Introduction and Early Life
With Warren Harding's death came John Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge is in many ways reviled and criticized by liberals for being a bad president, but looking at his presidency shows that he was a very popular and actually a formidable opponent to the progressive movement. Coolidge would continue many of the prosperous policies that Harding created and made the country very wealthy. He was born in rural Vermont on the Fourth of July in 1872. In the small farming town he held many responsibilities and jobs at an early age. He never wrote later that he has any childhood friends. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts and became a lawyer. The quiet young man received a classical American education. Ever since he was thirteen, he had a major interest in the Constitution and held views similar of those of the Founding Fathers. Like several Founders, Coolidge studied Greek and Latin. He read writings by different philosophers and by several major American authors. While not big into socializing, he was known for giving several campus speeches and debates. He won a national prize from the Sons of the American Revolution senior essay contest too.
Two years after he graduated, he entered politics as a Republican when he was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature. In 1910 he became the mayor of Northampton. He eventually became governor of Massachusetts where he famously took on and defeated the police in Boston after they started a strike to join a union and were encouraged by the American Federation of Labor. This was Coolidge's most famous moment as governor and it put him on the national stage. His popularity led him to become vice president in the Harding administration. When President Harding died, Coolidge was at his father's house. Coolidge's father was a justice of the peace and swore his son in over the family Bible.
Conservative, Virtuous, Frugal
"The chief business of the American people is business." - Calvin Coolidge
Some of Harding's secretaries seemed to prefer robbing the treasury than protecting it. Coolidge was an accidental antidote. Coolidge praised puritanical virtues and he quickly restored faith in the federal government. He cleaned house and eliminated some of the bad secretaries of Harding's administration while keeping the good ones. He continued Harding's conservative policies to bring more wealth to the country by cutting taxes and lowering government spending. He took the advice of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and continued to cut taxes. This was extremely successful. Coolidge brought the top income tax rate down to 24 percent, the lowest rate it would be until Ronald Reagan became president over five decades later. Mellon was in a very happy mood. He was able to achieve exactly what he wanted: low taxes to help businesses expand supply and create economic growth. What followed was a massive economic boom that the country had not seen since the Gilded Age. Products that were once only for the rich were now for the middle class too. Some of these items included:
Cars: Ownership increased from 26 percent to 60 percent
Radios: Ownership increased from 0 percent to 46 percent
Electric Lights: Ownership increased from 35 percent to 68 percent
Washing Machines: Ownership increased from 9 percent to 30 percent
Indoor toilets: Ownership increased from 20 percent to 51 percent
All these dramatic increases in the ownership of goods happened during the Coolidge era. This was because wages rose at a stunning rate, 16 percent, after inflation. This proved arguments made by Coolidge and Mellon that major tax cuts did not just help businesses, but also helped the working people. It was their belief that an invisible hand should control the economy and would be able to help everyone. The famous automobile tycoon Henry Ford saw his peak production during the Coolidge years. Car production in the Ford motor company doubled and his workers were far better off under lower top tax rates than higher ones. Before World War 1, Ford's cars sold for $600. Now they sold for $240. Investors were very optimistic and the Dow Jones Industrial Average grew by 262.80 percent during Coolidge's presidency. He still holds the record today for the highest growth in the average.
In 1924, voters wanted to "Keep Cool with Coolidge". In the presidential election of that year, Coolidge ran against Democrat John W. Davis, the ambassador to the United Kingdom. This was only after a large fight at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. At the convention, there was a deep split in the party over publicly condemning the Ku Klux Klan. Davis was only nominated as a compromise candidate on the 103rd ballot. Horrified at no major progressive candidates (Davis was a very moderate politician), Republican Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette broke off and ran as the presidential candidate on Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party. La Follette however could only appeal to liberal Democrats and split the vote of the challenging party. Coolidge won by a wide margin and solid margin and it was clear the people wanted him for a second term. He had 382 electoral votes, Davis had 136 electoral votes, and La Follette had 13 electoral votes (all from his home state of Wisconsin). In the popular vote Coolidge had 54.0 percent, Davis had 28.8 percent, and La Follette had 16.6 percent.
Shrinking the Government
While Coolidge won his second term, the country was at a crossroads on the prohibition of alcohol. Gangsters were now running the illegal alcohol business. Some of these gangsters were Arnold Rothstein of New York City and Enoch Johnson of Atlantic City, but the most infamous was Al Capone of Chicago. He made as much as $100 million per year off alcohol and gambling. While Capone and his Italian mafia were causing massive crime in Chicago through bribing the city's politicians and going to war with the Irish mafia led by George "Bugs" Moran, he actually saw himself on a crusade to give the people what they wanted. If Coolidge wanted to repeal the amendment, he couldn't because the country was still 50-50 on the issue. It would take a dramatic event to change public perception to get a strong force that could repeal the amendment.
Coolidge continued his conservative policies thus giving the 1920s their nickname: the "Roaring Twenties". He vetoed all sorts of legislation to keep the budget balanced and the government small. Altogether, Coolidge vetoed fifty times as president through vetoes and pocket vetoes (a veto of not sending legislation back to Congress). He twice vetoed legislation for farm subsidies despite being from a rural area. He sympathized with the farmers, but believed it was not the government's function to interfere. He was only overridden four times. President Coolidge always met regularly with General Herbert Lord, the director of the Bureau of the Budget. In their meetings they would always find ways to cut government expenditures further and they would not stop until the war debts were massively reduced. This policy of cutting spending and lowering taxes was clearly successful, so Coolidge and Lord felt that they needed to go further. Lord's spending cuts stopped entitlement dependency and balanced the budget while Mellon's tax cuts increased the wealth of the country and actually collected more money because of the increase in economic expansion.
In 1927 there was a mild recession, mainly started because Ford decided to shut down his factories for six months to switch production from his Model T cars to Model A cars. However, this recession was quickly resolved because of Coolidge's policies. The "Roaring Twenties" did have some small interruptions, but it was overall a prosperous decade. That same year, a massive flood hit areas near the Mississippi River. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover responded through massive intervention by setting up emergency areas and taking over trains. Coolidge thought differently of the situation. He believed that sending a large amount of government aid and intervention into something that states and private charities could handle was wrong. He did not think highly of Hoover and called him "wonder boy". Yet at the same time, he was worried of Hoover's ambition. Hoover, a popular businessman who made a life through engineering, was very amibitious and wanted to go all the way to the presidency.
Foreign affairs were not major issues at the time because the country was in a period of isolation. However, Coolidge worked with Secretary of State Frank Kellogg to write the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an act that made nations pledge against war. The memories of the First World War horrified people and Coolidge felt that it was right to make countries commit against future wars. Many people hoped that this would finally end possibility of future wars for good. Critics argued that it had no teeth, but Coolidge believed it would foster worldwide peace for the time being. He also saw it as a way to cut military spending to balance the budget further. Several nations did sign up to the pact as a way of showing that they did approve peace.
Coolidge liked to be in photographs and often wore costumes. Overall, the president was considered a fun, but quiet guy to be around. At one state dinner a woman tried to talk to him and said, "I bet Mr. President that I can get you to say more than two words during this dinner." He turned to her kindly and said, "You lose." He seemed to have no real social life. He had friends and allies in politics, but mostly kept to himself. When he was asked if he wanted more chairs in the Oval Office, he said no because then more people could sit down and ask him a favor. It was rude, but he was saving the American people money. Despite urges to run for a second term, Coolidge decided not to run. He actually believed that he would be running for a third term and that his years replacing Harding's term were truly his first term. It is likely that the president did not want to run for another term because if the death of his son. Calvin Coolidge Jr. decided to play tennis with his brother John and got a blister on his toe. He did not tell his parents and it went septic. When his son died, Coolidge said, "so did the glory of the presidency." Nevertheless, he left as a very popular president. There was a massive surplus and the national debt was down from $28 billion to $17.65 billion. The tax cuts that Secretary Mellon urged were a complete success. With lower rates, more wealthy people put their money into the economy and paid more as a percentage than they did before the tax cuts under Woodrow Wilson. In July 1921, there were 5.7 million Americans unemployed, but the Harding-Coolidge tax cuts brought that number down to 1.8 million when Coolidge left office. Manufacturing output was up by a third and very industry was flourishing.
Later Life and Legacy
Coolidge kept his promise to not run for another term as president. "Silent Cal" left the White House and spent the remainder of his life in Massachusetts. He died there in 1933 at the age of 60. For most of his retirement, Coolidge wrote in a newspaper column and addressed several policies as the country's boom went into a bust. He attacked his successor for spending too much and risking the surplus he created.
Coolidge's most important goal was restoring public confidence in the presidency and he achieved that. While not largely remembered, he brought the United States into a time of mass consumption and expansion of business by allowing more economic freedom and allowing people to keep more money. Coolidge was popular in his day and is largely considered quiet president who presided over a roaring era in American history.