As my reading exploits have grown through the years, I’ve found that I’ve enjoyed mixing in a bit of history to balance my fiction-heavy diet. Most of my exploits into history have been on the macro-level such as Ian Morris’s excellent book or Chris Harman’s expansive work. I have rarely explored the very narrow and specific world of the biography, so when I got the opportunity to preview the new biography about our 30th president, I accepted the challenge to broaden my horizons with pleasure.
Now, why read about Calvin Coolidge you say? I’ll admit that Coolidge doesn’t inspire a lot of excitement – he isn’t celebrated like his Republican predecessor, Lincoln, or the iconic Washington. And while reading this latest biography I was bashfully amused at the mocking comment of a friend of mine who picked up my copy to say, “Coolidge? That is probably the president I’ve thought the least about.” My friend’s comments reflect a common sentiment – there isn’t a lot of focus on Coolidge in our basic history lessons. The primary focus of the period of American history that covers his presidency is overly focused on the economic prosperity of the “roaring twenties” and the influence of the mafia during the prohibition era. Amity Shlaes’s latest biography provides sufficient cause to rediscover Coolidge and evaluate his influence on federal governance. The biography illuminates that although “Silent Cal” was a soft-spoken and direct leader starkly different from the outspoken politician we observe in our modern day, he was immensely popular during his time because he made deliberate decisions that reflected his ability to listen to and assess the needs of the nation without making enemies in the political process. In short, he seems like the kind of guy that we need today, and perhaps he is a Republican I would have liked and voted for.
As most biographies do, Coolidge starts from the 30th president’s beginnings to demonstrate the development of the man that would later become a leader. I found Coolidge’s humble back-story an inspiring and encouraging tale of a common man who followed his calling to take part in shaping the society he inhabited. He grew up in a very rural part of Vermont, in the town of Plymouth Notch, a place that had few roads and was a rugged land that required hard work and forward thinking conservatism of its people. Coolidge’s family included many who believed in the American charge to serve their country: several served political office in order to serve their communities, including his father. Coolidge studied at the small college, Amherst, and during his first years he was an unpopular outcast expected to have few successes in later life, yet in his senior years he was inspired by progressive ideas and developed into a popular public speaker. After graduating he chose the difficult path to save money and study law the old-fashioned way, by working in a firm while studying for the Bar rather than paying for instruction at law school. As a young lawyer and during the beginnings of his political career Coolidge struggled for several years earning little while continuing to depend upon the support of his thrifty father.
Coolidge rose into the national spotlight when he was Governor of Massachusetts during the Boston Police Strike of 1919. President Wilson was avoiding the events that were causing national attention due to the lawlessness of the riots and violence occurring in Boston. Coolidge supported the Police Commissioner’s decision to not recognize the union and furthermore, to not rehire the striking policemen when the strike subsided. The rationale of his decision was grounded in his philosophy of service to the people as demonstrated by his statement that “the action of the police in leaving their posts of duty is not a strike. It is desertion. (167)”. Coolidge’s handling of the situation eventually promoted him to a nomination as Harding’s running mate as the vice president.
Harding and Coolidge won the 1920 election with a landslide victory of 60% of the popular vote, running on a campaign that encouraged a return to “normalcy” following the tumultuous times of the first World War. In office, Harding promoted the development of a national budget (it is amazing to think that there wasn’t one before 1920) and to adjust the tax codes to reduce the national debt and promote industrializing the country. Harding’s presidency was short lived, dying in 1923. As Coolidge stepped up to the presidential office, he continued the Harding legacy of budgeting and adjusting the tax codes while vetoing many of Congress’s attempts to expand the federal government. Due to the prosperity in the country under his policies, Coolidge was immensely popular during his term and easily won the 1924 election. Despite his popularity and the urging to run again in 1928, he chose the humble decision to step away from politics and return to his Vermont home. Unfortunately, after he made this decision in 1927, his influence waned due to the “lame-duck” mentality that always infects congress.
During his term as president, Coolidge’s policies were identified as a foundation for the small government philosophy of the current Republican party. However, Coolidge’s notes and letters show that the motivations for his actions were inspired by the federalism first championed by President Washington. Coolidge held the state’s rights above the federal government’s power and his philosophy on federal governance was put to the test during two disasters that occurred during his presidency: a flood in Mississippi and a flood in his home state of Vermont. During the first flood in Mississippi Coolidge did not rush to intervene because he respected the state’s authority in handling the situation. When Vermont was subsequently put to the same challenge, he was criticized by some constituents of his home state for not helping his neighbors, but he acted consistently according to the powers of his office and refrained from overstepping the Vermont governance of the situation. Reading about these two events caused me to reflect upon how much the federal government has changed from the 1920’s to today. Bush was highly criticized for his delayed intervention in Louisiana following hurricane Katrina and Obama was highly praised for his prompt intervention following the most recent disasters occurring following Hurricane Sandy. The popular sentiment of this day expects government intervention, yet Coolidge remained highly popular during his time for respecting the authority of the states and not overreaching his federal power.
Events like the police strike and the flood situation I described above make Coolidge an enlightening and enriching read. This book provides a lot of insight about the quiet president of whom popular history so often ignores. The writing of the book is engaging during Coolidge’s younger years as well as during pivotal moments such as the Boston Strike and both the Mississippi and Vermont floods, however I will acknowledge that as the chronology shifted to Coolidge’s presidential years I felt that the narrative focus began to dwindle. This may be in part largely due to the need to cover a much more broad range of topics on both the national and international level, whereas during Coolidge’s earlier years the book is more focused on the personal or narrow topics that affected Massachusetts during his governorship. This is a flaw that can be overlooked if your interests are invested in expanding your understanding of the silent president that is often ignored to better understand how the pivotal times that occurred following World War I helped shape the country that we have today.