Unto the Hills
The sober wisdom of Calvin Coolidge
Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Plymouth Notch, Vt.
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.
Wilson still refused a request for Debs’s pardon more than two years after the war ended. Warren Harding commuted Debs’s sentence on December 23, 1921, saying that he wanted “that man to spend Christmas with his family.”
If the nation was weary of war and its passions, it was also sick of the economic aftermath, which took the form of an especially severe recession. The voters wanted peace and prosperity—which Harding called a “return to normalcy”—and first he, and then Coolidge, gave it to them, chiefly by cutting spending and adopting broadly laissez-faire economic policies.
For which those who believed government’s mission is to change the world (as, for instance, by making it “safe for democracy”) would never forgive them.
Coolidge was the anti-Wilson in all things. This was not simply political calculation on his part. It went to the nature of the man, and you can get a feel for that nature when you walk the streets of Plymouth Notch. They are paved, now; one of the very few ways in which the place has changed since Coolidge was born here on July 4, 1872.
This is not a place where you are likely to grow up dreaming big dreams and nurturing visions of how you will one day go off and change the world. The land is tough and the climate is harsh. The soil is rocky and unyielding. Crops come hard and you water them with sweat. Winter arrives early and settles in. The thaw, when it appears, brings a sea of mud. The virtues this place teaches are hard work, thrift, and prudence.
When Coolidge left Plymouth Notch for schooling that was unavailable there, he was 13 years old, and he had absorbed thoroughly the lessons the place had to teach. He was an industrious, sober lad, schooled in hardship and sorrow. When he was still a boy, his mother, who had been long ill with tuberculosis, called Calvin and his siblings to her bedside, “where we knelt down to receive her final parting blessing.
“In an hour she was gone. It was her 39th birthday. I was 12 years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.”
The passage is from Coolidge’s autobiography, which is available in the gift shop at Plymouth Notch but probably not in most local bookstores. And more is the pity since the book is modest and, in places, laconically poetic. Coolidge may have been stingy with words but he could use the few at hand with real feeling. On looking back at his childhood in Plymouth Notch, he wrote:
And of his departure, he wrote this:
Leaving that childhood behind, he made his way to Amherst, where he read the classics. After graduating he read the law, which was still possible in those days, before going into practice and, also, into politics. He plainly had a knack for it, getting himself elected to the state legislature, as mayor of Northampton, and to a chair in the state senate, which made him its leader. Upon assuming office, he advised other senators, “Be brief. Above all, be brief.”
He was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. A glorified no-show job. Then governor. It was in that office that he made his national reputation, calling out the National Guard to break a strike by the Boston police in September 1919.
In a letter to Samuel Gompers, the lion of the labor movement, Coolidge made himself abundantly plain: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.”
In 1920, he was on the Republican ticket with Harding. His feelings about the vice presidency were, at best, equivocal. He was in Boston, getting ready for dinner, when he received a phone call informing him that he had been nominated, on the tenth ballot, at the Republican convention in Chicago.
He told his wife, who said, “You’re not going to take it, are you?”
“Well,” Coolidge said, “I suppose I’ll have to.”
His duties as vice president consisted mainly of presiding over the Senate and attending various ceremonial and official dinners around Washington, which he did cheerfully enough.
“Got to eat somewhere,” he said.
Coolidge was back home in Plymouth Notch on August 2, 1923, when President Harding died of a heart attack in California. The news arrived in the early morning, and Coolidge was sworn in before sunrise in the light of a kerosene lamp by his father who was a notary. After taking the oath, Coolidge went back to bed.
Coolidge finished Harding’s term, after which he first refused, then accepted, his party’s nomination for president and won handily in the 1924 election. But it was a time more of sorrow than celebration. In July, Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of sepsis after a blister he’d raised while playing lawn tennis on the White House grounds became infected.
In his father’s autobiography, there is this:
Coolidge’s grief may have led him into a state of what would today be called depression. And Dorothy Parker might have wondered, “How could they tell?” But it does seem possible. Coolidge was less vital during his own term of office than he had been while finishing out Harding’s, and while he could have been renominated by his party and reelected by the voters, he declined to run and handed things off to Herbert Hoover, a man of far more activist inclinations, whom Coolidge held in fairly low regard, referring to him as “Wonder Boy,” and saying that Hoover “has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad.”
The debates over Coolidge’s place in history continue in some specialized arenas. He has, certainly, his advocates—among them Paul Johnson, who writes in Modern Times that he was “the most internally consistent and single-minded of modern American presidents.” According to Johnson, it was a Coolidge tactic “to mislead people into believing he was less sophisticated and active than he was (a ploy later imitated by Dwight Eisenhower).” And in the Coolidge years, “the USA enjoyed a general prosperity which was historically unique in its experience or that of any other society.”
But . . . but . . . but. The prosperity was false, according to . . . oh, take your pick. The economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, according to the conventional wisdom, was a fiction that collapsed in the Great Crash and led to the poisoned decade of the Great Depression. And it was not entirely Hoover’s fault. Coolidge was around for the setup and did nothing to prevent it and may, in fact, have seen it coming. It was shrewdness, not wisdom or sorrow, that motivated him not to run for another term. He wanted to get out while the getting was still good.
Still, it was an era of peace and prosperity—the last such period in American memory. It was a time when seven murders in Chicago was big news and not simply another day at the office. When almost 90 percent of the world’s automobiles were owned by Americans. When the country was becoming electrified. Radio was becoming ubiquitous. People were beginning to travel by air, and the movies were beginning to talk. When, in America, just about anything seemed possible except the legal consumption of whiskey. Taxes were low, profits were high, and life was good. The president’s contribution was to run an efficient, honest, frugal government, which Coolidge did.
When you visit Plymouth Notch, it is easy to imagine that Coolidge himself may have believed it could not last. Not because he had any special insight into stock market crashes and the economic effects of tariff wars and monetary contractions; though he may have.
More likely, because his roots were here, he understood in his bones that life is more hard work and sorrow than it is good times and plenty. And that nothing good lasts.
So while scholarly debate over his leadership is still possible, the popular verdict is pretty much sealed, and he is remembered for the naps and as someone who seldom said much, none of which was worth remembering since it comes down to the one quotation many people recognize, even if they don’t recall it as coming from Coolidge.
“The business of America is business,” he is supposed to have said, and that is considered the final proof that he was a philistine of the George Babbitt school.
Well, Coolidge did say it. Sort of. His actual statement was: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” To which he added, “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.” And then, in the last paragraph of the speech, Coolidge nailed it:
We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.
His own idealism was made of sterner stuff than the pabulum dispensed by present-day leaders. It celebrated the old virtues and was not calculated to make people necessarily feel good about themselves. As when he said: “The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil.”
But then, because he came from these hills, he did not spare himself. He had learned their lessons well, among them the virtue of humility, as when he appraised his time in office this way: “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”
Call that the last word.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.