Written by: Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain the causes and effects of developments in popular culture in the United States over time
Use this Narrative with The Scopes Trial Narrative to explore the political and culture controversies that occurred during Coolidge’s presidency.
Large monuments mark the resting place of many presidents. But not the grave of Calvin Coolidge. The gravestone of the thirtieth president stands in a modest row, no higher than many others. The only way visitors to the little graveyard in the village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, can tell Calvin Coolidge’s from the rest is by the faint presidential seal engraved on it.
Coolidge, who served from 1923 to 1929, wanted it that way. As modest as his wishes for his headstone, he spoke so rarely in meetings that he earned the nickname “Silent Cal.” In policymaking, he exercised restraint where other presidents jumped in. Some historians have interpreted this as weakness, yet moderation was also his strength.
Life in Plymouth Notch, where Coolidge was born in 1872, was not easy. The soil was too rocky for great success in farming, the winters too cold for comfort. The president’s grandfather, Calvin Galusha Coolidge, struggled to find the right crop, at one point even importing merino sheep. The town exported milk, but without electricity, a train station, or autos, the milk spoiled before reaching market. Coolidge’s creative father started a cooperative cheese factory. Cheese did not need refrigeration.
Coolidge’s first lessons about politics came during town meetings, where he watched his father oversee property disputes, discuss the maintenance of the Plymouth Union Church, and vote against high taxes because not everyone could pay. Common sense, civility, service, and respect for the individual were basic values in Plymouth. So was government service. Both Coolidge’s father and his grandfather served in the state legislature in Montpelier. Life was humble. Even as a boy, Coolidge knew that Abraham Lincoln, born in a one-room cabin, had risen to president. “American citizenship is a high estate,” as Coolidge wrote later about republican equality. “He who holds it is the peer of kings.”
Coolidge’s personal start was also tough. His mother died when he was young, and he struggled at school. When the shy young man went down the Connecticut Valley to attend Amherst College, he became so homesick he nearly gave up. Though Coolidge wanted to join a fraternity, at first none would have him. Eventually, however, he found his footing as a debater, winning the respect of surprised classmates, who wrote in his senior year that they had discovered “a new and gifted man.” Coolidge’s debate friends attended Columbia Law School, but he did not have the money to follow them. Instead, he took a job as clerk to a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Yet again, Coolidge persevered. Studying law by himself at night, he managed to pass the bar exam earlier than his family or firm expected. Still awkward, he surprised acquaintances again by winning the heart of one of the prettiest young women in Northampton, Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher of the deaf. Soon the Coolidges had two sons, John and Calvin. Gradually, the young lawyer got a start in politics, serving on Republican-Party committees, then in city government, then as a state representative in Boston, and finally as governor of Massachusetts.
In Coolidge’s time as a Massachusetts politician, between 1900 and 1920, the Progressive movement reached its apex. In his own party, the Republican Party, President Theodore Roosevelt personified an active presidency. “Get action,” Roosevelt once said. The Democratic president Woodrow Wilson also signed many progressive laws, including one creating the federal income tax. Coolidge differed from both these presidents in preferring caution. “It is better to kill a bad law than pass a good one,” he once wrote his father. Speaking to his fellow state senators in 1913, Coolidge admonished, “Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.” He also thought most governing should be done by states, counties, and towns, not by the federal government.
Coolidge was popular, in part because he was always civil and opposed negative campaigning. He understood that to attack an opponent was to advertise that opponent. Voters also liked him because of his hard work and devotion to service. As a lawyer, Coolidge often represented immigrants in court, sometimes for free, and an impressive share of Irish and German immigrants, new citizens of Massachusetts, backed him when he ran for office. No matter how individuals got to America, he would later say, “we are all now in the same boat here.”
The signal event of Coolidge’s Massachusetts career came in September 1919 when he was governor. It was just after World War I, and in many cities, underpaid workers were going out on strike. The contracts of the Boston police did not permit them to do so, yet the members of the force walked off the job. Riots and looting ensued. The police commissioner fired the police, and as governor, Coolidge called in the National Guard. The police then sought a reconciliation, but Coolidge issued a firm no, saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety, by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Coolidge wrote to his father that the controversial move could cost him the election, scheduled for that November. Instead it propelled him to national prominence. In 1920, Coolidge joined Warren Harding as vice president on a victorious Republican ticket that called for more cautious government, law and order, and “normalcy”.
The great challenge for the White House in the 1920s was to curtail the massive debt that was the legacy of World War I. If America could not cut back this debt, it would lose its new preeminence in the world. The obvious solution was to raise taxes. Yet tax rates were already so high that businesses and individuals wasted valuable energy finding ways not to pay. Revenues did not come in as predicted. Around the same time that President Harding suddenly passed away in August 1923, the presidency became mired in the scandal known as Teapot Dome.
Coolidge took up two tasks: cleansing the besmirched presidency and setting the government’s fiscal house in order. He hired special prosecutors from both parties to sort out the Teapot Dome scandal and set out not merely to reduce budget increases but to reduce spending altogether. He used an image from his own hometown of Plymouth Notch to describe budget cuts as “cheese paring.” The president’s fiscal determination even showed up in the names he gave twin lion cubs presented to the White House. They were dubbed “Budget Bureau” and “Tax Reduction.”
Coolidge also worked on the tax problem. He and his Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, believed firms that got to keep more of their money would conduct more business, hire more workers, and invest more money back into their operations. Then the government might collect greater tax revenue than expected due to the increased economic activity. So the administration and Congress lowered top tax rates all the way down to 25 percent. The strategy worked, along with the burgeoning expansion of prosperity. Enough cash flowed in to keep the federal budget balanced and to cut the debt by one-third. When Coolidge left office, the budget was actually smaller than when he had come in 67 months before.
History books and fiction sometimes treat the 1920s as an economic bubble. But the bulk of the growth in the 1920s, especially during Coolidge’s tenure, was very real, with a record patent rate and great increases in productivity. Instead of working six days, employees could earn enough by working only five. In the 1920s, both parties overwhelmingly backed immigration restriction. Coolidge signed the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the as the Immigration Act of 1924.
In 1924 Coolidge’s son Calvin, Jr. was 16 and growing so fast his shoes became tight. When a blister he got while playing tennis on the White House court became infected, the infection spread throughout his body. There were no antibiotics in those days and, after a week, Calvin Jr. died. Like Lincoln, another president who lost a young son while in office, Coolidge persevered, winning his first campaign for president the same year with a majority larger than those of his opponents combined. Coolidge received 382 electoral votes to Democrat John W. Davis’s 136 and Progressive Party candidate Robert M. LaFollette’s 13.
Perhaps Coolidge’s greatest achievement was something he did not do. In 1928, the Republicans expected him to run for president a second time. After all, he had been elected only once before, in 1924. Coolidge noted, however, that the longer a president stayed in office, the more he seemed like royalty. An imperial presidency threw the three-branch system of government out of balance. “The chances of having wise and faithful service are increased by a change in the presidential office from time to time,” he concluded, and so he declined to run.
Coolidge is sometimes blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s. But although the stock market of the late 1920s was due for a drop, he was not responsible for its increase nor for the factors that made the Depression endure a decade; they were policies that mostly came into effect after his presidency. Coolidge’s moderation provides a model for America’s highest office that can be useful to all politicians today.
1. All the following describe Calvin Coolidge as president except
- he opposed negative campaigning
- he emulated his progressive predecessors
- he sorted out the Teapot Dome scandal with bipartisan support
- he supported lower taxes and a balanced budget
2. Calvin Coolidge’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, was best known for
- encouraging businesses to pay their employees enough to work only five days per week because an extra day off would encourage consumer spending
- requiring a cut in federal defense spending to balance the budget and force the military to become more efficient
- dramatically cutting tax rates on the basis of the belief that businesses would be able to conduct more business and government tax revenue would rise despite the lower rates
- creating a business culture that led the United States into a period of unprecedented prosperity
3. The event that propelled Calvin Coolidge to political prominence was his
- signing of the Johnson-Reed Act
- dramatic lowering of tax rates
- ending of the Teapot Dome scandal
- ordering the firing of police who were striking illegally in Massachusetts
4. Before serving as president, Calvin Coolidge served in all the following positions except
- member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
- governor of Massachusetts
- U.S. senator representing Massachusetts
- vice president of the United States
5. In 1920, the Harding-Coolidge ticket was elected for all the following reasons except
- voters desire to “return to normalcy”
- a promise to secure law and order after a series of strikes and the Red Scare
- a pledge to administer a more cautious government
- voters desire to join the League of Nations
6. Which of the following statements best describes President Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies?
- Anti-immigration restrictions
- Regulatory policies for industry
- Lower taxes for businesses
- Strict law and order
Free Response Questions
- Analyze the events that propelled Calvin Coolidge to national notice.
- Explain Calvin Coolidge’s fiscal policies were as president.
AP Practice Questions
“One of the rights which the freeman has always guarded with most jealous care is that of enjoying the rewards of his own industry. Realizing that the power to tax is the power to destroy and that the power to take a certain amount of property or of income is only another way of saying that for a certain proportion of his time a citizen must work for the Government, the authority to impose a tax on the people has been most carefully guarded. Our own Constitution requires that revenue bills should originate in the House, because that body is supposed to be more representative of the people. These precautions have been taken because of the full realization that any oppression laid upon the people by excessive taxation, any disregard of their right to hold and enjoy the property which they have rightfully acquired, would be fatal to freedom. A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. . . . One of the first signs of the breaking down of free government is a disregard by the taxing power of the right of the people to their own property. . . . Unless the people can enjoy that reasonable security in the possession of their property, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, against unreasonable taxation, freedom is at an end.”
Calvin Coolidge, Speech given at the Meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, June 30, 1924Refer to the excerpt provided.
1. The Coolidge Administration implemented the ideas expressed in the excerpt by
- lowering tariffs on imports
- loaning a large sum of money to Germany for reparation payments
- lowering business taxes
- reducing regulation of business and industry
2. Which of the following figures from earlier periods in U.S. history would support President Coolidge’s sentiments as expressed in the excerpt?
- Upton Sinclair
- Eugene V. Debs
- Lincoln Steffens
- John D. Rockefeller
3. President Coolidge’s speech arose in the context of which of the following?
- A growing movement to regulate U.S. industries
- The desire to lower tariffs on European imports
- An increase in national prosperity
- The re-emergence of the Progressive movement
Coolidge, Calvin. Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Press, 1929.
Coolidge, Calvin. Have Faith in Massachusetts: The Speeches of Calvin Coolidge. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1919.
Mellon, Andrew, Taxation: The People’s Business. New York: J.J. Little and Ives, 1924.
Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge. New York: Times Books, 2006.
Shlaes, Amity, Coolidge. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
Smiley, Gene, “The U.S. Economy in the 1920s.” EH.net. https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-u-s-economy-in-the-1920s/
Sobel, Robert, Calvin Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000.
Chapter 11: 1920-1932
Chapter 11 of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, BRI’s U.S. History Curriculum Resource, invites students to explore how the modernization of the American economy and society led to cultural conflict during the 1920s.
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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.