Monday, February 15, 2016

Remembering Calvin Coolidge

Today is Presidents Day. Typically we remember Washington and Lincoln, doubtless two of our finest. Sometimes the likes of Jefferson, FDR, JFK, Reagan, or others get a passing mention as well. But today I'd like to recall one of my favorites among the more obscure presidents, Calvin Coolidge.

Born on Independence Day, 1872, Coolidge grew up on a farm in Vermont. His father was a farmer, storekeeper, and local politician. Young Calvin's mother died when he was twelve years old, the first of two untimely passings. He attended Amherst College and practiced law in Massachusetts. In 1905 he married a woman named Grace, a fellow Congregationalist and teacher at a school for the deaf. Together they had two sons, John and Calvin Jr.

Coolidge was famously quiet, occasionally grumpy, and quite frugal. But in spite of that - or maybe because of it? - he enjoyed growing success in the world of politics, normally the realm of the outgoing and flamboyant. After a spell as a successful lawyer, Coolidge was elected to the state House, then mayor, and then to the state Senate. Although Coolidge had some progressive leanings - supporting, for example, for women's suffrage, minimum wages, limited working hours, factory safety regulations and labor representation on corporate boards, and opposing child labor - he refused to follow Theodore Roosevelt out of the Republican Party in 1912. In 1914, Coolidge became president of the Massachusetts Senate. In his inaugural remarks he gave the following exhortation:
Do the day's work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a stand-patter, but don't be a stand-patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don't be a demagogue. Don't hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don't hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don't hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.
He subsequently became lieutenant governor and then governor of Massachusetts. He was propelled to national fame when the Boston Police went on strike. After local officials failed to deal with the situation and violence erupted in the city, Coolidge called out the National Guard and fired the striking policemen. When challenged by AFL leader Samuel Gompers on the matter, Coolidge publically denounced the "right" of those entrusted with public safety to go on strike. His reputation as a man of deliberate action landed him a place on Warren G. Harding's 1920 presidential ticket. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge assumed the presidency, sworn in by his father, whom he was visiting in Vermont at the time. In 1924 he was elected president in his own right, with Charles Curtis, a Native American, as vice president.

Under President Coolidge, the federal government encouraged new technologies such as radios and aircraft, but the various forms of labor legislation that he had supported in Massachusetts, including as governor, he left to the states. Federal taxes were cut, spending was reduced, and the federal debt paid down. He opposed the Ku Klux Klan, supported the rights of African-Americans, and signed into law the Indian Citizen Act, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans, while allowing them to retain their reservations.

Coolidge's younger son, Calvin Jr., died in 1924, at the age of 16. The loss weighed heavily on him. Perhaps it played some role in his decision in 1928 not to run for president a second time.

Why do I find Coolidge an attractive figure? Although never poor, his origins were not exulted and he put in his time climbing the political ladder. He believed in limited government but also in helping the poor, defending the weak, and doing justice for all. He was a faithful husband to Grace, of whom he commented near their 25th anniversary, "for almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities and I have rejoiced in her graces." In mourning his mother and son, he shared the sorrows that punctuate all of our lives. And in his decision to step quietly down from office, he looked more like George Washington, who limited himself to two terms, than to the ever-running Roosevelts or the megalomaniacs of our own day. There is much to admire here.
Post a Comment