Patterico's Pontifications


Calvin Coolidge: Our Last Normal President, (sesqui-)Centennial Edition

Filed under: General — JVW @ 12:24 pm

[guest post by JVW]

[Note: the second part of this tribute to Calvin Coolidge can be found here.]

Tomorrow marks the plus-one sesquicentennial of one of our finest (and certainly most underrated) Presidents, John Calvin Coolidge, born on July 4, 1872. Independence Day 2023 will actually serve as the great man’s 151st birthday (shame on me for missing the real sesquicentennial last year), but in just 30 days we will be celebrating — and damn sure we ought to be celebrating — the centennial anniversary of Calvin Coolidge becoming our twenty-ninth (if like me you refuse to count Grover Cleveland as both the twenty-second and the twenty-fourth) President of the United States. Let’s take a moment to reflect upon the simple genius he brought to the job, and lament why nobody normal like he is a plausible candidate any longer.

Today it’s almost axiomatic that a young ambitious politician should rise though the muck of our political sewers by whoring themselves to interest groups or big donors. Politicians ascend in their respective party apparatus by appealing to “all the right people,” except in the very rare situation when somebody becomes a media sensation, which is frankly a development peculiar to the last quarter-century. But Calvin Coolidge existed in an era when we were perhaps more discerning about the accomplishments and abilities of the men whom we elected, and less enamored of their Q-ratings or social media followings. Yes, those days were dominated by insiders, who hand-chose Warren G. Harding to be the GOP’s nominee for President in 1920 at the Chicago convention which gave the political world the memorable phrase “smoke filled room” to describe the machinations of party leaders like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Senator James Watson of Indiana.

Those same leaders had planned to have Senator Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin as the Vice-Presidential nominee, a popular and patriotic progressive to balance out the ticket led by the more conservative Ohioan. Yet something weird then happened. As the party leaders retired to their hotels in the late evenings, content that their work was done, a popular groundswell of support for the Massachusetts Governor Coolidge (who had maxed out his delegate count at 34, 28 of which came from his fellow Bay Staters) began to emerge. Chants of “Coolidge! Coolidge! Coolidge!” began to build from the convention floor. A delegate, Wallace McCamant, the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, formally placed Governor Coolidge’s name in nomination for the VP job, which was immediately seconded by fifteen different state delegations. In what a Boston Globe reporter would characterize as “the first real, wholly unpremeditated stampede which ever took place at a national convention,” John Calvin Coolidge became the Republican Party’s nominee for Vice-President of the United States. The Harding-Coolidge ticket would trounce the Democrat ticket of James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt in November, and when Warren G. Harding dropped dead from a series of heart attacks twenty-nine months into his Presidency, Calvin Coolidge became the Chief Executive.

I mention in the title of this post that Calvin Coolidge was our last “normal” President. By that I mean to suggest that he was an everyday, typical American — though certainly more intelligent and hard-working than the average man. The Coolidge family had farmed the rocky soil of Vermont for four generations, a challenge which had caused hundreds of other Vermont families to head west in search of more forgiving land, and the famous taciturn intensity and determination attributed to Calvin Coolidge had been inculcated into him by his forebears, especially by his father, John Calvin Coolidge Sr., a farmer turned politician who served in various town offices and in the Vermont Legislature. A famous story about Calvin Coolidge becoming President illustrates the family’s noted devotion to orderly duty and their lack of pretension. In her biography of Coolidge, Amity Shlaes describes the scene when news of Harding’s death reaches the vacationing Coolidges in his hometown of Plymouth Notch, Vermont:

The next moves came intuitively. Coolidge had spoken often about the country’s real life taking place on he most local level, and he had taught this, as if teaching a class at Amherst [his alma mater]. Now he would live it, with the humblest of ceremonies. A telephone line was being arranged to that Coolidge might speak with the Secretary of State, [Charles Evans] Hughes. Congressman Porter Dale, who happened to be campaigning in the vicinity, arrived. Coolidge, for his part, opened the U.S. Constitution to survey what Article II, Section 1 said on the Presidency. All that was there was: “In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice-President.” A few lines later was the oath of office a new President needed to take. That was all.

The special phone line was up by 2:30 a.m. Coolidge prepared a statement of condolence and sorrow about harding. He spoke with Hughes who said the event must be witnessed by a notary. Unlike Justice [Edward Douglass] White, who had not been able to swear [Treasury Secretary Andrew] Mellon into office in 1921, John Coolidge was still a notary.

[. . .]

Coolidge may not have been the first to realize the impact of the news, but with the little inauguration ceremony, he was the first to attempt to give the transition from President to President meaning. By kerosene lamplight, before a small group that included his wife and Porter Dale, a congressman, in a small town far away from even the county seat or the state capital, a new U.S. President was sworn in by his father. With the emphasis on the Constitution, on the Bible on the table, on the notary’s authority, Coolidge was saying that this time, the Presidency truly would be the kind that presided over the old contract between man and man, just as he had described it in his inaugural address of 1921.

I hope to write more about the consequential Presidency of Calvin Coolidge next month as we approach the centennial of his inauguration, but in the meantime let’s take a moment as we celebrate our independence and be proud to live in a country which has given us leaders of the caliber of the great Calvin Coolidge. Happy birthday to him, and happy birthday to the United Sates of America.


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