overproducing. Prices therefore fell and inevitably it was the smaller farmers, for many of whom the cost of harvesting was greater than the revenue from the sale of their product, who suffered in the ensuing agricultural depression. In 1924, Congress proposed the McNary-Haugen Bill. By its terms an Agricultural Export Corporation would be set up to buy surplus farm produce to sell abroad. Coolidge vetoed the bill, arguing that goods should be produced at a profit not a loss. While this may seem eminently sensible, the banks took over farms whose mortgages could not be paid and people lost land their families had farmed for generations.
Abroad, Coolidge refused to give any leeway to countries having difficulty in repaying their loans. While he probably never actually said, ‘They hired the money, didn’t they?’, these were his sentiments – and those of many other Americans too. However, the policy was short-sighted because, in being so burdened by debt, foreigners could not afford to buy American goods, and increasingly firms needed to export to maintain their profitability.
Nevertheless Coolidge’s cautious approach sometimes appeared towork well, particularly in terms of foreign relations. In 1925 Chinese nationalism led to attacks on Americans in Shanghai and a call for the end to unfair privileges for foreigners in China. Coolidge agreed and gave the Chinese more or less what they wanted. This undoubtedly saved lives: in the Coolidge White House a show of force was not an option. Whether or not its main application was due to budgetcutting, the use of negotiation in disputes rather than sending in the troops resulted in a higher opinion of the USA particularly in central and southern areas and presaged the ‘Good Neighbour’ policies of the 1930s. Hence civil war was averted in Nicaragua in 1926 through the good offices of American negotiator Henry Stimson, while better relations came about with Mexico and most disagreements between the two countries were defused.
The biggest criticism levelled against Coolidge is that he did nothing to avert the coming depression. Low interest rates encouraged unwise speculations particularly in stocks and shares and ‘Get Rich Quick’ schemes such as the Florida Land Boom. The Stock Market in particular seemed to be running out of control, with many investors buying their stock on the ‘margin’ - 10 per cent down and the rest in instalments. This meant that even if the stock purchased should fall in value it would still have to be paid for at the original price. When Coolidge had been alerted in 1927 to the fact that the Stock Market was in danger of crashing, he had privately commented that anyone investing in shares was a fool. However, publicly he made reassuring noises, partly because he believed it was not the job of the government to get involved but also because he believed it was the job of the government to make positive and optimistic noises.
It is this attitude, coupled with the increasing severity of the problems the USA was facing, that perhaps gets to the heart of Coolidge’s presidency. Minimalism in government may be all right in the unlikely event that the country is facing no major problems, but on certain issues – whatever the philosophy of the chief executive – only the government can take the lead. Yet Coolidge would not countenance any idea of government intervention in the economy. He once famously said, ‘The chief business of the American people is business’. He believed that business and government were quite separate, and the less the government involved itself in business the more profitable business would become and the wealthier everyone would be. The job of government was therefore to do as little as possible: and if it cut taxes people would have more disposable income and become more self-reliant, while business would continue to make profits for the benefit of all.
Of course we now understand that the economy does not work like that, but Coolidge was too much a man of the nineteenth century to embrace twentieth-century economic truths - which indeed few in the 1920s did understand. In this scenario it is unlikely that Coolidge decided not to stand for the presidency again in 1928 because he foresaw the onset of depression in all its severity – although according to his wife he did foresee a downturn in the economy. Perhaps Coolidge, who had almost died of tuberculosis as a boy, knew that he was in poor health (he died in 1933) and judged that he couldn’t physically survive another four years at the White House. Perhaps he had lost much of what energy he did have after the tragic death of his son - although that was in 1924. More likely, with his background of inertia and inactivity, he had simply grown tired of being president – and, as he told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, ‘It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.’
Irving Stone overstepped the mark when he blamed Coolidge for the world depression and rise of the dictators in the 1930s. However, there is little doubt that with his ‘masterly inactivity’ in the face of approaching problems, Coolidge may have been the president many Americans wanted, but he clearly was not the president most of them needed.
Issues to Debate:
- What are the main criticisms that can be levelled against Coolidge as president?
- What are the main defences of Coolidge?
- What overall verdict would you pass on the presidency of Calvin Coolidge?
- Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the United States of America (Penguin, 1990)
- Peter Clements, Prosperity, Depression and the New Deal (Hodder and Stoughton, 1997)
- John Earl Haynes (ed), Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era (University Press of New England, 1998)
- Isabel Leighton (ed), The Aspirin Age (Penguin, 1964)
- Donald McCoy, Calvin Coolidge, the Quiet President (University of Kansas, 1988)
- Michael Parrish, Anxious Decades (WW Norton and Co, 1992)
Peter Clements teaches history at Benjamin Britten High School.
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