INTRODUCTION: THE CURSE
DEBT TAKES ITS TOLL.
To no one had this ever seemed clearer than to a sixty-one-year-old farmer named Oliver Coolidge who languished in Woodstock Common Jail in Windsor County, Vermont, in the spring of 1849. Coolidge was behind bars because he owed a neighbor, Frederick Wheeler, $24.23. He had not honored a contract because he lacked the money to honor it. Now his debt had climbed to $29.48 because the justice of the peace had ruled that he had to carry the costs of the creditor, $5, and a fine of 25 cents for the serving of papers.
Oliver Coolidge’s fate was all the more troubling because some of his relations were faring well. The Coolidge name enjoyed respect throughout Windsor County, in the neighboring state of Massachusetts, and across the rest of New England. Carlos Coolidge, a distant cousin, was serving as governor of Vermont. Coolidge’s older brother, Calvin, owned the family farm at Plymouth Notch, a hamlet not far from Woodstock. Oliver’s rage built as he thought of his brother. Over the years Oliver had deeded land or land rights to Calvin: one of the properties involved had been called the limekiln lot.
The lot lay on a hill in Plymouth Notch. Some of those transfers Oliver had thought temporary. He had given one piece of land, he reminded Calvin in a letter, against “your promis that you would redeed at any time.” But now Calvin would not give the farm back. The Calvin Coolidges had decided to keep the land “in the family.” That meant the Calvin Coolidge branch. This was especially bitter. Calvin might pass land that had been Oliver’s on to his own son, Calvin Galusha Coolidge, or to a grandson.
Cases like Oliver’s had always been common. Back in 1786 a Massachusetts man named Daniel Shays had led a rebellion against heavy taxes. The aggrieved followers of Shays called for a time when there would be “no more courts, nor collectors, nor sheriffs, nor lawyers.” Ever since then New Englanders had quarreled over whether debt was the fault of the borrower, the lender, or those who issued the currency. They had quarreled too over the merits of punishments for debt. To sit in prison for debt, or a charge related to debt, was perverse. Vermont laws were changing so that debt alone could not justify imprisonment. A few years earlier a book about the sin of sanctimony and the grace of forgiveness, A Christmas Carol, had been published. Its villain was the miser Ebenezer Scrooge. The journals of New England featured A Christmas Carol on their Christmas list; its author, Charles Dickens, often pointed out the trap of the debtor’s situation and the absurdity of debtors’ prison. That same year, 1849, newspapers were serializing a new Dickens work in which one of the main characters, Mr. Micawber, landed in debtors’ prison.
It was a text older than Dickens that sprang to Oliver Coolidge’s mind: the Bible. To Oliver it seemed that his brother Calvin and his sister-in-law resembled Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles. These two had sold their land and pretended to give the entire proceeds to the apostle Peter but secretly withheld part of what they had received. For that, God had struck Ananias and Sapphira dead. The farmer blamed his brother for participating in the events that had led him to be “shut up” in jail and accused the brother of pressuring his son, Calvin Galusha, to go along with him in whatever scheme furnished the precondition for Oliver’s loss of land: “You teased Galush until it was done,” the farmer wrote.
That year spring came late to Vermont, with heavy snows into April. As Oliver weighed the damage of debt, the demons closed in. Lame in one leg from birth, Coolidge had never been able to farm as well as the others. The land they all farmed was rocky in any case, but his land was of poorer quality than his brothers’. Oliver and his wife, Polly, had many more children than the rest and though many were grown and some had died, there were others still to care for. His family had seen, as he wrote in one letter from the prison, “mutch sickness.”
On Central Street outside the jail, the traffic of carriages and tradesmen moved all day long. From behind the walls and the stone fence, the farmer sent out despairing letters in his idiosyncratic spelling to one family member after another. To his niece Sally, Oliver grieved that “my health is not good, I have the rumities in my back so that it troubles me to get to and from my bed.” To his brother he expressed anguish for his wife, Polly, at home. In the past Polly had “labored hard early & late to make her family comfortable and still labours hard.” On April 29, 1849, Coolidge sat down to rhyme out in quatrains all that was wrong with the world. He scratched out a curse upon his brother Calvin’s head:
But if still you will reject him
And his council set at nought
O how you will fear and tremble
When to judgement you are brought
O has God your soul for saken
Has he past your spirit by
Has that holy spirit left you
In your sins to sink an die.
There was something irrevocable about the curse. It seemed too late, as well, to right a life like Oliver Coolidge’s. His debts might never be paid. Death loomed. There was nothing left to do but succumb.
Yet Oliver did not succumb. He persevered and was released from the prison. His story took an unexpected turn: the aging farmer and his wife, Polly, then traveled west; Oliver spent time in Columbia County, Wisconsin. Oliver, Polly, and their children began new lives. Polly somehow traveled even farther, to Minnesota, where she was buried. Instead of dying out in Windsor County, Vermont, the Oliver Coolidges and other migrants like them populated the Midwest.
There have been times when the American people, like Oliver Coolidge, lost heart, feeling themselves locked in a prison of their own making. There have been times when debt pinned down the United States as it once pinned down Oliver. One such moment came after World War I, when the national debt hit $27 billion, a level nine times higher than what it had been just a few years before. Income tax rates were high.
Jobs were becoming scarce. Angry veterans roamed the streets of cities, furious that they could not pay prices for food or clothing that were double what they had been before the war. The country did seem lost, if not cursed. Yet within a few years the panic passed and the trouble eased. The curse became blessing. The reversal was in good measure due to the perseverance of one man. That man was in fact the heir to the contentious limekiln lot, the great-grandson of Oliver’s brother Calvin: Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States.
Born in 1872, almost a quarter century after Oliver left Vermont,
Calvin Coolidge, the president, never lost his land as Oliver did. In the
bookkeepers’ ledgers at Plymouth Notch, the president’s father, like his grandfather and great-grandfather, fell on the precious creditor side of the line. Yet from the start in the hamlet to his death in 1933, Calvin Coolidge did confront challenges. The acres he inherited were so poor that the men in the Midwest laughed when they recalled it, more rock and hill than dirt. When Coolidge reached high school age his family sent him to school in Ludlow, twelve miles from Plymouth, and often he walked. Death visited Coolidge constantly; he lost his mother, probably to tuberculosis, the winter he was twelve; the ground was so frozen she could not be interred for weeks. Several years later, Coolidge’s companion and only sibling, Abigail, died suddenly and of mysterious causes. Young Coolidge himself was always so sickly that both his father and he worried that he might never complete his education. He was deeply shy and found it agonizing to meet even the adults who entered his parents’ front rooms.
Adulthood brought more trials. Indeed, to an improbable extent, the chapters of Coolidge’s life after childhood are chapters of near failure upon near failure. Coolidge almost didn’t leave the village, almost didn’t make it at college, almost didn’t get a job, almost didn’t find a wife, almost disappointed as a state senator, almost stumbled as Massachusetts governor, almost failed to win a place on the Republican presidential ticket in 1920, and almost failed in Washington once he arrived there as vice president in 1921. As president, Coolidge almost failed to win the backing of his party, almost gave in to grief after the sudden death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, Jr., almost capitulated to a recalcitrant Congress and unruly foreign leaders. Surveying the travails of the thirtieth president, some writers have suggested that those personal defeats are the essence of the Coolidge story. They err. Coolidge’s is not a story of “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.” For at every stage, Coolidge did push forward, and so triumph.
Coolidge himself identified perseverance as the key to that triumph.
“If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot see any way in which I would have ever made progress.” Students of
Coolidge so associate Coolidge with perseverance that they often attribute to him a paragraph that he did not write: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.” Those words in fact were printed as filler in newspapers from as early as 1910, often without an author, but they sound so much like Coolidge that people assume he wrote them.
Perhaps the greatest persevering of Calvin Coolidge, the one for which the red-haired president is known best, was his persevering in the very area that plagued Oliver: debt. In his personal life, Coolidge brought saving to a high art. Coolidge was so parsimonious that he did not buy a house in Massachusetts even after he became governor, so careful that the Coolidges owned no car until after he achieved the presidency, so strict about money that his son John never forgot it. Thrifty to the point of harshness, Coolidge rarely relented when it came to money.
Upon learning that Coolidge had become president, acquaintances approached Calvin, Jr., his son, who happened to be working in a tobacco field in Hatfield, Massachusetts. The others told Calvin, Jr., that they would not work anymore if their fathers were president. “If your father were my father, you would,” the boy replied. It was as president that Coolidge’s saving proved so exceptional. Coolidge hacked away at the federal budget with a discipline tragically missing in his well-intentioned predecessor, Warren G. Harding. Coolidge vetoed fifty bills and turned down new spending, even for projects such as farm subsidies and construction of rural postal roads that would have immensely benefited the region from which he hailed.
The Coolidge budget was fundamentally different from our modern budgets in that military costs, veterans’ funding, and the national debt made up more than half of outlays. But the pressure to expand programs was as strong as it is today. Coolidge’s budget vigilance was so steadfast it lent itself to caricature; some artists depicted the thirtieth president as a Victorian throwback. The doyenne of the Washington social scene, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, repeated a line until it became famous: Coolidge looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle. A contemporary paper, the London Sunday Chronicle, even published a parody of A Christmas Carol with Coolidge in the part of Scrooge.
Yet if Coolidge was a Scrooge, he was a Scrooge who begat plenty.
Coolidge served for sixty-seven months, finishing out Harding’s term after Harding died in early August 1923 and remaining until early March 1929. Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically. Under Coolidge, there came no federal antilynching law, but lynchings themselves became less frequent and Ku Klux Klan membership dropped by millions. Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road into the air.
Under Coolidge, religious faith found its modern context: the first great White House Christmas tree was lit, an ingenious use for the new technology, electricity. Under Coolidge, the number of local telephone calls went up by a quarter. In Silent Cal’s time, Americans learned to chatter. Under Coolidge, wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily. Under Coolidge, the rich came to pay a greater share of the income tax.
How did the curse become a blessing? In World War I, government policy had been so dramatic that it was like a great pendulum, swinging wildly back and forth and intimidating those in its path. Coolidge reached out his hand and stilled the pendulum. Or, to put his achievement more simply, Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce. When in 1929 the thirtieth president climbed onto a train at Union Station to head back home to Massachusetts after his sixty-seven months in office, the federal government was smaller than when he had become president in 1923.
Somehow, the extent of the Coolidge achievement is not known. Coolidge figures infrequently in the great national conversation about presidents; when he does win mention, it is often as a caricature of Puritanism, Silent Cal, or as a placeholder between Roosevelts. My preceding book was called The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression; in researching that book on the 1930s, I discovered I was writing the prequel, the story of a forgotten president from the 1920s. Getting to know Coolidge, I puzzled out the reasons for his obscurity. Our great presidential heroes have often been war leaders, generals, and commanders. That seems natural to us. The big personalities of some presidents have drawn attention, hostile or friendly: Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt. There are plenty of personal events in Coolidge’s life, many of them sad ones, but he was principally a man of work. Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.
The overlooking of Coolidge is in any case a shame, for full knowledge of this president enriches the study of all presidents. Without seeing Coolidge in the ranks, we cannot entirely appreciate the office. In different ways, many ranging far from economics, Coolidge emulated, resembled, or inspired many other presidents. Like John Adams, another plainspoken lawyer from Massachusetts, Coolidge endured dark days as vice president, and at times shared Adams’s appraisal of the vice presidency as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Like Adams and George Washington, Coolidge was uncomfortable in high society. Like Adams and Washington, Coolidge was comfortable with that discomfort. Like Abraham Lincoln, Coolidge frustrated others with his slowness to respond, but acted decisively when he did move. Like Lincoln too, Coolidge lost a son while in office; like Lincoln, he pushed ahead and achieved much despite that loss. Like Grover Cleveland, Coolidge resisted the expansion of government and perfected the use of obscure legislative devices like the pocket veto in the service of that cause. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge ended a period of corruption and poured great energy into improving the reputation and quality of government service.
Like Woodrow Wilson, he deemed international law the best approach to prevent war, and poured his heart into campaigning for such a treaty. Like Warren Harding, Coolidge understood the value of predictability in government: that a predictable tax policy and predictable policy toward debt were the bases for strong commerce. Like John Kennedy, he looked to the skies and new technology to lift the spirits of the men below. Like Lyndon Johnson, Coolidge was a former vice president who masterfully completed legislative work left unfinished after the untimely death of his predecessor. Like Gerald Ford, Coolidge healed a country with civility after a period of scandal involving his predecessor. Like Ronald Reagan, who did appreciate him, Coolidge understood that a government that was too large could infringe upon freedom. Like Reagan too, Coolidge took a controversial stand against a powerful public-sector union at a key moment in U.S. history, in his case the Boston police—a move that opened a new and calmer era of less union unrest and increased employment. Like George H. W. Bush, Coolidge understood the great importance of civility and character in the presidency, that a man did lived not for himself but for service. Like George W. Bush, Coolidge saw that individual freedom and religious faith can go hand in hand, and saw that many Americans believed that too. Like Washington again, Coolidge saw danger in a lengthy incumbency in the office of the president. It was Washington whom Coolidge emulated in his deliberate decision not to seek reelection in 1928.
Our ignorance of Coolidge hurts more than our understanding of the presidency; it diminishes our understanding of his era, and our past. The education in rhetoric, religion, classics, and geometry Coolidge received at his quirky independent school, Black River Academy, and at Amherst College reminds us how our schools have changed since then. Coolidge and the poet Robert Frost never knew much about each other;
Coolidge was a Republican, Frost a Grover Cleveland Democrat. But the lives of the pair crossed in odd ways, including at Coolidge’s college, Amherst. And Frost’s themes—independence, responsibility, character, property rights—also preoccupied Coolidge. There was some of Coolidge as well in the work of Will Rogers, the superstar columnist of the era. Rogers liked the president so much he wrote a column to help Coolidge find work after the presidency. Without knowing Coolidge, Americans cannot know the 1920s.
To be sure, there were areas where Coolidge fell short, as a man or president. He was not always patient. His intuitive sympathy for free markets notwithstanding, Coolidge never fully grasped the damage of his party’s pro-tariff plank. He spoke out against intolerance and bigotry, but did too little to stop them. He thought so well of other statesmen that he never foresaw the extent to which Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, or Japanese leaders would take advantage of international disarmament agreements and use those agreements as cover to arm for war. He likewise never entirely foresaw the extent to which succeeding presidents and Congress would diverge from precedent when it came to economic policy. The thirtieth president therefore never imagined the consequences of such a divergence: a depression as lengthy and severe as the one the United States experienced over the ensuing decade.
But there are many fields in which Coolidge surpassed other men and other presidents and set a standard. Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction. “Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation,” he told his colleagues in the Massachusetts Senate. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he wrote to his father as early as 1910. Congress always says, “Do.” Coolidge replied, “Do not do,” or, at least, “Do less.” Whereas other presidents made themselves omnipresent, Coolidge held back. At the time, and subsequently, many have deemed the Coolidge method laziness. Upon examination, however, the inaction reflects strength. In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do. Coolidge is our great refrainer.
What compelled Coolidge to persevere and enabled him to succeed?
The traditions of Vermont and its “hardy self-contained people,” as he described them, always inspired him. Respect for the written law animated him, but he also cherished the spiritual and what we call natural law: “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them,” he told Massachusetts state senators in 1914. His wife, Grace, one of the most beautiful first ladies, gave him the confidence to move forward. A ferocious discipline in work proved crucial as well. As documented in White House appointment books, whereas other presidents met sporadically with budget advisers, Coolidge met faithfully and weekly with his Budget Bureau director, General Herbert Mayhew Lord. An intuitive understanding of the struggles of small business aided Coolidge. Though he was not, like Margaret Thatcher, born over a storefront, Coolidge was born beside one. A keen sense of timing also helped him: Coolidge, a shrewd politician, knew when to fight and when to wait. A thorough understanding of the devices of government, and a willingness to use them, also proved key. Also crucial was the Coolidge willingness to be unpopular, which he displayed while still governor of Massachusetts, when he stared down the striking Boston police, or when, as president, he turned down his own people, farmers, by repeatedly vetoing subsidies for them.
Always, a philosophy of service inspired Coolidge. He served his family, to whom he was intensely loyal; he served the law and the people. He was among the most selfless of presidents, ranking individual above political constituency and office above individual. Once, on a walk with the president, Senator Selden Spencer of Missouri tried to cheer Coolidge by pointing to the White House and asking, in a joking tone, who might live there. “Nobody,” Coolidge replied, “they just come and go.”
Much later, in 1969, Richard Nixon spoke of a “silent majority” of
Americans who thought progressives went too far; that phrase came not from Nixon but from the past. The advertising executive Bruce Barton wrote in 1919 that “it sometimes seems as if this great silent majority had no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd, he lives like them, he works like them, and understands.” The teacher who identified the primacy of service for Coolidge was a professor who instructed him in his final years at Amherst College, Charles Edward Garman. Garman, a philosopher, also inspired Coolidge’s friend and ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow. Garman spoke of life as a great river journey. The professor told his students that, as Coolidge paraphrased it, “if they would go along with events and have the courage and industry to hold to the main stream without being washed ashore they would some day be men of power.” Garman’s image of the river, of water, and of his own task as pilot navigating amid the waves defined Coolidge’s life.
There is little evidence that Coolidge ever learned much about Oliver Coolidge beyond the name, or that he was aware that the limekiln lot property itself he inherited, along with a mare colt and a heifer calf, had once been part of a family squabble. “I never knew what had become of the descendants of Oliver,” Coolidge wrote a cousin, Ada Taintor, who inquired from Minnesota in January 1920. But genealogy always preoccupied Coolidge. Late December 1925, for example, a period crucial for his proposed tax legislation, found Coolidge distractedly writing to the town clerk of Wallingford, Vermont, to inquire about the precise birth and death dates of another ancestor, his great-grandfather Israel Brewer, Calvin Galusha’s father-in- law, and the dates when Brewer had paid taxes. The old limekiln lot itself, hardly good for farming and of value mostly only for wood and maple sugar, remained present all through the life of the thirtieth president. As a boy he worked the plot with his father. From his boardinghouse at college, he wrote home to ask if it was throwing off any revenue he might use for necessary expenses. Yet later, the president’s sons, John and Calvin, played on the land; Calvin, Jr., liked to collect spruce gum. After the death of Calvin, Jr., at age sixteen, it was up the road to the old limekiln lot that his mother, Grace, went to dig up a young spruce as a memorial to him. She replanted the spruce on the White House grounds so that the president might see it from the windows.
When Henry Ford visited Plymouth, his hosts, the president and his father, gave the automaker a sap bucket from their sugar equipment. In his final days, Coolidge’s father leased the lot to a tenant and wrote friendly copy to describe “nice sugar” made by the tenant from the sap collected there. The Coolidge sympathy for tariffs, including tariffs on Canadian maple sugar, grew out of experience; the Canadian product competed with the small harvest of his lot. Toward the end of his presidency, Coolidge journeyed west, partly to call on regions crucial to the Republican Party but also to trace the trail that his forebears, men like Oliver, had blazed. He shipped headstones from Vermont to Wisconsin for the graves of the parents of his grandmother Sarah Almeda Brewer Coolidge, Israel Brewer, and Israel’s wife, Sally. Vermont, Coolidge believed, should honor those who had left her and try to understand why they had done so.
Indeed, all his life, and at every station on the great figurative river, Coolidge never ceased to probe the same questions of debt, money, commerce, growth, and prosperity that had so affected Oliver, puzzling over in his mind what might be the right balance. Coolidge’s inquiries into political economy were so intense and so fruitful that it is, again, hard to understand why they are not better known. From time to time historians—more than economists—try to blame Coolidge for the Great Depression and therefore downgrade his policies. A market correction was due in 1929. Coolidge himself anticipated that drop. In fact, he fretted over its possible consequences. The country would endure trouble, he knew, yet he remained convinced that arbitrary interventions, experiments, would only prolong the downturn. But the contention that Coolidge can be blamed for the extended double-digit unemployment of the 1930s is a stretch. Many of the events that converted the 1929 break in the Dow Jones Industrial Average from a serious market crash into the decade-long Great Depression took place after Coolidge’s presidency or in places far away.
Perhaps the deepest reason for Coolidge’s recent obscurity is that the thirtieth president spoke a different economic language from ours. He did not say “money supply”; he said “credit.” He did not say “the federal government”; he said “the national government.” He did not say “private sector”; he said “commerce.” He did not say “savings”; he said “thrift” or “economy.” Indeed, he especially cherished the word “economy” because it came from the Greek for “household.” To Coolidge the national household resembled the family household, and to her displeasure he monitored the White House housekeeper with the same vigilance that he monitored the departments of the federal government. Our modern economic lexicon and the theories behind it cannot capture Coolidge’s achievements or those of his predecessor, Warren Harding.
It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government, so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy recipe for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today. As early as the 1930s, Coolidge’s reputation and way of thinking began their decline. Collectives and not individuals became fashionable. Sensing such shifts, Coolidge at the end of his life spoke anxiously about the “importance of the obvious.” Perseverance, property rights, contracts, civility to one’s opponents, silence, smaller government, trust, certainty, restraint, respect for faith, federalism, economy, and thrift: these Coolidge ideals intrigue us today as well. After all, many citizens today do feel cursed by debt, their own or their government’s. Knowing the details of his life may well help Americans now turn a curse to a blessing or, at the very least, find the heart to continue their own persevering.