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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 548

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This is the grave of Calvin Coolidge.

Born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Coolidge’s mind never extended beyond the limited views of a small northern New England valley. One of the most depressingly taciturn and reactionary figures in American history, Coolidge’s rise and presidency says much about the fundamentally provincial and revanchist American national character. Coolidge’s father was a prosperous farmer and Vermont political figure. Coolidge went to Amherst College and then moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to practice law. Too cheap to pay for law school, he apprenticed instead and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1897. He was a pretty boring but successful commercial lawyer who took on a lot of banks as clients. His interests never really moved beyond this.

Coolidge entered politics as a local rich guy Republican, working first for William McKinley’s campaign in 1896 and then winning a seat on the Northampton City Council in 1898. He then served two terms as city solicitor. He lost election to the school board in 1904, the only election he ever lost. In 1906, he was sent to the statehouse and served a couple of one-year terms, making powerful allies within the Massachusetts Republican Party, before returning to Northampton to become mayor. In 1911, Coolidge returned to Boston as a state senator. He wasn’t particularly notable, but he was competent and Republicans liked him, so he continued to rise in the party. In 1915, he won election as lieutenant governor, basically to be a western Republican to serve as a balance to the Boston-based power of the party. Massachusetts had one-year terms for all its offices at this time, which meant constant running for reelection. He won a couple of times and than ran for governor in 1918. To the extent Coolidge really had a platform–and it’s notable that I haven’t really brought up much about ideas or policies to this point, for they largely weren’t that important to him or the voters–he generally supported women’s suffrage, sort of opposed Prohibition but didn’t care much, and really was all in for fiscal conservatism and pro-business policies. It was the latter that would really matter.

In 1919, the Boston police went on strike. They had good reason to do so, as I have laid out in great detail in the labor history series. The idea of strikes to someone as reactionary as Coolidge was anathema; the idea of government workers striking even more so, and the idea of the police striking was completely unacceptable. After all, if the cops had unions and developed some sense of class solidarity, would they serve their key function of beating up unionists and protecting scabs? So Coolidge fired them all, took personal control of the police force, and mobilized the National Guard to “restore order.” This made him nationally famous at a moment of rapid reaction during the Red Scare. Finally, lots of people thought, someone was standing up tough to these evil unions. This utterly bland politician with zero charisma or national profile all of a sudden became a hero to a deeply reactionary nation.

So when Warren Harding, another non-entity, was nominated for the presidency by the Republicans in 1920, Coolidge became the VP to provide that law-and-order business conservative balance to whatever Harding was. This was something of an upset. The party bosses had no interest in him because he had become a folk hero to the extremely conservative delegates who hated unions. So he replaced the bosses’ favorite, the well-named Irving Lenroot, a senator from Wisconsin, on the ticket.

Coolidge was a complete non-entity as VP, though he was the first one to attend Cabinet meetings. A terrible public speaker, no one wanted to hear him and when he did speak, no one really cared what he had to say. He was atrocious in Washington society, a man who hated talking to anyone. The highly opinionated Alice Roosevelt Longworth noted, “When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle.” What did not happen is the supposed situation where a woman said, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you” and then he replied, “You lose.” But that was not a later rumor. It was going around Washington while he was still VP.

Anyway, in 1923, Harding dropped dead and Coolidge became president. While in the White House, Coolidge’s youngest son played tennis on the White House courts without shoes, developed a blister that in turn developed sepsis and he died within a week. Perhaps this deepened his indifference toward people and the job of the presidency, though these traits were already fully in existence by the time he took over the job.

The only thing Coolidge really had going for him is that he wasn’t corrupt, which made him close to unique in the Harding administration. Policy-wise, it was the same bog-standard reactionary Republicanism of the 1920s. Restricting immigration was at the top of the agenda and Coolidge gladly signed the Immigration Act of 1924 that ended most immigration of those scary Italians and Poles and Jews that threatened the white Yankee nationhood that the paranoid minds of Coolidge and his people obsessed over. He vetoed the Bonus Bill that granted pensions to World War I veterans, but Congress overrode it; of course Hoover would get in the way of the nation paying those pensions early just a few years later. The union-busting was still strong for Coolidge of course. He hated all regulation of business and appointed people to the relatively new regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission who would do nothing to stop business from doing whatever it wanted, creating a model of regulatory capture so beloved by today’s Republicans. At least as governor, despite the unionbusting, Coolidge has opposed child labor, but he absolutely did not support the Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution since he believed the federal government had no role in regulating if 7 year olds worked 12 hour days in coal mines and textile mills. Of course, current Republicans are moving back toward similar ideas. Coolidge and his odious Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon pushed the absurd idea that lowering taxes on the rich would bring in more money to the government, another beloved ideas of modern conservatives.

In other words, Coolidge is the beta test for modern conservatism.

Coolidge went far to alienate the traditional northern farmer base of the Republican Party by refusing to support farm subsidies, openly the way for Henry Wallace to bring them into the Democratic coalition during the New Deal, however briefly. He only very reluctantly supported any federal plan to prevent flooding in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi flood. He said a few words in favor of civil rights for African-Americans, but didn’t do a single thing for them, including what was in his power such as reversing the segregation of government buildings instituted in the McKinley through Wilson era (the latter gets the blame for most it, but McKinley, TR, and Taft all hold plenty of responsibility too). Like any good isolated American with a closed mind, Coolidge both knew nothing about the rest of the world and didn’t want to know anything about the rest of the world. Basically, Coolidge just continued the foreign policy of his predecessors, largely because he didn’t want to think about it. After all, what was important outside of Plymouth Notch and maybe Northampton if you are some kind of sketchy cosmopolitan type? He did sign the bill to grant Native Americans citizenship, which was mostly unnecessary by this time since the large majority had already obtained it, but obviously such a bill needed to happen on principle. And it led to this:

Coolidge actually spent a lot of time in South Dakota and the Lakota adopted him into the tribe in 1927. But don’t worry, Coolidge was not some pro-Native politician we can admire.

Coolidge was not unfamiliar with their efforts. At his Lakota adoption, he had been welcomed by tribal leader Henry Standing Bear (who, with Chauncy Yellow Robe, had been a founding member of the Society for American Indians.) The president also knew of Charles A. Eastman—a Santee Dakota writer and physician—well enough to support his appointment as U.S. Indian Inspector, the official responsible for conditions on reservations. In December 1923, the president met with 66 members of the Committee of One Hundred—presumably to acknowledge the importance of their work—and posed for pictures with them on the White House lawn. One photograph taken that day shows Coolidge with Ruth Muskrat, a Cherokee student and activist at Mount Holyoke College, and Rev. Sherman Coolidge (no relation), an Arapaho educator who lectured widely on Indian issues. Muskrat presents the president with a copy of The Red Man in the United States, a 1919 book that helped bring attention to American Indian poverty and health and education disparities. In a speech, Muskrat appealed to Coolidge for schools that could lead Indians “back to their rightful heritage of nobility and greatness.” Afterwards, she joined Coolidge and his wife for lunch.

Throughout the 1920s, legislators, officials, and Native and non-Native reformers tried to publicize conditions on reservations, failures within the Office of Indian Affairs, and other key concerns of Indian rights activists. But Coolidge never understood that paternalism and federal Indian policy was the real issue. He addressed the “Indian problem” in his 1927 and 1928 annual messages to Congress, but noted only that despite improvements on reservations “still there remains much to be done,” and that “the administration of Indian affairs has been receiving intensive study for several years.”

Such remarks were masterpieces of understatement. Coolidge had fielded many complaints about Office of Indian Affairs Commissioner Charles Burke over a number of years, but never called for the corrupt administrator’s dismissal. Coolidge signed 1924’s Indian Citizenship Act—a bill that extended birthright citizenship to all American Indians, and which is regarded as a legislative milestone—yet the Act neither automatically granted Indians the right to vote (this was determined by states), nor did it fundamentally change the U.S.-American Indian relationship, which had been defined by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1831 decision Cherokee Nation v. Georgia. Marshall had written that Native nations were “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. government resembled that of a “ward to a guardian.”

Coolidge vetoed legislation that would have allowed tribes to file suits in the U.S. Court of Claims, a crucial priority for Indian rights activists and tribal leaders. And he is most severely criticized for not halting the continued implementation of the devastating General Allotment Act of 1887. Intended to integrate Indians into American society as land-owning farmers, the Dawes Act, as it was also known, allowed the government to divide communally held tribal land west of the Mississippi into parcels or allotments and assign them to individual Indian heads of families. Unassigned allotments were deemed “surplus” tribal land and opened up to non-Indian settlement. Over 90 million acres of tribal land was taken from American Indians under this legislation.

It’s difficult to state how utterly uncharismatic Coolidge was. Interestingly, he was the first president to be filmed using sound. And, yeah…….

This is the greatest sleep aid in American political history.

Coolidge could have run for a full second term, but decided against it while on vacation in the Black Hills. In the aftermath, he retired back to Northampton, had a brief newspaper column, and was the subject of rumors in 1932 that he would replace Hoover as the Republican nominee. I find that amusing because of the idea that the American public really just wanted Coolidge policies in 1932. It took a long time for Republicans to realize that Americans hated them for the policies, not just for Herbert Hoover. Unfortunately, that lesson was slowly unlearned. Coolidge died of coronary thrombosis in 1933.

Calvin Coolidge is buried in Plymouth Notch Cemetery, Plymouth Notch, Vermont.

If you would like this series to visit some of the Cabinet members of the Coolidge years, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. These will be exciting visits in the history of American conservatives doing nothing good. Secretary of War Dwight Davis is at Arlington and his VP Charles Dawes is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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