The Coolidge Presidency: Historians Have Rated Calvin Coolidge Poorly among Our Nation's Chief Executives for Being a "Do-Nothing President," but He Should Be Rated Highly for the Very Same Reason

By Telzrow, Michael | The New American, January 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Coolidge Presidency: Historians Have Rated Calvin Coolidge Poorly among Our Nation's Chief Executives for Being a "Do-Nothing President," but He Should Be Rated Highly for the Very Same Reason


Telzrow, Michael, The New American


Most Americans reserve their greatest praise for past presidents who were noted for their activity while in office. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately come to mind--the former for his aggressive extra-executive actions in putting down a "rebellion," and the latter for equally aggressive measures in reshaping American politics and culture during the Great Depression. Rarely do Americans praise those presidents who exercised their duties with restraint and in accordance with the U.S. Constitution.

For contemporary Americans weaned on activist presidents who seem to wield more power with each subsequent administration, the idea of a minimalist presidency is positively alien. But between 1923 and 1929, America enjoyed an administration that governed little and, in doing so, restored confidence in our republic, which had been soiled by the scandals of the Harding administration.

Calvin Coolidge's tenure as president is typically characterized as a "do nothing" administration. His well-known taciturn demeanor symbolized his political approach so much so that the great American historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, wrote that Coolidge "exalted inactivity to a fine art." Others like H. L. Mencken remarked that had Coolidge been in office during the Great Depression he would have handled the crisis by "snoozing away the lazy afternoons." But despite those who were fond of mocking Coolidge's inactivity, the facts remain that his presidential performance was closer to what the Founding Fathers envisioned than many of the "great" presidents who came before and after him.

Early Years

Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872 in the family home in Plymouth, Vermont. His father, John Calvin Coolidge, was a prosperous farmer and shopkeeper who had served in the Vermont House of Representatives of well and Senate. Calvin inherited his father's thrifty nature as well as his interest in politics.

Like most farmers' sons, Calvin pitched in with the daily and seasonal chores common to late 19th-century farming: plowing, planting, and picking fruit. An industrious young man, Coolidge earned money by making and selling toys while a student at St. Johnsbury Academy in Ludlow, Vermont. He entered Amherst College in 1891 and after graduation studied law at a Northampton, Massachusetts, law office. He was admitted to the bar in 1897.

Coolidge became active in politics while living in Northampton. In 1900, he was appointed solicitor by the city council, and subsequently served in various minor posts until being elected to the state legislature in 1907. There, he championed such progressive causes as the direct election of senators, child labor laws, and the six-day work week. Following a stint in the legislature, Coolidge ran successfully for the mayoral office in Northampton, where he cut taxes while expanding police and fire protection.

He followed up his successful stint as mayor with four successful terms in the state senate, where he supported a minimum wage for women, women's suffrage, and worker's compensation.

In 1916, he began a term as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts before being elected governor in 1919. In the state's highest office, Coolidge continued his progressive policies by supporting legislation to limit the work week to 48 hours for women and children. Coolidge was not a staunch progressive, however. During the Boston Police strike of 1919, he called out state forces to help assist Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters in bringing order to the crime-wracked city. Coolidge supported Andrew's decision not to rehire striking policeman, remarking, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." His firm stand against the strikers, whom he considered influenced by anarchists, captured the support of the people of Boston, and he was easily reelected to a second term.

Coolidge's popularity translated to a first-ballot vice-presidential victory at the 1920 Republican national convention in Chicago. …

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