The Life of Calvin Coolidge

by Dr. Michael Platt

A review of Calvin Coolidge, Autobiography

(Appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of Modern Age)

In 1928, had President Calvin Coolidge chosen to run for reelection, the American people would surely have chosen him again, and thus he would have served as President into early 1933. What the consequences of that choice would have been, for America and the world, is hard to say. Mr. Coolidge did not choose to run; he was not elected; he did not serve. Instead, he chose to do other things, among them to write his Autobiography.

The book is not readily available today and is not much read, yet it is a good book, a good book for statesmen and citizens, ladies and gentlemen, women and men, and also girls and boys to read.

In places the writing is as good as Willa Cather’s. "Riding over the fields and along the country roads by himself, where nothing interrupts his seeing and thinking, is a good occupation for a boy. The silences of Nature have a discipline all their own." What he lauds in his father’s work—"The lines he laid out were true and straight, and the curves regular"—is true of his own prose. It has the same quality he attributes to his aunt Sarah—"The sweetness of her nature was a benediction to all who came in contact with her."

Sweet as Mr. Coolidge is, he is also spare. Garrulity itself would fall silent, for one minute at least, upon hearing: "What the end of the four years of carnage meant, those who remember it will never forget and those who do not can never be told." And one of Mr. Coolidge’s sentences rivals the Psalms: "The break of day saw them stirring. Their industry continued until twilight."

Just as hay in a full barn in September and jam in the pantry are the concentrates of all the sun, water, and the work of the summer, so the sentences that make up Coolidge’s Autobiography are the fruits of a good life.

About six score years ago, Calvin Coolidge came into the world. The day of his birth was already a holiday. He was born on the Fourth of July in 1872. For the rest of his life, the annual joyous return of the nation’s birthday coincided with his own. Thus, from childhood, Calvin Coolidge’s happiness was absorbed in something greater than himself, and so it was to be his whole life long; his happiness, and his sorrow, served something greater, in truth a fair portion of the good.

Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch in the middle of Vermont. Then and now, the Notch lies in a high valley surrounded by six low mountains with two entrances. Streams rush strong and cool down the defiles, green meadows slope up to dark forests, and snows drift high. There the lights are turned off early, the nights are dark, and over all the peaks there is peace. A thousand free men could hold the Notch against an army.

Coolidge found it a clean place and a place for clean living. "While I can think of many pleasures we did not have, and many niceties of culture with which we were unfamiliar, yet if I had the power to order my life anew I would not dare to change that period of it. If it did not afford me the best that there was, it abundantly provided the best that there was for me." Reading that, one does not know which is more worthy, Coolidge’s insight or his gratitude.

Like most of America then, Plymouth was a community of farmers. Work was scheduled by nature; the sun directed the day and presided over the seasons. Farm labor was long, difficult, regular, and various. It filled life with things worth doing, it supported families, and it made them more family; members labored together, within sight of each other, or within range of a story at supper; and parents worked to pass on the blessings of this life to their children. In this community of families, Calvin’s father was prominent. Thrift and industry brought him prosperity. There was no skill, in carpentry, masonry, farming, handling horses, and a hundred ancillary arts, that he did not possess. Trust in his fellow man, forbearance of ills, and service to others brought him the respect of his fellow townspeople, and with that their votes, for Vermont was then a state of self-governing towns and even self-governing school districts.

Young Coolidge learned self-government by watching, by listening, and by doing. He watched his father and others, he listened to their discussions, and practiced all he beheld: industry in work and in studies, thrift in his own economic enterprises, and civil sagacity much later. Liberty was, for his elders and for him, at once something you must strive to get for yourself, by industry and thrift, and something that as a father, a citizen, a Selectman, or Representative you should support in others. The right to that Liberty is best protected by all living it, and by some gaining the votes of the others to office, so that the consent and the virtue of the people are kept together.

As important was the love of his mother, who died when he was twelve, whose grave he visited in the night, and who, whenever he thought of her, was with him. "Whatever was grand and beautiful in form and color attracted her." Also important was the loving support of his stepmother. Thinking of her, Coolidge writes, "I am convinced that the good predominates and that it is constantly all about us, ready for our service if only we will accept it."

Coolidge was very grateful for the schooling he received. What he learned at home fit with what he learned in the fields; both fit with what he learned in the general store, in the town meeting and in the church; and all this in turn fit with what he learned when he went away to Black River Academy, thirteen walking miles from home in Ludlow. There teachers were hired for what they knew, students advanced by their achievements, and the chance to learn was valued as a privilege. Had Coolidge gone no further than Black River, he would have gone forth to live a good life. It is a good school of which you can say that.

Yet there was more in store for this man and a college was the way to it. At Amherst, Coolidge first discovered what a man might be, but not right off. Up until his junior year, Coolidge was a fair, but not a fine student, hardworking and faithful, but nothing special. He felt it and thought of withdrawing. He yearned for something, he didn’t know quite what, and was weary, even despondent, but his father counseled him to return. He did and found what he wanted in the classes of Prof. Charles E. Garman.

From the spring of Junior all the way through Senior year, Garman taught psychology, which meant the soul, and philosophy, which meant the good. Witherspoon at Princeton taught a similar course to James Madison, but Garman was probably more important to Coolidge. In Garman’s classes students learned that they could reason on their own. Of course, geometry, especially Euclid, can do that, and has done it for many, including Lincoln, but Garman taught students that they could reason about life. Of Garman, you might say he made boys into men, or that he made men into human beings, truly rational animals.

This fine teacher valued intellectual virtue as much as true opinion; not all students appreciated this, certainly not at the beginning of the course, when in place of the answers they expected, they encountered questions, when in place of a textbook, they met pamphlets. With his own salary Garman printed these up, swore the students to secrecy, and asked each to think about the matters in them, reason about them, at first alone in their essays, which Garman commented on copiously, and then together in class; only after that did Garman say something about his answer.

Garman began with matter and the self, showed the students that materialism cannot account for the materialist, emphasized choices, and thus proceeded to ethics, and from ethics on to politics. Students such as Calvin Coolidge came away convinced that they could know truth, were bound to revere Truth’s God, and placed on earth to serve the good.

Read some of Garman’s pamphlets and the testimonials of his students and you will see why William James called him the best teacher in America. "He was constantly reminding us that the spirit was willing but the flesh was strong, but that nevertheless, if we would continue steadfastly to think on these things we would be changed from glory to glory through increasing intellectual and moral power. He was right," testifies Coolidge. The four pages on his teacher in his Autobiography are just the kind of appreciation that a true teacher hopes to deserve, not clapping immediately, or even esteem into the next term, but years after, abiding gratitude, for setting one on the right path, one that leads to a good life and that is, when you consider it, the beginning of that good life. For the rest of his life, Coolidge kept a collection of Garman’s pamphlets by his bedside.

Sent into the world by that teacher, Coolidge chose law to serve others. The transition from accomplished Senior to unregarded beginner is often painful, but not for Coolidge. It was the happiest of his life. "I was full of the joy of doing something in the world." There is no greater pleasure than finally to be doing what you have prepared for and seeing that you are doing it well.

As practiced then, the law was learned, orderly, and responsible. It tended to encourage justice, its usages trained reason, and its ways instilled moderation in the people. No self-hawking advertisements, no calling cards at accident scenes, and no predatory charges by the minute. The profession was respected and its general standing elevated those in it who were most trusted. Coolidge was one, and, as Hamilton had predicted, trust for the good lawyer helped to elect him to a series of political offices.

On the way he met his beloved Grace. "We thought we were made for each other. For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces." By saying no more, Coolidge makes us wonder if there has been a finer lady in our White House.

Now as it happened, while Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge was faced with a strike by the police of the city of Boston. No great defender of the Res Publica of old Rome faced down a mutineering legion with firmer justice. What he ordered put down rebellion in Boston and what he telegraphed to Gompers made him known in the nation. "There is no right to strike against the public safety by any body, any time, any where." In this aphorism the people recognized one of the cornerstones of their self-governing Liberty. And in the aphorist, they recognized a pillar they might trust with greater weight. Coolidge’s firmness, in deed and in word, made him Vice President.

It is a remarkable fact that since Lincoln many of the best presidents have come to the Presidency through the death of their predecessor: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry Truman. The Vice-Presidency is a Platonic notion. It asks of the political man, often a most ambitious type and always an active one, whether he is willing to spend his time sitting still and put the remunerated leisure provided by the people to good use. Coolidge, as you can see from his account, passed this test of leisure well.

Everyone knows how the death of Harding then made Coolidge President, how his own father administered the oath in the night in Plymouth, how he let impartial justice remove the scandal surrounding the dead executive, and how in appreciation, the people elected him in his own right. The other events of his administration are less well known, and Coolidge says little of them. The most well known, the remarkable prosperity of the nation, achieved through reduction of the national debt and the Mellon tax cuts, Coolidge does not mention, probably because it was everywhere obvious to most everyone.

One way to begin to appreciate these achievements, despite the calumny of certain historians and the neglect of others, is by reading Coolidge’s speeches. Reading them you never feel uncertain what he thought. You know that he could think, that he alone wrote them, and that he did so for others. Thus, whatever the topic or the audience, Coolidge leads his fellow citizens to the fraternal amity that justice and common sense promote.

There is a reason why Coolidge's Autobiography says little about the particular acts of his presidency, reveals none of his secrets, and thus disappoints some historians. The good statesman focuses all his mind on his acts and their results, not on how to make it come out right in the memoirs. In place of such details Coolidge devotes a chapter to the general precepts of executive prudence, a warning of how encroachments upon the appointive power will lead to bureaucratic despotism, and how to govern the day.

The restless contemporary wits who criticized Coolidge for napping after lunch do not appreciate how happy a land may be when presided over by a man who can nap. The wisdom of the Framers made our chief executive a president, not a leader. It is a Macbeth who is sleepless and it is a great napper, such as Churchill, whom you can count on to win great wars. Neglect is another thing. These wits never criticize Coolidge for what he might be criticized for.

Coolidge cannot be much hurt by calumny. As he says of his living critics, "I shall always consider it the highest tribute to my administration that the opposition have based so little of their criticism on what I have really said and done." It is we who are hurt by the calumny to him. Of all the departed presidents Mr. Coolidge is probably the one who most "shouldst be living at this hour" deep in debt, waste, and agitation.

In 1928 if Calvin Coolidge had chosen to run for reelection, he would surely have been reelected, and had he been in office at the time of the Crash, he might have averted the Depression that followed. Perhaps one day I shall write an essay entitled, "If Coolidge Had Not Been Reelected in 1928."

In it I shall contrast the wisdom of what Coolidge did in his second full term with the folly of what Hoover would surely have done; how the stock market crash would have been prolonged under Hoover into a depression; how as a consequence a desperate people might have elected a frivolous revolutionary as their next president, setting off new rounds of compassionate folly, equally unable to restore prosperity, and instituting constitutional innovations that by changing the relation of people and government, would gradually sap their self-reliant strength and inevitably lead to either a national bankruptcy or a national socialism, or both.

I would go on to speculate how all the while under a Hoover and high tariffs the American Depression would have become world-wide bringing down civil regimes and replacing them with socialist tyrannies, especially in Germany where a bellicose hater might well wage world war, happy in the deaths of millions, and oblivious to all the unforeseen consequences, win or lose, generation unto generation. This is speculation, of course, but not without a basis.

To the degree that one discovers in Coolidge the virtues of the statesman, that is, the firm grasp of principles, the penetrating insight into conditions and men, and the gifts, in a democracy, to persuade the governed and their representatives to embrace that wisdom, often against the gusts of their desires and the designs of their demagogues—to the degree that one finds the statesman in Coolidge, one must conclude that in office he might have averted the Great Depression and thus all its terrible consequences. There is considerable reason to think that Coolidge did have that virtue. In 1929 America was considerably more prosperous, more content, and more peaceful—war with Mexico having been averted—than in 1923 when Coolidge accepted the presidency. One reason was that Coolidge vetoed foolish and expensive legislation.

Did Coolidge also see into the future? His wife reports he saw a slump coming and others report he thought Hoover imprudent. Certainly he would have done many things differently than his successor. Yet as the convention approached, Coolidge did not put his weight behind another candidate, say for example Dwight Morrow, and he did not, more responsibly still, allow himself to be nominated. One seems compelled to conclude that this inactivity marks the limit of his virtue. Of course, lapses of omission are much harder to assert than blunders of commission.

Why did Mr. Coolidge not choose to run for the presidency in 1928? In his Autobiography he devotes a whole chapter to this question. He says it would be too bad if the good of the country depended on one man. The man who lives in the White House is tempted to think himself more important than he is. The office attracts flatterers. But the main reason, Coolidge is silent about, and yet it is revealed.

Coolidge says that "The Presidential office takes a heavy toll of those who occupy it and those who are dear to them." Who was dear to Calvin Coolidge? His wife, Grace, without a doubt. And his children, no question.

Indeed, in an earlier chapter, Coolidge tells about the son of his who died from a slight accident right on the south lawn of the White House. Coolidge tells us young Calvin "had a remarkable insight into things. The day I became President he had just started to work in a tobacco field. When one of his fellow laborers said to him, ‘If my father was President I would not work in a tobacco field,’ Calvin replied, ‘If my father were your father, you would.’" That son not only understood America the way his father did but expressed his understanding with the family brevity. Coolidge’s mere retelling of the story tells us how pleased he was with his son.

Yet the boy died, and his death tested the faith of his father. "In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not," Coolidge reports with terrible simplicity. From others we learn that Coolidge caught a rabbit on the White House grounds and brought it to his boy, and that he held him in his arms as he died. Coolidge hated waste and here was waste of the most precious. "It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do."

The death of such a boy questioned all Coolidge lived by, every thing he had seen in Plymouth Notch, all he learned to reason about at Amherst under Garman, and all he thought he had proven in his own life. Why should the Lord take a boy so disposed to serve Him? There was no answer. "When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him." Why does Coolidge write power and glory? Does he mean that the power of the Presidency went because power went from the President? It seems so. (And yet Coolidge did faithfully execute the Office of the President and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.)

Then Coolidge adds one more thought. "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House." Sheltered in this sentence is a question: Why was such a price exacted for my occupying the White House? It is very rare for a politician to ask a question that he does not have an answer to. Coolidge was a politician, but much more, and thus no "politician."

Coolidge was no casual Christian; the addressee of this question can only be God. Yet Coolidge tells us that he never received an answer. "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House." There it is, one little sentence. It is so sudden and so unset in its surrounding, that it would be easy to skip on and not note it. What it says is that Coolidge thought the Lord had punished him for occupying the White House.

The connection to his decision not to run in 1928 is stunning; it must surprise all those who do not share his faith; yet it is clear. Had he run for office again, had he won, had he occupied the White House again, Calvin Coolidge would have thought it just for the Lord to take John, his other boy. When Coolidge announced that he did not choose to run in 1928, he did not mean he would not if the American people insisted and if the Lord chose him to run.

The contrast with Lincoln, who lost a son in the White House, but proceeded to Gettysburg that week, and did choose to run in 1864, is instructive. Perhaps the contrast measures the virtue of Coolidge, marks its high limit. However, we do not know whether the Lord in the one case purposed Lincoln to persist in office and in the other equally purposed Coolidge to desist. The victory of the Union in the one case may be as in accord with Divine Providence as the Depression and the Second World War were in the other.

One may even wonder if Coolidge, the man most able to encourage prosperity and peace, was withdrawn by the Lord from the almost chosen American people because they did not heed his constant teaching, that there is something infinitely more important than prosperity. Perhaps they heard Coolidge’s observation "the chief business of the American people is business" as if it were complacent praise, not attending to what completes it: "The ideal of America is idealism." In the view of Coolidge and of his teacher Garman, the prosperity secured by progress is the natural consequence of the daily practice of virtue by a Christian people, and yet God in His wisdom can intervene.

In the view that the American people elected in the New Deal and after, prosperity is mainly the consequence of a national social government. According to the old deal, "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." According to the new, the only salutary fear is the fear of fear itself. Perhaps by withdrawing Coolidge, the Lord wished to tempt this people with a choice, to recall them to their true foundation, and, if they did not, to chastise them with the consequences.

Instead of running in 1928, Coolidge wrote his Autobiography. By doing so, he prepared for death. Thus the deaths of others are often mentioned in it. Coolidge’s mother died when he was a child, his sister Abbie when he was a boy. During his grandfather’s last illness, young Coolidge read the Gospel of John to him, as his grandfather had read it to his grandfather. (No one who appreciates that story can say he does not understand what tradition is.)

But the special quality of Calvin Coolidge comes out in a slight addition to another story, of a smithy whom young Coolidge used to assist. "He always pitched the hay on to the ox cart and I raked after. If I was getting behind he slowed up a little. He was a big-hearted man." Quite a few persons could have written those sentences, only Coolidge the next: "I wish I could see that blacksmith again." This man was passionate, and the fact that it only comes out, against his reserve, and then only in a corner, is merely testimony to how very passionate he was. In Shakespeare, in Tolstoy, in Dostoyevsky, the great hearted are always ready to speak what they feel, but some great souls cover their hearts with a dark suit, a right hand, and a dry wit.

Coolidge is certainly the shyest of our presidents, even more than Lincoln, and of all public men, save Christ, perhaps the shyest. Silent he was not. When he spoke to persons he did not know, they knew he thought and felt more than he said to them. This reticence from depth, be it grief, thought, or peace, they sometimes called silence. Certainly Coolidge had no chit-chat, never called something cute, and even when playing was reserved. A lot of persons liked Coolidge, but I do not believe he confided in any one. I doubt we will ever know. Any one he chose to confide in would have had the good sense to keep mum. The person who knew and loved him best, Grace Coolidge, did not repeat what he chose to say to her only.

What Coolidge wished the American people to know, he wrote to us. He is one of the few presidents to write his own speeches or to write his own life. Ulysses S. Grant did both and most of his predecessors make you suppose they could have too. Certainly the first six, and later Theodore Roosevelt. Coolidge is one of the last presidents to have done either. One wonders how long we can go without another.

Teaching school in a land where the chief elected executive does not write for himself and every child soon knows it, is hard, for the teachers and on the children. One of the best ways to measure an era is the quality of the letters. Read them and you will see how many people know their own thoughts and feelings. If they can describe significant events in their lives, then they will understand others as well.

This is the true basis of self-government. The fundamental assumption of democracy is that every adult not demented knows enough to make his own decisions. Democracy demands self-knowledge. It requires persons who understand themselves. The letters back home during our Civil War, the least rancorous civil war in the history of the world, show we once could understand ourselves, and so does Coolidge’s Autobiography.

Of Vermont, Coolidge once said, "If the spirit of Liberty should vanish in other parts of this Union and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont." I do not know that his assertion remains true of Vermont; self-government lives still in the Town Meetings, but is lately under some duress; but I do say confidently that if Liberty does vanish from these United States, it might be recovered by the people reading this story of an American life and practicing the virtues of its author. Although Coolidge did not run for reelection, the story he chose to write instead gave to the people of America a measure to judge all aspirants to that sacred trust.

Dr. Platt teaches at Friends of the Republic.

Copyright The Claremont Institute. Used by permission.