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Out of Plymouth Notch
Calvin Coolidge remembered the rustic world of his boyhood, not altogether romantically, as a lost arcadia. He was born on the Fourth of July, in 1872, seven years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up, like his parents, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, a village of farmhouses nestled in the Green Mountains. It had 1,300 residents, almost all of Yankee descent.
Typical of rural America, living conditions in Plymouth Notch were rough and rugged. Frigid winters dragged on for months. No gas lamps, running water, or coal furnaces relieved the hardship. Taxing labor--building fences, tending the animals, tapping trees to make syrup--fell even upon young boys like Calvin.
Coolidge, however, remembered not the hardship but an idyllic life of county fairs, bobsledding on snowy slopes, romps over the green hills, a well-taught pride in executing his chores, and blissful nights under starry skies. "Vermont is my birthright," he later reminisced. "Here one gets close to nature, in the mountains, in the brooks, the waters of which hurry to the sea."1
The Coolidge family shared the attitudes common to the region: the Puritan piety, the esteem for hard work and thrift, and what Coolidge recalled as the refusal to show disdain toward others "except toward those who assumed superior airs." The Yankee political culture included both conservative and progressive strains. The first state to abolish slavery, Vermont prided itself on its religiouslyrooted egalitarianism, though its lack of racial and ethnic diversity made such tolerance a mostly abstract affair. Indeed, Vermonters looked warily upon the unruly, ethnically diverse Democratic Party, with its immigrants, wage earners, and urbanites. For them, the Party of Lincoln embodied their values of civic duty and robust individualism. Though hardly shrill in his partisanship, Coolidge never questioned which party merited his loyalty. Even when he was a teenager, he recalled, party affinities among Vermonters were sufficiently monolithic that Republican Benjamin Harrison's presidential victory in 1888 over the incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland gave rise to unalloyed festivity at his high school. "Two nights were spent parading the streets with drums and trumpets," Coolidge wrote, "celebrating the victory." Vermont would retain its Republican allegiance even through the New Deal--favoring the GOP presidential candidate in every election until Lyndon B. Johnson won the state for the Democrats as part of his 1964 landslide.2
Yankee Republicanism seemed to run in the Coolidge blood. Before Calvin's birth, the town of Plymouth and the outlying "Notch" had served as home to four generations of Coolidges; the family traced its ancestry to the Puritans who first came to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century. Plymouth was where Calvin's parents, John Calvin Coolidge and Victoria Moor, first met and where in 1868 they were married. When their first child, the future president, arrived four years later, the Coolidges gave him John's full name but chose to refer to him as Calvin. (Later, in an act of mildest rebellion, Coolidge would drop the "John" altogether.) In 1875, Victoria gave birth to a sister for Calvin named Abigail.
John Coolidge was a jack-of-all-trades. Though tending a farm was a full-time job, he rarely went without other work. He ran the town's general store when Calvin was born but soon sold it and bought the farmhouse across the way. Moved by the New England esteem for public service, John went on to hold, as one admirer remarked, every local or state office "except the undertaker": he served as selectman, school commissioner, tax collector, constable, deputy sheriff, and eventually state representative and state senator.3
Calvin revered his father and imbibed his sense of duty and mission. "My father had qualities that were greater than any I possess," Calvin later insisted. "He was a man of untiring industry and great tenacity of purpose." As a boy Calvin accompanied John to the courthouse and to town meetings. These experiences instilled what he called "a good working knowledge of the practical side of government" and a view of politics as noble.4
Coolidge was close to his mother as well. Fair-haired and sentimental like her son, she loved to plant flowers, "gaze at the purple sunsets, and watch the evening stars," he recalled. But as long as he could remember, she suffered from tuberculosis, and she died in 1885, at the age of thirty-nine, after having been injured by a runaway horse. Following her death, Coolidge wrote, "life was never to seem the same again." Although he rarely disclosed his emotions, he spoke effusively about her throughout his life. To Edmund Starling, the president's bodyguard and friend, Coolidge seemed able to recall "every day he had spent with her." "I wish I could really speak to her," the president told Starling. "I wish that often." Coolidge kept his mother's photograph on his desk and carried with him a locket that held a lock of her hair.5
Five years after the loss of his mother, Coolidge's sister, Abbie, also died, probably from appendicitis, at the age of fourteen. She had recently joined Calvin as a student at the Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow, where she was his favorite companion. Her sudden loss--she died within a week of taking ill--was nearly as shattering as that of his mother. Beyond the obvious grief, the precise effect of these traumas on Calvin is hard to determine. They didn't create his inclination to diffidence or his fear of the unplanned, which had been in evidence from a young age. But they must have reinforced those traits. For the rest of his life, Calvin would remain deliberate in his decisions, conservative in his temperament and ideology, and restrained in his personal style.
Coolidge's eventual choice of a life in politics represented a triumph of his ambition and his admiration for his father over the shyness he felt so acutely as a boy. "It's a hard thing for me to playthis game," he told Frank Stearns, the Massachusetts department store mogul he befriended at mid-career. "In politics, one must meet people, and that's not easy for me ... . When I was a little fellow, as long ago as I can remember, I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the house. I felt I just couldn't meet the people and shake hands with them. Most of the visitors would sit with Mother and Father in the kitchen and the hardest thing in the world was to have to go through the kitchen door and give them a greeting ... . I'm all right with old friends, but every time I meet a stranger, I've got to go through the old kitchen door, back home, and it's not easy."6
In his autobiography, Coolidge mentions no childhood friends. Biographers cite no significant relationships outside his family until he got to college. His experience at Black River, where he enrolled in February 1886, at age thirteen, was often solitary. A wallflower at school social events, he wrote to his father about his homesickness, and on weekends he frequently returned to Plymouth Notch to see his father or visited an aunt and uncle in a nearby town.
Gradually, though, Coolidge's social skills improved. He began to display his winning mischievousness. In his autobiography, he looked back on his adolescent pranks with appropriately measured pride. "One morning as the janitor was starting the furnace he heard a loud bray from one of the classrooms," Coolidge recalled, where the worker discovered "a domestic animal noted for his long ears and discordant voice. In some way during the night he had been stabled on the second floor." In one of the memoir's rare flashes of his dry wit, Coolidge added, "About as far as I deem it prudent to discuss my own connection with these escapades is to record that I was never convicted of any of them and so must be presumed innocent."7
Besides finding his stride socially at Black River, Coolidge also improved academically. Following a college preparatory curriculum, he studied Greek and Latin, as well as history and politics, his favorite subjects. He distinguished himself enough to be asked todeliver a graduation address. His talk, titled "Oratory in History," with its high praise for Cicero and Demosthenes, Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster, suggested that for all Coolidge's reticence, he found public speaking compelling. The address touted the power of rhetoric to shape history. "It was not the fleets of Attica, though mighty, nor the valor of her troops, though unconquerable, that diverted her destinies," Coolidge pronounced, "but the words and gestures of men who had the genius and skill to move, to concentrate, and to direct the energies and passions of a whole people." If grandiloquent to modern ears, Coolidge's performance impressed the crowd. A local newspaper reporter called it "masterly in its conception and arrangement." For the rest of his life, in both state and national politics, Silent Cal would fight past his shyness to surprise doubters and win acclaim for his speeches. Although no one ever mistook him for a natural talent, and he never mastered the stirring, crowd-pleasing style of history's great orators, he managed early on to find his voice: restrained, thoughtful, intelligent. Behind the rostrum, his native moderation came through, and audiences seemed to like his performances all the more because they expressed the measured sentiments of someone not given to gratuitous lecturing.8
With his strong academic record and his keen ambitions, Coolidge was a natural choice to attend college. Amherst College, not far across the border in western Massachusetts, was a natural choice for Black River graduates. When Coolidge took the entrance exam, however, he was ill and failed to complete it, and he was denied admission. Undeterred, he undertook another term of preparatory study, at the nearby St. Johnsbury Academy, whose well-connected principal then helped arrange the young man's admission to Amherst. He matriculated in 1891, at the age of nineteen.9
At college, Coolidge followed a trajectory similar to his path in high school, starting off socially isolated but finding a place for himself over his four years. A respectable student, he continued to study history, politics, and oratory, taking classes in declamation, rhetoric, public speaking, and debate. Coolidge also fell under the influence of a philosophy professor with a cult following on campus. CharlesGarman was no scholar but an immensely popular tutor who preached a homegrown brand of Christian humanism that emphasized spirituality, self-reliance, and industry. During Coolidge's presidency, the journalist Frederick Lewis Allen would mock these "old American copybook maxims ... brought down from some Vermont attic where McGuffey's Reader gathered dust," but students at Amherst lapped up the wisdom that Garman imparted through his Socratic classroom style. "No doubt there are those who think they can demonstrate that this teaching was not correct," Coolidge later conceded in recalling the devotion to Garman's home-published pamphlets, which substituted for books on the syllabus. "With them I have no argument. I know that in experience it has worked." Coolidge's preference for experience over ideas was a deeply rooted strait.10
As in high school, Coolidge's peers found him withdrawn and insecure. "He lacked small talk, and he was never known, I suspect, to slap a man on the back," recalled a classmate. "He rarely laughed. He was anything but a mixer." Over time, however, Coolidge made some good friends, including Dwight Morrow and Harlan Fiske Stone, both of whom he would later appoint to high government posts. His classmates came to appreciate his deadpan wit and talent for speech making, which he developed through conscientious application in and out of class. In his junior year he shared the prize for the best orator in the class, and at the end of his senior year he not only won Latin academic honors, graduating cum laude, but was chosen by his peers to deliver the Grove Oration, a humorous send-up of the senior class, at commencement.11
At his father's urging, Coolidge pursued a career in law. Shortly after graduation, he went for a walk with Morrow to discuss life after college. Morrow said he planned to go to law school at Pittsburgh. But Coolidge preferred to stay closer to home; he remained very much attached to his father (who had remarried in 1891, to a local woman, Carrie Brown) and to the area. When Morrow asked him where he planned to study, Coolidge replied, "Northampton is the nearest courthouse." In 1895, attending law school wasn'tnecessary to practice at the bar; aspiring lawyers still often "read" law under the tutelage of practicing attorneys, and Coolidge preferred practical training to academic study. Northampton became his new home.12
Coolidge apprenticed himself to two Amherst graduates, John Hammond and Henry Field, who ran a small firm and had been charmed by the young man's wit. They specialized in humdrum work such as real estate, wills, and small-time litigation--work for which Coolidge, with his sober diligence, proved abundantly suited. After two years at the firm, Coolidge passed the bar in 1897 just before his twenty-fifth birthday.
On the surface, Coolidge didn't seem destined for great things. But beneath his quiet exterior, ambitions surged. Hammond and Field were active in local politics, and within a year Coolidge, benefiting from their connections, set his sights on office. In 1898 he was elected to the Northampton city council--as a Republican, naturally. For the next thirty years he would remain, almost uninterrupted, a holder of public office.
Coolidge's rise in local, state, and national politics was as methodical as it was swift. He rarely held a position for more than a couple of years before climbing to the next rung. From 1898 to 1928, he lost only one race, in 1905--for the Northampton school board. Undeterred, he ran the next year for the state legislature and won. Northampton elected him mayor in 1909; he lowered municipal taxes and shrank the city debt while raising teachers' salaries. In 1911 he won election to the state senate and within two years became president of the body--and a power in state politics.
Coolidge's ascent baffled those observers who found it hard to see past the vapors of ordinariness he exuded. During his presidency, critics would ascribe his success to luck, to being at the right place at the right time. But luck is often the residue of design, and Coolidge "meant to be ready to take advantage of opportunities," as he put it. Nor did his critics always appreciate that anti-politics canbe a smart form of politics--that a lack of panache can confer the air of competence and integrity that voters seek. In his early races, Coolidge had to force himself to introduce himself to strangers; as president he would endure state dinners and depart at the first possible moment. But throughout it all Coolidge never seemed to be someone he wasn't.13
As incongruous as Coolidge's forced glad-handing was his marriage in 1905 to Grace Goodhue, invariably described as vivacious and judged by Edmund Starling "the personification of charm." A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Vermont and a teacher at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton, Grace had an olive complexion, lush black hair, and all the social ease her husband lacked. Coolidge's courtship of her initiated his first serious romantic relationship, and the two were wed within two years of meeting.14
With her warmth and friendliness, Grace often brought out Calvin's lighter side. Despite her New England roots, she lacked his flintiness; on the contrary, her gaiety won over many who found her husband unbearably dour. Later she would delight Washington society with her style and poise. Their marriage would provide an important anchor to Coolidge--all the more solid because Grace wasn't deeply involved in his career. Like his religious faith, she gave him a reservoir of strength and security cordoned off from political affairs.
The young couple moved into half of a two-family house in Northampton. They stayed there, living in Coolidge's trademark frugal manner, until he became vice president, and they would return there after his presidency. "The process of my domestication," Grace recalled, "was undertaken almost immediately," as she learned to darn socks and master other household chores. Soon, two sons were born: John on September 7, 1906, and Calvin Jr. on April 13, 1908. From the beginning, Coolidge seemed to favor the younger boy, whose delicate physique, blue eyes, and reddish hair gave him a distinct resemblance to his father. Coolidge related to both boys by joking and teasing, but they reacted to his japesdifferently. While Calvin Jr. learned to mimic his father's style and tease back, the thin-skinned John felt wounded by his father's ribbing.15
Coolidge's severe style of parenting, not uncommon for the age, stemmed from his old-fashioned conception of fatherhood. He sought above all to instill his code of discipline, diligence, and responsibility. Loving but stern, he laid down strict rules about how the boys should dress, study, and even pray. On at least a few occasions he hit them. Both boys took their father's efforts to heart. John, who lived to be ninety-three, remembered late in life that his father was "very, very strict." Calvin Jr., who came to share his father's crisp wit, agreed. In the summer of 1923, when he was working a job in a tobacco field, another boy discovered Calvin's identity and remarked: "If my father was president, I would not work in a tobacco field." To which the boy replied, "If my father were your father, you would."16
Coolidge's parsimony in these years gave rise to much lore. At their Northampton home, the Coolidges didn't have their own telephone service but shared a party line. Coolidge saw no reason to buy a car, even though they were now being produced cheaply and abundantly. "I had to plan very carefully for a time to live within my income," he explained. "I know very well what it means to awake in the night and realize that the rent is coming due, wondering where the money is coming from."17
The same even-keeled determination guided Coolidge's rise. Besides his charming charmlessness, Coolidge possessed several underappreciated traits. He refrained from denouncing opponents, preferring to stress the principles, however banal, underlying his own positions. He alienated few voters and strengthened his hand in building coalitions and appealing to different constituencies. When Theodore Roosevelt broke with the Republican Party to run for president in 1912 as the candidate of his own Progressive, or "Bull Moose," Party, he exacerbated a rift in the GOP between its liberal wing and its conservative, pro-business "Old Guard." In Massachusetts, Coolidge helped heal that breach, not because he was aRooseveltian at heart but because he was temperamentally a moderate, palatable to both of the party's warring camps. Coolidge's relatively liberal record in the state senate on certain progressive keystones--he supported women's suffrage and the direct election of senators, for example--earned him the confidence, if not the enthusiastic support, of GOP progressives and even some Democrats.
At the same time, Coolidge forged relationships with influential Massachusetts businessmen and power brokers. Most important was Frank Stearns, the owner of an eponymous department store and an Amherst man sixteen years Coolidge's senior, who became a key patron. For the rest of Coolidge's career, Stearns would raise and spend money on the politician's behalf, even paying his personal expenses. Stearns also brought business interests into line behind Coolidge, freeing up the rising politician to court other groups. Meanwhile, Coolidge cemented his bond with U.S. Senator Winthrop Murray Crane--a former governor, a force in state Republican politics, and a rival to its other kingfish, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Crane's right-hand man, William Butler, a textile manufacturer and former state representative, became a critical ally as well. Crane and Butler's politicking helped Coolidge ascend to the state senate presidency and establish himself as a player on Beacon Hill. Butler would eventually ride Coolidge's coattails to a seat in the U.S. Senate and the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
Coolidge became president of the state senate in 1913, at a high tide of political reform. Woodrow Wilson was shepherding progressive legislation through Congress. The militant Industrial Workers of the World were making gains among wage laborers; the year before they had led a successful textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that Coolidge, as the head of a legislative committee, had mediated. The suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organized a new party to secure the vote for all women. Two constitutional amendments--introducing the income tax and the direct electionof senators--had just been ratified. Public opinion generally backed these progressive causes, even as the middle and upper classes were growing fearful of more radical changes.
In tune with this sentiment, Coolidge supported many progressive reforms even as he worried that change was happening too fast. In his first speech as senate president he warned of extremists and affirmed his belief in the soundness of the system. Dubbed "Have Faith in Massachusetts," the speech represented another instance of the taciturn politician using the rostrum to his advantage. His address struck a chord, brought him acclaim, and made him a contender for lieutenant governor, a largely honorific position that nonetheless served as a stepping-stone to the governor's chair. Coolidge thought the post worth pursuing, and in 1915 he was elected on a ticket headed by Samuel McCall, a former congressman. Coolidge bided his time through three one-year stints as lieutenant governor until, in 1918, McCall stepped aside. Coolidge was now the front-runner to lead the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Like Vermont, Massachusetts in 1918 was heavily Republican, with strong Yankee traditions. Coolidge won endorsements from most of the state's newspapers and by all rights should have been elected in a cakewalk. But Boston and the industrial cities in the eastern part of the state were swelling with immigrants and trending Democratic. What was more, the Democratic nominee, a Framingham shoe merchant named Richard Long, played for the workingmen's vote, assailing Coolidge as a shill for business. With Wilson having led the country into the First World War in April 1917, patriotism was becoming a favorite issue of demagogues, and Long insinuated that Coolidge wasn't fully behind the war effort. Although Coolidge wished to stick to the high road, and did so more or less, he wasn't immune to the pressures of wartime pandering. He engaged in his share of bashing "the German military despotism" and "its conspiracy against mankind," as if to prove his patriotic bona fides. Ultimately, he squeaked out a victory of 214,000 votes to Long's 197,000--the slimmest margin of his career.18
The narrowness of Coolidge's win, however, didn't obscure the impressive slope of his ascent. At forty-six, he had reached the pinnacle of state politics. "My progress had been slow and toilsome," he wrote with characteristic modesty, "with little about it that was brilliant, or spectacular, the result of persistent and painstaking work." His responsiveness to the public temper--showing strains of progressivism, of anti-radicalism, and of war hawkishness each when the times demanded--and his blend of caution and unobtrusive ambition had served him well. They would continue to do so in the years ahead.19
Copyright © 2006 by David Greenberg