Calvin Coolidge: The "Wise Old Bird" in the White House: Though He Is One of the Forgotten Presidents, Calvin Coolidge Put Together a String of Political Successes That Not Only Helped Him but Helped His Constituents in a Very Real Way

By Kenny, Jack | The New American, June 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Calvin Coolidge: The "Wise Old Bird" in the White House: Though He Is One of the Forgotten Presidents, Calvin Coolidge Put Together a String of Political Successes That Not Only Helped Him but Helped His Constituents in a Very Real Way


Kenny, Jack, The New American


Calvin Coolidge has often been judged a success in his time, but a failure in history. That, said Peter Hannaford, may say more about the historians than it does about Coolidge.

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"It is as true in politics as in war that the victors get to write the history" wrote Hannaford, the editor of The Quotable Calvin Coolidge. "Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal supporters had a political interest in consigning what they called the 'Harding-Coolidge-Hoover Era' to political purgatory. They naturally wanted to keep their hold on political power, so they lumped FDR's three predecessors together and discredited them all for the ills of the Depression in order to achieve that aim."

But a growing number of historians and biographers have of late been rediscovering for their readers the positive contributions of Coolidge to the "Coolidge prosperity" of the 1920s and the limited but important role a wise and frugal government can play in encouraging economic growth. As one who generally respected the constitutional limits of his offices, "Coolidge is our great refrainer," wrote Amity Shlaes in her new biography entitled simply Coolidge. Coolidge observed early in his career what he believed to the end: "It is much more important to kill bad bills than pass good ones." His devotion to thrift in government was rivaled only by his economy of words am for economy," he said. "After that I am for more economy."

Born on the Fourth of July

He came by that naturally, having been born into a family of modest means and little tolerance for debt. He came into the world on July 4, 1872 on his parents' farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His father, John Calvin Coolidge, ran both the small farm and a general store next to the house. His mother, Victoria, died when Calvin was 12, and he remained devoted to her memory, with her picture on his desk throughout his life. His father was a man of few words and rare displays of emotion. "The Coolidges never slop over," his famous son would later say in explaining his own quiet reserve.

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Calvin was more than a little shy. "In politics we must meet people and that's not easy for me," he explained years later to his close friend and political booster, Frank Stearns. "When I was a little fellow, as long ago as I can remember, I would go into a panic if I heard stranger voices in the house. I felt I just couldn't meet the people and shake hands with them." Yet in a political career spanning three decades of running for and winning offices from city councilman to president, he shook an incalculable number of hands. As president he would often greet 400 visitors a day to the White House and once set a personal record of 2,360 handshakes in an hour and five minutes. It must have pained more than his hand.

His formal education began at age five in the one-room Plymouth Notch School. At age 14, he was enrolled in Black River Academy in Ludlow. He studied English grammar, algebra, and Greek and Latin, and learned about the U.S. Constitution from a course on government. He also studied French, ancient history, geometry, and American literature. He worked after school in the town's carriage shop, and his summers were spent working on the family farm back in Plymouth Notch. His only sibling, a younger sister named Abigail, joined him at the academy in his junior year in the fall of 1888. She took ill in March of 1890, however, and died soon after, with Calvin at her deathbed. In a letter to his father, he expressed his grief, but did not "slop over." "It is lonesome here without Abbie," he wrote.

At prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts, he came under the influence of Anson Morse, a teacher of some renown, who instilled in his students a sense of civic duty. Coolidge later wrote that from Morse's teaching students "came to a clearer comprehension of not only their rights and liberties, but of their duties and responsibilities. …

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