Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth, Vermont on July 4, 1872, the only president to be born on Independence Day, so far. His ancestors emigrated from England around 1630 and settled in Massachusetts and his great-great-grandfather was an officer in the Revolutionary War. His father, John Coolidge, was a successful farmer and small businessman who served in the Vermont House of Representatives and the Vermont Senate. His mother, Victoria Josephine Moor, died when he was 12 years old and his sister, Abigail Grace Coolidge, died five years later. Calvin was a shy young boy who would often hide when visitors came to visit. His father remarried a schoolteacher in 1891 and ultimately lived with his son until he was eighty.
Calvin attended Black River Academy in 1890 and then went to Amherst College where he joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. He was the first member of his family to attend college and discovered his passion for great books, great ideas, and great deeds, he studied Italian and French, along with other languages. Years later, a foreign diplomat said that Calvin, who received the nickname “Silent Cal,” for his quiet demeanor, could be “silent in five languages.”
He was known by students and fellow residents at the boarding house for his sense of humor. Hash was served frequently and Calvin would ask the landlady, who had a dog and a cat, “Where’s the dog?” and after the dog would be brought in, would ask “Where’s the cat?” — and the cat would be called in. Only then would he help himself to the hash.
After graduating with honors in 1895, his father urged him to move and take up law in Northampton, Massachusetts. Being frugal and not wanting to spend large amounts of money on law school, he decided to become an apprentice and law reader in the local law firm, Hammond & Field.
Calvin started in politics at 24 years old and campaigned for presidential candidate William McKinley. A year later in 1897 he was admitted to the bar and in 1898, with his meager savings and an inheritance from his deceased grandfather, opened a small law practice. His good reputation in the area began to grow and he spent the next 20 years handling real estate deals, wills and bankruptcies.
Calvin was elected in 1898 for a one-year term to the Northampton, city council. Then in 1901 he worked as the city solicitor and eventually as the clerk of courts, he tried for the school board in 1905 but lost that election, the only political lose he would experience.
In 1903 Calvin met Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher from Clarke School for the Deaf, who was also from Vermont. She first saw Calvin after looking at the window of a boarding house and saw him shaving wearing nothing but his underwear and his hat. He said he wore his hat when he shaved to keep his hair out of his face. The image must not have been too bad because they got married in Vermont in 1905 and the marriage would, on all accounts, be happy and successful over the coming decades. His devotion to her was so great that he translated Dante’s Inferno into English during their courtship. They considered themselves opposites in terms of attitude with Grace being outgoing and Calvin being more serious. Although Calvin was always a quiet man in public he would explode in private by throwing temper tantrums which Grace would have to take the brunt of. Calvin tightly restricted Grace’s activities and forbid her to drive, ride horseback, fly, wear slacks, bob her hair, or express her opinion on any political issue. He wanted Grace to be the model of old-fashioned womanhood. They had two sons, John who passed away in 2000 and Calvin Jr., who developed blister that became infected while playing tennis and died of sepsis in 1924.
In 1906 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and when a local state senator retired in 1911, Calvin was nominated for the position and won an easy victory. Calvin’s unique political demeanor immediately attracted attention, most other politicians were extraverted and grandiose, Calvin was serious and introverted, getting the nickname “Silent Cal.”
As president of the state Senate he had an office with just a single desk and chair. Visitors were forced to stand while they asked for a legislative favor. If Calvin became interested in the proposal he would unlock the closet door and grab a chair for his guest. When the meeting was over he would put the chair back in the closet and lock the door. Now that sends a message, Calvin was a true introvert and valued his time.
His reputation grew after winning an election and gave his speech entitled, Have Faith in Massachusetts in January 1914. He became the Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts in 1916 and Governor in 1919. He was in the national spotlight the following year when the Boston police force went on strike and riots broke out across the city. Calvin sent in the National Guard to restore order and then took a strong stand against rehiring the striking police officers. In a telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers, he famously declared that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
In 1920 the Republican National Convention chose him as the vice presidential candidate for Warren G. Harding. They won by a landslide and took office in March 1921 but Calvin grew frustrated with his largely ceremonial duties as vice president. The silent and stoic Calvin was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings, give speeches and perform other official duties.
Stories spread through the city how “Silent Cal,” the new vice president, was either very dumb or very shy. He would sit at the table and quietly eat nuts and crackers and say next to nothing to those around him. People would tease Calvin and a Washington socialite told him that she had bet her friends that she could get him to say three words and Calvin said, “You lose.” He would clown around a little for his own delight, played the dumb man, impersonated the yokel. In his heart he probably despised his tormenters and the longer he stayed in Washington, the more suspicious he became of everyone he met. An old friend warned him that this was an unhealthy state of mind, Calvin replied: “I do not think you have any comprehension of what people do to me. Even small things bother me.”
While touring the country campaigning, President Harding died in California on August 2, 1923. Calvin received word that he was President while in Vermont visiting his family home. They didn’t have electricity or telephone and a messenger brought word of Harding’s death three hours before sunrise. Calvin’s father was a notary public and administered the oath of office with Calvin using the family Bible. He is the only U.S. president to be sworn in by his own father. When he returned to Washington Justice Hoehling, Jr. re-sworn him to the position. Calvin would later note, “A lot of people in Plymouth can’t understand how I got to be President, least of all my father!”
President Warren G. Harding’s administration was riddled with scandal and Calvin‘s quiet, steadfast and frugal leadership style cleaned up the rampant corruption and provided a model of stability and respectability for the American people. Calvin’s reputation for honesty and integrity helped him restore public faith in the government.
During his campaign for the 1924 Presidential election his son Calvin Jr. died. Calvin became depressed but still pushed through with the run for presidency. He remarked about his son, “In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not. When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.” He ran a clean campaign without criticizing his opponents, even after they claimed that he would get pity votes for mentioning his son’s death. He won a popular vote majority of 2.5 million over his two opponents’ combined total.
Calvin continued the trend of personalizing the presidency by taking advantage of the newest communication medium of the day, radio. On February 22, 1924 he became the first president to make a radio address to the American people, providing the public with insight into his private life foster a feeling of trust and familiarity which created a personal bond with the public. He had a strong belief in private enterprise and small government. He cut taxes, limited government spending and stacked regulatory commissions with people sympathetic to business. Coolidge once said, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
With the exception of favoring tariffs, Calvin didn’t like regulation and some blame his laissez-faire ideas for the Great Depression. Calvin was suspicious of foreign alliances and discouraged American membership in the League of Nations and refused to recognize the Soviet Union.
Calvin did favor civil rights and refused to appoint any known members of the Ku Klux Klan to government offices and appointed African-Americans. In 1924 he signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting full citizenship to all Native Americans while permitting them to retain tribal land rights.
Calvin didn’t discuss official business with his wife Grace, he didn’t even tell her that he was going to run for re-election, someone else told her after the fact. Any knowledge she had about public business was obtained from newspapers or other public information. She even asked him if the Secret Service could give her his weekly calendar so she could prepare for any public events and her told her “Grace, we don’t give that information out conspicuously.” This was as true as it was humorous.
Although they had a happy marriage she had to deal with his dry humor, demonstrated once when they visited a government farm. They took separate tours and when Grace expressed interest in a prize rooster the farmer told her that the rooster was able to perform the sex act several times a day. Grace told the farmer “Tell that to Mr. Coolidge when he comes by.” When Calvin got there, the farmer told him about it and he asked “Is it with the same hen every time?” “No,” the farmer said, “it’s with a different hen each time.” And Calvin responded “Be sure to tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”
But no President was kinder in permitting himself to be photographed in Indian war bonnets or cowboy dress. Several people told him that he shouldn’t do that because it makes people laugh and he told them “I don’t know why you object. It’s good for people to laugh, isn’t it?”
He was even kind to a burglar he found going through his pockets in a hotel room he was staying at. He asked him not to take his watch chain because it had an engraved charm on it he wanted to keep. Calvin talked to the man for a while and found out that he was a college student and didn’t have any money to pay for the hotel or to buy a ticket back to college. Calvin asked for his wallet back and counted out $32 and gave it to the man as a loan and told him to leave the way he came in to avoid the Secret Service. It is said that the loan was repaid later.
The family had two pet raccoons, named Rebecca and Reuben, who would occasionally run around the White House. Calvin would also walk around with one of them perched behind his neck.
Many people believed that Calvin could have won re-election in 1928. But while vacationing in the Black Hills, South Dakota he publicly announced his decision not to run on August 2, 1927 in a simple statement he said, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” He explained in his autobiography: “The Presidential office takes a heavy toll of those who occupy it and those who are dear to them. While we should not refuse to spend and be spent in the service of our country, it is hazardous to attempt what we feel is beyond our strength to accomplish.” With his typical humility, Calvin continued to state, “We draw our Presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
After departing the White House, Calvin retired to his house, known as “The Beeches,” in Northampton. He opted to buy a larger house after he got tired of seeing strangers drive around his estate. He started to write his memoirs and contributed political commentaries to magazines.
Less than a year after he left office, the U.S. stock market crashed and the economy plummeted into the Great Depression. Although Calvin had received a great deal of credit for the prosperity of the 1920s, he recognized that he bore some responsibility for the severe economic downturn. He admitted to friends that he had spent his presidency “avoiding the big problems.” Historians have stated that his real measure of success as president was his way of doing absolutely nothing at all. He published his autobiography in 1929, and from 1930 to 1931 wrote a newspaper column entitled “Calvin Coolidge Says.”
On January 5, 1933, at the age of 60, Calvin died of a heart attack in his Northampton home. Democratic admirer, Alfred E. Smith wrote that he was distinguished for his character more than for his achievement, “His great task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history … in a time of extravagance and waste….”
His body is buried underneath a simple headstone in Plymouth Notch Vermont, the place where his ancestral home had stood. On July 4, 1972, Vermont inscribed Calvin’s Brave Little State of Vermont speech in the Hall of Inscriptions inside the Vermont State House.
Calvin never made any pretensions to greatness, he recorded in his autobiography, “It is a great advantage to a President and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”
When Ronald Reagan, who is known as the Great Communicator, became President in 1981, he hung a portrait of Calvin in the Cabinet Room of the White House. This astonished many who merely thought of Calvin as “Silent Cal,” the President of few words. But Reagan understood that although he was a man of few words, those words count and he meant what he said. Reagan stated, “Coolidge was the most effective defender of America’s Founding principles at a time when those principles were widely dismissed. Moreover, he was extraordinarily effective at putting those principles into practice.”
Grace remained a popular figure after leaving the White House and in 1931 the magazine Good Housekeeping listed her as one of the “twelve greatest living women.” After Calvin passed away she traveled to Europe and continued her association with the Clarke School for the Deaf, along with other volunteer organizations during World War II. She passed away from heart disease in 1957 at the age of 78.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
“It takes a great man to be a good listener.”
“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
“There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.”
“Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”
“Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberality, and for the rights of mankind. Unless the people believe in these principles they cannot believe in our government. There are only two main theories of government in our world. One rests on righteousness and the other on force. One appeals to reason, and the other appeals to the sword. One is exemplified in the republic, the other is represented by despotism.”
“The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way by which we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man. Of course we endeavor to restrain the vicious, and furnish a fair degree of security and protection by legislation and police control, but the real reform which society in these days is seeking will come as a result of our religious convictions, or they will not come at all. Peace, justice, humanity, charity—these cannot be legislated into being. They are the result of divine grace.”
“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”
“If we judge ourselves only by our aspirations and everyone else only their conduct we shall soon reach a very false conclusion.”
“I have noticed that nothing I have never said ever did me any harm.”
“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”
Presidential message, December 25, 1927”
“We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.”
“It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.”
“I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom.”
Until we can reestablish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty.”
“No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”
“We do not need more intellectual power, we need more spiritual power. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.”
“Patriotism is easy to understand in America; it means looking out for yourself by looking out for your country.”
“Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”
“Don’t you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?”
“They criticize me for harping on the obvious; if all the folks in the United States would do the few simple things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves.”
“The nation which forgets it defenders will be itself forgotten.”
“This country would not be a land of opportunity, America could not be America, if the people were shackled with government monopolies.”
“Wealth comes from industry and from the hard experience of human toil. To dissipate it in waste and extravagance is disloyalty to humanity.”
“The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act or resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil. It can provide no substitute for the rewards of service. It can, of course, care for the defective and recognize distinguished merit. The normal must care for themselves. Self-government means self-support.”
“The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good.”
“I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people.”
“When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”
“I have found it advisable not to give too much heed to what people say when I am trying to accomplish something of consequence. Invariably they proclaim it can’t be done. I deem that the very best time to make the effort.”
“…After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are the moving impulses of our life. But it is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”
“There is only one form of political strategy in which I have any confidence, and that is to try to do the right thing and sometimes be able to succeed.”
“It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”
“If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called on to repeat it.”
“Any reward that is worth having only comes to the industrious. The success which is made in any walk of life is measured almost exactly by the amount of hard work that is put into it.”
“Civilization and profits go hand in hand”
“All growth depends upon activity. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work.”
“The business of America is business. ”
“Democracy is not a tearing down; it is a building up. It does not denial of the divine right of kings; it asserts the divine right of all men.”
“The government of the United States is a device for maintaining in perpetuity the rights of the people, with the ultimate extinction of all privileged classes.”
“It is our theory that the people own the government, not that the government should own the people.”
“We do not need more intellectual power; we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge; we need more character. We do not need more government; we need more culture. We do not need more law; we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen; we need more of the things that are unseen”
“The Business of Our Firm is Business”
“The Business of America is Business”
“Economy is idealism in its most practical form.”
“When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”
“No nation ever had an army large enough to guarantee it against attack in time of peace, or ensure it of victory in time of war.”
“It has been my observation in life that, if one will only exercise the patience to wait, his wants are likely to be filled.”
“The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.”
“You don’t have to explain something you haven’t said.”
“Well, they’re going to elect that Superman Hoover, and he’s going to have some trouble. He’s going to have to spend money, but it won’t be enough. Then the Democrats will come in. But they don’t know anything about money.
“I have never been hurt by what I have not said.”
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
“It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”
“It seems impossible that any man could adequately describe his mother. I cannot describe mine.”
“The college of that day had a very laudable desire to get students, and having admitted them, it was equally alert in striving to keep them and help them get an education, with the result that very few left of their own volition and almost none were dropped for failure in their work. There was no marked exodus at the first examination period, which was due not only to the attitude of the college but to the attitude of the students, who did not go there because they wished to experiment for a few months with college life and be able to say thereafter they had been in college, but went because they felt they had need of an education, and expected to work hard for that purpose until the course was finished. There were few triflers.”
“Wherever we look, the work of the chemist has raised the level of our civilization and has increased the productive capacity of our nation.”
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not;nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.Genius will not; un-rewarded genius is almost a proverb.”
“Under the attempt to perform the impossible there sets in a general disintegration. When legislation fails, those who look upon it as a sovereign remedy simply cry out for more legislation.”
“A sound and wise statesmanship which recognizes and attempts to abide by its limitations will undoubtedly find itself displaced by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little.”
“The deliberate, sound judgement of the country is likely to find it has been superseded by a popular whim.”
“I have found it advisable not to give too much heed to what people say when I am trying to accomplish something of consequence. Invariably they proclaim it can’t be done.”
“The collection of taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny.”
“I appreciate how impossible it is to convey an adequate realization of the office of President. A few short paragraphs in the Constitution of the United States describe all his fundamental duties. Various laws passed over a period of nearly a century and a half have supplemented his authority. All of his actions can be analyzed. All of his goings and comings can be recited. The details of his daily life can be made known. The effect of his policies on his own country and on the world at large can be estimated. His methods of work, his associates, his place of abode, can all be described. But the relationship created by all these and more, which constitutes the magnitude of the office, does not yield to definition. Like the glory of a morning sunrise, it can only be experienced it cannot be told.”
“Wealth comes from industry and from the hard experience of human toil. To dissipate it in waste and extravagance is disloyalty to humanity. This is by no means a doctrine of parsimony. Both men and nations should live in accordance with their means and devote their substance not only to productive industry, but to the creation of the various forms of beauty and the pursuit of culture which give adornments to the art of life.”
“IT is a very old saying that you never can tell what you can do until you try. The more I see of life the more I am convinced of the wisdom of that observation.”
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