"The business of America is business." - Calvin Coolidge.
Calvin Coolidge had a saying: When you see 10 problems coming down the road, nine will probably go into the ditch on their own. Translation? Don't do anything. But what happens when the one problem that doesn't go into the ditch is the Great Depression?
Follow along as Coolidge works his way up the government food chain to VP, becomes president when Harding dies, introduces new tools like radio and motion picture to the presidential PR kit, enjoys one of the most fortuitous presidencies in U.S. history, and then leaves office just in time for the Great Depression to smack Herbert Hoover in the face instead of Cal.
1. Calvin Coolidge - David Greenberg
2. Warren G Harding – John W. Dean
3. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times - Kenneth Whyte
30.) Calvin Coolidge 1923-29
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1983, he sent someone into the cabinet room to take down a portrait of Harry Truman and hang one up of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, instead.
At first blush, Silent Cal looks like the ideal poster child of modern conservative thought. Coolidge was a president who famously said, “The chief business of America is business,” cut taxes, reduced government spending, and oversaw six years of economic growth that his biographies call “the Coolidge prosperity” but you probably know as “The roaring 20s.” He was such the personification of small, do-nothing government that Coolidge once told a colleague, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”
In other words, don’t worry about them.
But the problem for Cal wasn’t the nine problems that went into the ditch, it was the one that didn’t. The one he did nothing to stop and that he only avoided because his term ended just in time for him to step aside and let Herbert Hoover get smacked in the face instead.
That 10th problem is, of course, the Great Depression.
So today, we’ll look at what was behind the Coolidge prosperity, the ways silent cal turned PR into Presidential Relations, and the root causes of the greatest depression in world history.
John Calvin Coolidge - That’s right! His name is John. Was born on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth notch, Vermont, to Victoria Coolidge and… John… Calvin Coolidge. That’s right, the father had the exact same name as his son. And they must have realized this was confusing, because daddio went by John and the son went by Calvin all their lives.
So Calvin Coolidge, son of John Coolidge, was born and grew up in Plymouth Notch, Vermont - a small village of farmhouses that didn’t have gas lamps, running water, or coal furnaces. It was a spartan childhood spent helping Calvin’s strict father, John, around the farm, building fences, tapping trees for syrup, and so on, and it didn’t get any more comfortable after Cal’s mother Victoria died in 1885 when Calvin was just 13. The thing is, Coolidge’s father was a hard-working man and dedicated public servant. The sort who asks for few comforts, demands maximum effort, and gives the same in return. In addition to running the family farm, John Coolidge served every local elected role imaginable - selectman, school commissioner, tax collector, constable, deputy sheriff, state rep and state senator.
As we’ll see, he definitely served as a role model for his son.
In 1891, Calvin went off to college at Amherst. He failed his initial entrance exam, got another year of education elsewhere, and then got accepted after that with the help of his school master - and I’ll be honest, with college tuitions what they are today, knocking out your basics at a cheaper university or community college might be the norm pretty soon. But back to Calvin - Coolidge graduated from Amherst in 1895 and then apprenticed at a legal firm to study law, but what he really ended up getting was an education in politics.
The law firm Calvin had signed onto specialized in “the mundane.” Literally the boring lawsuits and legal work that somebody has to do, but nobody wants to do - which is so Coolidge. It was a drip of work that kept the firm’s partners employed so they could focus on their real passion - politics. Calvin soon followed their, and his father’s footsteps by winning election to the Northampton city council with the help of his law firm’s connections in 1897.
And he never strayed far from politics again.
For the next 30 years, Coolidge methodically climbed every step of the political ladder - and I mean every step. One year as clerk of courts here. Two years as City Solicitor there. Another couple years as mayor somewhere else. You get the sense he’d have run for dog catcher if the position existed. He only lost once - a 1905 race for a seat on a school board, but he won election to the state legislature the following year and kept on climbing.
In 1903, he met Grace Goodhue, a university of Vermont graduate and teacher at the local school for the deaf. Two years later, they got married. They had a pair of sons together, John and Calvin in 1906 and 1908 - that’s right John Calvin broke the streak of “John Calvins” by splitting the difference and naming one son John and the other son Calvin, which is… one way to name your kids, I guess. Calvin raised his family much as his father had raised him, strictly and frugally. The family didn’t own a car, even though they were now normal, and his phone line was shared by all his neighbors, as in, zero privacy. Theodore Roosevelt’s sharp-witted daughter Alice once said Coolidge looked “as if he had been weaned on a pickle.” Calvin’s sons John and Calvin remembered John Calvin - I still can’t get over these names - for being a strict father who teased their insecurities. One son had a summer job on a farm where another young man said “if my dad were President, I wouldn’t work my summer on the farm.” To which Calvin’s son replied, “if you had my dad, you would.”
In 1919, all that climbing finally brought Cal to the top rungs of the Massachusetts political ladder - the governor’s mansion. Well. Not the mansion. There was no mansion in Massachusetts, but he was elected governor, so he rented one 1-dollar hotel room for business and another 1-dollar hotel room to house his family.
And this is actually the first time anything interesting happened in his career.
1919 was a crazy year. As World War I ended, the country struggled to transition from a government-run war economy to a private sector-run peace economy and inflation took off like a rocket. Overseas, Russia had gone communist and people were freaking out. American Laborers revolted when corporations tried to cut their wages and increase their hours, some 4 million americans went on an estimated 2,665 strikes in 1919 alone.
I’m the middle of all that, the Boston police joined the party, going on strike that September. Police, like any other laborers, can get shitty contracts. That was the case in Boston. And the police were extra eager for better wages and benefits due to the unrest and expenses of the post-war years. When the police tried to negotiate a better contract and the city said no, they unionized. When the chief of police then fired the union leaders, the police voted to strike 1,134 to 2.
Roughly 11 hundred of Boston’s 15 hundred cops walked off the beat. When word of the strike spread and folks realized the cops weren’t on the streets, people started looting, and then they started rioting.
Rioting in the streets of Boston. That’s not very good. The press asked governor Coolidge, “Do you think you should be doing something to stop this?” And he said, “no.” Probably thinking this was one of those nine out of ten problems that would end up in a ditch in its own.
But things got worse. The Boston police commissioner decided to punish the police union by firing all the officers who had joined the strike, and you may be surprised to learn that didn’t solve the problem. After a couple days of rioting, Cal called the state militia to put down the violence. And when the fired police offers reached out to him to say this was all the fault of the commissioner who fired them and they should get their jobs back, cal responded with the telegram that made him famous, writing:
“Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity; the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time”
This stand actually won him a lot of national support because it met the mood of the moment. People were sick of strikes and terrified of Bolshevik violence. In hindsight, did the police commissioner cause this by refusing to negotiate a new contract, refusing to recognize the police union, and then firing the union’s leaders, and all the police who went on strike? Yeah! Absolutely. But in the heat of the moment, everyone was just mad at the police for walking off the job.
And so Silent Cal, whose whole mantra could be summed up as, “when you see a problem, don’t fix it,” was suddenly a hot name, getting favorable press around the country, just in time for the 1920 GOP convention.
And he was starting to attract influential backers. By this time, two of his college friends from Amherst had become rich bankers at the JP Morgan Bank - rich enough to fund his campaign. He also befriended a 33-year-old ad man named Bruce Barton, who was basically a political PR consultant before such positions existed. Barton is *such* a 1920’s guy. In 1925, he’d write a book titled The Man Nobody Knows that said Jesus was the world’s first CEO and pushing this idea that Christianity wasn’t about helping the poor, it was actually about getting rich. Which. Well. I’m not Christian, but I’m not sure which part of the gospel he was reading.
To help Coolidge’s 1920 candidacy, Barton wrote a number of puff piece articles that got passed off and published as if they were unbiased journalistic profiles, helping cement Cal’s image as a member of the great silent majority before that term even existed.
Despite this support, Cal never made much of a wave for President during the 1920 convention, in part because Massachusetts Senator and old Theodore Roosevelt ally Henry Cabot Lodge split the state’s delegates with his support for Roosevelt’s old friend, the former rough rider and presidential contender Leonard Wood. But after Harding was nominated, the party’s attempts to impose a vice presidential nominee on the convention were drowned by a revolt on the floor. As various party leaders and loudmouths vied for control, It’s not quite clear why, but Cal’s name became the loudest shouted from the floor, and those shouts became a flood that nominated Coolidge for VP by acclamation.
Just like that, Calvin Coolidge, the quiet and austere Vermonter who had dedicated his life to civil service, was named the GOP nominee for Vice President. A few months later, Calvin and Harding won the general election, moving Cal to Washington DC.
And that’s where most expected Cal’s story to end.
Remember, the vice presidency has long been considered a joke.
Woodrow Wilson’s vice president Thomas Marshall liked to tell a joke that went like this: There was once a man with two sons. One of the sons went to sea and drowned and the other was elected vice president; neither son was ever heard from again.
But Coolidge was more involved than most VP’s. Harding invited him to participate in cabinet sessions - something that was nearly unprecedented. Thomas Marshall, who I just mentioned, had presided over Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet when Wilson was off negotiating the end of World War I in Paris, but that’s it. Coolidge was usually quiet and rarely participated in these cabinet sessions, but he was kept up to speed on the challenges and opportunities the executive office was dealing with.
And so, Cal may have been the best prepared Vice President in history when, in 1923, an ailing Harding went on a trip west, so sick that his doctors secretly loaded a coffin on the train just in case, and then “just in case” happened when Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, lifting Coolidge to the presidency.
And this next part’s pretty neat. Calvin was at his father’s home in Vermont when Harding died. The house had no phone, so the news had to be delivered to the front door. When the messenger knocked, Calvin’s dad John answered, and then John went upstairs to tell Calvin, “Son, you’re the president of the United States.”
But it gets better. Remember how John Coolidge Sr was always holding down one public office or another? He was a public notary at this time, and so John Coolidge didn’t just tell his son he was president, he also swore him into office right then and there in the old family home.
Just like that, the Coolidge years had arrived.
And so, on Aug 2, 1923, 51-year-old Calvin Coolidge - Silent Cal - the famously quiet public servant who hadn’t really done anything of note to date, became the 30th president of the United States. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Coolidge became president? Let’s look around.
Internationally, Russia was just wrapping up a civil war with the Bolsheviks emerging victorious over conservative reactionaries, hyperinflation was wracking the German economy and threatening its young democracy - that will not end well, and Egypt gained independence from Great Britain in 1922.
Domestically, the United States was starting to calm down and rediscover prosperity after its own post-war economic crisis. There had been inflation, a red scare, and race riots - including the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, when one of the most affluent black neighborhoods in America was attacked by a mob of whites who destroyed businesses, looted the area’s wealth, and killed and injured hundreds - hidden mass graves from this event are still being found today. 35 city blocks were destroyed and then 6,000 surviving blacks were imprisoned for as many as eight days.
This somehow wasn’t taught when I was growing up, which is crazy, so i’m not letting it slip by here.
But, by 1923, the race riots were starting to quiet. The red scare was over. The economy was recovering. As Coolidge took over, he looked up the road and couldn’t see a single problem coming his way, let alone ten of them.
But that didn’t mean Americans were feeling confident about their new leader.
They took another glimpse at his resume and realized it showed 20 years of pushing pencils and one police strike - there weren’t any hints of greatness lurking there.
A popular joke compared Cal to a baseball player who reached 1st base on a walk, stole second base, got to third on an error, and reached home because the catcher died.
But, you know, Coolidge and the whole Republican Party might have really lucked out on the timing with which Harding died. Remember those big scandals from Harding’s episode? Teapot Dome and the Veterans Bureau? That all hit the press right after Harding died and right as Coolidge was taking over, which you might think was bad news for Coolidge. But shockingly no. Silent Cal simply said, “that was the other guy’s administration,” proved it by firing anyone implicated, including the attorney general, and then skated through the controversy relatively unharmed. Sometimes silence is a virtue.
And then cal did… well basically nothing.
Cal was a true conservative. He believed in minimal taxes and minimal regulation. Have you ever heard the phrase, “the government that governs least governs best?” Cal took that to extremes. Take a look at his typical workday: he held some meetings in the morning, took a long nap each afternoon, and then smoked cigars all evening and went to bed early. When at a Marx Brothers’ performance once, the comedian Groucho spotted him in the audience and quipped, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?” One of Ca’s rules of thumb was, “Never do anything that someone else can do for you,” which is not what you expect to hear from someone who had such a strict, hard-working childhood, but maybe the guy was plum worked out. Calvin delegated everything to his cabinet members and then largely stepped aside.
So I’m going to tell you about things that happened during his administration. Things his administration did. But just remember, this was largely the work of his appointees and Calvin is spending most of this time taking naps and smoking cigars in the White House.
Let’s start with the topic Coolidge and the 20’s are known for - the economy.
The U.S. economy took off like a rocket in the 1920’s. After a post-WWI slump, the GDP grew by 15.8 percent in 1922 and 12.1 percent in 1923, then averaged 3.5 percent growth the rest of Coolidge’s term - by comparison, 2% is considered decent today. By the mid 1920’s, the United States was producing half the world’s economic output and half its manufactured goods despite having just 6% of the world’s population.
And all that money wasn’t just going to the top. Average Americans were seeing revolutionary changes to the ways they lived.
The number of cars on the road tripled from 7 million in 1919 to 23 million in 1929; the percent of households with electricity leapt from 16% in 1912 to 60% in the mid 1920’s, and the new medium of radio boomed from $60-million dollars in sales from 1922 to $842 million at the end of the decade. Just imagine in 1 decade going from a household that lacked electricity, traveled by horse, and was detached from the world, to a household with electric lights, a car, and a radio bringing you news and culture from the nation’s greatest metropolis’s. That is WILD change.
But what was driving it? Harding and Coolidge fans will tell you a magic sprinkle of the-most-drastic-tax-cuts-in-US-History were the trick, but most of the GDP growth happened in the years before taxes were cut and then slowed down after they were cut. So I’m not buying that.
Instead, I think the answer is human ingenuity. As in, there were market forces greater than any one person or political party at play here. The sort of economic great leap forward that comes around once in a while and sweeps everything along with it. And it had three main pieces.
Number 1.) The expansion of credit. Banks loosened up and made it easier for the masses to borrow money which they could then spend on consumer goods, which they wanted to do because of
Number 2.) The growth of the ads industry. Advertising became a major industry, convincing Americans they wanted to spend their money on luxuries that once seemed unimaginable or out of reach, like beauty products, cars, and radios. And all of these products were suddenly less expensive because of
Number 3.) The spread of methods of mass production. Henry Ford introduced the mass production of automobiles in 1910 and the concept took off and spread to other industries in the 1920’s. This meant more stuff could be produced for less money and at a more consistent quality. The price of a new Model T Ford, for example, dropped from $850 in 1908 to $300 in 1924.
So everywhere you looked, ads were suddenly telling you to buy cars, radios, and other luxury goods, those items were suddenly more affordable than they’d ever been, and it was easier to borrow money than it had ever been.
Add it all up, and the economy boomed. Of course it did! And even though the folks in Washington D.C. had nothing to do with that boom, everyone thought they did, including themselves. And so they started to really push the throttle on some other policies that, well, were going to have consequences.
So what did they do? For one, they started dismantling economic regulations that had been put in place during the progressive era. For example, Coolidge didn’t hire any new food and drug administration inspectors; he allowed the agency overseeing the railroads to fall apart; and he allowed the creation of near monopolies in the new field of radio, stifling small businesses. Changes that were good for big business, but not great for labor or consumers.
Over in the treasury department, one of Coolidge’s few holdovers from the Harding administration was also doing everything he could to help the rich. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon was the third-richest person in the united states. He was the one who advocated for those big tax cuts I mentioned earlier, which, I should add, were mostly for the rich.
Mellon cut taxes for the americans making more than $200,000 dollars a year from 73% to 25%, while he cut taxes for the poorest americans from 4% to 1.5%. So this was absolutely being felt at the top more than the bottom.
But that’s just the above-the-board stuff Mellon was doing to help the wealthy out. The senate did a little digging in the 20’s and found Mellon had given $3.5 billion dollars of rebates to big businesses, including some he had financial interests in. He also returned $80 million dollars of inheritance taxes to heirs of some of the nation’s largest estates. This is basically Mellon saying that the biggest businesses and richest americans didn’t really have to pay all their taxes, but everyone else should.
The thing is, Mellon and Coolidge were working from an economic theory that, if you cut taxes on the wealthy, they would spend more, the economy would grow, and that money would end up in the pockets of the middle class and poor. This theory would later be called “trickle down economics.” But here’s the deal, the entire history of the world is a history of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer until revolutionary events snap that inequality back closer to an equilibrium. Think about it. At the dawn of time, everyone had nothing. If wealth trickled down, then wealth would never have accumulated in the first place. If trickle down economics was real, the moment someone had more than everyone else, that wealth would flow down to the others and an even equilibrium would be restored - but that’s not what happens. The more wealth someone has, the more power they have, and the more power they have, the more wealth they’re likely to attain.
One year into the job, things were going pretty well for Calvin. The economy was growing, and Coolidge was all too happy to take responsibility. But reelection was not guaranteed, because there was at least 1 man more popular than Calvin Coolidge in America - Henry Ford. Ford had revolutionized manufacturing and was putting a car in reach of nearly every american, of course he was popular. But the real question was, did he want to be president? And Calvin was afraid the answer was yes. So, in 1924, Coolidge called Ford up to Washington, met with him privately for some time, and when they parted ways, Ford told everyone who would listen that he had no interest in the presidency and everyone should vote for Coolidge.
And then Coolidge asked Congress to give Ford a killer deal on some government land in Alabama, and then Cal cruised to reelection without Ford running to oppose him.
Did Coolidge just pay off Ford to keep him out of the presidential race? The senate seemed to think so, as it ultimately blocked the deal. But the whole thing stunk to high heaven.
Beyond the economy and reelection, there are three topics from the Coolidge administration worth mentioning:
I’ll start with the veterans bill - this will be important when we get to the Hoover episode.
While the 1920’s were pretty great economically, there was one group of Americans who felt they were getting left behind - world war I veterans. In a time before the GI bill, when health, housing and education benefits didn’t exist as they do today, World War I’s veterans felt they’d gotten the short end of the stick. They’d been over in europe fighting for democracy while their friends who didn’t get drafted were home making mint during the booming war economy. The veterans thought the government should pay them a bonus to help make up the difference and thank them for their service. And this wasn’t a novel idea. You may remember Civil War veterans received a hefty post-war pension when Benjamin Harrison was president back in the 19th century.
But soldier bonuses are expensive and, shoot, Cal might have just had to raise taxes back up on the rich if he wanted to pay for something like that, so he opposed the veterans bill and vetoed two versions that were passed by the senate in 1924, saying “Patriotism bought and paid for is not patriotism.” which is a hell of a way of saying ‘We shouldn’t have to pay our troops.’
But there were 3.3 million veterans in the country and this was a popular issue, so a veterans bill passed over Coolidge’s veto in 1924 - but not one that would pay out right away. The idea was this - a life insurance policy was set aside for each veteran with one dollar for each day of home service and an additional $1.25 for each day served overseas - money that would be raised over 21 years because these life insurance policies would wouldn’t pay out until the year 1945 or the veteran’s death, whichever came first.
When the great depression hits and those veterans demand their bonuses early, it’s going to become a big deal.
So that’s the veterans bill. Next up - the immigration bill.
The 1924 immigration bill is one of the harshest immigration bills in U.S. history. It straight up outlawed japanese immigration and said every other nationality was limited to a percentage of that nationality living in the United States in 1890. This extreme nativist bill would be the law on immigration until 1965. And would be blamed for the deaths of millions of european jews during the holocaust who, due to the quotas, were unable to seek refuge in America - and this is why I’ll always support easier immigration policies.
This immigration bill also signaled the start of the Ku Klux Klan’s interest in the Republican party.
The Ku Klux Klan had originally been a bunch of white terrorists intent on subjugating the freedmen after the civil war, until President Grant crushed the organization in the 1870’s. But then, in 1915, a methodist preacher in Stone Mountain, Georgia, brought the Klan back to life. By the 1920’s, the Klan was having a major resurgence, and not just in the south. Anywhere white Protestants were unhappy with minorities, Jews, or Catholics moving in, the Klan sprang up. Klansmen saw the GOP passing restrictive immigration laws and said, ‘You know what would be great? Corrupting the party of Lincoln.’ Governors and state legislators of both parties owed their elections to the Klan’s support around the country, and in some areas the klan resumed its violent history of lynchings, beatings, arson, and brandings.
This was, unsurprisingly, a political challenge for both parties. While most political leaders found the klan repugnant, both parties realized they had klansmen in their ranks and among their constituents, and they feared the political costs of condemning the Klan. In 1924 - that election Ford sat out of - the Democratic presidential nominee did eventually condemn the klan, and then he challenged Coolidge to do so also, but Coolidge refused to do it, and he never would. Even when 40,000 Klansmen marched past the White House in 1925, Coolidge never brought himself to say a bad thing about the organization.
So that’s the immigrant bill - a harsh, xenophobic restriction on immigration that would contribute to the deaths of millions of jews and make the KKK think the GOP was A-OK. Not great.
But there’s one more big item to mention - the Mississippi floods.
So, I think we all know the Mississippi River is the biggest river in North America, right? Well, that means that when something bad happens to the river, it impacts a LOT of people. And in 1927, something terrible happened to the mississippi river. It started in late 1926, when it began raining, and snowing, and raining, and didn’t let up. Straight into 1927, it was raining at levels never before seen, and the mississippi basin couldn’t handle it all. Rivers overran their banks. Dams and levees began to fail, and the worst flood disaster in U.S. history unfolded smack dab in the middle of the country. By April, 1927, 16 million acres were under as much as 30 feet of water; Levees had been breached at 140 different places; Hundreds were dead, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Aid was desperately needed.
And Calvin Coolidge said, nah.
I’m not kidding. Congress was in recess and Cal refused to summon it back to D.C. where it could pass legislation to offer relief. Instead, he dispatched Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to lead the relief effort in collaboration with the American Red Cross.
To be fair, Hoover was an inspired choice. During the early years of World War I, he had led a relief effort to feed starving Belgians and french citizens trapped behind German military lines. And he played a similar role in the American Relief Administration after the war, feeding 23 countries that had been left in shambles by the great war. Coolidge derisively called him “Wonderboy” behind his back, but Hoover had a solid resume for bringing aid to devastated regions.
Ordered to supervise relief to the Mississippi basin, Hoover did what he could. When private fundraising didn’t raise enough, Hoover pointed to the federal surplus and asked Cal if some could be given to those in need, but Cal again resisted giving a dime to Mississippi flood victims. Cal refused to visit impacted areas and he refused to broadcast an appeal for aid on the radio. Nothing happened until Congress finally returned from recess and passed a bill over Coolidge’s head directing money to the flood victims.
The suffering of this flood fell disproportionately on African Americans by the way. There are stories of African Americans being forced at gunpoint to work on levees or build refugee camps without compensation - at least one was shot and killed for refusing to work - and then there are further stories of African Americans being refused entry to the relief camps and forced to fend for themselves. White women and children, on the other hand, were removed to safety. The disaster, and Coolidge’s response, contributed to the drift of African Americans away from the republican party - the party of Lincoln - and toward the Democratic party, as well as further encouraging a migration of southern blacks to northern cities.
You might be thinking you haven’t heard of this flood, but I bet you actually have. Led Zeppelin's “When the levee breaks” is a re-worked version of a 1929 song about the flood written by an African-American singer songwriter named Memphis Minnie.
So that’s the Mississippi flood, and the immigration bill, and the veterans relief bill. Three very significant events or legislative achievements that may have happened on Coolidge’s watch, but largely happened without his involvement.
But Cal was very popular during his time in office, and not just because the economy was humming. The thing is, the one part of his job that he did appear to spend time on is public relations. Barton, that political advisor I mentioned from the 1920 campaign, was still around getting puff pieces into all the newspapers. Coolidge biographies are full of humorous anecdotes that make Cal sound good, but nobody can actually quite find where they came from, and they might be the work of Barton. And it’s impressive, because the stories you can actually trace to Cal paint a picture of a mean and bitter man. The white house staff was kept in perpetual fear of being fired at any moment for any reason. Once, when Cal was out on a fishing trip, a secret service agent caught more fish than Coolidge did, so Cal immediately ended the trip and went home to sulk in his hotel room.
But nobody saw that. Instead, they saw video and photos of Cal working on the farm; hanging out with business titans and celebrities, who all endorsed him of course; and heard him talking to them on the radio. It was a masterly evolution in presidential PR.
On August 2, 1927, Coolidge asked all the members of the press at the white house to line up, silently handed each of them little slips of paper, and then left without saying a word. When the reporters looked at their slips of paper, they read simply “I do not choose to run.” And just like that, Coolidge let the nation know he wouldn’t seek reelection. On November 6, 1928, the nation elected Herbert Hoover, hero of the Mississippi floods, and so many other relief efforts, to be the next president.
Toward the end of Coolidge’s presidency, the economy did start to show signs that something might be wrong. Consumer buying plateaued. Despite the strong decade, half of all americans lived on subsistence wages. And yet the stock market soared ever higher, entirely detached from any measure of corporate value. There were some red flags there for sure, but, you know Cal, He didn’t do a thing.
On March 4, 1929, Calvin Coolidge left the white house for the last time, his presidency over.
Seven months later, the economy collapsed with a stock market crash known as Black Friday, and a decade of Great Depression began.
So how had America changed during the six years of the Coolidge administration? One huge change I didn’t mention is that on June 2, 1924, Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to the roughly 125,000 indigenous peoples who hadn’t been granted citizenship yet. This, uh, didn’t necessarily mean the native americans could vote, because voting rights are controlled by states and many states refused to let them vote. And it was opposed by some tribes, who didn’t want to be citizens. But it is a big deal.
In 1923, a pair of brothers with an odd last name created a new cartoon studio in Hollywood California. The last name was Disney. You may have heard of it.
The cheeseburger was invented in 1924 when 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger of California put a slice of american cheese on a hamburger at his father’s Pasadena sandwich shop, and wow was that a good idea.
Internationally, remember that german hyperinflation I’d mentioned earlier? About that…
The german hyperinflation was making it hard for Germany to pay its reparations, so, in 1924, a Chicago Banker named Charles G Dawes was put in part of a reparations committee to sort it out. The plan he came up with was this: Germany would abandon it’s hyperinflated currency for a new one that it would declare was worth more than the old mark, they basically said “a million old marks equals one new Reichsmark” and everyone actually went along with it because the economy is really more psychology than science; France and Belgium, which had occupied part of Germany over its delinquent payments, would evacuate those areas; and the west would loan germany $200 million dollars which could be used to pay Germany’s existing debts, but which of course created new debt in the process. And this set up a system where the US loaned Germany money that Germany paid to the allies in the form of reparation payments so the allies could pay off their World War I debts to american banks. This would for the most part be how Germany paid its reparations and how the allies paid their war debts until the Great Depression sent it all tumbling down in 1929.
Oh! And on January 17, 1929, Calvin Coolidge signed the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, a treaty his secretary of state had negotiated with dozens of other large nations, including Germany, that outlawed war. Which is why we’ve never heard of another war being fought anywhere since. Good job, Cal!
Cal lived another 4 years after his presidency ended, and he never could understand why the great depression happened or how the country might get out of it. He mostly stayed to himself in Vermont and avoided the limelight.
When FDR, who Coolidge considered a socialist, was elected in 1932, Coolidge told a friend, “We are in a new era to which I do not belong.” a month after that, Jan 5, 1933, Cal suffered a fatal heart attack while changing in his bedroom. His wife found him dead on his back. He was 60 years old.
If you’re going to remember Calving Coolidge for anything, I think you remember him for being possibly the luckiest president in U.S. History.
I’m not kidding! Who gets as lucky as Coolidge?
Nobody gets that lucky.
As for what lesson in leadership can we learn from Cal? Let’s address that, “If trouble is coming down the road, don’t do anything,” philosophy. Now, it’s not healthy to be trying to fix everything in the world, because you can’t fix everything, but it’ll also do you no good to never try at all. So here’s the lesson. Whenever you see something wrong in the world, ask yourself one question: “Can I do anything about it?” If the answer is yes, do it! If the answer is no, then it’s ok at that moment to channel Calvin Coolidge and let yourself not worry about it. What’s important is finding that balance. Learn when to worry, and learn when to let things go. Nobody can take on everything and stay sane.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps aaaand when the Levee Breaks by Led Zepplin. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Calving Coolidge, by David Greenberg
In our next episode, I’ll talk to David Greenberg about how Silent Cal mastered the budding art of public relations and the 1920’s evolution in advertising to sell himself to the American voters, and just how much credit or blame he deserves for the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.