Calvin Coolidge: The Disabled Chief Executive





Mr. Gilbert is Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University and author of The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression (Praeger, 2003).

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Scholars often speak of Calvin Coolidge in unflattering terms. He is referred to as "a figurehead president," as having had "no drive," as having been a "do nothing president," as a president "almost totally deficient in powers of leadership," as a "spectator president" and as "lackadaisical."

However, a closer analysis of Coolidge reveals that he is perhaps the most misunderstood chief executive in American history and that his presidency was far more complex and tragic than earlier realized. Despite his image now as a deficient, lackadaisical president, Coolidge had previously been industrious and reliable. As a boy, law student, mayor, state legislator, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, governor and vice president, he impressed others consistently with his diligence, conscientiousness and competence.

When he succeeded Warren Harding in August, 1923, Coolidge moved quickly to take charge. He instituted regular press conferences and was praised widely by reporters for his great knowledge and astuteness. He launched a series of breakfasts and dinners with members of Congress of all political leanings so that he could persuade them to support his programs. Over the objections of the American Legion, he pardoned thirty people who had been convicted and imprisoned during World War I for violating the Sedition Act because he wanted to cultivate members of Congress who supported such a pardon. He convened a White House meeting for all state governors so that he could discuss with them the narcotics, immigration and prohibition laws. He set up a committee to investigate the scandals associated with the Harding administration and then fired Harding's attorney general who was suspected of impropriety.

In foreign policy, he restored diplomatic relations with Mexico, which he described as "our sister republic," and asked Congress to provide funds to settle claims resulting from the 1914 American invasion. In September 1923, he sent the Pacific Fleet to Japan to help provide relief for the earthquake that had killed 130,000 people, acting so quickly that the American ships arrived there even before their Japanese counterparts.

Probably the most notable thing that Coolidge did during his first months in office was to deliver a stunning State of the Union address to Congress in December 1923. He spoke in person to a joint session and made thirty identifiable requests in bold and forthright language. In addition to a tax cut, he asked for such measures as the enactment of environmental legislation, the expansion of health benefits for veterans, the passage of a constitutional amendment limiting child labor, the creation of a separate cabinet department of education and welfare, the expansion of the civil service system, the reorganization of the U.S. foreign service, the creation of a new reforestation policy, the establishment of reformatories for women and young men serving their first prison sentence, the funding of medical courses at Howard University and the establishment of a permanent Court of International Justice.

By the time Congress adjourned in June 1924, many of Coolidge's proposals essentially had been enacted. The Foreign Service was reorganized, taxes were cut, veterans' benefits were expanded, reformatories for women and young men were authorized, an oil slick law was enacted, and a new reforestation policy was established. In his first year, then, Coolidge's legislative record was more then respectable.

In June 1924, Calvin Coolidge was overwhelmingly nominated for president by the Republican Party, the greatest political triumph of his life. Within days, however, his world would crumble. On June 30, Coolidge's two sons, eighteen-year-old John and sixteen-year-old Calvin Jr., played tennis on the south grounds of the White House. Young Calvin had worn sneakers but no socks. A blister developed on one of his toes but he ignored it. When he fell ill on July 2, White House physician Joel Boone discovered red streaks running up the boy's leg. Laboratory tests soon showed that Calvin Jr. was suffering from pathogenic blood poisoning. In less than a week, the boy was dead.

The president was overwhelmed with a deep and enduring grief. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the National Institutes of Health have specified symptoms of a major depressive episode. These include hypersomnia or insomnia, changes in appetite, decreased energy, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts of death, indecisiveness, loss of interest in nearly all activities, complaints of bodily indispositions, increased irritability, spitefulness and suspiciousness, deterioration in work performance. After his son's death, Calvin Coolidge showed signs of all of these symptoms.

He began to sleep as many as fifteen hours out of every twenty-four and ate incessantly, sometimes to the point of abdominal distress. He complained of exhaustion and of feeling much older than his years. He experienced severe guilt feelings, blaming his own ambitions for the boy's death. Even though only fifty-two at the time, he began to refer to his own death, telling his father that soon they would both be reunited in heaven with deceased relatives, including little Calvin. He complained often of feeling ill and of not being able to breathe. His irritability became explosive and he would fly into rages at staff members and secret service agents, often for petty reasons. He engaged in temper tantrums aimed at his wife and embarrassed her with his screaming tirades. He was irritable and mean-spirited toward his surviving son, leading John to complain to his mother that he did not understand how she could possibly put up with the president. He also showed spitefulness and rudeness to staff members and was seen as unpleasant, and selfish. Apparently, Coolidge even became suspicious of his wife, guessing in 1927 that she had become romantically involved with a secret service agent and summarily relieving the agent of his duties as her bodyguard.

More serious was that Coolidge essentially abdicated his presidential responsibilities after his son died. He now shied away from interactions with Congress, made few and generally modest legislative requests and indicated that Congress should determine the legislative agenda for itself because it was closer to the people. His annual messages became leaner and leaner and were not even delivered in person, as in 1923, but now were read to each House by clerks. He withdrew from interactions with his own cabinet, telling cabinet members to handle the affairs of their own departments without help or guidance from him, or he would get new cabinet members.

The lifetime pattern of hard work was abandoned as the president's workday shrank to about four hours. No longer did he have any interest in foreign policy, telling his secretary of state on one occasion that: "I don't know anything about this. You do and you're in charge. You settle the problem and I'll back you up." No longer were his press conferences showcases for an informed and involved leader but instead revealed one who was disinterested and neglectful. For example, in November 1924, when asked a question about Nicaragua where he had sent peace-keeping forces, he responded:

I haven't any great detailed and precise information about Nicaragua. I know that there had been some trouble and it was my impression that we had sent some marines in to guard the delegation and that the difficulty was in relation to a presidential election. As I have heard nothing about it from the State Department for some time, I had taken it for granted that the situation is all cleared up. I think this is the case but I haven't any definite information.

On another occasion, he was asked about agriculture bills being considered in Congress and answered, "I don't know as I can make any particular comment about the rejection of the conference agriculture bills. I don't know enough about the details of those bills to discuss the details with any intelligence."

More ominous, as economic storm clouds were gathering, Coolidge revealed in his press conference remarks a stunning degree of uninterest and ignorance about the rampant stock speculation that was ravaging the economy. When Congress, in 1928, was considering legislation to rein in such speculation, Coolidge told the press: "I have no information relative to proposed legislation about loans on securities. I saw by the press that there was a bill pending in the House or the Senate. I don't know what it is or what its provisions are or what the discussion has been."

Such words have been seen as the sign of an absentee and incompetent president. But in contrast to his earlier political career and even his first year as president, and judged against the other behavior changes that engulfed his life, Coolidge emerges as a disabled president, one suffering from a paralyzing and persistent clinical depression. Clinical depression was little understood in the 1920s but those closest to Coolidge saw a major change in his life after young Calvin died. His wife indicated that the president had "lost his zest for living" after July 7, 1924. His son, John, revealed that "my father was never the same again after my brother died." Coolidge's White House physician described him as showing many signs of "mental disturbance" and of being temperamentally deranged. His secretary told his doctors that the president was definitely showing signs of "mental illness." The chief usher at the White House reported that White House employees who came in contact with the president noticed that he was "highly disturbed."

Coolidge himself explained the change in his presidency perhaps best of all when he wrote in his autobiography that when Calvin Jr. went, "the power and glory of the presidency went with him." In a very real sense, then, when Calvin Coolidge lost his son, the nation lost its president.


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Sheldon M. Stern - 3/5/2005

You admit that you learned something from Professors Gilbert and Vought about Coolidge's political concerns during the Boston Police Strike. You could learn much more by reading the proceedings of the 1998 Coolidge conference at the JFK Library.


Peter N. Kirstein - 3/3/2005

"too" far, not "epigone" but "predecessor"


Peter N. Kirstein - 3/3/2005

The imperialist preemptive president sent the Marines to Nicaragua in part due to a perception of economic instability. Hmmmm. from a president whose economic policies may have contributed to the Great Depression. But no matter, this epigone of McCarthyism described Nicaragua in a farcical report, "Bolshevik Aims and Policies in Mexico and Latin America." The dawn of the cold war begins with this president who saw bolsheviks everywhere and felt his nation, due to its white, laissez-faire cultural exceptionalism, could wage war against brown and black people in Central America. Call it what you want, I call it racist imperialism fueled by the early dawn of containment. But there was nothing to contain but us the US.

Maybe he slept 15 hour days and maybe he was psychologically depressed, but he was sure well enough to travel to Cuba in 1928 and defend his imperialist policies at the Havana Conference of American States--or whatever the title. Of course, that was our colony so I am sure his eminence did not feel to far away from his White House quarters.

I agree with Dr Gilbert; this president was not incompetent and I believe quite aware of his actions and must be judged on every front--domestic and foreign--for policies that flowed from his conduct. The result is a failed, draconian presidency that has for too long been dismissed in a casual manner. He deserves condemnation and opprobium and I hope I have advanced that a little bit on these posts.

My skepticism of Mr Coolidge's political concerns about his anti-police tactics in Boston was proven wrong by Professors Gilbert and Vought. I appreciate the insight. Yet maybe for him it was an unintended consequence that his rise to power resulted from his insensitivity to starving police and his strikebreaking tactics: he learned well from it because if he were a progressive prior to his gubernatorial-presidential years, he certainly shamelessly abandoned that as his presidency was shorn of even a modicum of compassion and restraint that he may have displayed in his pre-gubernatorial years.





James Arthur Cooke - 3/2/2005

From your vociferous, vituperative personal attacks upon 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, I had assumed that the gloves were off. Mea culpa! May I respectfully suggest that your assertions regarding Calvin Coolidge are in error and bear little resemblance to the historical record nor informed opinions. My previous disrespectful posting points to several mistaken assumptions.

Coolidge was not as you assert an "enemy of the common woman." He favored the vote for women as early as his first term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1907. You refer to his veto of Muscle Shoals in terms which lead me to believe that you are not aware that the bill passed over his veto.

President Coolidge's two vetoes of the McNary-Haugen Farm Bill did not stem from indifference to the plight of farmers. Certainly the farmer's lot was not good but can you direct me to accounts of starvation of farmersin the 1920s? Coolidge vetoed the farm bill because it was unconstitutional and would establish a vast federal bureaucracy. Further, it would favor a select group of farmers and ignore others. It was unfair. Coolidge urged farmers to unite in cooperative groups to limit surplus--which sounds rather socialistic to me. Perhaps he had in mind the Cheese Factory his father, in cooperation with other neighbors, had established in Plymouth, Vermont in 1890?

Please provide a source directing me to those occasions when Coolidge the "template for Joe McCarthy . . . smeared and defamed" Robert La Follette the "glorious governor." I will read it with special interest because it is so unlike Coolidge's usual attitude toward those with whom he differed.

Coolidge's veto of the Veteran's Bonus is an interesting matter. And, again, the bill passed over his veto. When a president vetoes a bill do you ever look at his reasons? (I hope this is not interpreted as a hostile question.) Coolidge was concerned with those veterans who were disabled in the Great War. Up to that time, no nation had ever taken better care of its wounded veterans than did we following that war. In his veto Coolidge said, in part: "Patriotism which is bought and paid for is not patriotism. . . . Service to our country in time of war means sacrifice. It is for that reason alone that we honor and revere it. To attempt to make a money payment out of the earnings of the people to those who are physically well and financially able is to abandon one of our most cherished American ideals." Are you familiar with "Purple Heart" a magazine for Veterans wounded in combat? A little over a year ago "Purple Heart" carried a quotation by Calvin Coolidge on its cover: "The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten."


Sheldon M. Stern - 3/2/2005

You accuse Coolidge of refusing to join "any effort to assist those groups whom he loathed and abandoned in his gubernatorial and White House years." AGAIN, IF YOU LOOK AT THE PAPERS PRESENTED AT THE 1998 CONFERENCE YOU WILL LEARN THAT THIS IS NOT TRUE. You cannot dismiss as a personal attack the undeniable fact that you have a closed mind and simply refuse to look at the evidence.


Robert E. Gilbert - 3/1/2005

I am gratified that my Calvin Coolidge piece generated so much discussion. Although I will make no attempt to respond to everything that has been written, I will respond to some of it.

First, it is indeed difficult to try to psychoanalyze someone who has been dead for more than seventy years. It must be done with great care, not only by consulting the relevant medical literature but also by reviewing the personal papers of the subject (in this instance, Calvin Coolidge),including his letters to family members, political associates, etc., the diaries/papers of his physician, aides, friends, and political contemporaries, the published accounts by his secret service agents, cabinet members,White House employees, etc. In addition to all of the above, I was extremely fortunate to have been able to engage in two lengthy interviews with Calvin Coolidge's surviving son, John, and with one of his granddaughters,Lydia Coolidge Sayles. The granddaughter did not know Coolidge himself but certainly knew well the former First Lady, Grace Coolidge, who shared many recollections with her as she was growing up.

After reviewing the medical literature and then all of the primary and secondary source materials located at the Library of Congress, the Forbes Library, various college libraries, the Vermont Historical Society and the Coolidge Foundation offices, I became convinced that the "diagnosis" of clinical depression was warranted.
After relevant chapters of the book were drafted, I sought the input and advice of a number of psychiatrists,psychologists, and other mental health professionals, all of whom agreed with my conclusions. Indeed, their opinion was that the evidence of disabling depression was rather overwhelming. I invite everyone interested in Coolidge to read the book from which my HNN article was derived and to assess the evidence it presents.

With regard Coolidge's political career in Massachusetts, he was seen as a progressive Republican. During his governorship, for example, he signed legislation increasing payments under the Workmen's Compensation law, extending protection to tenants from excessive rent increases and arbitrary evictions, imposing penalties on landlords for failure to provide tenants with utilities, allowing for eviction proceedings to be postponed for up to six months and regulating the production and/or sale of certain food products within the state for public health reasons. He also signed bills authorizing cities and towns to establish medical and dental clinics, providing for absentee voting, and making it easier to file small claims cases in the courts. These and the many other actions that characterized his governorship separated him significantly from the conservative element in his party.

Initially, Coolidge did indeed think that his actions in the Boston Police strike had irreparably damaged his political career. After sending his fiery telegram to Samuel Gompers, he told the governor of Vermont that he had just committed "political suicide." More revealing are the letters he wrote home to his father and stepmother.In early and mid-October, he clearly tried to prepare them for his re-election defeat; in late October, however,after his Democratic opponent's campaign degenerated into extreme class-warfare rhetoric, Coolidge wrote his family that "I begin to think I may win." With the help of thousands of Democratic votes, including those of the state's large Irish catholic population, he did.

Although Henry Cabot Lodge, one of the leaders of the Massachusetts conservative Republicans, was diametrically opposed to Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations proposal, Coolidge was far more sympathetic to it. In fact, his position so angered Lodge that the powerful Senator informed him on the eve of the 1920 Republican National Convention, that he would not be offering his name in nomination.

At that convention, Coolidge did, of course, become the vice presidential nominee - but only over the opposition of party leaders. The Senatorial clique that had engineered Harding's nomination (and that had given Coolidge's presidential prospects so little attention) fought to have Senator Irvin Lenroot of Wisconsin as Harding's running mate but their plans were foiled when Coolidge's name was offered in nomination by a delegate from Oregon, Wallace McCamant. Convention delegates quickly rallied to Coolidge's cause as an act of rebellion against tyrannical party leaders. During Coolidge's vice presidency, these same leaders, still resentful toward him, angled to have him dropped from the 1924 ticket - until Harding's death undid their schemes. Years later, when Coolidge tried to give McCamant a judicial appointment, the Republican senate blocked it.

All of this is not to engage in a Coolidge "love in."
My view is that, after July, 1924, Calvin Coolidge became a passive and disengaged president and that his record was a wholly undistinguished one. But his passivity and disengagement were due to illness, rather than incompetence, to me an important distinction.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/28/2005

For those who don't insult me but debate the issues with me on a professional, respectful level.

During the 1924 campaign, President Coolidge chose to focus on Senator LaFollette and ignore the West Virginian Mr Davis. He smeared and defamed the glorious governor whom he called a dangerous radical who would turn America into a "communistic and socialistic state." I am sure this man would identify communism and socialism with any effort to assist those groups whom he loathed and abandoned in his gubernatorial and White House years.

Debate history, avoid ad hominems against those whom you disagree with and express your views without personalising your attacks.

See you next Monday.

Peter N. Kirstein







James Arthur Cooke - 2/28/2005

Dr. Kirstein, have you no sense of decency? Your attacks upon poor disabled Calvin Coolidge are unrelenting. You fire salvo after salvo of recycled but discredited New Deal rhetoric into this quiet man of special needs. It is shocking! It is heartless in its callous disregard for the disabled president. It bears no resemblance to the historical record. However, it is the right stuff for the tenure track in most American colleges and universities. Am I right, or am I right? You have heard the expression, "That was then, this is now?" You, sir, level harsh judgments on the past because Coolidge did not do what we might reasonably expect a president to do, today. Elsewhere, you mention Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson and commend their dispatching troops to southern states to protect the rights of African Americans. Coolidge could no more follow such a course of action than he could fly. Grant did it with the Civil War still a fresh wound in the nation's psyche.

Consider, please, the 1920s. Women voted for the first time--a needed but wrenching shift in the status quo. In the final months of the Wilson administration, Prohibition became the law of the land. Johnny came marching home from the Great War and influenza took more lives than had the war. The country needed to catch its breath. The Coolidge administration provided that space.

Coolidge, the handicapped president, vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm bill because it was unconstitutional. Yes, Doctor, there was a day when presidents took their oath "to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States" seriously. McNary-Haugen was unfair to those farmers who were not members of a select group raising protected crops. It established governmental price-fixing. McNary-Haugen encouraged overproduction and reliance upon single crops instead of diversification, crop rotation and self-imposed limits. Over production was the root of the farmer's problem. It was further proposed that we might dump our excess in Europe. Our president with all his disabilities understood that such a farm bill would require a vast bureaucracy to run it. He defined bureaucracy as an organization in charge of everything and responsible for nothing. He hated bureaucracy.

Coolidge, your "enemy of the common woman" favored the vote for women as early as 1908 as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representative. This was well in advance of FDR's turnaround on the issue and preceded Eleanor Roosevelt's. This "enemy of the working person" enjoyed the strong personal support of Boston's Margaret Foley, a leading suffragist and labor organizer.

Coolidge, "a template for Senator Joe McCarthy?" Oh, Dr. Kirstein, have you no sense of decency left, sir, at long last? Here, however, I admire your originality, but can you provide one single instance of President Coolidge "smearing and red-baiting" Senator Lafollete? Indeed, "Silent Cal" did not campaign in 1924. He mourned the death of his son. There is much more to be said about your extraordinary misreading of the actions and motives of President Calvin Coolidge but I feel I have said enough.


Gregory E Brougham - 2/28/2005

I don't believe I was making a cheap shot. I do believe that the progressive influences within the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years have been ignored by the non-specialist and even in many classes the specialist. Yes, there has been much in the literature over the last 30years that argues otherwise. But in general, the historiograpy of the period has been shaped by those whose political bent would view someone like LaFollette as middle of the road. Some very good examples have been posted here.


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/27/2005

Obviously you have not bothered to check the proceedings of the 1998 Coolidge conference at the Kennedy Library in Boston as I suggested the other day (or to read the excerpt I from the conference that I posted yesterday on HNN). Almost everything you say about Coolidge is WRONG, period. But obviously you don't want to learn anything since you have all the answers. Again, I hope you are not a teacher!!!


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/27/2005

Yes, you make a good point but the enemy of the working person President Coolidge was far to the right of even the pro-business wing.

This enemy of the people twice vetoed the McNary-Haugen bill that would have provided some relief to farmers. Farmers were in depression long before the urban proletariat was. Yet this president who apparently enjoyed eating, did not care if farmers starved, and they did because of him--or at least their plight was of little consequence to the well-fed president.

Also this anti-American enemy of the common woman, vetoed Muscle Shoals. This would have, as it did later, evolve into rural electrification in Appalachia with the TVA. The elitist Mr Coolidge, who slept 12 hour nights and took 2-3 hour naps in the afternoon, admittedly did not need a lot of electricity but his fellow Americans did in Appalachia. Again, he did not care because he was the pet poodle for the capitalist elites. He lived in the age of electricity; he did not care if other less fortunate Americans lived in the age of kerosene.

Also this person was the template for Senator Joe McCarthy. In fact this autocrat paved the way for McCarthyism in the 1924 election when he did not even bother to campaign against the democratic candiate but spent his time Redbaiting and smearing Robet LaFollette, the Progressive Candidate. Calling his policies communistic and socialistic, Governor LaFollette had introduced some of the most far reaching state-legislation in the history of the US and the reactionary, President Coolidge used the power of his office to slander and defame an American who cared about the less fortunate.

What we have is a man who sold out his country to the rich, used the slave-wage exploitation of the Boston police as his escalator to power, comfort and prestige and then took advantage of his high office to wage war against farmers, the poor in Appalachia and courageous men of vision such as Mr LaFollette.

ps oh yeah, did he not also veto the Veterans Bonus that would have given WWI vets life insurance that could be redeemed. "SUPPORT THE TROOPS"!!=)





Sheldon M. Stern - 2/26/2005

What did FDR do?


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/26/2005

P.S. Mr. Kirstein, see our exchanges below, is apparently not interested in the conference since already knows everything about Coolidge.


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/26/2005

Check out the proceedings of the 1998 Coolidge conference at the JFK Library in Boston (www.jfklibrary.org--click on the left on forums and scroll all the way down to the 1998 Coolidge conference. Invaluable new information was presented and most of it has been ignored by the mainstream historical profession. Good luck.


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/26/2005

Mr. Kirtstein, I don't know why I am wasting my time since you already know everything but here is a sample of what you could learn from the Coolidge conference papers:

In the Massachusetts legislature, from 1906-1917, Coolidge was regarded as moderately progressive--supporting the six day work week, laws regulating child labor, direct election of senators, women's suffrage, a minimum wage for women, workmen's compensation and a state income tax. He was regarded as a friend of labor, supporting the legalization of picketing and opposing the use of court injunctions against strikers. As a result, he was chosen to mediate an end to the bitter Lawrence Textile strike.

Running for Lt. Governor in 1916 he supported increasing state taxes rather than cutting aid to those in need:
"We cannot curtail the usual appropriations for the care of mothers with dependent children or the support of the poor, the insane or the infirm. Our party will have no part in a scheme of economy which adds to the misery of the sick and the unfortunate; those who are too weak even to protest. Because I know these conditions I know a Republican administration would face an increasing State tax rather than not see them remedied. The Republican Party lit the fires of progress in Massachusetts....It has provided here conditions of employment, and safeguards for health, that are surpassed nowhere on earth. There will be no backward step...in the protection of women and children in our industrial life. These laws are settled. These principles are established."

Former President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed CC for governor, calling him "a high-minded public servant with a forward look...anxious to secure genuine social and industrial justice." In his first address to the Massachusetts legislature as governor in January, 1919, he stated, "Let there be a purpose in all your legislation: to recognize the right of man to be well-born, well-nurtured, well-educated, well-employed and well-paid."

Working closely and effectively with Republicans and the small Democratic minority in the State legislature, Coolidge backed and often achieved a strikingly progressive set of initiatives:
1) the full-time workweek for women and children was reduced
2) maximum weekly payments under Workman's Compensation were increased
3) the Women's Suffrage Amdt to the Constitution was approved
4) urged action to deal with the postwar housing shortage and a law was enacted prohibiting annual rent increases exceeding 25%, allowing the courts to delay evictions for up to six months and establishing penalties against landlords who failed to provide promised utilities
5) CC sent a special message to the legislature urging a law to protect tenants against eviction without adequate notice--which was passed and signed by the governor
6) outdoor advertising was made subject to state regulation
7) 100,000 acres of Massachusetts land was reforested
8) the governor urged the legislature to adopt a statewide public works program to aid the unemployed
9) CC secured a bonus for veterans and the establishment of a veterans state employment commission
10) CC endorsed cost of living pay raises for state employees and appointed commissions to study the possible establishment of a pension plan for state workers and maternity benefits for female workers
11) CC set up the Office of Fuel Administration to be sure that citizens and businesses had adequate fuel in the winter
12) CC told the legislature that many teachers earn less than unskilled laborers: "We compensate liberally the manufacturer and the merchant; but we fail to appreciate those who guard the minds of our youth." Pay raises for teachers and other public employees were enacted.

In 1924, Coolidge was opposed by a conservative Democrat and by Progressive Robert LaFollette. Chester Rowell, a progressive who had supported TR in 1912 and according to several New Deal historians was one of those who "kept the forces of reform alive in the 1920s" endorsed Coolidge. Writing in the New Republic, he declared that "nearly all those who were most conspicuous in the Roosevelt movement of 1912 are now for Coolidge. ...he has shown courage, judgment, independence and intelligence in his relations with the people. ...I have confidence in his personal independence of reactionary influence. The Old Guard may be for him but he is not for them."




Sheldon M. Stern - 2/26/2005

Mr. Kirstein--your smug declaration "That is it for me" reminds me of an exchange between President Kennedy and Senator J. William Fulbright in 1962.After physicist Edward Teller testified against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at 1963 Senate hearings, Fulbright told the President that Teller’s arguments had been persuasive and may have changed some votes. Kennedy replied with a bemused tone of resignation “There’s no doubt that any man with complete conviction, particularly who’s an expert, is bound to shake anybody who’s got an open mind. That’s the advantage of having a closed mind.”
Obviously you enjoy having a closed mind otherwise you would look at the proceedings of the 1998 JFK Library Coolidge conference as I recommended a few days ago. You might actually learn something--such as the fact that Coolidge asked for federal anti-lynching legislation in his first address to Congress as president. Only the GOP platform in 1924 denounced lynching--the Dems and LaFollette were silent. All I hope is that you are not a history teacher!


Gregory Dehler - 2/26/2005

One aspect of Coolidge that explains some of the gridlock is that the Republican Senate divided between the more Conservative pro-business Eastern wing and the progressive midwestern wing. They were at odds on almost all issues.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/25/2005

Another reason that Governor Coolidge disgraced his office and showed his utter disregard if not contempt for working Americans--or if you prefer policepersons in Boston--is that this entire Boston Police Strike could have been handled in a manner far less dishonourably than the future president.

Boston Mayor Andrew Peters, a Wilsonian democrat, appointed a citizens' committee to seek a solution to the problem. The committee's report recommended that 1) the policepersons union disaffiliate with the AFL but serve as an INDEPENDENT union; 2) the 19 heroic police officers who were fired for striking due to lavish $1100 annual pay in which no pay raise had been granted during the war and police uniforms were deducted from their pay check, be REINSTATED on the force, 3) the slave wage issue be conciliated by this or a similar public service committee.

Police Commissioner Curtis--a Bull Connor clone-to-be--ignored the mayor, appealed to Gov. Coolidge to smash the union, fire the cops and eschew arbitration or negotiation. He got from he wanted from a governor who would surprise me if he said contemporaneously such anti-proletarian actions would have been politically perilous.
You want a real governor, give me Governor Altgeld who pardoned the Haymarket martyrs and ended in Illinois gubernatorial career. Not the coward Mr Coolidge who hides behind the guns and lethality of elite power.

This is the legacy of this man in my opinion whether he needed or did not need prozac. The cops needed justice but received typical banishment from pro-capitalist elites who wanted total control over the masses.

Yet compared to Mr Bush, Mr Coolidge was not a lover of escalating military budgets or wars except war against the working class.

That is it for me.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/25/2005

Prior to action:
President Eisenhower did not have troops occupying Little Rock.
President Kennedy did not have troops occupying Oxford.
President Johnson did not have troops occupying Selma.

Also the absence of or the overturning of civil rights acts or enforcement acts does not preclude presidential action to deploy troops to carry out missions of justice and protecting the innocent.

The precedent set by President Grant was not duplicated in the 1920s. They should have been.


Hans Vought - 2/25/2005

I certainly agree that Coolidge could have and should have denounced the Klan more forcefully. Your comparison to Grant, however, does not take into account the altered circumstances. President Grant had US troops occupying the South; Pres. Coolidge did not. The federal Ku Klux Klan Act and other Reconstruction-era civil rights laws had all been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1870s-1880s, so Coolidge could not enforce them. He did ask Congress repeatedly to pass the anti-lynching bill, but it failed to do so.


Hans Vought - 2/25/2005

With respect, you're confusing results with intentions. It is certainly true that Coolidge's action garnered him nationwide acclaim. However, that was not his intention. Had it been, he would have acted decisively at the beginning. Samuel Gompers was one of the first men Coolidge met with after becoming president, to try to heal that wound.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/24/2005

"Coolidge probably should have intervened before the strike was called, but he hesitated to act, and when he finally did he was certain that he was committing political suicide."

Just the opposite. He was pandering to the antilabour bias in the nation that had been aroused by the glorious Seattle general strike of 1919. An epoch moment of greatness--perhaps as glorious as any event in US history. The president's strikebreaking tactic against the police thrust him into the limelight and catapaulted him to the nomination for vice-president in 1920. Is not that the way it always is. Smash dissent. Starve the masses. Oppress police who were making get this,$1100 a year and use it to advance one's political ambitions.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/24/2005

I think it telling that a sister of a president would ask President Coolidge to denounce the KKK only to be told: "Well, I already did that." Perhaps she either was ignorant of the president's alleged denunciations of the Klan or they were muted: my criticism, until explicitly proven wrong through documentary evidence, stands. The president did nothing to prevent the attacks on African-Americans by terrorist organisations in the South and other states.

In fact what led to a decline in the Klan's power were rape-sex scandals on passenger trains that demonstrated the inherent hyprocrisy of its strict moral code--some code.

This is not an analysis from historically biased presentism. President Grant in the 1870s with the Enforcement Acts took direct action, even if transitory, to smash the klan. 100s were arrested, martial law was declared in many counties in South Carolina, laws were passed that outlawed masks and disguises or obstructing one's right to vote. Was any of this done under President Coolidge? Now when a president compares unfavourable to President Grant, I don't think the chisel need be unsheathed for an addition to Mt Rushmore.


Hans Vought - 2/24/2005

Coolidge wasn't all that hostile to labor. As a state senator in 1912 he chaired the committee that mediated the IWW-led strike at the Lawrence textile mills. He got the workers raises of 5-25%, time and a quarter for overtime and no discrimination in rehiring strikers. It was the only successful strike the Wobblies ever staged. Later, as president, Coolidge pardoned or commuted the sentences of the remaining alien Wobblies who had been rounded up in the Palmer raids and terminated the Justice Department's anti-radical division.

As for the Police Strike, it was Boston Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis who refused to recognize the Boston Policemen's formation of a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Only after two nights of looting and rioting in the city did Governor Coolidge call out the state guard and publicly support Curtis’ decision to fire those who had deserted their posts. Coolidge's declaration, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime,” was not a condemnation of all strikes, but rather a condemnation of police officers forsaking their sworn duty to protect and defend the citizens of Boston. Coolidge probably should have intervened before the strike was called, but he hesitated to act, and when he finally did he was certain that he was committing political suicide.


Hans Vought - 2/24/2005

In doing research in the Coolidge Papers at the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA I came across a 1924 letter from Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (TR's sister) to Coolidge asking the president to issue a statement against the Klan. Coolidge replied that he had repeatedly condemned the KKK and that he stood by that record. He also indicated his belief that the onus was on the Democrats to disavow their longstanding association with the Klan.

We should remember that the 1920s Klan targeted Catholic and Jewish immigrants more than African Americans. In October 1924, less than a month before the election, he reviewed the parade of the Roman Catholic Holy Name Society in Washington, DC and publicly kissed the bishop's ring, sending a strong message that he opposed the Klan's nativism. In fact, the Klan circulated rumors that Grace Coolidge was a closet Catholic and the boys were attending a parochial school, and the White House was forced to issue denials.


William J. Stepp - 2/24/2005

Re: the Klan, Coolidge was not responsible for its existence or its actions, and it's bizarre to criticize him for not denouncing it. He certainly did not condone lynching and other crimes.
His civil rights record was splendid compared to Wilson's and FDR's (as was Harding's).

Coolidge was right in claiming that no one has a right to strike. Employees (the "proletariat") have a right to quit; employers (the "capitalists"--except in the case of the State, which is an anticapitalist institution) have a right to fire.

Coolidge also signed the Radio Act of 1927, which was a grievous blow against competition in that new media.
That he has recently been embraced by a few libertarians as one of the best presidents in American history is a poor commentary on the history of that office.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/23/2005

I must be in the midst of a Coolidge love-in! I thought such revisionism began with Robert K. Murray in 1973 with The Politics of Normalcy. I like the fact that the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the greatest treaty of the 20th century and certainly the greatest in the history of American diplomacy, was passed during his presidency and said so in a talk I gave at St Michael's College in Winooski, VT.

1)
The future president said to policepersons, when he was governor of Massachusetts, who had committed the terrible sin of trying to organise and affiliate with the AFL and to improve their slave labour conditions: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." I recall the cops had agreed to return to work and accept arbitration but Mr Coolidge had other ideas and did not restore the jobs of the 19 cops fired for daring to strike and organise a union!!
Such a Reaganesque approach to labour (remember PATCO) and worker's rights is despicable and indicative of contempt toward the proletariat who were not born in the sylvan mists of Vermont. I can see why Mr Reagan loved him so much. They were both strikebreakers.

2)
When Ms Vox examines Dr Gilbert's sources on depression, I would like to know if she felt they were substantive or not. I just think when non-specialists put elite figures on the couch, one should recognise that conclusions drawn are not based on empirical data but inferential analysis.

I think historians should not be precluded from any approach to understanding the past that they wish to pursue: However, the task of psychoanalyzing real patients is difficult for Freudian therapists--now just pop a pill!! I believe it is even more daunting for historians to engage in psychohistorical analysis of dead-white males who expired generations or centuries ago.

ps. in 1924 the democrats failed by one vote to pass an antiklan plank in its party platform. I give them credit for trying their convention. Where was Mr Coolidge in sending in US military forces? Where was Mr Coolidge giving speeches denouncing the Klan, demanding its abolition, giving aid and comfort to African-Americans being subjected to terrorist attacks all over the south. Merely advocating an anti-lyncing law is NOT enough. He needed to protect these citizens and precious Americans from butchery and slaughter and HE DID NOTHING to smash the klan.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/23/2005

I agree that, in this case, the retroactive analysis seems pretty convincing. We know a great deal about depression now; and what is shown here seems a pretty precise match.

And the author's diagnosis does not rely on more questionable symbolic connections between physical maladies and symbolic psychological understandings (for example, the hidden meaning of consipation) that made Erikson's biography of Luther so problematic.


Lisa Roy Vox - 2/23/2005

Yes, I have voiced the same suspicions of pscyhohistory in the past, but have come around to believing that it's *ok* to speculate, as long as it is done carefully and responsibly, about such things in biographies. There's never going to be an authoritative understanding of Reagan for instance, or of Abraham Lincoln, as another obvious example. All biographies are, in the end, speculative, and Dr. Gilbert just offers another way of looking at Coolidge. I think calling it "psychohistory" is just a condescending way of using a word that has typically negative connotations and sets off alarms, and thus is a way to write it off without really engaging his argument.

Dr. Gilbert bolsters his assertions about Coolidge with the observations of Coolidge's family and friends, in addition to contrasting obvious behavioral changes as evidenced in the public record; I will be interested in reading his book to see what sources he uses to describe depression. What he does seem to do is offer a new, possible way to look at Coolidge and may prompt others to start looking at Coolidge's earlier career; it doesn't mean that rebuilding the historiography of the 1920s will be based upon so-called psychohistory.


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/22/2005

P.S. to Mr. Kirstein

Just open the JFKL website (www.jfklibrary.org) and click on the left side on forums. Then scroll all the way down to the 1998 Coolidge conference. I once believed everything you said about Coolidge--but I was wrong and so are you. Note, for example, that one of the speakers was Michael Dukakis--who concluded that Coolidge was an excellent governor of Mass.


Sheldon M. Stern - 2/22/2005

I would strongly urge Mr. Kirstein to read the proceedings of a two day conference held at the JFK Library in Boston in 1998--"Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence"-- (it's available online on the Kennedy Library website).

Coolidge was NOT anti-labor, was NOT an enemy of the right to strike, quite the contrary, and your take on the police strike is just plain wrong. Also, why was Coolidge to blame for segretation and lynching which even FDR later refused to condemn. Indeed, Coolidge pressed Congress for federal anti-lynching legislation and spoke out against racism and segregation--which FDR never did.
If you have an open mind and read these papers, you will have no choice but to abandon your completely wrong estimate of Coolidge--which was consciously created by New Deal historians.


Peter N. Kirstein - 2/21/2005

Beware of those who engage in psychohistory without contemporaneous medical assessment. This was attempted in some earlier Jacksonian revisionism and while alluring, I think generally outside the purview of the historian's craft. It tends to be rather speculative but perhaps inevitable as elite figures are placed retroactively on the couch.

I do agree that revisionism of the 1920s is essential and the article's activist portrayal of the president in the early stages of his presidency was gripping and engaging. Yet this man was an enemy of labour, an enemy of the right to strike, a strikebreaker as the policepersons in Boston learned when Mr Coolidge was governor of Mass.

I have been to the president's birthplace in Plymouth Notch, VT. and it is indeed an idylic spot emblematic of a Swiss-postcard ambience. A quaint little village nestled between rolling hills in the Vermont countryside.
If only African-Americans who were being lynched and subjected to American apartheid by the rising power of the KKK during his presidency had the same comfort.


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/21/2005

Gregory, that's a cheap and innacurate shot. Yes, new ideas sometimes take too long to percolate through, but they do percolate.

Besides, it would appear that Dr. Gilbert is a bona fide member of the academy. Or do you automatically define as an outsider someone who agrees with you?


Lisa Roy Vox - 2/21/2005

This is a great article, and I'm definitely going to take a look at *The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression*. While depression in relation to Abraham Lincoln is well known, I have never seen this argument about Coolidge. I do think our contemporary knowledge about illnesses, including mental illness, can potentially shed a lot of light into historical lives; I'm glad to see someone so open to exploring the issue of depression in the biography of a president, especially one who has gotten a "bad rap" historiographically.


Gregory E Brougham - 2/21/2005

The historiography of the presidency in the 1920's needs a complete reworking for the general public. There have been a number of works that have helped to rectify this, but since they tend to upset the general views held by the academy, it is doubtful that much improvement can be made.


Gregory E Brougham - 2/21/2005

The historiography of the presidency in the 1920's needs a complete reworking for the general public. There have been a number of works that have helped to rectify this, but since they tend to upset the general views held by the academy, it is doubtful that much improvement can be made.