Book Review: Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

PBS’s American Experience tv program, quite a few months ago, examined the life and presidency of  President James Garfield.  Garfield was assassinated in July of 1881 by a deranged individual, 200 days after being elected President.  A friend had watched the program and said that Garfield did seem to have been an impressive person and what a shame his presidency was stopped so quickly.  My friend wished a person of Garfield’s integrity would have been in the running for the office of  President in 2016.

President Calvin Coolidge

Fast-forward to today, and I was having a discussion with my  child, whom I lovingly call my liberal- hippie.  The topic of unions and strikes came up and I mentioned that I had read over the weekend that FDR once tried to imply in a speech that President Calvin Coolidge was a fascist! My liberal hippy child then mentioned he had heard that Coolidge had thrown striking workers into jail?  I sighed and decided to give my hippie kid a history lesson. To his credit, he listened to my evidence.

In the Autumn of 2014, I read  author Amity Schlaes’s book, Coolidge.    The book had been published in February of that year and I  found it utterly fascinating; I tend to favor autobiographies, biographies if I know the were written by credible writers, and historical fiction.   What I had previously known about Coolidge wasn’t much:that he was born and raised in New England, he was married to  a lovely and accomplished  woman who had a career in deaf education, he was the father of two sons, and that he was known as a man of few words.  There is a funny anecdote about Coolidge being at a dinner party where a lady  tells him that she made a bet that she could get him to say more than two words, to which Coolidge replied, “You lose.”

John Calvin Coolidge Jr.  was  born and raised in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.  His father held a lot of different jobs, notably as a justice of the peace and he served in the Vermont House of Representatives.  Coolidge knew tragedy as a youth when his mother died when he was 12, and his only sibling whom he was close to, younger sister Abigail, died at age 15 when Coolidge was 18.  Coolidge’s father valued thrift and hard work and he instilled those traits in his son.  He encouraged his son to find part-time jobs, work at them well, save his earnings, and to invest them wisely.  Coolidge went to high school at Black River Academy in Ludlow, VT.  He went to college at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Coolidge petitioned to join fraternities as a freshman but was rejected.  However, when he joined the college’s debate team and began to shine as a debater, he was able to finally join a fraternity his senior year.  After graduation, since affording law school was out of the question, Coolidge earned his law career  by apprenticing himself to a law firm in Northampton, MA. Why this method of earning a law degree has stopped, I don’t know.  With the increasing expense of college educations, I would think this idea ought to be revived.

In 1905, Coolidge met Grace Anna Goodhue.  She was a graduate of the University of Vermont and a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.  She and Coolidge were both attending the Congregationalist Church and met through various events that the younger members of the church liked to attend.  Coolidge proposed in the early summer of 1905, Grace accepted, and despite a mother-in-law who didn’t like him(she often said he was elected President due only to her daughter) the couple married that October.  Two sons were born to the marriage, John in 1906 and Calvin  in 1908. Tragically, Calvin died during his father’s presidency.  He had been playing tennis at the White House, in stocking feet, and developed a blister that became badly infected.  It was 1924 and antibiotics hadn’t been discovered yet. Young Calvin died of blood poisoning, and it’s one of the saddest accounts in Schlaes’s book.

Coolidge followed the advice of the lawyers he had clerked for while earning his law degree: get involved in local politics.  He began by  serving as a city councilman for Northampton, Mass., then serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  After that term was done, instead of running again for that seat, and with a young family at home, he opted to run for Mayor and won.  As  Northampton’s mayor, he showed the economic skills that I believe we need in the White House in 2016: Coolidge was able to raise teacher’s salaries, lower city taxes a bit, and paid off some ofthe city’s debts.  Coolidge then ran for the Massachusetts Senate and won.  He ran for a second State Senate term and won again.  Coolidge then served two terms as Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor, and then Coolidge served two terms as Governor.  During his first term in that office, the Boston Police went on strike and instead of caving in to their demands, Coolidge enlisted the National Guard to take over the city’s police duties, and he himself oversaw the running of the police department.  American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers sent Coolidge a private message stating that he disagreed with the Governor’s actions “… the right of the policemen has been denied“.  Coolidge made his reply to Gompers public and famously wrote:”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 anybody, anywhere, anytime…”  That public reply went across the nation and many Americans agreed with Coolidge’s points and a favorable view of him grew nationally.

1920 and Coolidge was selected to be Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding’s Vice Presidential running mate.  They easily defeated their Democratic opponents.  Coolidge didn’t have a lot to do as Vice President but Harding did ask that Coolidge attend all cabinet meetings, the first President to ever ask his Vice President to do so. On August 2, 1923, President Harding died of a heart attack while on a Western US speaking tour.  Coolidge was visiting his father in Vermont, staying in the family home that had no electricity or telephone.  Coolidge was sworn in by his father, who was a notary public.  This was in the wee hours of the morning, so after he was sworn in, President Coolidge went back to bed!  The next day he went back to Washington for a more formal swearing in conducted by a Supreme Court Justice.

What did I appreciate about Coolidge’s Presidency?  I appreciated his efforts to cut the government budgets each year and to pay off all of the debt the country incurred from World War I.Here is a link to all that he did that was wise for the US Economy while he was President.  The head housekeeper who had served with the Hardings despaired at the White House budget cuts and she resigned! I admired that the advice and lessons in which Coolidge’s father imparted to him didn’t leave him when he reached adulthood. Coolidge wasn’t one to talk a lot, but when he did speak, it was succinct and well-thought out. It wasn’t blurted out as unthinking verbal hits. 1923-29, the years of Coolidge’s presidency, the US saw economic growth combined with an administration that practiced economic frugality.  The American public thought so well of Coolidge that many wanted him to run for another 4 year term(this was before the Supreme Court had passed the 22nd Amendment that limited a President to serving for 8 years.) Coolidge felt it was time for him to bow out and he did so with grace. There were only two negatives that I could recall that marred an otherwise exemplary time in office. One was an anti-immigrant attitude that Congress and American public were fostering, that led to the Johnson-Reed Act, which severely limited the amount of immigants that could enter the US. Coolidge was hesitant to sign it as it would especially harm the numbers of Asian immigrants and the US had been developing a good relationship with the nation of Japan.  However, Congress and labor groups kept demanding that the Act be signed so Coolidge did give in and sign it in May of 1924. I wonder if the signing of this Act started into motion the hard feelings Japan developed towards the US which ultimately led to the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941? The other negative event was a personal one.  The Coolidge’s were vacationing for the summer of 1927 in South Dakota. The First Lady and her Secret Service agent went off on a hike and were gone several hours, which worried Coolidge greatly. When the First Lady and her agent returned, Coolidge’s ire had grown and he demanded the agent be re-assigned. That left the press stationed in South Dakota in order to cover the first family’s vacation to wonder about the First Lady and her agent. The First Lady turned the tables on her husband and wrote a letter stating how professional her agent was in conducting his work and that she didn’t want him re-assigned.  To her credit, the First Lady remained friends with this agent and his wife the rest of her life.

I recommend this book as a great read.  It’s interesting not only for an in depth look at Coolidge but also at America in the 1920s before the Great Depression hit. The book  makes me wish we could have a person in Coolidge’s mold to run for presidency in the future;  a president who does the job well, who speaks few words  sounds wonderful right now!

 

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