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One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong…
If you guessed "Coolidge," congrats—you've been paying attention in U.S. History. Or still watching Sesame Street. (We won't tell.)
Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge, our 30th prez, was a quiet, thrifty, honest Vermont Yankee leading the nation in a time of extravagant living and dizzying social change—those "Roaring Twenties" you know from Shmoop's Learning Guide to The Great Gatsby. "A Puritan in Babylon," one writer called Coolidge (source).
Coolidge was a guy so frugal he spent most of his political life renting part of a two-family house to save on rent. A man so reserved and taciturn that writer Dorothy Parker, when hearing Coolidge had died, was rumored to have said, "How could they tell?" A man so committed to small government that when he was given two lion cubs as a gift from Johannesburg, Africa, playfully named them "Budget Bureau" and Tax Reduction" (source).
Coolidge inherited the presidency on the death of his predecessor, Warren Harding. He easily won re-election in 1924 with the slogan "Keep Cool with Coolidge" after a nominating convention in Cleveland so boring that humorist and political satirist Will Rogers suggested that the city "open up its churches to liven things up a bit" (source).
Coolidge laid out his vision for the country in his first inaugural address. An inaugural speech is like a trailer for the next four years. With Coolidge, what you heard was what you got—he stuck to the script for four years.
Coolidge's inaugural was the first one ever broadcast to the nation by a new technology called "radio." (It's what old people listen to in the car when they can't figure out how to connect their iThing.)
He told the listening audience that he promised to lower taxes, cut government spending, and promote business—and he did. He wanted to avoid getting into any more foreign conflicts while keeping the U.S. as a global humanitarian and economic leader—and and he did. His policy was "less is more": less legislation, less government spending, less taxation, and, especially, less presidential involvement.
Coolidge slashed spending for everything from veterans' pensions to highway improvements and flood control projects. The GDP trucked along at a healthy annual 3.5% increase. Taxes were cut across the board (source) then cut some more. "Cheese paring," Coolidge called it (source). To protect American jobs, he signed a massive immigration reform bill that drastically reduced the number of legal immigrants to the U.S.
Coolidge's hands-off approach to government and the economy definitely helped make the U.S. a prosperous place to be in the 1920s (unless you were a farmer). With lower taxes, people had more money in their pockets. The stock market was booming and manufacturers were producing tons of consumer goods like cars, appliances, and radios. The national deficit decreased dramatically, wages increased, and unemployment was low. Credit flowed like water. What's not to love?
Although Coolidge's supporters blame his free-spending presidential successors for the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression, many people see Coolidge's policies as part of the reason for the financial meltdown. People used their new disposable income and easy credit to speculate on the unregulated and overblown stock market, often with borrowed money. They went into debt buying all the new stuff produced by the prosperous manufacturing sector. Coolidge's distaste for federal aid to farmers resulted in the loss of many farms and the shuttering of banks in the farm country of the south and Midwest. His financial policies led to increased income inequality (source).
But in 1925, things were great, and Coolidge could address the nation confident that small government was the key to prosperity. And he meant it: he left the federal budget in 1928 smaller than he found it. He even thought the nation needed less Coolidge, and declined to run for re-election in 1928.
The Puritan went back to New England, having done what he set out to do in his inaugural address and having provided a steady hand in some unsteady times. Will Rogers nailed it when he said, in reference to Coolidge assuming the presidency after such turbulent years, "He didn't do nothin', but that's what we wanted done" (source).
Coolidge was standing right next to him at the time. He laughed along with everyone.
Why should you care about an inaugural speech from 1925 that sounds to our 21st-century ears like it was written in the key of Z? Let's start with some of the Coolidge years' greatest hits:
Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, maybe you accidentally landed on CNN on your way to The Walking Dead.
Coolidge himself may not be one of those presidents who Americans talk about a lot; he's more of a footnote president for most people. But he started a conversation about government, the economy, and international politics that got a lot louder with the Reagan presidency and has devolved into a partisan shouting match since then. Substitute the U.N. for the League of Nations on our bullet list and you've got the 2017 version of the showdown.
One of Ronald Reagan's first acts as president was to move Harry Truman's portrait out of the Cabinet Room and replace it with one of Coolidge. Reagan was a true believer in Cal's small-government playbook, the idea if that the government could just get out of the way and cut taxes on businesses, the benefits of those corporate cuts would eventually trickle down to you and me. The free-market economy would boom, and those tax cuts would pay for themselves and then some. Reagan also slashed the individual tax rate, so people could spend more money and grow the economy that way, too.
Conservative Republicans have kept Coolidge and Reagan's talking points front and center. When Donald Trump succeeded Democrat Barack Obama in 2017, deregulation of business, limiting immigration, and cutting taxes big-time were tops on his agenda.
Does all this spell prosperity for American business and American workers, as it did in Coolidge's time? Will businesses use their new freedoms and lower taxes to hire more workers, raise wages, and grow the economy? Or will they buy back shares, boost shareholder revenues, and hoard their profits, increasing income inequality and hurting the little guy?
Does restricting immigration protect American jobs or create an "us vs. them" mindset that just fans the flames of nationalism and decreases the talent pool for business and technology? Does deregulation unleash the power of the economy or allow banks and big corporations to get away with murder? Does Michonne survive Season 7?
Depends who you ask, of course.
Progressives, mostly Democrats, like to point out that income inequality got worse under Coolidge, and look what happened the year after Coolidge left office: the stock market crashed in 1929 and the country plunged into the Great Depression. And they don't have to look far to see what happened in 2007, when easy credit and shenanigans in the unregulated financial sector caused a global financial meltdown from which we're still recovering. They say the government needs to step in and keep an eye on these big corporations, who were never really held to account for destroying the global economy. You saw The Big Short, right?
This conversation is way older than Coolidge; it's been going on since Alexander Hamilton and James Madison started hating on each other, and it's not going to end anytime soon. It underlies every political and economic and issue you can think of and gives the RNC and DNC a reason to make as many annoying robocalls as possible.
We know you are all responsible and informed citizens who'll use your voting privileges without fail, so you'll have to do a lot of thinking about the role of the federal government—and immigration and nationalism and taxes—in this great nation of ours. Coolidge's inaugural address is a great place to start, even though it would have definitely benefitted by some Will Rogers rewrites.
Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation
Based out of Coolidge's childhood home in Vermont, this organization aims to preserve Coolidge's history and legacy. Definitely more pro-Coolidge than some other sites you'll see.
Calvin Coolidge at the Miller Center
The Miller Center at UVA has extensive biographies on all the U.S. presidents, which also tend to go into a lot of historical context as well as give you a lot of information about the president's life.
Coolidge Presidential Library
A modest guy has a modest library, just part of the public library in Northampton, Massachusetts. The site has some photos and links to other Coolidge stuff.
Ken Burns' Prohibition
Okay, this one isn't about Coolidge directly, but this epic miniseries is a great documentary about the 1920s through the lens of Prohibition.
Backstairs at the White House
This 1979 mini-series, based on the autobiography of a maid who worked in the White House for over 30 years, looks at the inner workings of the White House from the perspective of the staff. It includes the Coolidge years.
Jill Lepore, "The Speech: Have Inaugural Addresses been getting worse?" The New Yorker (January 12, 2009)
Although Coolidge is only mentioned briefly, this article does give an interesting overview to the art of the presidential inaugural address, via James Garfield reviewing all his predecessors' speeches when he sat to write his own.
Matthew Dickinson, "What Makes For A Memorable Inaugural Address?" Middlebury University (January 2009)
In preparation for Barack Obama's inaugural address in 2009, this article looks back at inaugural addresses over the course of American history, pointing out a formulaic pattern that we can see across all previous examples. It opens with a quote from Coolidge's speech.
Amity Shlaes and Rushad Thomas, "Inauguration of Calvin Coolidge (March 4, 1925)" Library of Congress
This article describes the actual scene of Coolidge's inauguration, the first to be broadcast over the radio to a national audience. For a description of what a radio is, see our "Nutshell" section.
Newsreel Showing Coolidge's Inauguration
This compilation of footage from all of the festivities on March 4, 1925, comes from a newsreel, complete with silent movie text cards. The footage includes the procession, the swearing-in process, and his Inaugural Address (sans sound). Skip ahead to about 6:30 to see some close-ups of Silent Cal himself.
Charles Dawes Speech on Naval Disarmament
Dawes was Coolidge's Vice President, and here he's promoting naval disarmament, which was a big issue for Coolidge. Dawes and Coolidge didn't get along, but they seem to agree on this point. This video takes place in 1929, after Dawes and Coolidge were out of office—but that also means that there's sound, unlike the footage of the inauguration (by this point talking pictures were around). You can compare Dawes' demeanor and speech to Coolidge's to get a sense of their different personalities.The sound cuts out towards the end, but stay tuned—around 4:08 you can hear again, and you get some classic "Hell 'n' Maria Dawes" action.
Coolidge's Inaugural Address was the first ever to be broadcast on the radio. So we should probably hear what that sounded like.
Standard portrait of "Silent Cal" himself.
He Does Solemnly Swear
Coolidge being sworn in by Taft. They sure knew how to dress in those days.
Calvin Coolidge in Native American Headdress
For a dude who was on the introverted side, Coolidge seemed to like getting his picture taken dressed up, including some famous images of him in Native American clothing.
Coolidge's Vice President and architect of the Dawes Plan, in all his 1920s center-part glory.
Coolidge's Secretary of the Interior, builder of the Hoover Dam, and the President who was largely blamed for the Great Depression (maybe unfairly).
Coolidge Signing the Immigration Act of 1924
This was the legislation that put even stricter limits on the number of immigrants coming in from certain countries, primarily in Eastern Europe and Asia.
The KKK March on Washington (August 9, 1925)
This famous image shows how strong the revived Ku Klux Klan was when Coolidge took office as they marched by the thousands down the streets of Washington, DC.