Donald R McCoy. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Calvin Coolidge, a shrewd, taciturn, and publicly dignified New Englander, occupied the presidency during the generally prosperous and peaceful period from August 1923 to March 1929. The variety of his accomplishments in the White House was impressive even if their substance was not.
Born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, on 4 July 1872, he was named John Calvin Coolidge after his father, variously a teacher, storekeeper, farmer, mechanic, and politician, doing whatever would contribute to his modest prosperity. Calvin’s mother, Victoria Moor Coolidge, a handsome woman and a lover of poetry and nature, died when the boy was twelve.
Calvin Coolidge’s childhood was simple and idealistic. Although his religious ideas were vague, he was taught to believe in a divine intelligence that imposed upon man a duty to give public service. In rugged, rural Vermont, he acquired the attributes of caution, fairness, frugality, honesty, industry, reliability, tolerance, and unpretentiousness. He clung to these qualities throughout his life, and they stood him well in his rise to the presidency. Calvin was the first of the Vermont Coolidges to attend college, going to Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. His Amherst years strengthened his conviction that harmony and stability were essential in the affairs of society. The college also helped him to develop into something of a gentleman, a scholar, an occasionally droll fellow, and an adequate speaker.
After being graduated cum laude from Amherst in 1895, Coolidge read law with John Hammond and Henry Field in Northampton. He was admitted to the bar two years later, after which he opened a law office in Northampton, which he considered his home for the rest of his life. Although he never achieved eminence or riches at the bar, Coolidge was able to earn enough as a lawyer to become financially independent of his father.
The law was only Coolidge’s first profession. His second career was politics, which satisfied his craving for civic service and supplemented his income. He found his entry into politics easy because his father had been a frequent officeholder in Vermont and because his legal mentors, Hammond and Field, were political leaders in Northampton. In 1896, Coolidge became active in the local Republican party, and in 1898 he was elected to the Northampton city council. From then on, his progress up the political ladder was almost constant. He became city solicitor in 1900, clerk of the Hampshire county courts in 1903, and chairman of Northampton’s Republican committee in 1904. Coolidge suffered his only defeat at the polls when he ran for school committeeman in 1905.
That was the year Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher in Northampton’s Clarke Institute for the Deaf. The quiet Coolidge hoped that this charming young woman “having taught the deaf to hear, … might perhaps cause the mute to speak.” Grace Coolidge was a vivacious, good-humored woman of varied interests who was willing to follow her husband’s lead in all things. As such, she was the perfect helpmeet for her affectionate but domestically autocratic mate. Their first son, John, was born in 1906, and another, Calvin, in 1908.
Coolidge resumed his advancement up the political ladder in 1906 with his election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where during his two terms he established a mildly progressive legislative record. His ability to appeal unostentatiously to varied ethnic, religious, and economic interests was confirmed in 1909 when he became mayor of Northampton. In 1911, Coolidge was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, where for the first time he attracted notice on the state scene by helping to arrange a fair settlement of the great textile strike in Lawrence. Reelected to the state senate in 1912 and 1913, he was chosen president of that body in 1914, becoming the most prominent Republican holding state office. Coolidge performed effectively as senate president in 1914 and 1915, advising his colleagues to “do the day’s work” and “be brief.” In 1915 he was elected lieutenant governor.
Coolidge gave insight into his political success in a letter to a friend in 1915: “I think I have a reputation of being conservative, which I am, because I do not make so loud a noise as some others. I think I have been in sympathy with practically all legislation intended to improve living conditions.” This could be translated into Coolidge’s creed throughout his political career: something for everyone so long as it did not cost too much. Add to this the fact that he was a man who got along with almost everybody, who was compassionate with ordinary people while identifying with the well-to-do, and who was effective as an officeholder and remarkably shrewd in his political timing, and one has a politician who, while few could be enthusiastic about him, was acceptable to the majority.
After three years in the lieutenant governorship, Coolidge, recognized as a loyal, astute, and effective wheelhorse of his party in Massachusetts, had acquired enough support to run successfully for governor in 1918. He proved an able governor, one adept at riding the tides of the stormy post-World War I period, in part by skillfully manipulating the platitudes that he believed in and that people wanted to hear. He labored to hold down the escalating cost of living, to increase supplies of items in short supply, to penalize profiteers, to encourage reasonable pay increases, and to settle labor disputes. He successfully advocated ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (for woman suffrage) and restriction of the work-week of women and children, among other reform measures. Moreover, Coolidge was instrumental in the efficient reorganization of the state’s government.
His national reputation did not derive from such accomplishments but from his identification with settling the highly publicized Boston police strike of 1919. The police of Boston had serious grievances, which the authorities largely ignored. Thus, in September 1919 the police walked off their jobs, and disorder came to the Massachusetts capital. Coolidge did not intervene in the situation until peace had been substantially restored. Then the governor took command of the various forces that had been brought into Boston to maintain order. He upheld the police commissioner in refusing to allow the strikers to return to their jobs. When Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, contested him, Coolidge wrote to him, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” For this, during a time when disorder seemed to threaten the nation, Coolidge received America’s acclaim. Moreover, that fall he was overwhelmingly reelected governor.
In 1920, Coolidge became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but the efforts on his behalf amounted to little more than a favorite-son movement. After a sharp contest among many candidates, the Republican convention finally nominated Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio for president. The delegates, in a surprise move, chose the Massachusetts governor to run for vice president. The Harding-Coolidge ticket won a landslide victory that November over Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As vice president, Coolidge was un-impressive. He sat in on cabinet meetings, but he played no significant role in the Harding administration. He was an uninspiring presiding officer of the Senate, and his speeches were little noted. By 1923, Coolidge was little more than a cipher on the national political scene.
Succession to Presidency
All that quickly changed. President Harding died the evening of 2 August 1923, and Coolidge was thus catapulted from relative obscurity to instant prominence. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts exclaimed, “My God! That means Coolidge is President!” In a dramatic ritual in his Vermont home, John Coolidge, who was a notary public, swore in his son as the new president by the light of an oil lamp at 2:47 A.M. on 3 August. Calvin Coolidge left for Washington a few hours later to assume his new duties. The style of the presidency would change, if not the administration’s basic principles.
Calvin and Grace Coolidge would present a great contrast to their immediate predecessors. The extrovert Harding had worked and played hard, and mixed with people of questionable integrity, while his wife, Florence, had presided over the White House in an imperious, brittle manner. William Allen White wrote in 1925, Coolidge was “not like the run of the herd.” The new president was frugal with words, money, and action; easily fatigued; unostentatious; cautious, even secretive; and very much a private person. He had little time for those who were pretentious or of questionable character. His sense of humor was keen, but it was pointed. One example of it was his response to a woman who told him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” “You lose,” Coolidge retorted. All this made him into a capital character, “Silent Cal,” the man whose idea of a perfect day was one during which absolutely nothing happened. It also made the atmosphere of the White House after Harding, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth observed, “as different as a New England front parlor is from a backroom in a speakeasy.”
There was, in fact, more to Coolidge than this. He could be kind, particularly with ordinary people. He could be talkative and loving with his family. If he was sparing in his activities, he did focus his attention conscientiously on public business. If he believed that the government should not act unless necessary, he also believed that when it did act, it should act well. Little of this made him seem less angular, but it did encourage public awareness that Coolidge was doing his job. Moreover, Grace Coolidge was a charming, enthusiastic, and popular First Lady. Although she was limited by the president’s control of her schedule and of White House functions, she was an effective counterpoint to her husband’s taciturnity, as was the attractiveness of their two teenage sons, John and Calvin. Young Calvin’s death in July 1924 from a foot infection stunned the nation and the family, especially the president. The country’s outpouring of sympathy was no substitute for the Coolidge family’s loss.
Coolidge’s administrative technique was simple, direct, and effective. After consulting with appropriate parties, he laid down the policies that he thought the federal government should follow. He made it clear that he expected his subordinates in the executive branch to do their jobs within those guidelines. He expected appointed officials to run their operations efficiently and economically. If they could not do these things, and do them well, Coolidge impressed upon them that he would find people who could. For civil servants, the president relied heavily on the concept of the merit system in recruitment, retention, and promotion. He made it clear, therefore, that he expected meritorious performance from those who had the security of a federal civil service position. Thanks to his reiterations of these points, Coolidge usually received excellent service from those employed in the executive branch.
In all this, Coolidge made good use of his power of appointment. Equally important, he effectively employed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the agency established to administer this law, the Bureau of the Budget. The legislation had for the first time given the president substantial control over the appropriations requests of executive agencies and even over their spending of funds, enabling Coolidge to keep a tight rein on the funds, personnel, and programs of the various agencies and therefore on the system of rewards and punishments. Compared to later presidents, he did not have a great deal to administer, but what he did have he administered very well.
Coolidge also proved to be effective at publicizing his policies and activities. Central to this was his regularization of press conferences—his only innovation as president—which he usually held twice a week. Although Coolidge manipulated the news in his press conferences, he made himself a valuable and steady, though normally off-the-record, source of copy. His ability to establish an admirable rapport with news people was to help Coolidge considerably during the 1924 election campaign as well as throughout his presidency.
Coolidge came to the presidency with three obvious disadvantages. First, except for Secretary of War John Weeks of Massachusetts, he was not well acquainted with any of the members of the cabinet. Second, the cabinet he inherited varied considerably in quality. And, third, as a vice president succeeding to the presidency, Coolidge did not feel free to discharge summarily any of Harding’s appointees. The new president set out methodically to become acquainted with his chief subordinates and their programs. Moreover, he made it plain to them that he was delegating considerable authority and responsibility to them as well as expecting them to he successful in doing their jobs. He emphasized that he would rely heavily upon them for information and advice, which he expected to be well considered.
This was a good start, but not good enough, considering the character of Harding’s appointees. Some, such as Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, were outstanding by any measure. Others, such as Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, easily found accommodation with the new chief executive. Still others were able but independent, such as Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace. Coolidge’s great problem would be with those who would prove to be embarrassments, such as Harding’s close associate, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. These embarrassments would prove to be substantial, and soon in coming. They pointed up the flaw in the new president’s idea: “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you will have to battle with only one of them.”
Scandal had touched the Harding administration before the president’s death, in the form of massive corruption in the Veterans Bureau and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Harding had fired the head of the Veterans Bureau, who later was sent to prison, as was the alien-property custodian. After Coolidge became president, members of Congress probed for the weaker links around Harding. They found them by early 1924.
Senate investigators discovered a remarkable pattern of ineptitude and corruption revolving around Attorney General Daugherty. Sufficient evidence was never found to convict him of anything, but the revelations quickly siphoned off public and official confidence in the attorney general. Coolidge believed that he could not ask Daugherty, especially as Harding’s favorite, to resign just on the grounds that he was an embarrassment. Soon Daugherty went beyond the pale when he refused in his own defense to open the files of the Justice Department to Senate investigators. The president could not allow Daugherty to act both as attorney general and as his own defense counsel. “These two positions,” Coolidge wrote, “are incompatible and cannot be reconciled.” Therefore, on 27 March he demanded that Daugherty resign. Coolidge replaced him with an Amherst friend, Harlan F. Stone, a former dean of the Columbia University Law School.
An even greater scandal had developed earlier in 1924. Senate investigations indicated that oil magnates Harry F. Sinclair and Edward Doheny had bribed Albert Fall, while he was interior secretary, in order to gain leasing rights to the government’s Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and Elk Hills oil reserve in California. Many Democrats and dissident Republicans had a field day with this, and attacks on the administration quickly became vituperative. Soon there were those who charged that the entire cabinet and even Coolidge had been involved in the oil transactions that had taken place during the Harding administration. President Coolidge remained calm in the face of mounting accusations. He acted quickly, though not precipitately.
While others were hastily arriving at judgments of guilt, Coolidge decided on 26 January to appoint two special counsel, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, to investigate the situation and to take appropriate action. His timing was impeccable, for the Senate was on the verge of taking more extreme action. His appointees, Owen J. Roberts and Atlee Pomerene, were perfect, for they had the professional expertise necessary to conduct an investigation that was neither a whitewash nor a flurry of vindictiveness. Because of their work, Fall was convicted for receiving bribes and so became the first cabinet member sent to prison for misconduct in office. Sinclair was found guilty of contempt of court. Moreover, the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills oil leases were canceled after exhaustive judicial proceedings. The investigations also revealed that Democrats as well as Republicans had been involved in the scandal.
This was not all that resulted from the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills scandal. Much of the investigation of Daugherty stemmed from it. Then, in February 1924, Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby was forced from office by Senate pressures, although there was no evidence that he was culpable of wrongdoing. Coolidge had refused to ask for his resignation, making clear that he would not “sacrifice any innocent man [or] retain in office any unfit man for my own welfare.” Denby volunteered his resignation so that he would not be a burden to the president. Coolidge made a good choice for the new navy secretary in Curtis D. Wilbur, chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Denby’s resignation led the administration’s Democratic and Republican critics to try to connect the leadership of the executive branch, including Coolidge, with the oil scandal. Indeed, they sought to find scandal in other situations, especially the Treasury Department’s handling of tax rebates to business and Henry Ford’s proposal to develop federal property at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The first of these succeeded in embarrassing its Senate sponsor more than the Treasury Department; the second led to extended debate over the development of Muscle Shoals and Ford’s withdrawal of his proposal, but not to a scandal. In all, Coolidge handled the situation masterfully and with little help from the generally timid Republican regulars in Congress. He kept his head while his critics often lost theirs, and he acted as much to retain his self-respect as to win the next election. Moreover, the president benefited from the fact that the investigations demonstrated that, as Charles Evans Hughes said, “corruption knows no party.”
The Election of 1924
Coolidge would reap an abundant political harvest from the way in which he met the charges of scandal. He emerged not only as a man of probity but also of coolness under fire. This explains much of the attractiveness of his chief campaign slogan in 1924, “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” He apparently had decided soon after he succeeded to the presidency to run for election to the office in his own right. This seemed confirmed by his appointment of C. Bascom Slemp, a professional politician and former Virginia congressman, as his chief White House secretary. Although Coolidge had no significant power base outside Massachusetts, he quickly acquired a team of supporters who worked effectively in raising campaign funds and enlisting convention delegates for him. Moreover, it was his good fortune that by January 1924, Senator Hiram Johnson of California was the only prominent Republican who was striving to contest with him their party’s presidential nomination. The crucial showdown between Coolidge and Johnson came in May 1924. Then the president defeated the senator in his home state in the primary election, thanks largely to the efforts of another Californian, Commerce Secretary Herbert C. Hoover. Coolidge was easily nominated by the Republican National Convention in June.
The only mistake of the president’s supporters was that they got their wires crossed as to who should be nominated for vice president. The convention delegates took advantage of this to choose a former Illinois governor, Frank O. Lowden, who refused the nomination. The delegates then selected another Illinois figure, the banker Charles G. Dawes, who had recently returned from a highly publicized mission to resuscitate the economy of Germany.
The Democrats in 1924 had a seemingly perfect campaign issue in Teapot Dome, but they managed to carry it too far in both their logic and language. Moreover, their national convention was bitterly divided over issues such as oil-tainted Democrats (of whom there were not supposed to be any), Prohibition, and the Ku Klux Klan. During the record-setting 103 ballots it took the Democratic delegates to agree on a presidential nominee, they laid bare every weakness in their party and knocked out of contention every well-known candidate for the nomination. Their nominee was a relatively obscure Wall Street lawyer from West Virginia, a “dry,” John W. Davis, whose running mate, Governor Charles Bryan of Nebraska, seemed to contradict much that Davis stood for. Republican Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin also ran for president, on the Progressive ticket, with Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as his vice presidential nominee.
Coolidge’s strategy in the 1924 campaign was to stick to presidential business and to ride the rising economic trend. He let Dawes, a colorful and energetic speaker, point up the flaws in their opponents. The conservative Davis was unable either to present much of a contrast to Coolidge or to pull his party together; the aging La Follette succeeded in attracting votes from the Democrats as well as the Republicans, but not in matching the strength of the major parties. The president won election handily, polling 15,718,211 votes to 8,385,283 for Davis and 4,831,289 for La Follette. The electoral vote was divided 382-136-13.
The Early Coolidge Program
During his first fifteen months in office, Calvin Coolidge had shown himself to be an astute administrator and politician. This quality, as well as his basic conservatism, affected his policies. He had no serious disagreement with the policies of the Harding administration. Equally important, he believed that disaster would be visited on an “acting president” who made any wrenching changes in the course being sailed by the administration or the country. Coolidge was fully committed to seeking efficient and economical government. For him, this did not mean cutting back on existing programs, only in making them more effective. He could further cut federal taxes and the national debt in the belief that this would promote the nation’s prosperity. This would be augmented by encouragement of business development, for the president believed that the “chief business of the American people is business.” Yet Coolidge, no less than Harding, was interested in making changes, however modest.
In Coolidge’s first message to Congress, on 6 December 1923, he had called for a moderate development of flood control, reforestation, electric power, and transportation facilities; the strengthening of the civil service; encouragement of farm cooperatives; and increased regulation of labor disputes, Alaskan fisheries, coastal water pollution, radio, and aviation. He showed his concern for black Americans by requesting action against lynching, increased support of their education, and establishment of a commission to seek harmony between the races in industrial areas. Immigration should be restricted, for, as he knew the great majority of members of Congress agreed, “America must be kept American.” Whereas Harding had talked of establishing a federal department of welfare, Coolidge called for a department to encourage character development and education among the people. He also proposed constitutional amendments to set a minimum wage for women and to restrict child labor in industrial employment. All this, of course, was to be achieved within the guideline of having a surplus of federal revenues to apply to reducing the national debt.
The foreign policy goals that Coolidge outlined in his first message to Congress differed little from Harding’s. Coolidge reiterated that the United States would not join the League of Nations, although he requested American membership on the World Court. The United States would not cancel the debts of other countries to it, although the administration was willing to negotiate further the terms of those obligations. There would be no recognition of the Soviet Union until it made amends for its perceived transgressions. The merit system should be extended to the nation’s foreign service personnel. Overall, there would be a continuation of the Harding administration’s foreign policy of promoting peace, goodwill among nations, commercial friendship, and negotiation of disputes. In large part, Coolidge asked Congress for what his executive agencies had recommended. He was to get little of it because of the preoccupation of senators and representatives with questions of scandal in 1924.
Relations with Congress
Coolidge tried valiantly to get along with members of Congress. He was solicitous of the suggestions on legislation and appointments of the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Moreover, he would listen to Democrats who sought his ear. He was cordial to most members of Congress, even to many who embarrassed and opposed him. And the Coolidges so often played host to senators and representatives that the White House sometimes resembled a congressional club. Yet, however shrewd the president was in administration and electoral politics, he was seldom able to achieve harmony with Congress.
This was in part the result of the unfavorable impression Coolidge had made on senators during his lackluster vice presidency. More important was the independent nature of Congress during the 1920s. This, of course, had contributed significantly to the uproar over Teapot Dome and related matters that poisoned relations between president and Congress in 1924. There was also the Republican leadership upon which Coolidge had to rely. Initially, there were the independent Henry Cabot Lodge in the Senate and the genial Speaker Frederick Gillett in the House, both from Massachusetts and both aging. Lodge was no longer a very effective leader and Gillett never had been. In 1925 the congressional leadership passed to Senator Charles Curtis and Speaker Nicholas Longworth, who proved to be more effective than their predecessors, though seldom outstandingly so. Vice President Dawes was of little help. The president regarded him as too independent, and because of his strong opinions, the senators viewed him with suspicion.
As time passed, Coolidge became adept at making friends on Capitol Hill, but he was often unable to convert them into significant legislative allies. Many Democrats and progressive Republicans were unable to forget the scandals of the Harding presidency. Neither could they support the policies of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. For many of these members of Congress, not only had the government pursued economy too far, but its farm and business policies were bones that stuck in their throats. The administration’s tax rebates to business, attempt to allow private development of Muscle Shoals, conservative appointments to office, and staunch opposition to a veterans’ bonus and to the proposed McNary-Haugen farm legislation—which would have authorized federal purchase of surplus farm commodities at parity and then resale of them abroad at lower prices—had already been points of conflict with Congress in 1924. These issues would return, in one form or another, to plague Coolidge throughout his presidency.
Coolidge would enter his second term in 1925 with a larger Republican majority in Congress—sixty in the House and sixteen in the Senate—which would prove to be of no immediate advantage to him. First of all, after the 1924 elections he had to face a lame-duck session of the Sixty-eighth Congress. The president made it clear that he had abandoned none of his legislative goals, which did nothing to mollify his opponents. Moreover, Coolidge did not discourage the Senate Republicans from reading out of the party caucus and stripping of their committee seniority Robert M. La Follette and three other Republican senators who had supported the Wisconsinite for president in 1924. These senators and their several sympathizers in the upper chamber would repeatedly embarrass the administration during the next four years.
Early in 1925 the dissenters helped deal the president two major setbacks. Most notable was the passage of Senator George Norris’ legislation providing for public development of Muscle Shoals. Although there would be no action on this authorization during Coolidge’s presidency, the administration was unable to gain congressional support for private development of the area. Eventually, in 1933, the property became the centerpiece of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The second problem arose with the president’s nomination of Charles Beecher Warren to become attorney general. Earlier Coolidge had easily secured confirmation of William Jardine, an agricultural scientist, to become secretary of agriculture and had encountered some senatorial opposition to his appointment of Attorney General Harlan F. Stone to the Supreme Court, but in nominating a longtime representative of the sugar trust, he presented Democrats and progressive Republicans with a perfect target. Not only did the Senate reject Warren, the first time since 1868 that a cabinet nominee had failed of confirmation, but Coolidge renominated him. Again the Senate rejected Warren. When the president offered him a recess appointment, Warren wisely turned it down. This was hardly shrewd conduct on the part of a president who had been so astute at politics the year before.
Coolidge quickly learned to be more cautious. If his nominees continued to be generally conservative, they were also above reproach. Coolidge replaced one friend, Stone, in the attorney generalship with another, John Garibaldi Sargent of Vermont. The ambassador to Great Britain, Frank B. Kellogg, was appointed secretary of state, and the businessman Dwight F. Davis became secretary of war. Coolidge’s cabinet was by 1925 his own. He either had men in it whom he wanted or had tested Harding’s holdovers and found them acceptable. The exception was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Although he was far from disciplined in Coolidge’s eyes either in thought or in minding his own business, Hoover was brilliant, popular, and usually useful to his master in the White House. These two very different men would learn to live with each other, however often they vexed one another. Coolidge also shifted secretaries in the White House. With the 1924 election over, Slemp was replaced as chief secretary by a man of various talents, Everett Sanders, a former Indiana congressman.
However one may assess the members of Coolidge’s official family, many of them reached a high level of distinction. Hughes and Stone would become chief justices of the United States; special counsel Owen J. Roberts would also ascend to the Supreme Court; Dawes and Kellogg would receive the Nobel Peace Prize; Hoover would become president; and Interior Secretary Hubert Work and presidential secretary Sanders would become chairmen of the Republican National Committee. Moreover, Henry L. Stimson added luster to his reputation as Coolidge’s special envoy by bringing peace to Nicaragua, and Dwight Morrow won fame for his remarkably effective embassy to Mexico.
Coolidge was able to maintain his popularity with the public, to a considerable extent through his astute manipulation of the press and of platitudes acceptable to the people. The only president to have spoken more often in public was Theodore Roosevelt. Coolidge had acquired such a knack for speaking that even if few Americans felt uplifted, few were offended. He seemed always visible, dignified, and full of integrity, even if what he said was seldom memorable.
Coolidge’s chief problem remained his inability to bend Congress to his will. Yet he did have his victories, and for him they were usually the essential ones. In his annual messages to Congress between 1925 and 1929, Coolidge largely hewed to his original policies. He told Congress in December 1925, “The country does not appear to require radical departure from the policies already adopted as much as it needs a further extension of these policies and the improvement of details.” His key policy was “economy and efficiency.” If Congress could restrain itself from meddling in administration, which it largely did after 1924, the executive could provide efficiency. It was also Coolidge’s task to persuade Congress not to get carried away with funding new programs or substantially increasing funds for established programs. In this he was remarkably successful. Appropriations remained low during the Coolidge years, and the officials of the executive branch used the funds allotted them well. With federal revenues constantly exceeding spending, the administration was able to cut the national debt substantially, confident that it was preserving the government’s credit for a rainy day as well as curbing inflation.
Neither federal economy nor paring the national debt was significantly controversial during the Coolidge years, but the corollary to these policies, tax cutting, was. Some members of Congress wanted to use the surplus to fund new programs; others charged that the administration’s tax-cutting plan favored the rich. Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Mellon did espouse tax cuts that would benefit wealthy Americans, believing that the rich would invest their extra funds in ways that would increase production and therefore jobs and wealth at home. They also believed that this would expand American trade abroad, which would benefit the domestic economy and help stabilize the world economically and politically.
The Coolidge-Mellon plan, which was an outgrowth of Harding’s policies, was a clear illustration of the trickle-down theory of national prosperity. It seemed to work, as Coolidge’s years in office encompassed a period of increasing prosperity for most Americans. Moreover, Coolidge and Mellon were careful to make sure that all American taxpayers were favorably affected by the proposed tax cuts. Indeed, not only were federal taxes reduced for all, but many low-income Americans wound up not paying any taxes at all by 1929. It is little wonder that, despite sharp debate on Capitol Hill, Coolidge was able to gain legislative approval of his tax program in 1926. Then Congress repealed the gift tax, halved estate taxes, substantially cut surtaxes on great wealth, and reduced income taxes for all.
The tax program was Coolidge’s major legislative victory in 1926. It was his best year in Congress, partly because he focused on this major issue. Yet the president also won on a number of other issues. Coolidge kept Prohibition from becoming a major issue by the expedient of occupying the middle ground between drys and wets. As a consequence, wets were slow to criticize the president for fear that he would become an ardent dry, and most drys were reluctant to criticize him too much for fear that he would do even less to enforce the law. As for the farm issue, Coolidge could not avoid it. He was able to scatter support for the McNary-Haugen bill so that it would not pass, while he gained enough votes to advance federal support for cooperative marketing.
In the same year, Coolidge also secured modest increases in appropriations for inland waterways, public buildings, and highway construction as well as additional funding for national parks and forests and Indian programs. It should not be overlooked that 1926 was the year that Coolidge and Congress approved initial funding for the National Archives. The president also astutely exploited the furor created by the court-martial of Colonel William Mitchell for insubordination to develop sentiment for orderly progress in civil and military aviation. The result was that Congress approved subsidies for the growth of the aircraft industry and most of Coolidge’s recommendations for the coordination of military aviation and for the regulation of civil aviation.
The president would not do as well with Congress in 1927 and 1928, partly because of Republican losses in the congressional elections of 1926 and partly because of growing support on Capitol Hill for programs that the administration found unacceptable. He persuaded Congress in 1927 to establish the Federal Radio Commission to regulate the use of wavelengths by radio stations, which had become chaotic. Besides that, in 1927 and 1928 Coolidge asked for some additional funds for public works and national parks and forests, improvement of existing federal farm programs, federal conciliation of labor disputes, and authorization of branch banking, all of which he received, but Congress refused to act on his proposal to consolidate the nation’s railways. Coolidge won his chief victory in 1928 when Congress approved additional cuts in income taxes and reductions in corporation taxes.
Besides taxes, the big domestic issues between president and Congress in 1927 and 1928 were the McNary-Haugen legislation, flood control, and public power development. Sentiment had been growing for federal purchase of surplus crops and the selling of them abroad at whatever price they could command. Although the administration offered an alternative proposal—to use cooperatives to extend cheap credit to farmers who would restrict their production—Congress enacted the McNary-Haugen legislation. Even Vice President Dawes championed the McNary-Haugen bill. Coolidge vetoed it in both 1927 and 1928 as unconstitutional class legislation that would benefit neither the nation nor farmers. It would, he contended, only encourage the growing of surpluses and the rearing of tariffs abroad to prevent the dumping of American agricultural commodities. Although much that Coolidge said was correct, the administration did not present an effective plan to deal with the nation’s farm problems. Certainly, the administration’s cooperative credit plan, which Congress finally accepted in 1929, failed to meet America’s agricultural problems.
A time-consuming and heated debate arose over flood control after the inundation of vast areas by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers during the spring of 1927. The administration moved rapidly to provide relief and loans for reconstruction, but when this proved insufficient, pressure rose for a federal flood control program. Coolidge responded in December 1927 by asking for such a program along the Mississippi. He made a mistake by giving no specifics, and soon Congress was considering a $1.4 billion program instead of the $180 million one he had in mind. By April 1928 the fight between president and Congress had become intense. Only after great effort was he able to get the price marked down to $500 million and thus block legislation that would have jeopardized his stringent economic program.
There was, moreover, the long-standing question of development of the Colorado River basin, which involved not only large appropriations but also the issue of private versus public control. After six years of work and debate, Coolidge finally approved in December 1928 the construction of Boulder Dam, which was central to the Colorado River basin development. He had artfully spun out the issue and passed on to his successor the spending of the $125 million involved as well as the controversial issue of whether the dam would be operated publicly or privately.
Domestic questions were not, of course, all that concerned the Coolidge administration. Foreign policy issues also had to be addressed. Coolidge had inherited certain guidelines from Harding, among them that the United States would not join the League of Nations and that foreign debts to America would not be forgiven. The latter he adhered to faithfully, supposedly saying in justification, “They hired the money didn’t they?” Nevertheless, Coolidge continued Harding’s policy of negotiating lower interest rates, deferral of payments, and other terms relating to foreign debts. The administration also encouraged private American loans to foreign nations in order to help them with their financial problems. Particularly significant in this respect was the Dawes Plan of 1924 to alleviate Germany’s economic emergency, which had created an international crisis.
As for the League of Nations, the government gradually increased its unofficial cooperation with the world organization’s activities, especially those concerned with promoting disarmament. In this and other things, Coolidge generally followed the advice of his secretary of state. The president did not do so thoughtlessly, for he had his own staunch convictions, his well-developed political sense as to what the American people might accept, and his keen though narrow analytical powers. He was decidedly opposed to war for his own country or any other. War, he believed, only resulted in killing, destruction, and general instability in human affairs.
Although it was not politically feasible for the United States to join the League of Nations, there was interest in finding some other path to international cooperation. Coolidge therefore espoused American membership on the World Court. In January 1926 the Senate agreed to American adherence to the protocol of the World Court, but with five reservations. One of the reservations provided that the United States would not be bound by advisory opinions of the court rendered without American consent. This one many member nations of the court would not accept, and so the question of American membership on the court was ended.
There was continued American interest, too, in forwarding disarmament. When other nations moved too slowly on this, the United States sought to follow up on the naval disarmament arrangements arrived at in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922. Coolidge therefore sponsored an international conference at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. It was ill fated at the start, for France and Italy refused to participate. At Geneva, Great Britain and the United States failed to agree, particularly on cruiser tonnages, and the conference collapsed. As a consequence, Congress authorized increased American naval expenditures in 1928.
A prominent and assertive group of Americans had been pressing on the administration the idea of the world’s nations agreeing to outlaw war. Coolidge had kept talking to these people for political reasons, but he refused to commit himself to their cause, which he regarded as naive. Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France saw in the outlawry of war a way in which he might secure a defense alliance with the United States. Therefore, on 6 April 1927, the tenth anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, Briand proposed that France and the United States join together to outlaw war. Since Briand had broached the idea publicly, Coolidge could not ignore it, especially as there was considerable public interest in it. The administration stalled the French, hoping that interest in Briand’s proposal would wither. This did not happen, so Coolidge and Secretary of State Kellogg in December adopted Senator William Borah’s idea that the outlawry of war be multilateral. This was not what Briand wanted, but by now he was so well identified with the outlawry of war that he could not withdraw. So in 1928 the representatives of fifteen nations met in Paris to pledge their countries to “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” In 1929, Coolidge successfully pressed the Senate for ratification of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The agreement turned out to be a swordless sheath, although it seemed dazzlingly promising at the time.
If the Coolidge administration failed to guarantee world peace and to achieve further disarmament, it did meet most of its special problems well. In part this occurred because of the government’s improvement of the quality of American representation abroad. This was seen in the passage of the Rogers Act in 1924, which provided for the professionalization of the foreign service, and in Coolidge’s increased appointment of professional diplomats to be ambassadors and ministers. It was also a result of the president’s concern for avoiding the possibility of conflict. For example, the level of American intervention abroad dropped during the Coolidge presidency, largely because such incursions were expensive and, worse, could lead to war.
China, Mexico, and Nicaragua were the three major instances of the application of Coolidge’s policy. During the 1920s, China was plagued by civil strife and threats of foreign intervention; it was also a time when several foreign countries enjoyed special rights that impaired Chinese sovereignty. The United States avoided supporting any of the rivals for power in China and acted to discourage military intervention by foreign nations. In addition, the Coolidge administration insisted, with some effect, on the reduction of the special treaty rights of foreign countries, especially with respect to tariff determination and extraterritoriality in China.
Mexico posed larger problems. Diplomatic relations between America and Mexico had been ruptured in 1920, but Coolidge was able to restore relations in 1923 after agreements had been made to settle property claims and to protect the rights of Americans in Mexico. Rebellion by anti-American elements still plagued Mexico, and its new government under Plutarco Calles soon called upon the United States to lift its embargo on the sale of arms and to encourage the granting of private loans. These things Coolidge did in 1924. This honeymoon did not last long, for in 1925 Mexico restricted American oil operations, and in 1926 President Calles and the Roman Catholic Church were at odds over the government’s curbs on religious activities. Moreover, banditry was at a high pitch in Mexico. These developments resulted in hostile reactions in the United States and even pressure for American intervention. Coolidge went to great lengths to calm the American public and to reassure Mexico that disputes would be negotiated. In 1927 he sent Dwight Morrow to Mexico with instructions to “keep us out of war with Mexico.” Morrow not only did that but soon reduced tensions between the two countries to their lowest point in decades.
Events in Nicaragua had complicated Mexican-American relations. By the end of 1926 that country was in a state of civil war, with Mexico and the United States backing opposite sides. In 1927, after reversing a decision to settle matters by force in Nicaragua, Coolidge sent Henry L. Stimson, Taft’s secretary of war, to Nicaragua to arrange for peace. By May, Stimson had secured agreement to the suspension of hostilities, the restoration of civil rights, and the recognition of an interim government until elections could be held in 1928.
Relations with Japan were another story. Directly upon learning of the disastrous earthquake and typhoon of 1 September 1923, Coolidge ordered the Asiatic fleet to Yokohama to render assistance. This well-received gesture was followed by further private and public American aid. Japanese-American relations became strained when Congress voted overwhelmingly to exclude Japanese from the quotas established in the new Immigration Act of 1924. Despite the strenuous efforts of Coolidge and Secretary of State Hughes, Congress would not budge on the issue and indeed made very clear in debate its strong anti-Asian sentiment. Relations between the two nations would remain touchy thereafter, although the administration took great care in negotiating other issues with Japan.
Coolidge declined to run for reelection as president in 1928. He was satisfied, if not elated, to be succeeded in the White House by Herbert Hoover. After returning to Northampton in 1929, Coolidge busied himself with literary activities, which resulted in the production of his autobiography, some magazine articles, and, for a year, a syndicated newspaper column. He occasionally engaged in civic and political activities, but he was not a political force, nor did he try to be. He was bothered by minor ailments after he left Washington, and he increasingly complained of ill health in 1932. Nevertheless, his death of coronary thrombosis on 5 January 1933 was unexpected. He was buried in the family plot in Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Coolidge was fortunate that his administration faced no great emergencies. It can be said that he met well most of the crises that occurred during his presidency. He astutely handled the Teapot Dome and other scandals, as he did crises in Mexico, China, and Nicaragua and the uproar over the court-martial of Mitchell. Coolidge was shrewd in his efforts to win nomination and election as president in 1924. Moreover, he showed outstanding talents as an administrator and fiscal manager. Although his personality made him seem a throwback to an earlier time, he was skillful at gaining the respect of the public. He was also adept at exploiting America’s growing prosperity for political purposes.
Despite all this, Coolidge was not outstanding at exercising leadership. Most of his successes on Capitol Hill were transitory, such as the tax measures of 1926 and 1928, or were routine. He intended to be a president representative of his time and society, and in this he was successful. Speaking for large numbers of Americans, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “While I don’t expect anything very astonishing from [Coolidge] I don’t want anything very astonishing.” Coolidge obliged. He did the day’s work very well, but he felt little motivation to look ahead, to meet future problems. Admittedly, his was not a promising time to do so. He was, moreover, not one to borrow trouble by taking on unnecessary tasks or launching crusades. In sum, what Coolidge did, he usually did as well as could be expected and without indulging in theatrics. He was largely content to preside over the nation, willing to try to rule only when crisis called for it. Americans during his presidency were generally satisfied with that.