Calvin Coolidge a man of few words

Published 9:02 am Thursday, July 27, 2017

By  Betty Etchison West

Cana/Pino Correspondent

On Aug. 2, 1923, all was quiet in a tiny village in the Green Mountains of Vermont called Plymouth Notch, when there was a knock on the door of one of the village’s prominent residents, Col. John Coolidge.

Col. Coolidge answered the door to find a man who had a message for his son, Vice President Calvin Coolidge. Mr. Coolidge rushed  upstairs to deliver the message to the Vice President. Col. Coolidge’ son and his wife, Grace, were fast asleep when they heard someone calling “Calvin, Calvin.”

Calvin recognized his father’s voice and knew immediately that something was terribly amiss. He got up, opened his bedroom door, and took the message.  It said, “The President of the United States is dead.”

Vice President Coolidge got dressed, knelt and prayed, and went downstairs. There in the Coolidge living room by the light of a kerosene lamp (the Coolidge house had no electricity or telephone) Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States of America when his father, Mr. John Coolidge, a Notary Republic, administered the Presidential oath of office.

Someone asked Col. Coolidge why he thought that he could administer the presidential oath. He replied, “Nobody told me I couldn’t!” This is the only time in the history of our country when a son has had the presidential oath of office administered by his father.

After being sworn in as president, Calvin Coolidge went back upstairs and went to bed. The next morning President and his wife,  Grace, left Plymouth Notch, a village he loved, and headed to Washington, D.C. to assume the duties which are assigned to the President of the United States.

How in the world did a boy who grew up in the isolated village of Plymouth Notch, Vt., get to be President of the United States?

The road was a long one, but it began when Calvin Coolidge was born in a house which was attached to the village store, which was owned and operated by John Coolidge. Calvin was born to John and Victoria Coolidge on July 4, 1872.  (Two Presidents died on July 4 – Jefferson and Adams, but Calvin Coolidge is the only president who was born on July 4.) Calvin had one younger sister, Abigail. As the Coolidge children grew, they were expected to do chores around the store and farm, which they did quite willingly. Calvin’s mother died when he was 12 and her death had a profound effect on her only son.

A few years after the Calvin’s birth, the Coolidge family moved to a larger house which was near the store. This was a bigger house with the dependencies attached to it – that is, the wood shed, the wash house, the well house, the dairy where the milk was kept, the outhouse (toilet),  and finally the barn. This house and others in New England were built in this manner so that the family could live without going outside when there was a blizzard or when the snow  was so deep that they could not maneuver outside. Today this house is called the Coolidge Homestead and is open to the public.

The Coolidge children went to school at a one teacher school for a few years. When Calvin was 12, he went to Black River Academy. After graduating from the academy, he went Amherst College in Massachusetts. After graduating from Amherst, he decided to “read the law” with a law firm in Northampton, Mass., because that was cheaper than going to law school.  After just two years, Calvin was able to pass the bar exam. He was 25 when  he became a full-fledged lawyer. He opened his own law practice which was quite successful.

Coolidge got interested in politics. Even though he was painfully shy – just the opposite of glad-handing, back-slapping politicians – he ran for the city council in Northampton and won. Coolidge’s consistent, strong conservative Republican views won the strong approval of the Republican leaders. After serving on the Northampton City Council, he was appointed court clerk for Hampshire County; along with this appointed came an impressive salary.

About that time Calvin met an attractive young lady, Grace Goodhue.  Grace, who had graduated from the University of Vermont and who had gotten a job at the Clark School for the Deaf in Northampton, was walking along the street one day when through an open window she saw a man in long underwear with a hat on standing before a mirror shaving. She asked, “Who is that strange man?”  A friend introduced Grace to that strange man – Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge explained that he wore his hat while shaving to keep a troublesome lock of hair from falling down and getting in his way. Never were there two people with such different personalities. Calvin was extremely shy and only talked when he had to do so. He was called “Silent Cal.” Grace was an outgoing, vivacious young lady who made friends easily. These two certainly give credence to the idea that opposites attract. Charming and outgoing Grace and shy quiet Calvin fell in love and in 1905, they were married. The book, The Presidents Fact Book, says: “The Coolidges enjoyed a solid union because they complemented each other’s characters exceedingly well. ‘For almost a quarter of a century she was borne with my infirmities and I have rejoiced in her grace,’  Calvin Coolidge said of his wife in his autobiography.” The Coolidges had two sons: John who was born in 1906 and Calvin Jr. who was born two years later.

Calvin Coolidge’s rise in the world of politics continued. He was elected mayor of Northampton and then as a Massachusetts State Senator. While he was serving in the state legislature in Boston,  his family remained  in Northampton because Coolidge thought it was too expensive for his family to live in the big city. Coolidge was always tight-fisted or maybe one should say conservative except where clothes for his wife were concerned. He always was quite willing for her to spend money on pretty clothes. He even window-shopped while he was in Boston and sometimes made a purchase. He could often be seen carrying a big hat box on the train on Friday as he returned from Boston. He had purchased a hat for his wife.

After serving in the state legislature, Coolidge was elected lieutenant governor and finally governor of Massachusetts in 1918. While he was governor, he got national recognition when he sent the state militia to maintain order when there was a police strike in Boston. He said, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” This statement received national attention particularly in conservative newspapers. The leaders of organized labor pushed back, but Coolidge had the attention of Republican enemies of organized labor. Those leaders wanted Coolidge to be the Republican candidate for president in 1920. He was not chosen as the Republican candidate, but he was chosen as the vice presidential candidate to run with Warren G. Harding.

The Harding/Coolidge ticket won that election.

Just about two and one half years later, President Harding died during a cross-country trip and thus John Calvin Coolidge became the President of the United States.

The book, The American President, says: “Coolidge represented in his own person many of the virtues of traditional New England. He was pithy, terse, upright, and honest. He kept his word and expected other people to keep theirs. He didn’t speak unless he had something to say, and then he was always specific and to the point. All these classic virtues were appreciated by the general public. In many ways he was the perfect president in an era when people were intent on pursuing their own futures.”

President Coolidge sought to restore confidence in the government as the full story of the Teapot Dome scandal and other scandals became public knowledge.He quickly replaced the Harding appointees who had been involved in the scandals and named a special counsel to investigate the misconduct of government officials. Just over a year after he became president, it was time for another election. Coolidge was easily named the candidate of the Republican Party, and Charles Dawes was chosen to be his running mate.

Between the time that Coolidge was chosen as the Republican candidate and the election, the Coolidge family was struck with a great tragedy. Sixteen-year-old Calvin Coolidge Jr. was playing tennis on the White House tennis courts with his brother when he got a blister on his foot. Calvin Jr. did not tell anyone about the blister for a few days.By the time that his parents found out about it, blood poisoning had set in. Everything that could be done at that time was done. Nothing worked, and Calvin Jr. died.  The death of his son overwhelmed the President.  It is said that Calvin Coolidge was never really the same again. He barely even participated in his re-election campaign, but the Coolidge/Dawes ticket easily won the election. In fact that ticket got almost twice as many popular votes and electoral votes as the nearest competitors.

During Coolidge’s administration, the atmosphere was pro-business. The president believed in keeping corporate taxes low and he believed that there should be little government regulation. The stock market surged upward, but the labor unions were suffering. Mr. Coolidge proved that he was against labor by his decision concerning the Boston police strikes. Many of the comforts of modern life such as electricity, telephones, cars, and even the ability to buy a house on credit was available to the average citizen. Basically things seemed to be working well. The era is known as the “Roaring Twenties.”  Prohibition was still in effect but it seemed it did little to stem the flow of alcohol.

President Coolidge rarely drank and he really opposed the Prohibition law, but he was compelled to support it because it was the law of the land.

Even though prosperity seemed to be the order of the day, there were problems. The Mississippi River flooded which resulted in millions of dollars in damage. According to, The Presidents Fact Book,  “Coolidge opposed a congressional relief bill, arguing that the federal government should not favor one section of the country at the expense of another. But the legislation passed. This act began an expansion of federal government responsibilities and obligations in an era when both the people and the politicians wanted individual states to take responsibility for the health and welfare of its citizens.

All in all, the 20s were a period of unparalleled prosperity. The gross national product soared as did the stock market, and unemployment fell so it seemed that all was well. There were even some outstanding personal achievements. Babe Ruth set a new home run record and Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Even with all the positive things that were going on, farmers were having a tough time. Coolidge twice vetoed the McNary-Haugen Bill which was intended to protect farmers from fluctuations in crop prices. So once again the farmers who needed relief did not get it during this president’s term in office.

President Coolidge was called “a do nothing president” by some people. This was probably part of his plan. In the book “To the Best of my Ability” we find this sentence which describes Coolidge’s administration: “The four years were notable more for what he refused to do than for what he accomplished.”  Mr. Coolidge’s method of governing certainly worked in some ways. When he left office in 1929, the federal budget had only grown by $4 million during four plus years in office.

While the Coolidges  lived in the White House, Grace Coolidge was an asset. She was in no way involved in politics; but she smoothed many rough edges which Calvin created, particularly in social situations. She was a great hostess who made her guests feel welcome. The fact that the President was a man of few words was a well-known fact. One story says that a lady was seated beside the president at a dinner said, “I made a bet with a friend that I can get you to say more than two words.”  Mr. Coolidge said, “You lose.”            

During a vacation at the State Game Lodge in Custer, S.D., President Coolidge shocked reporters who were accompanying him when he handed each one a piece of paper which said, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” He had not even told his wife what he planned to do. This was typical Coolidge, always a man of few words and seemingly few actions; but a man who acted decisively when he felt such action was appropriate.

While the Coolidges were on that vacation in South Dakota, Mrs. Coolidge and a Secret Service Agent went on a walk.  The President expected them back in about an hour. They did not return within the hour or within two hours. Mr. Coolidge waited and waited and became more anxious as the time passed. Several hours later, Grace Coolidge and the Secret Service man returned. Mrs. Coolidge explained to her husband that they had gotten lost and had a hard time finding their way back to the Lodge. This is one of the times that Mr. Coolidge took decisive action—the next day the Secret Service Agent was reassigned to a station in Washington, D.C.

After leaving Washington, the Coolidges went back to their duplex in Northampton, Mass., but they soon found that they needed a more private place to live. They bought a larger home, and it was there that Calvin Coolidge completed his autobiography.

For a while he wrote a column for a newspaper, but he gave that up. On Jan. 5, 1933, Grace Coolidge came back from shopping and found her husband dead on the floor. Calvin Coolidge was buried in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery  in Vermont where seven generations of his family were buried.  His wife and his son, Calvin Jr., are buried beside him. Each of the graves is marked with a simple tombstone.

People often ask me which of the presidential sites is my favorite. The Coolidge Homestead at Plymouth Notch, Vt., and the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park in South Dakota, are definitely two of my favorites.

Another thing connected to the Coolidges which I found most interesting is the beautiful portrait of Grace Coolidge which is in the area of the White House in Washington that has a portrait of the wife of each president. Mrs. Coolidge is wearing a red dress in the portrait and she has her white dog be her side.