'Silent Cal': Peter Clements Evaluates the Thirtieth President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge

By Clements, Peter | History Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

'Silent Cal': Peter Clements Evaluates the Thirtieth President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge


Clements, Peter, History Review


A Much-Maligned Figure?

'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 criticised 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. …

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