This text is from Rushad Thomas’s Presidents’ Day lecture, given at the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site on 15 February 2016.
Calvin Coolidge, the Puritan in Babylon, the Scrooge Who Begat Plenty, the Great Refrainer, Silent Cal. We know him by all these names. But there’s one name we rarely consider when it comes to Silent Cal: Electoral Juggernaut! This is astonishing when you consider the fact that he probably won more elections, at every level of government, than any president in American history. Yet Coolidge is often remembered only for being silent. While presidential brevity is something of a lost art, for which Coolidge can be commended, we must not forget that Coolidge was a politician who stood for election, and had to convince people to vote for him, just like politicians have done for centuries. The 1924 presidential election campaign, the last which Coolidge would fight in his life, was no different, and the story of that fascinating election sheds a great deal of light on the man Calvin Coolidge was. We will explore the story of the 1924 presidential campaign today, and hopefully draw some lessons from a tremendously interesting moment in presidential election politics.
But before we get to 1924, let’s set the stage. There are a lot of moving parts to the political environment of the early-to-mid 1920s, so I hope to open up some of those parts to show you how they got us to a 54 percent Coolidge victory in 1924.
The Political Culture of the Early 1920s
America in the early 1920s was, much like today, a two-party country. The Democratic and Republican parties dominated politics at the local, state, and federal levels. However, the types of voters each party attracted was very different than today. In those days, with a good number Civil War veterans amazingly still alive, the old South was solidly Democratic. The Democrats were the party of slavery and Jim Crow. The Southern States voted with one voice for the Democratic Party. By way of example, in the 1916 presidential election incumbent Democrat Woodrow Wilson won 96.71 percent of the vote in South Carolina, the state where the Civil War began. But the Democratic Party wasn’t just the party of southern segregation. It was also increasingly becoming the party of immigrant ethnic voters in the big cities of the north. Waves of immigration from the 1890s through the 1910s had transformed the Democratic Party into the party of Ellis Island. These voters, with last names such as O’Reilly (Ireland) and D’Alessandro (Italy) and Kaczynski (Poland) and Zimmerman (Germany), were the proverbial tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free, and when they exercised that freedom they usually voted for the Democratic Party in droves.
The Republican Party, on the other hand, was the party of big business, Wall Street, and the Eastern Yankee WASP establishment. The GOP dominated the elite culture of New England, it was the party of the Back Bay, of Nantucket, of Martha’s Vineyard, of Greenwich, and Andover, and Newport. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and Princeton were dens of Republican probity (mention Meacham’s GHWB biography, noblesse oblige). The Episcopal Church, the established faith of the patrician class, was known at that time as the Republican Party at Prayer. Very few new immigrants supported the GOP, giving rise to the notion that the Republicans were the “party of Plymouth Rock,” of traditional Anglo-American customs and mores. The description of the Boston Brahmins, all impeccably Republican, well described in the doggerel “Boston Toast” by Holy Cross alumnus John Collins Bossidy, highlights the elitist reputation of the eastern GOP establishment of the day:
“And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.”
But it was also the party of rural farmers in Vermont and Kansas, of small business owners in Michigan, of white collar middle-class professionals in Chicago. And while the party was dominated by economically conservative elites on the East Coast, it was also home to a huge contingent of prairie populist progressives out West, and some of the cleavages that would eventually lead to the ideological sorting of the two parties which were beginning to manifest themselves in the first decades of the 20th century. Pivot points such as Theodore Roosevelt’s bolting from the party in 1912 to run on the Progressive Bull Moose ticket portended the future we know now, in which a broadly conservative Republican Party goes to bat against a broadly left-wing Democratic Party. These cleavages would feature prominently in Coolidge’s presidential run in 1924. The party was also not nearly as free-market oriented as it is today. The protective tariff on imported goods and restrictionist immigration policies featured prominently in the Republican philosophy of the era.
Coolidge’s Rise to Washington
So how did Calvin Coolidge end up as the 1924 Republican presidential nominee? The answer to that question lies in 1919, when Coolidge was the first-term governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Boston police officers went on strike that autumn, and in the face of mayhem and anarchy in the capital city Coolidge took the bold step of dismissing all of the striking officers and sending in the National Guard troops to maintain order in the city. The now-famous telegram he sent to American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” thrust Coolidge onto the national stage. His decisive handling of the strike crisis displayed a mettle which inspired Republicans across the country. At a very fractious 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago, the one where the proverbial “smoke-filled room” of party bosses eventually settled upon Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding as the Republican nominee for president, Coolidge was chosen for the vice presidential nod. In those days most of the convention delegates were chosen at state party conventions instead of primaries. This resulted in many local favorites going to the convention in hopes of getting the nomination. Massachusetts Republicans had put up Coolidge for the top spot, but the Republican grandees never seriously considered him. They originally settled upon Sen. Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin for VP, but they left the floor before the rank and file gave their imprimatur. At this time, an Oregon delegate, Wallace McCamant, who’d read the book Have Faith in Massachusetts, which is a collection of Coolidge’s speeches, placed Coolidge’s name in contention for the VP slot. The rebellious rank and file liked the idea of choosing an underdog against the decision of the grandees, so Coolidge won the nomination with 674.5 votes, to Lenroot’s 146.5 votes.
It should be noted that Coolidge was not even there, but they had a great big party back in Northampton at his notification a few days later!
In the 1920 campaign Harding and Coolidge ran on turning the page on the Wilson years of war, out of control spending, high tax rates, and increasing debt. The campaign was based upon the notion of a return to “Normalcy,” the good ‘ol days before the war when the United States focused more on nation-building at home, instead of intervening in wars abroad. It was an isolationist era. The U.S. Senate had rejected American membership in the League of Nations in 1919, thanks to Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (one of Coolidge’s old rivals), and President Woodrow Wilson had had a stroke which deepened the lame-duck nature of his presidency. The Democrats, bless their hearts, nominated Ohio Governor James Cox for president, and for vice president they chose a certain New Yorker and former Navy Secretary by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On Election Day, November 2, 1920, Harding and Coolidge won a landslide victory, 60.3 percent of the nationwide popular vote. In fact, the Harding-Coolidge ticket’s 26.2 percentage-point victory (60.3% to 34.1%) remains the largest popular-vote percentage margin in presidential elections after the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” ended with the unopposed election of James Monroe in 1820. They carried every state outside of the South. They also won the Volunteer State of Tennessee, the first time since the Reconstruction Era that the GOP presidential ticket won a formerly Confederate State. They also won women, as this was the first election after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Harding and Coolidge came into the White House in the face of a deep depression, but their policies of reducing taxes, rolling back the frontiers of the state, and paying down the national debt helped reduce the impact of the Depression, which ended mid-way through 1921. Harding was a well-loved, if credulous leader. The GOP lost a significant number of Congressional seats in the 1922 midterm election, and in 1923 Harding went on a western swing, becoming the first president to visit Alaska. Sadly, Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923. Vice President Coolidge was vacationing here in Plymouth Notch, and was notified early in the morning on August 3 of his accession to the presidency. He took the presidential oath of office (administered by his father) in the parlor of the family homestead. When asked by a reporter about his feelings upon becoming president, Coolidge remarked “I think I can swing it.”
So fast forward to 1924. Coolidge was getting his sea legs as president. He worked hard with his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to get the Revenue Act of 1924 passed, which lowered the top marginal tax rate to around 40 percent. He signed significant laws like the Indian Citizenship Act and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, and he enjoyed being the top dawg in town. There was just one problem: history was not on his side.
In the history of the United States up to that time, only one president had successfully sought the presidency in their own right after finishing out the term of their deceased predecessor, and that president was Theodore Roosevelt, a man who towered over the Republican Party of the 1900s. There was no guarantee that the GOP would automatically hand the nomination to Coolidge on a silver platter.
Yet, on a number of fundamental considerations, Coolidge was the man for the job. The economy was expanding at a rapid clip in 1924. Unemployment was at record lows. And Coolidge had the advantage of incumbency: No incumbent president had been booted from office since Benjamin Harrison was defeated by President Grover Cleveland in 1892.
Coolidge did a good job of positioning himself for the nomination. He outmaneuvered potential challengers, and he deftly managed the fallout from the Teapot Dome scandals. In a manner similar to Gerald Ford coming after the tainted Richard Nixon, Coolidge initiated investigations into the corruption of Harding’s underlings, thus bolstering his reputation as a man of moral rectitude. Coolidge’s persona, as much as his fiscally conservative policies, tapped into the zeitgeist of the time. In an era of rapid change, modernization, and dynamism, Coolidge hearkened back to the old days of Victorian virtue and warmed the hearts of the American people.
The 1924 Republican National Convention was held from June 10 to June 12, 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio (coincidentally, the site of the forthcoming 2016 Republican National Convention). Coolidge’s campaign team had complete control of the convention, not unlike our modern party conventions. By that point there was no question that Calvin Coolidge would be the nominee. It was the first convention in which women were given equal representation in the party; the longstanding tradition of having a national committee-man and committee-woman from every state serving on The Republican National Committee began at this convention. Coolidge won the nomination on the first ballot with 1065 votes, with Senator Robert La Follette (who will feature later in the story) winning 34 votes.
The real question at the ’24 convention was who the party would put up for VP. In those days there was no way to fill a vice presidential vacancy when the previous officeholder acceded to the presidency, so the office had been vacant since Coolidge entered the White House. Coolidge, whose reputation as a taciturn conservative was legendary, wanted someone who could provide good balance to the ticket, and he settled upon Senator William E. Borah of Idaho. Borah was a western progressive who opposed foreign policy adventurism. He was also the father of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s illegitimate daughter, Paula, thus earning Roosevelt Longworth the sobriquet “Aurora Borah Alice.” Borah declined Coolidge’s offer of the VP slot, so Coolidge then turned first to Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, and then to the ebullient Illinoisan Charles G. Dawes.
Dawes possessed a very impressive CV. Aide to President William McKinley, director of the newly-created Bureau of the Budget under Harding, and author of the Dawes Plan to ease Europe’s post-World War I credit issues. Coolidge felt Dawes would provide the balance needed to keep the ticket on track. Dawes won 682.5 votes on the third ballot.
The 1924 Republican platform focused on continuing the policies of the Harding-Coolidge Administrations. It emphasized further tax reductions, collecting foreign debts, passing the protective tariff, opposing farm subsidies for crop prices, enacting the eight-hour workday, banning child labor, and passing a federal anti-lynching law.
Now let’s pivot over to our Democratic friends. Riven by internecine strife in the four years since the Cox-Roosevelt defeat, the Democrats went into their Madison Square Garden convention with no clear vision of where they wanted to go. The main contenders for the Democrat nomination were New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and former U.S. Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo—son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. These two heavyweights fought one another for, and I’m not kidding, more than 100 BALLOTS. McAdoo’s support came from the rural South, westerners (McAdoo was a Californian), and the “Drys,” or folks in favor of prohibition. McAdoo was bolstered by the support of party elder statesman and three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, who gave a rousing floor speech in his favor. On the other hand, Smith, a Catholic, had the support of the “Wets,” those opposed to prohibition, as well as the powerful New York political machine Tammany Hall, and other Eastern establishment elements within the party. He was also the choice of the heavily Catholic and Jewish immigrant segment of the party. It was at this convention that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had been stricken by polio after the 1920 campaign, gave a strongly supportive speech on Smith’s behalf. If you’ve ever heard of the term “Happy Warrior,” FDR coined that term in this speech backing Smith.
Then Calvin, Jr.’s death led to the suspension of the Democrat convention in honor of Calvin, Jr.’s death.
The breather from Calvin, Jr.’s death did nothing to speed the Democrat Convention to a final conclusion. Neither McAdoo nor Smith could get to the required two-thirds majority needed to gain the nomination. This deadlock was the longest in American history. After banging their heads against the wall to seemingly no end, a compromise candidate emerged. His name: John W. Davis.
Davis was probably the brightest lawyer of his era. He was a partner at the eponymously named Davis, Polk, and Wardwell firm still in existence to this day. A native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, Davis attended Washington & Lee University as an undergraduate, and Washington & Lee Law School. He served as a U.S. Congressman from West Virginia from 1911 to 1913, and as U.S. Solicitor General from 1913 to 1918. He was appointed by Wilson to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1918, and served through the end of the Wilson Administration. After leaving government in 1921, he returned to the practice of the law, moving to New York to work on Wall Street.
The Davis nomination was remarkable for a number of reasons, the main one being that Davis, philosophically speaking, was not a man of the Left. Despite having serving President Wilson ably for eight years, Davis’s political views were firmly in the tradition of small government Jeffersonian conservatism. Davis’s right-of-center beliefs were so noteworthy they led one of the Coolidge Foundation’s trustees to write a whole book about it! The High Tide of American Conservatism; Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, authored by Garland S. Tucker, III, is really the only major biography I know about John W. Davis. In that work, Garland describes Davis thus:
“As the nation moved toward the presidential election of 1924, Davis was recognized as a remarkable candidate. He was one of those rare men who seemed without exception to have gained the trust, respect, and love of his associates—in college, in Congress, before the bar, and in England. He brought a brilliant intellect, an easygoing graciousness, and unquestioned integrity to everything he did. And to politics he also brought a well-reasoned conservatism based on solid Jeffersonian tenets. As the Democrats nominated a candidate and perhaps turned to their last conservative nominee, they could not have found a more worthy man than John W. Davis.”
I should also note the Democrats nominated Governor Charles W. Bryan of Nebraska, brother of William Jennings Bryan, for the vice presidency. Additionally, the Democratic party platform supported lower tariff rates, graduated income taxes, farm relief and farm subsidies, Philippine independence, a national referendum on the League of Nations, strict enforcement of antitrust laws, and public works projects to reduce unemployment.
As you may have noticed, both of the major party candidates in this story thus far have been right-of-center conservative types. This reality was certainly not lost on the substantial segment of the population at the time on the Left. In the face of the Coolidge-Davis race, a number of unsatisfied politicians decided to resurrect Theodore Roosevelt’ old Progressive Party to provide a Left-wing choice for the voters in November. Their standard bearer was a Republican United States Senator from Wisconsin, one Robert M. La Follette, Jr. La Follette had originally gone to the Republican National Convention with the aim of foiling the conservative Coolidge. As the favorite son of Wisconsin, his state’s delegates voted for him. The near-unanimous support for Coolidge outside of the Wisconsin ranks, however, convinced La Follette that attempting to oust Coolidge at this late stage was a fool’s errand. He decided instead to stand for the presidency as a Progressive, and the party nominated him right there in Cleveland less than a month later. To add a bit of bipartisan flair to the ticket, La Follette chose Democrat Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as his running mate.
The Progressive Party stood on a platform of public ownership of utilities such as water and railroads, breaking up industrial monopolies, government subsidies for farmers, hiking the inheritance tax, and decreased military spending. Sounds like they were feeling the Bern, eh?
So now the three parties have their presidential candidates. What happened next? Well, of course, the Republicans advised the nation to “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” This slogan perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist of the era. The economy was strong. Threats from abroad were virtually nonexistent. Europe was at peace. Stay the course was the most shrewd argument a campaign could make, given those fundamentals. Garland Tucker describes the 24 GOP campaign this way:
“The Republican campaign strategy was simple but brilliant: ignore the opponents, claim complete credit for the nation’s prosperity, dispatch Dawes to rouse the GOP faithful, and let Coolidge be Coolidge by showcasing his virtues and character.”
President Coolidge’s campaign pioneered the new media of the era: radio and newsreels. He certainly never cut a hugely compelling figure on the big screen, but he had a voice that carried quite well over radio.
President Coolidge took advantage of radio to reach millions with his campaign speeches, while the advertising executive Bruce Barton helped promote an appealing, homespun image of the President through interviews, magazine profiles, and the publication of his speeches. Barton described the strategy thus: “the three essentials of effective advertising are (1) brevity, (2) simple words, (3) sincerity.” President Coolidge exhibited these characteristics in spades.
With the President mourning the loss of his son, VP nominee Charles Dawes was dispatched as the campaign spokesman on the stump. He was a fiery orator and had a flair for taking down the Progressives and La Follette, in particular. He once described the progressives as socialists who “fly the Red Flag,” and asked his crowd “Where do you stand, with the president, on the constitution, with the flag, or on the sinking sands of socialism?”
The Coolidge campaign also employed the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln tour. The idea for the tour came from a number of President Coolidge’s childhood friends from Plymouth Notch. The aim of the tour was to acquaint Americans from sea to shining sea with the down-home Coolidge his friends at the Notch knew so well. The caravan left from Plymouth Notch and embarked on the famous “Lincoln” highway. This move was intentional. The tourers sought to tie President Coolidge to Abe Lincoln, the idolized premier Republican president. Author Larry Krug describes the atmosphere at Lincoln tour rallies “As the caravan approached towns, be it morning, afternoon, or night, there was a festive atmosphere. Horns honked; there were police escorts and school marching bands, local political groups, pennants, and flags.”
All in all, they visited 300 communities in 56 days.
Coolidge gave his acceptance speech on 14 August. Relentlessly on message, he promoted the tariff and Andrew Mellon’s tax cut plan. He said “I favor the American system of individual enterprise, and I am opposed to any general extension of government ownership and control. I believe not only in advocating economy in public expenditure, but in its practical application and actual accomplishment.”
Later in August he visited his father in Vermont, but even then he remained in campaign mode. In contrast with the highfaluting vacation of Davis on a golf course in Maine, Coolidge returned to the family homestead in Vermont, where photographers relentlessly photographed him bailing hay in his overalls or fishing in the creek. The press ate it up. Every newspaper in the country ran images of the down-home Coolidge and the bucolic scenes of the President at Plymouth Notch.
An additional public relations coup took place on this Vermont vacation. On their New England retreat President and Mrs. Coolidge were attended by three heavy hitters on the scene of American business: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone. The image of these three great men outside the Coolidge Homestead with Cal, Grace, and the Colonel remains one of the most iconic Coolidge images to this day. Garland Tucker describes the reaction to this scene: “These three capitalists symbolized the American prosperity that the nation was enjoying, while the setting was as familiar and reassuring as the average American’s childhood recollections of a Sunday afternoon at their grandparents’ farm. Millions of Americans were thought to have been chuckling approvingly over their morning coffee at the sight of ‘Ol Silent Cal up on the farm in Vermont with those big-shot millionaires.”
While Coolidge did not actually participate in the campaign hustings as we’d expect of a presidential campaign today, he did give a number of important speeches outlining his governing philosophy which were broadcast throughout the country and heard by millions of Americans. On 24 October the President delivered a major address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. This speech encapsulated Coolidge’s common-sense conservative beliefs. He spoke against growing the tax burden, extolling the Mellon tax cuts, and decrying the “thousands upon thousands of organizations ceaselessly clamoring and agitating for Government action that would increase the burden upon the taxpayer by increasing the cost of Government.” He promised to commit himself to “the practice of public economy and insistence upon its rigid and drastic enforcement.”
The speech he gave on election eve was heard from coast-to-coast by the largest audience ever recorded. On Election Day, November 4, Coolidge stated “I have conducted a campaign that I think will not leave me anything to be sorry for, whether I am elected or not.”
Davis waged an aggressive campaign, attacking the Republicans as the party of corruption and bravely denouncing the Ku Klux Klan where Coolidge would not, but he fared poorly outside the South.
In the end, Coolidge won 54 percent of the vote compared to 28.8 percent for Davis and a healthy 16.6 percent for LaFollette. He compiled 382 electoral votes in 35 states. He won every region of the country outside of the South and Wisconsin, and the Republicans maintained their control of both chambers of the United States Congress. The people appreciated Coolidge’s steady hand at the national till and affirmed their faith in the Man from Plymouth Notch, and we are very grateful that they did!