Commentary Magazine

The Forgotten Man

By Amity Shlaes
Harper, 576 pages

Calvin Coolidge served for five and a half years as the 30th president of the United States, and history has not been kind to him. It has long been said of Coolidge that, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s House of Lords, he “did nothing in particular/And did it very well.” Indeed, to the extent that he is remembered at all, he is remembered as “Silent Cal,” a man of notably few words in an office whose occupants have more often been famous for loquacity. When, in January 1933, Dorothy Parker was told that Coolidge had died, she said, “How can they tell?”

Coolidge’s obscurity is in great measure the doing of American historians who have long portrayed the early 20th century as a winter of discontent made glorious summer by the advent of the New Deal in the 1930s. Both he and his successor, Herbert Hoover, were largely treated as foils against which to set off the triumphs of FDR.

But Franklin Roosevelt’s reputation is not quite what it once was. No small reason for Roosevelt’s diminished standing is a deeply influential book by Amity Shlaes called The Forgotten Man. It argues forcefully that FDR’s tax and economic policies extended the Great Depression rather than fostered recovery. It was World War II, not the New Deal, that finally brought the Depression to an end.

Now Shlaes has written a much needed new biography of Coolidge. It is an altogether admirable, deeply researched work, not only detailing the events in his life, but bringing him to life as well, and setting him firmly in his time and place. That is no easy task, as Coolidge was basically shy. His political life arose far more from a sense of duty than a lust for power and fame.

Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on July 4, 1872, the only president to have been born on the nation’s birthday. (Three presidents—John Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe—died on it.) As Shlaes makes clear, to understand Calvin Coolidge, one must understand Plymouth Notch—a hardscrabble, hillside village of a few houses that the railroad, and time, had passed by. It was a 12-mile trip down a steep hill to the nearest real town, Ludlow. Many had left for the lush farmlands of the Middle West, but the Coolidge family had stayed in a five-room house behind the store Calvin’s father owned. His father served in many town offices as well as the state legislature, and worked some land for wood and sugaring.

By very careful husbanding of resources, John Coolidge was able to achieve a modest prosperity, and he taught these habits to his only son. Thus Calvin Coolidge became a New England Yankee to his fingertips: frugal, honest, forthright, duty-driven, and not given to panic. He was the last of the type to have occupied the White House.

Like most of his fellow New Englanders, John Coolidge believed in education, and he saw to it that his son got a good one. The future president attended Black River Academy and then Amherst College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the town where he would live the rest of his life.

After college, Coolidge studied law. But rather than go to law school, then as now an expensive proposition, he read law with a Northampton law firm. Again, he was the last president to have entered the profession of law through an apprenticeship rather than by means of an academic degree.

In 1905, he married Grace Goodhue, who was as outgoing as he was reticent, talkative as he was quiet. It proved a happy marriage. In his autobiography (characteristically short, at only 246 pages), Coolidge wrote of her, “For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces.”

Coolidge soon gravitated to politics. Like his father, he held local offices, some appointed. He lost an election to the school board—his only political defeat—but rose through the local and state political ranks until he was elected governor in 1918.

An excellent writer, Coolidge’s speeches were, like him, terse and to the point. And it was his terseness that would make him president, with a single, well-crafted sentence. As governor, Coolidge had to confront the Boston police strike of 1919. When the majority of the Boston police force went on strike, lawlessness erupted in the city. Coolidge ordered the striking policemen fired and brought in state militia to patrol the streets and keep order.

The labor leader Samuel Gompers telegraphed his objections. “The right of the policemen to organize has been denied,” Gompers wrote, “a right that has heretofore never been questioned.”

Coolidge answered: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” The statement resonated deeply with the American people and was reprinted widely. The Los Angeles Times printed a cartoon that featured Washington throwing down his sword at Valley Forge with the caption “What if George Washington had struck?”

Coolidge was suddenly a national figure. And when the Republican Party needed someone on the national ticket to balance the charming, talkative, and not very hardworking Warren Harding, Silent Cal was a natural.

Coolidge, like most other men who have been vice president of the United States, disliked the job, calling it “a most insignificant office.” But then Harding suddenly died in the summer of 1923. In the words of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, “My God! That means Coolidge is president!”

Calvin Coolidge, being Coolidge, was not terribly impressed, and Shlaes recounts an anecdote that beautifully captures his essential character. Shortly after he inherited the White House and while still living at the Willard Hotel (vice presidents did not get an official residence until the 1970s), he was woken one morning by a sound. As she writes:

A strange young man had broken in and was going through his clothing. In the morning light, Coolidge could see that the burglar had taken a wallet, a chain, and a charm. “I wish you wouldn’t take that,” Coolidge said, “I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm. Read what is engraved on the back of it.” The burglar read the back: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge…by the Massachusetts General Court”—and stopped dead in shock. He was robbing the president. It emerged that the burglar was a hotel guest who had found himself short of cash to return home. Coolidge gave the burglar $32, what he called a “loan,” and helped him to navigate around the Secret Service as he departed.

Coolidge continued Harding’s drive to return to “normalcy” after the great disruption of World War I. (What he didn’t continue was Harding’s lackadaisical management style that bred corruption, and late-night poker parties and drinking.) For Coolidge, normalcy meant reduced government expenditures, budget surpluses, and lower taxes. He was utterly sincere when he famously said that “the chief business of the American people is business.” The best way for business, and thus the people, to prosper, thought Coolidge, was for government to intrude as little as possible.

He met with his budget director every week, for an hour and a half. Some cuts were big and some were small, such as saving $25,000 a year by having paper delivered to government printing plants on federal trucks. With his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, he cut tax rates. As a result, the government ran surpluses (the national debt, $22.3 billion when he became president, dropped to $16.9 billion five years later, a decline of almost 25 percent) and the economy boomed. The top income-tax rate dropped from 56 percent to 25 percent, and many at the bottom of the income scale now paid none at all by the end of his term.

Coolidge could have run again in 1928 and undoubtedly have won, for he was immensely popular. But, characteristically, he issued a statement that read only, “I do not choose to run again.” His younger son had died of an infection in 1924, at age 16. Coolidge never quite recovered from the blow. He would die himself, of a heart attack, at the age of 60.

Shlaes does a masterful job recounting the life of this important, underrated American, who brought frugality and efficiency to government and prosperity to the country. Would that we could say the same of his current successor.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon has written four books on American economic history.

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