Patterico's Pontifications

7/3/2023

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.

– JVW

58 Responses to “Calvin Coolidge: Our Last Normal President, (sesqui-)Centennial Edition”

  1. Here is that 1921 inaugural address as delivered by Vice-President Calvin Coolidge as he assumed his Constitutional duty as President of the Senate, to which Ms. Shlaes makes reference regarding “the old contract between man and man”:

    Five generations ago there was revealed to the people of this nation a new relationship between man and man, which they declared and proclaimed in the American Constitution. Therein they recognized a legislature empowered to express the will of the people in law, a judiciary required to determine and state such law, and an executive charged with securing obedience to the law, all holding their office, not by reason of some superior force, but through the duly determined conscience of their countrymen.

    To the House, close to the heart of the nation, renewing its whole membership by frequent elections, representing directly the people, reflecting their common purpose, has been granted a full measure of the power of legislation and exclusive authority to originate taxation. To the Senate, renewing its membership by degrees, representing in part the sovereign States, has been granted not only a full measure of the power of legislation, but, if possible, far more important functions.

    To it is intrusted the duty of review, that to negotiations there may be added ratification, and to appointment approval. But its greatest function of all, too little mentioned and too little understood, whether exercised in legislating or reviewing, is the preservation of liberty. Not merely the rights of the majority, they little need protection, but the rights of the minority, from whatever source they may be assailed. The great object for us to seek here, for the Constitution identifies the vice-presidency with the Senate, is to continue to make this chamber, as it was intended by the fathers, the citadel of liberty. An enormous power is here conferred, capable of much good or ill, open, it may be, to abuse, but necessary, wholly and absolutely necessary, to secure the required result.

    Whatever its faults, whatever its human imperfections, there is no legislative body in all history that has used its powers with more wisdom and discretion, more uniformly for the execution of the public will, or more in harmony with the spirit of the authority of the people which has created it, than the United States Senate. I take up the duties the people have assigned me under the Constitution, which we can neither enlarge nor diminish, of presiding over this Senate, agreeably to its rules and regulations, deeply conscious that it will continue to function in harmony with its high traditions as a great deliberative body, without passion and without fear, unmoved by clamor, but most sensitive to the right, the stronghold of government according to law, that the vision of past generations may be more and more the reality of generations yet to come.

    This guy got it, he understood exactly what this country is (or I guess ought to be) all about.

    By the way, I joined the Calvin Coolidge Foundation earlier this spring and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the man or that period in our nation’s history.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  2. Great post, JVW. Well done.

    felipe (5e2a04)

  3. Very informative. Thanks!

    Chris

    Chris (3d25b0)

  4. Coolidge (and Harding) were both later choices, as the GOP was re-forming after the split with the (by 1920 defunct) “Bull Moose” progressives. Teddy Roosevelt’s death in 1919 made the situation even more fluid.

    Twenty-two candidates received votes during the 10 rounds of balloting. Harding started in 6th place (Coolidge was 7th), and did not break past third place until the 9th ballot, when he fained a plurality.

    The Democrats has 24 candidates, but it was almost entirely a 3-man race, wire to wire. It just took 44 ballots before there was a victor.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  5. *gained

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  6. Coolidge he don’t say much and when he does he don’t say much! will rodgers. You had the klan marching down the streets of washington dc. With the great depression coming though blamed on hoover.

    asset (be5813)

  7. Coolidge (and Harding) were both later choices, as the GOP was re-forming after the split with the (by 1920 defunct) “Bull Moose” progressives. Teddy Roosevelt’s death in 1919 made the situation even more fluid.

    That’s why party bosses wanted the progressive Lenroot as VP choice; it was thought to unite the party. But Coolidge had been so impressive in handling the Boston Police Strike of 1919 that the rank-and-file of the party quickly backed him in the role.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  8. The 1920 GOP platform again talked about the scourge of lynching

    We urge Congress to consider the most effective means to end Iynching in this country which continues to be a terrible blot on our American civilization.

    It’s interesting to note that the Democrats did not have any particular problem with Southern racism, and the man they ran against Coolidge in 1924 later lost to Thurgood Marshall in Brown vs Board of Education at the Supreme Court.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  9. You had the klan marching down the streets of washington dc

    You can thank Woodrow Wilson for the Klan’s resurgence.

    And this from Wikipedia:

    Several historians have spotlighted examples in the public record of Wilson’s racist policies and political appointments, such as the segregationists in his Cabinet. Other sources note Wilson defended segregation on “scientific” grounds in private, and describe him as a man who “loved to tell racist ‘darky’ jokes about black Americans.

    Also from Wikipedia

    The consensus of modern historians is that Warren Harding was never a member, and instead was an important enemy of the Klan. While one source claims Warren G. Harding, a Republican, was a Ku Klux Klan member while President, that claim is based on a third-hand account of a second-hand recollection in 1985 of a deathbed statement made sometime in the late 1940s concerning an incident in the early 1920s. Independent investigations have turned up many contradictions and no supporting evidence for the claim. Historians reject the claim and note that Harding in fact publicly fought and spoke against the Klan.

    and

    One common misconception is that President Calvin Coolidge was a Klan member, a claim that Klan websites have spread. In reality, Coolidge was adamantly opposed to the Klan. According to Jerry L. Wallace at the Coolidge Foundation, “Coolidge expressed his antipathy to the Klan by reaching out in a positive, public way directly to its victims: Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, with whom he had good relations—especially so for Irish Catholics—going back long before the rise of the Invisible Empire . . . [and] sought to highlight their positive achievements and contributions to American life.”

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  10. I doubt any of this will sway asset, who has the pure knowledge that surpasses all fact and argument.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  11. @10 In 1964 the democrat party seated the freedom mississippi delegates at their convention and have tried to purge racism in the party ever since. That same year the republican party traded abraham lincoln for strom thurmond. Ever here of nixon’s southern strategy? In 1980 reagan gave his first speech after he got the gop nomination in philadelphia mississippi where the 3 civil rights workers were murdered welcoming the klan into the republican party. The democrat party has tried to get rid of racism the republican party welcomes it. You have to talk about the past as the future of the gop is racism and fascism. By the way attacks on the media started at the 1964 republican with walter cronkite calling out the rethugs attacking journalists.

    asset (c9f7e5)

  12. Thank you for an excellent post, JVW.

    nk (a18fa9)

  13. As I said in #10.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  14. Hear, hear. It’s nice to feel patriotic.

    DRJ (bde990)

  15. Grace Coolidge was also special.

    DRJ (bde990)

  16. “The chief business of the American people is business.”

    I love that quote from Coolidge.

    norcal (8b5267)

  17. @16 any quote from coolidge on breaking the 1919 police strike or tulsa racist attack?

    asset (14ba77)

  18. @16 any quote from coolidge on breaking the 1919 police strike or tulsa racist attack?

    asset (14ba77) — 7/3/2023 @ 5:58 pm

    No, but I have some good ones about Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers strike.

    Public servants should not be able to strike, because there is no competition for citizens to turn to.

    norcal (8b5267)

  19. Truman wasn’t normal?

    lurker (cd7cd4)

  20. Public servants should not be able to strike, because there is no competition for citizens to turn to.

    In 1981, the Canadian postal workers went on strike for 42 days. IN the US, there was talk of a USPS strike as well, but after Reagan destroyed PATCO (a union that had supported him), the postal union didn’t like its chances.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  21. Truman wasn’t normal?

    He left office a failure, with a 22% approval rating in early 1952, rising to 32% when he left office. The left has been working on that one for a while, as the folks who lived through that time die off.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  22. Grace Coolidge was also special.

    Yes! I wish I had the gumption to write a multi-part series of post about the Coolidges. Gosh, I wish we had leaders like they were. We are so much poorer for suffering through their inferiors.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  23. Truman wasn’t normal?

    I would argue no. He was the product of a horribly corrupt urban political machine; a guy who was advanced way beyond his abilities because he was the proverbial right guy in the right place. Not that I won’t agree that he (mostly) met the moment at the level we needed him to be, but I do think history ought to largely recognize him as an accidental President.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  24. Ford? It’s interesting that VP successors seem to be more “normal” than election victors.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  25. Ford? It’s interesting that VP successors seem to be more “normal” than election victors.

    It’s a point worth considering. But Gerald Ford is the definition of the accidental President, both in how he made it to the VP position and in how the ascended into to the top spot. But yeah, his background is probably one of the most interesting of any of our last fifteen or so Presidents.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  26. And also, of course, Gerald Ford was never elected President.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  27. Erstwhile poster Mike K wrote his thoughts at his blog many years ago upon reading a biography (Schlaes?) of Coolidge. I remember being impressed then.

    He stopped commenting here because he didn’t like the criticism of Trump. It surprised and saddened me, because he was something of a Renaissance man. He rarely posts anything at his blog these days.

    norcal (8b5267)

  28. Truman wasn’t normal?

    I would argue no. He was the product of a horribly corrupt urban political machine; a guy who was advanced way beyond his abilities because he was the proverbial right guy in the right place. Not that I won’t agree that he (mostly) met the moment at the level we needed him to be, but I do think history ought to largely recognize him as an accidental President.

    No argument with any of that, but I took your “normal” to mean his personal background, not his political circumstance. Isn’t that the implication of:

    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

    Obviously YMMV, but it seems to me that Truman, who like Coolidge grew up on a working farm, and unlike Amherst-alum Coolidge never graduated college, instead holding a series of menial clerical jobs, was possibly the most “everyday, typical American” President of the 20th Century.

    lurker (cd7cd4)

  29. Kevin M (2d6744) — 7/3/2023 @ 10:58 pm

    I don’t buy that a President’s approval rating upon leaving office is a reliable indicator of anything I should care about. That said, I never claimed Truman was a good president, much less a popular one.

    lurker (cd7cd4)

  30. @18 Any reagan quotes on committing treason with Iran besides his he didn’t think he was committing treason ;but they keep telling me I did!

    asset (14ba77)

  31. Asset —

    Coolidge had a great quote on his actions on the police strike — there is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.

    Appalled (08cb2f)

  32. Regarding normalcy, the parameters and allegiances do shift over time. Coolidge as part of a longtime farming family was closer to the normal of the early 1920s.

    As an aside, Josh Hawley is a more natural heir of Truman (not rural, but a KC Catholic) and also serves as a stand in for Gephardtism.

    urbanleftbehind (099a0c)

  33. There shouldn’t be right to strike period.

    Rip Murdock (3aaf7e)

  34. As an aside, Josh Hawley is a more natural heir of Truman……

    I’m sure Truman would be appalled at that comparison. Truman would never have saluted the seditionists on January 6th as Hawley did.

    Rip Murdock (3aaf7e)

  35. And Truman, unlike Hawley, saw the threat from authoritarian regimes seeking to destabilize democratic societies. Hawley, in contrast, is an isolationist and unconcerned about the threat posed by a revanchist Russia, for example.

    Rip Murdock (3aaf7e)

  36. So Coolidge wasn’t a Wobbly.

    The National Labor Relations Act not having been passed until 1935 (and which does not even apply to state and local government employees, anyhow), nobody had a right to strike in those days.

    Why do you guys take drivel seriously? I have him blocked because I begrudge him my screen space.

    nk (a18fa9)

  37. Obviously YMMV, but it seems to me that Truman, who like Coolidge grew up on a working farm, and unlike Amherst-alum Coolidge never graduated college, instead holding a series of menial clerical jobs, was possibly the most “everyday, typical American” President of the 20th Century.

    That’s a great argument. I guess I just hold it against Truman that he came from the corrupt Pendergast machine.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  38. America’s finest hour was under Truman with the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, NATO, the successful occupation and reconstruction in Japan, the creation of Israel, and the defense of South Korea when it was invaded by the North.

    There is no evidence in Josh Hawley’s foreign policy pronouncements that he would have involved the US in any of these events. The failure to assist a ravaged Europe with reconstruction no doubt would have led to a resurgence of fascism and communism in Western Europe. There certainly would not have a NATO, which has kept the peace in Europe for nearly 75 years (recent events have shown the value of multilateral alliances). A Hawley-like postwar foreign policy would have led to a rearmed, revanchist Japan and a Korean Peninsula united under the current Kim totalitarian dynasty.

    Rip Murdock (3aaf7e)

  39. There shouldn’t be right to strike period.

    In general? I disagree. Power needs to be distributed.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  40. That’s a great argument. I guess I just hold it against Truman that he came from the corrupt Pendergast machine.

    There’s also the matter of seizing the steel mills, and for mismanaging Korea (although most of that lies with MacArthur). The retreat from Chosin was horrific.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  41. I feel like Truman was an average American — good and bad qualities, but nothing exceptional. We all have known someone like Truman at some point in our adult lives.

    I don’t feel like I’ve known anyone like Coolidge. Maybe it is because the times are different or maybe he was special. His life may have been normal for the times, but he wasn’t average at all.

    DRJ (bde990)

  42. Or was he? Was everyone like that?

    I know my father, born in 1917, was raised on a farm and was exceptionally well-educated. The standards were higher and more rigorous then.

    DRJ (bde990)

  43. There shouldn’t be right to strike period.

    In general? I disagree. Power needs to be distributed.

    Kevin M (2d6744) — 7/4/2023 @ 10:11 am

    Labor unions drive up the cost of everything. Eliminate unions and watch the cost of construction, for example, be significantly reduced.

    Rip Murdock (744892)

  44. Even “associations” like those for police that don’t have a right to strike hamstring local governments when they negotiate discipline and staffing, among other work rules. Unacceptable.

    Rip Murdock (5479b6)

  45. @31 As I keep pointing out here there are no “rights” only privileges that can be taken away unless defended. Usually by force. God is on the side of the heaviest artillery. Napoleon.

    asset (54b9e4)

  46. “You can do almost anything with a bayonet except sit on it”:

    steveg (a24ff1)

  47. @31 As I keep pointing out here there are no “rights” only privileges that can be taken away unless defended.

    Good Lord, asset. And the fact that you wrote something so manifestly stupid on Independence Day of all days. Honestly, I do try to take you seriously, but that is so obviously a fool’s errand. You just never cease to fail.

    JVW (1ad43e)

  48. Labor unions drive up the cost of everything. Eliminate unions and watch the cost of construction, for example, be significantly reduced.

    Coal would be much cheaper.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  49. America’s finest hour was under Truman

    Truman did not take over the steel mills to help the mill owners. He also vetoed the Taft-Hartly Act because it limited actions of unions.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  50. I definitely think we should all be working 12 hr days, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for pennies with no sick leave, no vacations, no healthcare, and no disability protections. I also think that being fired without cause for being over 50 or getting sick or having an injury, or being pregnant, or needing to go to the restroom or eat during the work day, or refusing to sleep with your supervisor, or having to leave work to pick up a child would also be fabulous. And I especially love the idea of unsafe work environments where people bleed to death because their hand got cut off in the machinery and they lock you in so you die in a fire. It’s a tremendous idea that we should all go back to that. Unions: your house might be more expensive, but at least you’re home sometimes and alive to enjoy it.

    Nic (3b6ea1)

  51. @47 Independence was not achieved at philadelphia pa. on july 4 1776. It was won at the naval battle of the virginia capes by french admiral degrasse preventing cornwallis from being reinforced or escaping. Allowing american and french forces to overwhelm british and hessian forces at yorktown. Emancipation was not achieved with the proclamation ;but union forces marching into galveston texas. Thai is why we celebrate juneteenth. You say stupid is not addressing what I said.

    asset (336163)

  52. Aha! But are unions a public accommodation and what is their position on gender identity in the workplace?

    nk (2cd901)

  53. I think the ILWU is still working on accepting computer record-keeping. They’ll get around to DEI and such sometime next century.

    Kevin M (2d6744)

  54. Asset,
    I think we are all aware that declarations are aspirational and in the cases you mentioned, people had to fight and die, maimed, for it to be achieved. I agree that rights do need to be fought for. In the US, this fight ideally is in the legislature and the courts, not on the battlefield. Periodically people do take to the streets and say this has gone to far, or not far enough.

    Apologies if I have missed your point

    steveg (7b44ac)

  55. @54 apology accepted. Freedom isn’t free in fact it is the most costly thing their is.

    asset (b68995)

  56. Great read, Thank you for posting this JVW.

    Mattsky (cf0955)

  57. “This guy [Coolidge] got it, he understood exactly what this country is (or I guess ought to be) all about.”

    However, Coolidge would be polling down with Hutchinson these days. Coolidge wasn’t saying or doing anything especially outrageous and reality TVish. He would likely be way too boring for today’s electorate. Nobody these days wants a civics lesson. They want to know that the President will echo their grievance and score points in the culture war. Coolidge cut taxes (some), cut spending, cleaned up Harding’s scandals, blocked the farm relief bill, kept tariffs high in places (pre Smoot-Hawley), kept us out of the League of Nations, and reduced immigration. So a small-government conservative who might have led us through Hoover’s economic downturn if given the chance.

    AJ_Liberty (5f05c3)

  58. First new Ed Dept rule under Republcians: Mandatory semester of Civics to graduate high school.

    Kevin M (2d6744)


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