Calvin Coolidge is Back

Peter W. Schramm

August 1, 1998

Plymouth Notch, Vermont. August 3, 1998. On this day seventy five years ago Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States. Vice President Coolidge was visiting his father here, and, in the middle of the night was informed that President Harding died and that he must take the oath of office, as soon as possible. The Secretary of State told Coolidge that any notary public could administer the oath. It turned out that Calvin’s father was a notary. So at 2:47 in the morning John Coolidge, using the family Bible—in a small room with a wood stove and a rocking chair, lit by an oil lamp–swore his son in as president. When Coolidge was asked what he thought of becoming president, he said: “I think I can swing it.” He ran in 1924 and was elected by a handsome margin.

Thus started the presidency of one of the most interesting, intelligent, well educated and witty presidents this country has ever had. He was also, throughout his political life, very popular. Although most of us learned the opposite from the progressive court historians who, idolizing Franklin Roosevelt, felt they had to debunk Coolidge in order to justify the statist-progressive policies of FDR. Coolidge was caricatured as inept, mediocre, dour, and even reactionary. After all, Coolidge was the last non-progressive president. He had to be made illegitimate at the start of the new regime.

Until recently these pseudo-historians had great success. But times have changed and new historians, with more integrity and courage and not pushing the New Deal agenda, have been thinking and writing and making their views public. The public has started to listen.

I rode my trusty motorcycle to Vermont for two days of celebrations at Plymouth Notch where Calvin Coolidge was born and grew up. There was much merriment, music, panel discussions, fireworks, and even a re-enactment of the famous swearing in ceremony. It was a very fine event.

This celebration was preceded by a two day conference on Coolidge at the Kennedy Library in Boston, which I also attended. (I don’t recommend riding around on a motorcycle in Boston, by the way. But more on that at another time). Here scholars, for the first time in public, continued the work of Thomas Silver, Robert Sobel, and Robert H. Ferrell, by re-evaluating the original evidence on Coolidge the man and the politician without looking through the opaque window built by the New Deal apologists like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Progressive historians have always applauded the hyperactive rhetorical presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as great introductions to the experimentation and hyperactivity of the New Deal. The presidency of FDR (and later adding Johnson’s Great Society) was always seen by them as the consummation of the progressive tendencies of his predecessors. The New Dealers came to view the Constitution as an enabling document for the growth and expansion of the federal government. Coolidge, who viewed the Constitution as a limiting document, had to be debunked. They succeeded, until now.

Calvin Coolidge, who was living up to the traditions and practicing the principles of the pre-progressive Republican Party, is making a comeback. He did not think that a president was better suited to advance the welfare of the people than they were themselves. He thought the people ought to be left pretty much alone to advance their own welfare. And he was even less prone to tell them what to think.

Coolidge was a student of Latin, and was especially fond of Cicero’s orations. He was also a student of modern languages (he translated Dante on his honeymoon), political science and philosophy. By the end of his college career, he was known to be an excellent and persuasive public speaker. He was always popular (having lost only one election in nineteen attempts). He wrote his own very fine speeches; the last president to have done so. No one ever doubted his integrity. If you are interested in learning more about the man read some of his speeches and his Autobiography, perhaps the best autobiography by a president. His writing is, like the man himself, clear, thoughtful, and honorable.

His speeches are examples of sober manly eloquence. Here is a piece from a longer speech on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1926:

“We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our national prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence they had for the things that are holy.”

Welcome back Mr. President.