August 3, 1923

Calvin Coolidge Sworn in as President

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1929
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On this day in 1923, upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President of the United States. "Silent Cal" had been the Republican governor of Massachusetts, little known outside the state, until the Boston police strike of 1919 catapulted him into the national spotlight. Coolidge was quick to gain political advantage from the situation. "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time," he proclaimed. In this turbulent period, when many Americans feared the country was being overrun by immigrants, radicals, and militant trade unionists, the voters found his law and order stance and his image as an old-fashioned, rustic Yankee farmer profoundly reassuring. Within a year of the strike, Coolidge was elected Vice President.

It was his campaign aides who transformed Coolidge's quirky Yankee ways into vote-winning virtues.

As his name suggests, John Calvin Coolidge came from old Puritan Yankee stock. He grew up in rural Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The son of a storekeeper, Coolidge was practical, hardworking, frugal, conservative, and moralistic. A Puritan in mind and manner, he had little personal charm. But as he worked his way up in politics, it became clear that Coolidge's deep roots in rural New England and his stolid nature could work to his advantage. He exemplified the self-reliant simplicity of an earlier America. The writer Sinclair Lewis once said, "He may not shoot off a lot of fireworks, but do you know what he is? He's SAFE."

Coolidge may have been the first U.S. president elected by voters responding to what they perceived to be his personal qualities rather than his position on political issues. The nation was reassured by a plain spoken Vermont farmer taking the oath of office on the family bible by lantern light in his boyhood home.

But Calvin Coolidge was never a Vermont farmer. Nor was he rustic or simple. He was a determined, driven man, who lived for politics. It was his campaign aides who transformed Coolidge's quirky Yankee ways into vote-winning virtues. Coolidge was only too happy to go along.

The writer Sinclair Lewis once said, "He may not shoot off a lot of fireworks, but do you know what he is? He's SAFE."

Coolidge left Vermont at the age of 19 to attend Amherst College; for the rest of his life, Massachusetts was home. He had no interest in farming, but growing up the son of a shrewd and industrious merchant gave him a deep respect for business. His father's industry and frugality — traits that his son shared — made it possible for Coolidge to earn his degree at Amherst and then apprentice with a law firm in Northampton, the Hampshire County seat. The town would remain his home for the rest of his life.

In 1898 Coolidge set up his own law firm on Main Street and practiced law in Northampton for the next two decades. In 1905 he married Grace Goodhue, a teacher at the Clarke School for the Deaf. They rented half of a modest two-family house, where they would live for most of their married life. There they raised their two sons, John and Calvin. The family did not own a car, used a party-line phone, and rarely entertained.

He was hardworking, parsimonious, and self-contained, but he was not simple. He was astute about local politics and almost immediately set his foot on the first rung of the political ladder. He never stopped climbing. He began with an appointment to the Republican City Committee. In the next eight years, he served as city solicitor, clerk of the courts, chairman of the Republican City Committee, and finally state representative. After two years in the legislature, he was elected mayor of Northampton. In 1911 he returned to Beacon Hill as a state senator.

He was astute about local politics and almost immediately set his foot on the first rung of the political ladder. He never stopped climbing.

Other Republican politicians had begun to take note. The Berkshire paper baron Murray Crane and Boston department store magnate Frank Stearns became supporters. A fellow Amherst graduate, Stearns rallied alumni to help Coolidge unseat the latest in a long line of Harvard-educated governors. Crane and Stearns realized that Coolidge's image as a "common man" would be an effective counter-weight to the Democrats' more populist policies. Coolidge did his part, building a reputation as a dependable, reliable, conservative leader while carefully calculating the consequences of each move.

In 1918 Coolidge was elected Governor of Massachusetts. One year later, with the nation facing labor unrest and fearful of anarchy, radicalism, and violence, Boston erupted in rioting when the police went on strike. Coolidge waited until violence and looting had peaked before stepping in to restore order. The press celebrated him as an heroic defender of law and order; his name became a household word.

Two months later, he met New York advertising genius Bruce Barton. For the next decade, Barton would devote himself to shaping Coolidge's public image. He cast him as the solid, dependable Yankee farmer with unimpeachable Puritan credentials who could be counted on to uphold moral standards; his was the voice of "this great silent majority."

He cast him as the solid, dependable Yankee farmer with unimpeachable Puritan credentials who could be counted on to uphold moral standards; his was the voice of "this great silent majority."

Coolidge was the overwhelmingly popular choice for reelection in 1924. For the next four years Barton continued to promote Coolidge as an old-fashioned Yankee standing firm in the rush of a modern, scandal-ridden age. Coolidge, as Barton portrayed him, was a man who had "spent his whole life amid the traditions of the forefathers, and is himself a kind of an embodiment of those traditions, a kind of contemporary forefather."

Coolidge did not run for reelection in 1928. As Herbert Hoover took the oath of office, Coolidge returned to his modest home in Northampton. He could only watch as his image as the "wise, strong, silent Cal" fell victim, along with so much else, to the stock market crash and Great Depression.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XI, Supplement One.

"The Man Nobody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Construction of Calvin Coolidge," in A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2000, ed. by Kerry Buckley (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004).

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