The Magazine

Unto the Hills

The sober wisdom of Calvin Coolidge

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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:

It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. As I look back on it, I constantly think how clean it was. There was little about it that was artificial. It was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. The streams ran clear. The roads, the woods, the fields, the people—all were clean. Even when I try to divest it of the halo which I know always surrounds the past, I am unable to create any other impression than that it was fresh and clean.

And of his departure, he wrote this:

I was going where I would be mostly my own master. I was casting off what I thought was the drudgery of farm life, symbolized by the cowhide boots and every-day clothing which I was leaving behind, not realizing what a relief it would be to return to them in future years. .  .  .

I did not know that there were mental and moral atmospheres more monotonous and more contaminating than anything in the physical atmosphere of country life. No one could have made me believe that I should never be so innocent or so happy again.

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.”

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