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Unto the Hills

The sober wisdom of Calvin Coolidge

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Plymouth Notch, Vt.

 Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

As historic sites go, the one at Plymouth Notch is decidedly low key, downmarket, and not much to look at. You could be forgiven for driving right on by if you were on your way to, say, Woodstock, one of the designer villages of contemporary Vermont, stylishly done over with Rockefeller money. Plymouth Notch belongs to a leaner time when, if there was money, there wasn’t enough, certainly, to appease boutique tastes.

But Plymouth Notch is where President Calvin Coolidge was born and is buried. It has been preserved in its essentials so that when you visit, you hardly notice the very modest and inevitable commercialism of the place and admire, instead, the simple clapboard buildings, the sturdy barns, and the tidy cemetery where the 30th president is buried, in a grave marked by an austere granite stone no different from the one that would have been used if he had been a mere tradesman or farmer.

The grounds are restful and the view of the surrounding hills is serene and the overall mood is one of humility. Which makes it, of course, totally out of step with the times and our compulsion to elevate presidents into superstars or something, anyway, other than public officials from whom we expect prudent stewardship and sober leadership.

That was what Calvin Coolidge delivered, and so he was mocked in his own time and has been disparaged ever since as a president whose most notable achievement in the White House was the taking of daily naps, as when H. L. Mencken wrote that, “He slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.”

Dorothy Parker famously asked, when she heard Coolidge had died, “How could they tell?”

In the universe where Parker and Mencken toiled—along with a multitude of others who lacked their talent—Coolidge was the punch line to an endless joke about Babbittry. Even the Marx Brothers got in on the act when, with Coolidge in the audience for a performance of Animal Crackers, Groucho yelled, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”

This is the received history—the conventional wisdom—regarding Calvin Coolidge. What chopping down the cherry tree is for Washington and splitting rails is for Abraham Lincoln, so long naps and early bedtimes are for Coolidge.

And then there is his famously laconic personality. Among people who make a living and a reputation off their verbal skills, what could be more alien than a stinginess with words? To those who equate fluency with intelligence, Coolidge was, demonstrably, a man of meager brain, wit, and imagination.

The best that could be said of him was that he was a dull man perfectly suited to dull times. So, of course, a pompous columnist (namely Walter Lippmann) did say it: “[Coolidge’s] active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone. .  .  . And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy.”

A professional wit, Will Rogers, said it better: “As president, Calvin Coolidge didn’t do much of anything, but at the time, that’s what we needed to have done.”

The regime of boredom that was the Coolidge administration began in 1921 with the swearing-in of Warren G. Harding as president. Coolidge was his vice president, having risen to national prominence as governor of Massachusetts. Harding died after 28 months in office with his administration deep in scandal. Coolidge quickly cleaned up the mess left to him, and when he ran in 1924 he was elected overwhelmingly.

Coolidge was the antithesis of his true predecessor in the White House—Woodrow Wilson—who was an academic, an intellectual, and an idealist. Wilson was as profligate with grand words as Coolidge was sparing. In the opinion of people like Walter Lippmann, Wilson was the kind of man who ought to be president and would, in office, deliver America to its destiny.

By the end of his second term, Wilson had taken the nation into a European war that had cost it more than 100,000 dead. The inevitable fevers of war had spawned political witchhunts and prosecutions conducted by his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. Among those prose-cuted was Eugene Debs, who had run for president as candidate of the Socialist party in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912. A Debs speech opposing U.S. participation in what was eventually called World War I (we didn’t know, yet, there would be another) got him charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

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