When I engaged on a final push in the fall of 2008, following the election of President Obama, to finish a project that was then 25 years old, a reading of biography or autobiography of every American President, Calvin Coolidge would be among the last to be read. When I got to him, after reading Francis Russell’s biography of Warren G. Harding, The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times, (published under the cloud of legal action that prohibited Russell from publishing some letters) I latched on to Coolidge’s autobiography that I loved for its simplicity and dry wit. I considered it (and still do) one of the best presidential autobiographies ever written. But when I picked up Amity Shlaes’ newly released biography of Coolidge (published by Harper Collins) there was a part of me that wished it would have been available in the summer of 2010 when I read Coolidge in his own words.
The introductory quote (taken from a very fine introduction in which Coolidge is linked to a diverse, both political and personality wise, group of Presidents on different issues that have woven the fabric of American politics) arguing for a greater understanding of Coolidge, is well done by Shlaes throughout the rest of the book. As with most biographies, Shlaes traces Coolidge’s linage, set against the hard scrabble life of Vermont farming and small town life that is isolated from the growing technology of railroads gaining traction not too far away in the rest of New England and America, from birth and into adulthood. But as she writes of his increasing fascination with politics, especially local politics, the reader is drawn into Coolidge’s very New England and independent mind and attitude that would shape his political philosophy to the end of his life.
It is a mind that is at first taken with many of the progressive issues of the day, notably in Coolidge’s world with the working men and women of western Massachusetts, and the demands of fair wages and working conditions. But as the strikes of 1912 shook the town of Lawrence, Massachusetts Coolidge, as its state senator,
“walked away from it all unsure, struck not by the case for or against the strike but by the violence and the cynicism of the strikers; Bread and Roses (the name given to the strike from a poem by James Oppenheim) did not feel, just as the paper said, like Lawrence at all; it felt like something from the outside.” (parenthesis mine)
The result was a move, along with his fellow Republicans, to what would later be called in the candidacy of Richard Nixon, a “law and order” perspective then embraced by President William Taft in the 1912 election. An election that went to Woodrow Wilson due, in part, to Teddy Roosevelt’s third party candidacy.
However, it is in the final five chapters of her work that Shlaes sketches a clear image of Calvin Coolidge that deserves a look not just by the “professionals” of history and political science but also by those who would both agree and disagree with Coolidge’s political philosophy which I would characterized today as libertarian and who are interested in the diverse history of the United States. As she does we are given a portrait of a President, quiet? yes, but also very devoted to paying down the national debt and down sizing the national government. Why? So that America could thrive with fuller employment and improved living standards.
What stood out to me as I read was the resoluteness Coolidge used in standing against progressive forces, including Herbert Hoover who would succeed him as President in 1928, as he fought to limit the federal government’s involvement in American life. It was as resoluteness that would be worn down in the final year of his presidency when the demand for government spending would win out over his desire to keep the national government small and President-elect Hoover’s policies would go in an opposite direction.
Shlaes’ book is a sympathetic but revealing treatment of Coolidge and his life. It shows respect for the issue of character which was very important to Coolidge in light of the scandals of the Harding era. But Shlaes also sketches a clear picture of a changing America in the 1920’s when the demands for development of public works, such as large scale hydroelectric power plants, the need for federal aid during large scale disasters such as the 1926-1927 Mississippi River flood and the 1927 Vermont flood, and the demand for a modernized military was pushing back against Coolidge’s desire to further restrict federal spending and power. A changing America that Coolidge, I believe, found it hard to accept.
I liked this biography of Coolidge. It filled in some important gaps regarding American life and politics of the 1920’s, generally limited it seems, to flappers and the stock market crash of 1929 in many treatments of the period.
I rate this book a “great” read.
Note: I checked out this book from my local library and choose to write a review of it.