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Biographical Sketches

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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

Thirtieth President • 1923-29
Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge

Sworn in as President upon Harding's death, Coolidge continued on for a full elected term in his own right. A New Englander who embodied the legendary Yankee qualities of honesty, thrift, solemnity, and taciturnity, he restored confidence in Government after the exposure of the Harding scandals and symbolized stability during a period of drastic social and economic changes. He held that any increase in Federal governmental activities would endanger the prosperity that prevailed and destroy individual freedom and initiative.

Born on Independence Day 1872 in Plymouth (Plymouth Notch), Vt., John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., was the only son and the eldest of two children from the first marriage of his father, a storekeeper, postmaster, notary public, and justice of the peace. Young Coolidge eventually dropped his first name and the "Jr." suffix. When he was 12 years old, his mother died. About 7 years later, his father remarried.

Calvin attended a district elementary school and graduated from high school, the private Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow, in 1890. After illness delayed his plans for college, in the spring of 1891 he studied at St. Johnsbury (Vt.) Academy. That fall, he entered Amherst (Mass.) College and 4 years later took a B.A. degree with honors. He then read law in Northampton, Mass. After being admitted to the bar in 1897, he established a practice there.

Coolidge and family
Governor Coolidge, his wife, and two sons, Calvin (left) and John (right). (Library of Congress.)

Grace Coolidge
Grace Coolidge

Before long, Coolidge became active in politics on behalf of the Republican Party, which he came to serve as a local official. During the period 1899-1904, he held the city offices of councilman, solicitor, and court clerk. The next year, he married Grace A. Goodhue, another former Vermonter, who taught at a Northampton school for the deaf. The couple were to have two sons.

In 1907-8 Coolidge served in the lower house of the State legislature. The following year, he returned to his law practice. He was mayor of Northampton in 1910-11. From 1912 until 1915 he sat in the upper house of the legislature, where he rose to the presidency. Three consecutive terms as Lieutenant Governor (1916-18) followed. In 1918 Coolidge won the governorship. During the Boston police strike of 1919, the same year he abandoned his law practice, he gained nationwide recognition when he deployed the National Guard to control crime and maintain order. That fall, he was reelected as Governor by a large margin.

The next year, the Republican national convention nominated Coolidge as Vice President on the soon-to-be victorious Harding ticket. When the latter passed away in 1923, Coolidge was visiting his family in Vermont. His father administered the oath of office to him in the home where he had passed his boyhood.

song sheet
Campaign song in 1924. (Smithsonian Institution, Ralph E. Becker Collection.)

As the scandals of the Harding administration surfaced, Coolidge encouraged governmental prosecution of offenders. This action and his personal integrity restored public confidence in the Presidency and the Republican Party. He was nominated for reelection in 1924 and won with the promise of a continuation of "Coolidge prosperity." He captured more than 54 percent of the popular vote in defeating Democrat John W. Davis and Progressive Robert M. La Follette.

Coolidge's emphasis on traditional moral and economic precepts reassured people in a time of social flux. Although affluence was unprecedented, the Ku Klux Klan perpetrated acts of violence, prohibition violations were common, and some segments of the population frowned on traditional morality.

Coolidge sent few pieces of legislation to Congress, maintained that Federal programs threatened individual freedom and initiative, and pledged maintenance of the status quo. He vetoed a proposed Federal power project at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River; slowed antitrust actions; blocked plans to subsidize farmers, who had suffered from a depression since the beginning of the decade; and advocated tax cuts, governmental economy, and high protective tariffs. In 1924 he signed a bill that set strict quotas on immigration, which favored entry from Northern Europe.

Coolidge and Kellogg
President Coolidge signs the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in January 1929. One of its progenitors was Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, sitting to the right of Coolidge. (Library of Congress, Underwood & Underwood.)

In the realm of foreign policy, Coolidge opposed international agreements to cancel foreign debts, stabilize currency, and reduce tariffs—though he usually deferred to his Secretaries of State, Charles Evans Hughes and Frank B. Kellogg. The latter sponsored the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), a multinational agreement to outlaw war. On the other hand, though Coolidge and Congress favored U.S. participation in the World Court, they imposed restrictions that ruled out formal American membership. At the invitation of the President of Cuba, Coolidge addressed the Sixth Inter-American Conference (1928), in Havana.


Coolidge Homestead

A reluctant conversationalist, Coolidge sometimes seemed remote. Yet, demonstrating his accessibility, he was the last President who held regular White House receptions for the general citizenry. Seeming to enjoy the ceremonial and symbolic aspects of office, he posed for a multitude of photographs with diverse groups, delivered many speeches, and received scores of delegations.

Despite Coolidge's continued popularity, he chose not to run for reelection in 1928 and retired to Northampton the next year—just a few months before the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression. In 1929 his autobiography appeared serially in a magazine and in book form. From 1930 to 1931, in a daily syndicated newspaper column, he attacked governmental economic interference and defended self-reliance. He also served as director of the New York Life Insurance Company, chairman of the Nonpartisan Railroad Commission, trustee of Amherst College and the National Geographic Society, president of the American Antiquarian Society, and honorary head of the Foundation for the Blind. He died in 1933 at Northampton.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004