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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Silent Cal

By Tom Morrow

John Calvin Coolidge Jr., born on July 4, 1872, was the 30th President of the United States (1923–29), the only chief executive born on Independence Day.

A Republican lawyer from Vermont, Coolidge worked his way up the ladder of Massachusetts state politics, eventually becoming governor of that state. His response to a strike in 1919 thrust him into the national spotlight and gave him a reputation as a man of decisive action.

Coolidge didn’t say a lot, which gave him the moniker of “Silent Cal,” but his actions spoke volumes. His record shows he accomplished more during his term than most other Presidents. Coolidge was elected as vice president in 1920 and succeeded to the presidency upon the sudden death of Warren G. Harding in 1923. Elected in his own right in 1924, he gained a reputation as a small-government conservative, also as a man having a rather dry sense of humor. A Washington matron, seated next to him at a dinner, remarked, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Without hesitation, Coolidge replied, “You lose.”

At the 1920 Republican National Convention, after 10 ballots, the bosses and then the delegates settled on U.S. Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their nominee for President. After several more ballots, Coolidge was named Harding’s running mate.

The Democrats nominated James M. Cox, for president and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for vice president. Harding and Coolidge won with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. The U.S. vice presidency did not carry many official duties, but Coolidge was invited by President Harding to attend cabinet meetings, making him the first vice president to do so. As the U.S. vice president, Coolidge and his vivacious wife, Grace, were invited to quite a few parties, where the legend of “Silent Cal” was born. It is from this time that most of the jokes and anecdotes involving Coolidge originate.
Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of their dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.” As President, Coolidge’s reputation as a quiet man continued. “The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” Coolidge was aware of his stiff reputation; indeed, he cultivated it. “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President,” he once told actress Ethel Barrymore, “and I think I will go along with them.”

On Aug. 2, 1923, when President Harding suddenly died in San Francisco, Coolidge was in Vermont visiting his family home, which had neither electricity nor a telephone. When he received word of Harding’s death, he dressed, said a prayer, and greeted the reporters. At 2:47 a.m., on Aug. 3, 1923, his father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the family’s parlor by the light of a kerosene lamp. Coolidge then went back to bed.

Coolidge restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of Harding’s administration, and left office with considerable popularity. Though his reputation underwent a renaissance during the Ronald Reagan administration, modern assessments of Coolidge’s presidency are divided. He is praised among advocates of smaller government; supporters of a larger central government generally view him less favorably, while both sides applaud his stalwart support of racial equality.

President, Coolidge made use of the new medium of radio and gave 520 press conferences — more regularly than any President before or since. Coolidge’s second inauguration was the first to be broadcast on radio, the first to broadcast a State of the Union address to Congress, and to appear in a sound film. President Ronald W. Reagan regarded Coolidge as his favorite 20th-century U.S. president because of Coolidge’s belief in a more limited federal government.

The Ku Klux Klan lost most of its influence during Coolidge’s term, and his administration made all Native Americans U.S. citizens. After his presidency, Coolidge retired to fishing on the Connecticut River and was often observed by other fishermen and boaters. Coolidge died suddenly of a heart attack on Jan. 5, 1933. Upon learning the solemn President had died, popular author Dorothy Parker quipped: “How can they tell?” Coolidge is buried beneath a simple headstone in Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Vermont nearby the family home.

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