Silent Cal: reflecting back 100 years

Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency precisely a century ago last month. In stark contrast to most American leaders today, the 30th president preferred to speak, spend, and rule less. Photo credit: Library of Congress


Exactly 100 years ago last month, Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, took office after the unexpected death of President Warren Harding. Coolidge would serve the rest of Harding’s first term, win election in 1924, and not seek re-election in 1928. The unassuming and humble nature of the man reflected the age in which he lived and stands in stark contrast with life a century later in the country he led so well.

Coolidge, born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont on July 4, 1872, oversaw years of remarkable economic growth and national optimism. His understated style and quiet mannerisms fit the era in which he lived. News sources included newspapers, periodicals, and word-of-mouth stories. His laconic demeanor allowed him to forgo publicity, maintain presidential dignity, and prioritize the nation’s needs over his political aspirations. His legendary discipline and composure helped him overcome personal tragedy in the White House, rein in public-sector unions, reject new spending, and parsimoniously ensure that the budget never exceeded what the revenues provided. 

In Amity Shlaes’ masterful biography of the president, the author revitalized Coolidge, who, though largely forgotten, held a special place of honour during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reading the pages of this book in 2021, amid the extravagant pandemic expenses, I found it unavoidable to think about what Coolidge would have made of this profligacy. 

As the Shlaes book jacket summarizes, “Perhaps more than any other president, Coolidge understood that doing less could yield more. He reduced the federal budget during his time in office even as the economy grew, wages rose, tax rates fell, and unemployment dropped.” More importantly, he maintained personal modesty, understanding that the presidency should not serve as an office from which to gain notoriety, earn fabulous salaries, or become a celebrity. He set a unique example of personal and humble service that no president since, other than Harry Truman, has fully understood. 

Coolidge began his political career after graduating from Amherst College and earning his law degree at Harvard. He first ran for a position on the local school committee, facing off against an opponent named John Kennedy (no relation to the Kennedy Dynasty) in 1904. Coolidge would lose that first race but rise through the ranks to become Governor of Massachusetts in 1918. 

While serving as Governor in 1919, Coolidge’s big break occurred. Bursting upon the national consciousness because of a Boston police strike, Coolidge made some enemies in the labour movement but looked the part of a leader, decisively taking action after local officials had created a crisis he felt was deteriorating. In effect, Coolidge’s conduct was a precursor to what Reagan did firing Air Traffic Controllers in 1981 when they defied his order to stand down from strike action. Reagan determined the strikers had placed their demands above public safety. 

Coolidge had done the same in 1919. He restored the fired police commissioner, took control of the police force, and had Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis fire the striking police officers. AFL (American Federation of Labour) head Samuel Gompers protested, “…the right of policemen to organize has been denied, a right which has heretofore never been questioned.” Coolidge sent him a telegram that newspapers across the land published, making Coolidge an instant hero for those opposed to the strike and a rising candidate for the 1920 Republican nomination. 

In his reply to Gompers, Coolidge captured the spirit of the age, “Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity; the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time…I am equally determined to defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts and to maintain the authority and jurisdiction over her public officers where it has been placed by the Constitution and laws of her people.” Sometimes, as Coolidge might insist, middle ground does not exist. The law must reign, and Coolidge stood as its protagonist. His victory secured, he moved on to other challenges. 

By early 1920, some wanted Coolidge to run as a candidate for the Republican Party nomination. Coolidge had them shut down an office opened in Washington, DC. Harding, having won the nomination, selected Coolidge as his running mate, and the two decidedly defeated the Cox-Roosevelt ticket, scoring 60 per cent of the vote and an electoral landslide of 404-127. 

Harding’s death in August of 1923 began Coolidge’s understated presidency. Activating his humble understanding of public service, Coolidge read Article II, Section 1 on the presidency. It said, “In case of the removal of the president from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the vice president.” 

As Shlaes noted, following that was the oath of office a new president would need to take. By kerosene lamplight, a small group surrounding him, Coolidge’s father swore him in as the new U.S. President. Coolidge aimed to fulfill his understanding of the presidency as a contract between man and man. That simple adage served him well for the next five and half years and left him satisfied that having completed two terms in the executive branch, he could move on and allow someone else to undertake the rigours of the office with a new perspective. 

In 2023, a century removed, it seems strange to believe that a president could spurn the temptation of durable power. Shortly after Coolidge left office, Franklin Roosevelt broke tradition, seeking a third and fourth term. Rising out of the Nixon era, the Imperial Presidency defined the ever-increasing authority of the executive branch. Coolidge still stands as a bulwark repelling the allure of regal statesmanship and autocratic fiat. The 30th president preferred to speak, spend, and rule less. His miserly use of words best characterizes his sense of the presidency’s triviality.  He called taxes “despotic exactions,” summed up his legislative philosophy as “It is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” and shunned a big inaugural upon assuming the presidency, saying, “I think I can swing it.” 

The best anecdote, however, involves a young woman who sat beside him at a presidential dinner in the White House. She confided in Coolidge that she had bet a friend she could get him to say more than three words. He replied, “You lose.” Many call the story apocryphal, but it makes the point. As the television era emerged, those who succeeded in the role managed the medium well. Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all serve as examples. Since social media has materialized, a new mindset and playing field has developed. 

Coolidge would not likely thrive in the new era. Bashing opponents relentlessly, self-promotion, and image-making were never his strong suits. He reflected an era long since past. His calm, cool competence might serve us well today, but the job description has changed. There are other priorities. 

With the rise of the welfare state, Coolidge’s ideas of a small government modestly doing its job vanished. We could do worse than see a man of Coolidge’s moral sense and humble outlook ascend to the presidency. Facing the likely choices, Coolidge may again have two words for the American people, “You lose.”

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