John Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Coolidge had a modest upbringing. His father was a storekeeper, and much of his time was spent assisting with small tasks both in the store and around the family farm.
It was during this time that traditional New England Puritan values were embedded into his character, and he adopted a quiet, modest, and frugal lifestyle. While his father instilled in him a deep appreciation for the nuances of business and self-discipline, his mother taught him to love reading and education.
At the age of 12, Coolidge, unfortunately, lost his mother to chronic illness. Only a few years later, he also lost his sister Abigail Grace Coolidge to appendicitis. Each of these tragedies was said to have deeply affected him, and his father was left to raise him alone.
His father would remarry in 1891 when Coolidge was 19 years old and the majority of his remaining childhood was spent primarily with his father.
A Father and His Son
It was during these years that John Calvin Coolidge Sr. and Jr. grew incredibly close. He took great care to raise his son to have the skill set necessary to be successful in the business world. John Sr. was a jack-of-all-trades and taught his son the value of being well-versed in many different fields of business and craftsmanship.
Alongside running his small business, John Sr. also served as a member of both the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate. He took great pride in his son, and continually supported him as he moved up the political ladder to eventually reach the presidency.
Educational and Legal Background
A Good Student
Coolidge was known for being a decent student in his primary and secondary education. He would go on to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts in order to study law. During his four years at college, he was given a chance to start exploring a wealth of opportunities to develop the skills which would assist him in his ensuing political career.
He joined both the Republican Club and the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and became well-known amongst his peers as a talented public speaker. He graduated from Amherst College with honors in 1895 and retained contact with many of his fellow alumni throughout the remainder of his political career.
After graduating from college, he went on to continue studying law under a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts and passed the bar exam in 1897. He then opened his own legal practice in Northampton in 1898 and began the slow ascension up the local political ladder.
Working His Way Up
Coolidge began his political career as a Republican, and would only become more and more conservative as time went by.
Less than one year after opening his own legal practice, he was elected to the Northampton city council. This was only the first step. He would then begin the slow process of working his way up from the bottom.
Over the course of the next twenty years, he would hold office as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the mayor of Northampton, a state congressman, state senator, lieutenant governor, and eventually the governor of Massachusetts.
It was during this period that he suffered his one and only loss at the polls when he ran for a seat on the Northampton School Board in 1905.
It was also during these years that he married his wife, Grace Anna Goodhue. The two were wed in 1905 and would have two sons: John in 1906, and Calvin Jr. in 1908.
After being elected as the governor of Massachusetts in 1918, Coolidge was given an opportunity to spread his image across the United States. When the Boston police force went on strike to demand recognition for their trade union, as well as better wages and working conditions, Coolidge was tasked with handling the ensuing riots that rose up to threaten the peace of the entire city.
His decision to send in the state guard to restore peace and order by force caught the attention of the American public, and his name began to be spread as the 1920 presidential election grew nearer and nearer.
Political Character and Agendas
In his time as governor, Coolidge was known for the many progressive reforms that he brought to the state of Massachusetts.
He raised wages for public employees, limited the workweek to 48 hours for women and children, and placed limits on advertising outdoors.
A conservative through-and-through, he was also a proponent for small government and made great strides in reconsolidating the state government.
Campaign for Presidency
When his name was brought to the Republican National Convention, he was initially a potential candidate for the presidency. However, after only receiving 34 votes on the first ballot, the Republicans became locked in a backroom deal. Party leaders wanted to ensure that Warren G. Harding would receive the nomination, and Coolidge was overlooked for the position of the vice-presidential candidate in favor of Wisconsin senator Irving Lenroot.
Due to a last-minute wave of support by delegates who rebelled against such a nomination, Coolidge would come to replace Lenroot on the ticket, and he was officially voted to become Harding’s running mate.
During their time campaigning together, Coolidge attempted to garner support in the South, which was then primarily Democratic. Despite the fact that his efforts were largely unsuccessful, the two were able to win out over their opponents and secure the 1920 presidential election for the Republican Party.
Vice-Presidency Under Warren G. Harding
During his time as Vice-President, Coolidge kept a fairly low profile. While he attended cabinet meetings, he wasn’t particularly active as a participating member of the Harding administration. At that time, it was rare for Vice Presidents to be included in cabinet meetings, and while it was unusual that he was invited at all, he didn’t play any substantial role.
He focused the majority of his time on public speeches and isn’t credited with accomplishing anything particularly ground-breaking during his time as Vice President.
It was during this time that he was given the nickname “Silent Cal”; a reference to Coolidge’s silent presence at most meetings. He very rarely spoke up and had a tendency to refuse to participate in conversations that he believed would become politically charged or potentially hostile.
At the same time, only very rarely did Harding ask for his advice or opinion. At dinner parties, Coolidge usually let his wife speak for him, and was content with blending into the background of most social interactions.
The Death of Warren G. Harding
On August 2nd, 1923, Coolidge was sleeping peacefully while on vacation with his father at their family home in Vermont. His father woke both him and his wife in the middle of the night with grave news: Harding had died of a heart attack.
Coolidge was to be the next President of the United States. Just after 2:00 a.m., lit by the light of a kerosene lamp and surrounded by reporters, Coolidge was sworn in as the next President of the United States by his father, who was then a justice of the peace. After his impromptu inauguration, Coolidge went back to bed.
Honest, Silent Cal
The American people would quickly come to realize that Coolidge was nothing like his predecessor. While Harding had been easy-going and relaxed in his leadership, Coolidge preferred to run his administration with a cool demeanor and level head.
During his presidency, Harding had allowed his administration to be involved in one of the biggest and most damaging bribery scandals that had ever been seen in U.S. politics, known as the Teapot Dome scandal.
One of Coolidge’s first actions as President was to investigate further into this scandal, which would eventually lead to him dismissing Harding’s appointed attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty.
His efforts to rebuild a transparent, honest central government garnered him large amounts of respect from the American public. Many Americans believed that his promotion of honesty and traditional morals made him one of the most reasonable and realistic presidents that the United States had seen in recent years.
During his first four years, many prospered under what would come to be known as “Coolidge prosperity”, and he easily won the popular vote to be reelected into his second term.
In his second term, Coolidge refused to let up on his efforts to rebuild a prosperous, honest central government. One of his greatest strengths, as others would eventually note, was actually his tendency to do nothing. His approach to governing was very “hands-off”; while this meant that he did not make any moves to limit the growth of certain industries, he also did very little to assist those who were suffering at the hands of an economic downturn.
He vetoed the passage of farm-relief bills on multiple occasions, called for greater tax cuts, and promoted a more isolationist approach to foreign policy.
Coolidge allowed the Roaring Twenties to truly roar. It was largely due to these “hands-off” policies that the American public was allowed to flourish economically during this time. However, once the economic downturn and subsequent stock market crash of 1929 hit, some believed that it was precisely these types of policies that led the country to economic ruin.
Coolidge was one of the most outspoken advocates for civil rights that held the presidency during this time period. He spoke out in defense of the push for the enfranchisement of the African-Americans of America.
He also advocated for anti-lynching laws, and the number of recorded lynchings decreased drastically under his presidency.
He staunchly refused to allow any known member of the Ku Klux Klan to take office and had no problem with appointing African-Americans to said offices. He also signed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted citizenship to the Native Americans of the United States and also granted them the right to retain dual citizenship as both a member of their tribe and an American.
The End of the Coolidge Presidency
Despite the fact that many believe that he could have easily won another full-term via the 1928 election, Coolidge made the decision to step down from office after his first full term.
While on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he released a short statement regarding his intentions to run for another term. It read simply, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” It is widely believed that the combined stress of losing his youngest son to sepsis in 1924 and his father in 1926 had left him completely unwilling to continue on with his political career.
After the conclusion of his time as president, Coolidge retired home to Northampton to live out the rest of his days. In his autobiography, he tells of his relief upon no longer being burdened with the responsibility of the presidency and says that he was never particularly fond of taking up a leadership role in the first place.
He spent the majority of his time writing memoirs and commentary for political magazines, but otherwise continued his habit of keeping a relatively low profile.
When the economic disaster of the late 1920s and early 1930s hit, he admitted that he played at least some part in allowing such a thing to come to pass. Not long before his death, he said to an old friend that he felt as though he “no longer fit in with the times”.
Leading up to his death, many noted that his health was visibly declining. During a speech which he had agreed to give on behalf of Herbert Hoover, Coolidge was barely able to finish his speech on account of severe shortness of breath.
On January 5th, 1933, his wife found him dead in his bedroom after collapsing due to heart failure. On a cold and rainy day in early January, he was put to rest in his family’s plot at Plymouth Notch Cemetery.