Calvin Coolidge: Man of the Great Generation
Bernard J. Fleury
The heroes of the Greatest Generation were made well known to us through Tom Brokaw’s best selling book. These were the children of the Great Generation who lived and shaped our nation from the 1870’s to the 1950’s.
They were the principal players in the Spanish American War, The Philippine Insurrection, World War I, The Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
Calvin Coolidge: His Origins and Career
Calvin Coolidge was born into this Great Generation on July 4, 1872 in Plymouth Notch Vermont, and died on January 5, 1933 as the Great Depression was wreaking its havoc on our country.
He received his formal elementary school education at Plymouth Notch and graduated from Black River Academy, Ludlow, Vermont on May 23, 1890. That fall he was on his way to Amherst College when he became ill with a severe cold. He was unable to complete the entrance exams and had to return to Plymouth Notch. In late winter he resumed his preparations for Amherst’s entrance exams at Black River Academy and then went to St. Johnsbury Academy for the spring term. He did so well that the principal, Dr. Putney, gave him a certificate that allowed him to enter Amherst without entrance exams, in the fall of 1891. He graduated from Amherst on June 26, 1895.
Instead of attending a formal law school he took the option of reading law with the Northampton, Massachusetts firm of Hammond and Field from September 23, 1895 until he passed his examination and was admitted to the bar in Northampton, Massachusetts on July 2, 1897.
On December 6, 1898 he was elected to his first public office as City Councilman from Ward 2 in Northampton, Massachusetts. Subsequently he was elected City Solicitor by the City Council from January 18, 1900 to January 16, 1902. He was appointed Clerk of Courts for Hampshire County in Massachusetts on June 9, 1903, and elected Representative to the Massachusetts General Court from November 6, 1906 until November 1908.
With his election as Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts on December 7, 1909, Coolidge began a continuous career of public service until March 4, 1929.
He was Mayor for two terms (1909 – 1911), and State Senator of Massachusetts from 1911 – 1915, serving as President of the Senate from 1913 – 1915.
On November 2, 1915, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, serving three terms until November 5, 19l8 when he was elected Governor, serving two terms until November 3, 1920, when he was elected Vice President of the United States.
Just prior to midnight on August 2, 1923, Calvin Coolidge learned of the death of President Warren G. Harding. At 2:47 a.m. on August 3rd, by the light of a kerosene lamp, in the small sitting room of the Coolidge Homestead at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the ceremony began. His father, a Notary Public, administered the Oath of Office and Calvin advanced from Vice President to President of the United States to finish out the rest of Harding’s first term of office.1
Coolidge decided to run for the Presidency. He was nominated as the Republican candidate on June 12, 1924, elected to office on November 4, 1924, and inaugurated on March 4, 1925. At this inauguration, Calvin placed his hand on the Bible opened to the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in memory of his first reading it at the age of six to his grandfather, Calvin Galusha Coolidge, as he lay dying. His grandfather had done the same for his grandfather many years before.(16)
He chose not to run for a second term of his own and returned to Northampton, Massachusetts on March 4, 1929 following the inauguration of Herbert Hoover.
Calvin Coolidge: The Man and His Character
Calvin Coolidge’s idealism, his exaltation of thrift, hard work, and character, were in stark contrast to the revolution that was taking place in business, manners, and behavior during the “Roaring Twenties.”
On June 19, 1923 after twenty-six months as Vice President, he gave an address at Wheaton College that spelled out quite clearly his abiding moral principles.
“We do not need more material development, we need more spiritual development. We do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.” 2
He had developed these principles over a lifetime beginning as one small town farm boy who through diligence, hard work, and most of all, through persistence, had risen steadily through the political ranks of local and state government, to the highest office in the land, President of the United States.
The moral principles Coolidge listed in his address at Wheaton College define him as a man of the Great Generation. The first and overarching principle is his conception of “character” – how he defines the term and how this principle permeates his life.
In an address to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1926, Coolidge gave his definition of character.
“Character is what a person is; it represents the aggregate of distinctive mental and moral qualities belonging to an individual or race. Good character means a mental and moral fiber of a high order, one which may be woven into the fabric of the community and State, going to make a great nation….” 3
Coolidge’s character was principally shaped by two men, his grandfather Calvin Galusha Coolidge, and by his own father John Coolidge, and three women, his grandmother Sarah Brewer Coolidge, his mother Victoria Moor Coolidge, and his step-mother Carrie Brown Coolidge. Their influence and the physical surroundings in which he was raised provided the atmosphere that shaped his character.
In September of 1872 Calvin’s father, John, was elected to the Senate in the Vermont State Legislature where he served for three terms – a total of six years. His grandfather Calvin Galusha Coolidge took Calvin and his mother to visit him at Montpelier in October of 1875. Calvin writes of this formative experience in his Autobiography.
“I think I was three years and four months old, but I always remembered the experience. Grandfather carried me to the State House and sat me in the Governor’s chair, which did not impress me so much as a stuffed catamount that was in the Capital Museum. That was the first of the great many journeys which I have since made to the legislative halls.” 4
Calvin’s grandfather felt so strongly that tilling the soil was “the only real, respectable way to get a living” (15), and hoping to keep Calvin from going into trade as his father John had, deeded “forty acres, called the Lime Kiln lot…. With the rest (of the farm) to my lineal descendants, thinking that as I could not sell it, and my creditors could not get it, it would be necessary for me to cultivate it.” (15)
….“My own wish was to keep store, as my father had done.
They all taught me to be faithful over a few things. If they had any idea that such a training might some day make me a ruler over many things, it was not disclosed to me. It was my father in later years who wished me to enter the law…” (16 –17)
Calvin evidently believed that “it takes a village to raise a child” though the saying was not coined until the second half of the twentieth century.
“The neighborhood around the Notch was made up of people of exemplary habits. ….speech was clean….lives above reproach. ….no mortgages. ….credit was good and …money in the savings bank. ….(worked from dawn until dusk). ….kept up no church organization….(so) little regular preaching (or) outward manifestation of religion through public profession, but …a people of faith and charity and good works. They cherished the teachings of the Bible and sought to live in accordance with its precepts.
The conduct of the young people was modest and respectful.” (17)
Calvin attended regular Sunday school classes superintended by his grandmother Sarah Coolidge and later by his father. He spent a lot of time with her at her farm….“she had much to do with shaping the thought of my early years. …The Puritan severity of her convictions was tempered by the sweetness of a womanly charity. There were none she ever knew that had not in some way benefited from her kindness.” (17-18)
From his mother, Victoria, he learned to love the beauty of nature. The purple sunsets, evening stars, and the colors of each season so richly displayed in the fields and on the mountainsides of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Upon her death in March 1885 when Calvin was only twelve years old, he records in his autobiography, “The greatest grief that can come to a boy, came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.” (13)
In the early fall of 1891 just before Calvin began his freshman year at Amherst, his father married Carrie Brown, “One of the finest women of our neighborhood. I had known her all my life. I was greatly pleased to find in her all the motherly devotion that she could have given me if I had been her own son. …Loving books and music she was not only a mother to me but a teacher. For thirty years she watched over me, welcoming me when I went home, writing me when I was away, and encouraging me in all my efforts.” (52)
At the age of thirteen having mastered the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and United States History at the Notch School, Calvin looked forward eagerly to attending Black River Academy in Ludlow. He would be mostly his own master – no more farm life drudgery – no more cowhide boots.
But as he notes there were other “atmospheres more monotonous and more contaminating than anything in the physical atmosphere of country life.” (32) He would discover this later in life when it was a joy for him to return to his roots at the farm for
vacations. For now, at age thirteen, he was “perfectly certain that I was traveling out of the darkness into the light.” (33)
He relates his final thoughts written in 1929 over his “village upbringing.”
“We have much speculation over whether the city or the country is the better place to bring up boys. I am prejudiced in behalf of the country, but I should have to admit that much depends on the parents and the surrounding neighborhood. We felt the cold in the winter and had many inconveniences, but we did not mind them because we supposed they were the inevitable burdens of existence. It would be hard to imagine better surroundings for the development of a boy than those which I had. …
Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities.” (33)
Calvin Coolidge’s Idealism
Coolidge believed that the principal ideal of the American people was (and I believe, is) idealism itself. 5 This idealism is grounded in the first two sentences of paragraph two of our Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed.” 6
This Declaration is the reason why the United States of America exists as a sovereign and independent country though we had to fight a Revolutionary War to put this Declaration into effect.
The basic concepts of these two sentences are:
- There is a Creator.
- That all humans are created equal by this Creator. How they are created (evolution or direct creation) is not specified.
- That this Creator endows humans with certain inalienable rights. The State/Government is not the source of these rights.
- Governments exist to secure, make operable, these inalienable rights.
- Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. That is why we have elections, the right to petition, etc.
Calvin Coolidge’s idealism is directly grounded on these five basic concepts. In his Wheaton College speech cited earlier, he says we need more spiritual development, more religion, and more of the things that are unseen. These three “needs” are the foundation stones for moral power and character.
Calvin saw Faith in God as the Being who created humans out of love. He wished to share his life so he made humans in his image, ie. gave them the power of reflective thought. Humans can ponder their actions and will to change them. Faith provides humans with a meaning for their lives, a conviction that there is an eternal plan for every human life thus motivating us to achieve.
In speaking of his time at Amherst College and the required daily assemblies that were chapel exercises during the week and a regular church service on Sunday morning with Vespers in the late afternoon, he writes
“Of course we did not like to go and talked learnedly about the right of freedom of worship, and the bad mental and moral reactions from which we were likely to suffer as a result of being forced to hear scriptural readings, psalm singings, prayers, and sermons. ….
If attendance on these religious services ever harmed any of the men of my time I have never been informed of it. The good it did I believe was infinite. Not the least of it
was the discipline that resulted from having constantly to give some thought to things that young men would often prefer not to consider. If we did not have the privilege of doing what we wanted to do, we had the much greater benefit of doing what we ought to do. It broke down our selfishness, it conquered our resistance, it supplanted impulse, and finally it enthroned reason.” 7
Calvin saw religion as basic for a self-directed people who would do the right thing (obey the law) most of the time because it was the right thing to do, not because they were forced to do so by law and penalty. By religion he meant the Judaeo Christian ethical system found in the Bible, in the Ten Commandments, and in the teachings of Jesus Christ especially the Beatitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount. Together these precepts make for a largely self-regulating and more humane society.
Coolidge’s Exaltation of Thrift and Hard Work
Thrift and hard work were very much a part of the Puritan ethic that framed Calvin’s growing up years and became part of who he was as an adult.
Although his family was economically upper middle class and “Whatever was needed never failed to be provided,” (9) nothing was wasted that could be used. The ideal was the self-sufficient small farm that Calvin’s father operated after spending thirteen years as a successful storekeeper.
It had been John Galusha Coolidge’s farm that his son, John C. Coolidge took over when Calvin was a little over six years of age. They had been living in what is now known as the Coolidge Homestead since 1876. Besides running the farm Calvin’s father opened the old Blacksmith Shop and hired a blacksmith at $1.00 a day. The blacksmith did most of the “smithing” and assisted with some of the farm work like haying. John liked to work in the shop but only went there when a project demanded precision work like careful welding. As Calvin relates, “If there was any physical requirement of country life which he could not perform, I do not know what it was. From watching him and assisting him, I gained an intimate knowledge of all this kind of work.” (12)
Calvin also grew up participating in and observing the workings of local government because in addition to all the other work he did, John Coolidge was also a Constable or a Deputy Sheriff, and sometimes both nearly all his life as well as being a notary public and at times a Justice of the Peace! (24)
Calvin writes that his father had “such a broad knowledge of the practical side of the law that people of the neighborhood came to him seeking his advice, to which I always listened with great interest. He always counseled them to resist injustice and avoid unfair dealing, but to keep their agreements, meet their obligations and observe strict obedience to the law.” (25)
Calvin’s work ethic was exactly what he had learned from his father!
His value of thrift can be seen in the fact that he and his wife Grace moved to one half of a duplex on Massasoit Street in Northampton, Massachusetts shortly after their marriage, lived there continuously from August 10, 1906 until he became President of the United States on March 4, 1925. When his second term as President was up they returned there from March 4, 1925 until May 17, 1930.
Lack of Privacy after his Presidency trumped his thriftiness and on May 17, 1930 they bought their first home, The Beaches on Hampton Terrace in Northampton, Massachusetts and moved there. It was there that Calvin died suddenly on January 5, 1933.
Coolidge on Culture
“We do not need more government. We need more culture.” 8
Coolidge’s concept of culture was directly related to his work ethic of industry, ambition, and untiring effort or persistence. The application of this ethic to one’s life was the way to wealth. A community needed a certain amount of accumulated wealth to provide the good schools that would insure knowledge in all areas, broaden its citizens outlook, and make possible the expansion of liberty.
The culture of the Plymouth Notch in which Coolidge was raised revolved around the farm work tied to each season.
There were husking bees, apple paring bees and singing schools in the winter. Husking bees were a time to help a farmer husk his dried corn and then have a party. In my day, at mid-twentieth century, if you found a red kernelled ear, you could present it to a girl of your choice. If she accepted it, you got a kiss. I doubt that that was the case in the 1880’s in Plymouth Notch!
There were plays and dramatic exhibitions but no public dances that Coolidge was allowed to attend.
In “the summer we usually went to the circus…. In the autumn we visited the county fair.”
The holidays were all celebrated in some fashion. The Fourth of July, his birthday, was a time for fishing with his dad and a picnic celebration after. 9
“Thanksgiving was a feast day for family reunions at the home of the grandparents. Christmas was a sacrament observed with the exchange of gifts, when the stockings were hung, and the spruce tree was lighted in the symbol of Christian faith and love.” (28)
On other days when the work was done, Calvin would drop in at the store “to get the mail, exchange views on topics of interest” and meet some interesting visitors who might have dropped in. (28)
Finally, Coolidge’s concept of culture was also tied in with equality – no class distinctions – only contempt for “those who assumed superior airs.
Whenever the hired man or the hired girl wanted to go anywhere they were always understood to be entitled to my place in the wagon, in which case I remained at home. This gave me a very early training in democratic ideas and impressed upon me very forcibly the dignity and power, if not the superiority of labor.” (29)
Character, idealism, exaltation of thrift and hard work, and culture were the focal points of Coolidge’s value system.
On the 10 Reasons Why Coolidge and Dawes Should Have Your Support card used in Coolidge and Dawes’ 1924 Election campaign, seven of the ten reasons for supporting Coolidge for President speak directly of how his character that had and would directly affect his performance in public office.
“One – The standard bearers of the Republican party are first of all typical Americans. One (Coolidge) came from a farm in Vermont,….Both represent the best in American tradition and training.
Two – Both have spiritual qualities which fit them for leadership. By the light of a flickering oil lamp on his father’s farm in Vermont, Calvin Coolidge’s first statement as President to the American people was: ‘I have faith that God will direct the destinies of our nation.’
Three – These two men are simple and direct. There is a common bond between the man (Coolidge) who wrote to the cobbler at Northampton ‘I want you to know that if it were not for you, I should not be here,’….
Four – Calvin Coolidge took his place on the Republican ticket for Vice President in 1920, a nationally recognized progressive. (underlining is mine) Both Coolidge and Dawes stand for sound progress. They stand for simplicity, the absence of red tape and quick, forward-looking action.
Five – A high type of courage is required of men who serve as President and Vice President of the United States. Courage has marked every step in the lives of Coolidge and Dawes. Particularly did Coolidge prove this when he made and upheld the great issue of law and order during the police strike in Boston.
Six – Both men are essentially human. Of Coolidge it has been said: ‘He personifies the plain, simple virtues of our citizens at their best. He is close to the American People because he is so much one of them.’
Seven – Both are men of decision. They have demonstrated this in the effective way in which they have served the nation and their communities…(follows is a list of Coolidge’s Offices) …he has won widespread admiration for the fearless, honest way in which he has stood for the best interests of the people.” 10
As the reader of this article on Coolidge can easily see, I have very positive feelings about Coolidge the man, and the public servant. But thanks to William Allen White’s book I grew up believing in a far different Coolidge stereotype.
It was not until the John F. Kennedy Library, in cooperation with The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation sponsored a conference on July 30-31, 1998 (on the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of Calvin Coolidge’s Presidency) entitled “Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence” that the stereotype of Coolidge which follows, changed.
“For more than half a century, at nearly all levels of American historical scholarship and education, Calvin Coolidge has been characterized as a complacent, lazy and humorless man and an extreme reactionary—hostile to government and progressive legislation, oblivious to the needs of working Americans and devoted only to the material wealth of the nation and the interests of business.” 11
The conference revisited the evidence on this stereotype and a whole new image of Calvin Coolidge emerged.
I attended the celebration in Northampton and in Plymouth Notch at which various participants in the conference gave summary reports on the real Calvin Coolidge – not the one portrayed by William Allen White!
The video and other recordings of the talks given at this conference are available at Forbes Library in the Archives Room attached to the Museum.
The Calvin Coolidge described in my article is the real Calvin Coolidge that an honest and thorough examination of eye-witnesses and written records indicate.
Is Calvin Coolidge’s Value System Relevant in the Twenty First Century?
Let’s take a look at Calvin’s own words regarding the ethics class portion of Charles E. Garman’s four semester Philosophy course which all Amherst students were required to take in Coolidge’s day. Coolidge writes,
“In ethics he taught us that there is a standard of righteousness. That might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means and that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service. For a man not to recognize the truth, not to be obedient to the law, not to render allegiance to the State, is for him to be at war with his own nature, to commit suicide. That is why ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Unless we live rationally we perish, physically, mentally, spiritually.” 12
It is a fact that Calvin Coolidge believed that a common core of values, which I have included and commented on in this article, are essential for any country, particularly a democratic one, to survive as an independent country in the world of the twenty-first century.
America’s most basic set of common values, on which our nation was established and developed are enshrined in our foundational documents, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.
We are a nation of immigrants who brought with them the customs, religion and language of their native countries.
But up to and including immigrants of the Great Generation, coming to America meant subscribing to the American common core of values which in addition to what is in the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, also included learning the common language of English and the basic laws and customs of America like our national holidays.
It did not mean that the immigrant had to give up his/her native language, customs or Judaeo-Christian faiths, though many felt so strongly about becoming “Americanized” that they even changed the spelling of their surnames to an anglicized version.
This kind of diversity has and does make America a stronger and culturally rich country because it stresses the common humanity of all races and peoples as basic. All the rest add variety and spice to the American Buffet!
Calvin Coolidge’s value system would support all that I have written thus far.
From the very start of the twenty-first century and beginning even in the last quarter of the twentieth century we have been and are experiencing a growing support for extreme concepts of diversity that even reject the necessity for immigrants to accept the aforementioned basic set of American values which are foundational to our society.
We now are faced with dealing with some groups of immigrants who while wanting all the benefits of living in American society, also want to live in closed enclaves within that society. They even actively espouse the destruction of our basic value system and the imposition of their own system, a much milder form of which our forefathers rejected in the Declaration of Independence.
Calvin Coolidge would be considered a reactionary conservative by such groups – a man to be annihilated!
But for most Americans still, his values speak to the best in American society. They form the parameters of a just and merciful society, one nation out of many (e pluribus unum) under God.
Will our definition of happiness be “me first, me last, me always,” or of self sacrifice “emptying self to serve others?” The first definition if lived out by a critical mass of our people will bring destruction and despair. The second will produce the fulfillment of the American Dream: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, New York, N.Y., 1929, 1989 edition, p. 173-76. This and subsequent quotations from the Autobiography are used with the gracious permission of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
- 10 Reasons Why Coolidge and Dawes Should Have Your Support, Republican Presidential Campaign Card, 1924, Coolidge Plymouth Notch Museum Collection. Used with permission.
- The Quotable Calvin Coolidge, compiled and edited by Peter Hannaford, Images from the Past, Inc., Bennington, Vermont, 2001, p. 45. Used with permission.
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, p. 16.
- Presidential address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925, Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum, Forbes Library, Northampton, Massachusetts.
- Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Second Edition, New World Dictionaries/Simon and Schuster, N.Y., N.Y., 1983, p. 135.
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, pp. 54-55.
- 10 Reasons Why Coolidge and Dawes should Have Your Support, paragraph 1, lines 4 & 5.
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, pp. 27-29.
- 10 Reasons Why Coolidge and Dawes Should Have Your Support , paragraphs 1-7.
- “Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence”, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, July 30-31, 1998,News Release, copy from The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum, Forbes Library, Northampton, Massachusetts.
- The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, p. 67.
About the Author
Bernard J. Fleury, B.A. History and Classical Languages, Ed.D. Philosophy, Government, and Administration; former History, English, Latin teacher, and School Principal, is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Educational Administration. His administrative/ teaching career spans more than five decades and three United States and Caribbean Colleges.
Dr. Fleury has a lifelong interest in history from the perspective of the people who lived it. This interest and approach to history is evident in Calvin Coolidge: Man of the Great Generation, and in A Bee in His Bonnet that is his grandfather Frank King’s Great Generation story as he recorded it, and told it to his daughter and grandchildren.
In addition to A Bee in His Bonnet, he has authored Called Into Life by the Light, two academic texts: What is Man? and Reform of Schooling, plus several historical monographs for the celebration of anniversaries of local and regional historical events.