An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

Oct 16, 2013 by

 

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-( during what time period or event or series of events ?)

John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. To date, he is the only president to be born on Independence Day, although we have had three presidents die on that holiday. Coolidge received an excellent education while growing up, as his father was able to send him to Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont. Completing his studies there, Coolidge gained admission into Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. After graduating, Coolidge moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. Rather than attend law school, Coolidge chose to become an apprentice with a law firm in that community. Coolidge passed the Massachusetts bar examination in 1897, and the following year he began his own law firm in Northampton.

That year he entered politics, winning election to the Northampton City Council. In 1899 he was elected as the Northampton City Solicitor. The city council chose someone else to be the solicitor in 1902, but just after he left that office he was chosen to become the city’s clerk of courts. In 1904 he ran for the Northampton School Board, and suffered the only defeat of his political career. In 1906 he ran successfully for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and won reelection in 1908. In 1910 he chose to run for mayor in Northampton, and won by a narrow margin. He ran successfully for a second term, and then in 1912 decided to become a candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate. Coolidge won, and would serve in the Senate until 1915.

In that year he placed his name into consideration to become the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and received the nomination. He won that election, and would serve three terms as lieutenant governor. In 1918 he ran for governor, and won. While there were some who suggested that Coolidge should be the Republican nominee for president in 1920, he never finished higher than sixth in the balloting at the Republican National Convention that year. But when discussion turned to the party’s nominee for vice-president, opinion at the convention quickly coalesced around him.

He thus became Harding’s running mate, and the ticket won in the general election that fall. In 1923, Harding died unexpectedly while touring the West Coast. Coolidge was visiting his relatives in Vermont when he received the news that Harding had passed away. He had his father, who was a notary public, administer the oath of office in the early morning hours of August 3. When he returned to Washington DC on August 4 he had a justice of the court in that city administer the oath again, just in case that it was not legal for a mere notary public to swear in a president. Coolidge thus either became president on August 3 or 4, 1923.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Coolidge is best known for his reticence. This is somewhat ironic, because in his rise to the highest office in the land he had proven to be a very good public speaker. But to many observers he seemed to be a man of few words, and this tendency became even more pronounced when he became president. He reputedly felt that whatever a president said carried great importance, and so he was reluctant to say anything that might be misconstrued. For this reason, he is remembered primarily for his nickname “Silent Cal.”

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Coolidge was a man of intelligence and personal integrity. Indeed, he took a very progressive stance on race relations as president despite the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was very influential during that decade. He wrote a letter in response to a citizen who had asserted that the United States was a “white man’s country,” stating that the thousands of African-Americans who had served in the US army during the First World War proved otherwise. This courage is in my opinion his most admirable attribute.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Coolidge is criticized by a number of historians for refusing to act on two instances during his presidency. He twice vetoed legislation that would have provided aid for farmers who had been hurt by a sudden drop in prices after the conclusion of the First World War, and he seemed indifferent to the plight of those who were affected by a catastrophic flood along the Mississippi River. His attitude seemed to him a proper restraint against presidential activism, but to modern observers it seems that he should have modified his behavior to help alleviate suffering.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Coolidge is remembered as the president who was in office when the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed. This was a treaty that outlawed war, and was signed by a number of nations in 1928. It was hailed at the time as a great step forward in international relations, but its true history is a bit more problematic. France had wanted a binding guarantee of its security from the United States, knowing that such a treaty would deter anyone from attacking it. But the United States, unwilling to commit itself thusly, offered a general statement renouncing war as an instrument of foreign policy instead. France reluctantly went along with the idea, and the result was the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Because he believed in limited government, Coolidge did not leave behind an impressive resume when he left the Oval Office. As a result, historians rank him below average. He currently ranks as the 31st best president in our nation’s history.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

The answer to this question depends in large measure on the perspective of the reader. To some, Coolidge’s economic legacy is his greatest achievement, as he presided over a virtual dismantling of the taxation policies initiated by his predecessor. To others, his greatest accomplishment would be his signing of the Indian Citizenship act, which made all Native Americans citizens of the United States.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our thirtieth President?

There is a widely accepted story that one night President Coolidge went to a dinner where he sat next to the famous socialite Dorothy Parker. In this story, she told him that she had made a bet with her friends. Knowing his reputation for being tight-lipped, she said she had wagered that she could get Coolidge to say more than his usual two words at the dinner. Parker tried to engage the president in conversation, but Coolidge only responded with grunts, murmurs, and nods of his head.

Finally, as he was leaving, he shook her hand and said “you lose.” This story sums up both Coolidge’s personality and sardonic approach to life better than any recitation of facts about his presidency could.

 

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