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The President Whose Greatness Came from His Restraint: The Story of President Calvin Coolidge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 28, 2023 3:04 am

The President Whose Greatness Came from His Restraint: The Story of President Calvin Coolidge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 28, 2023 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, at 2:47 a.m. on August 3rd, 1923 Calvin Coolidge was administered the oath of office by his father in the light of a kerosene lamp in the small town in which he was born; Plymoth Notch, Vermont. It was the culmination of a life well lived. Here to tell the story of our 30th President is Matthew Denhart and Tracy Messer—the world's greatest Coolidge impersonator—with the story.

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Our American Stories
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Calvin Coolidge was born July 4th, 1872. He was born in his parents' small house, in fact, in his parents' bedroom on the very bed on which they slept in the small village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The village of Plymouth Notch was tiny, but very beautiful. The mountains surround the notch, as they call it. It's very picturesque.

Maple trees surround on the mountains, so mapling in the spring was a popular and necessary activity. It was said that Calvin was able to get more maple sap out of a tree than most of the other youngsters in Plymouth Notch. When he was growing up, there would have been only a few dozen residents, that is to say, a number of families and no more. It was rather isolated. The people there were primarily farmers and some small merchants. Here's Calvin Coolidge on Plymouth Notch.

The neighborhood around the Notch was made up of people of exemplary habits. Their speech was clean and their lives were above reproach. They had no mortgages on their farms. If any debts were contracted, they were promptly paid. Credit was good and there was money in the savings bank.

The break of day saw them stirring. Their industry continued until twilight. Coolidge's own father was probably a good example of the kind of work that was done in Plymouth. He ran the village store. He also was a farmer himself.

His father also was very skilled with his hands. He was a blacksmith. He was also the town tax collector. He was a constable, a justice of the peace, really sort of a model citizen, if you will. Here's Calvin Coolidge on his father, Colonel John Coolidge.

My father, John Calvin Coolidge, ran the country store. He was successful. The annual rent of the whole place was $40. I have heard him say that his merchandise bills were about $10,000 yearly. He had no other expenses. His profits were about $100 per month on the average, so he must have sold on a very close margin. He trusted nearly everybody, but lost a surprisingly small amount. He was a good businessman and a very hard worker and did not like to see things wasted.

He kept the store about 13 years and sold it to my mother's brother, who became a prosperous merchant. In addition to his business ability, my father was very skillful with his hands. The best buggy he had for 20 years was the one he made himself. He had a complete set of tools, ample to do all kinds of building and carpentry work. He knew how to lay bricks and was an excellent stonemason. He kept tools for mending shoes and harness and repairing for water pipes and tinware. He knew how to perform all kinds of delicate operations on domestic animals. The lines he laid out were true and straight and the curves regular. The work he did endured. If there was any physical requirement of country life which he could not perform, I do not know what it was.

From watching him and assisting him, I gained an intimate knowledge of all this kind of work. Calvin Coolidge's mother, Victoria Josephine Coolidge, was named for two empresses. She was important to Calvin. She was a devoted wife, a wonderful mother. She tragically died when Coolidge was only 12 years old.

It brought him great grief. Here's Coolidge writing about her death. It seems impossible that any man could adequately describe his mother.

I cannot describe mine. She was practically an invalid ever after I could remember her, but used what strength she had in lavish care upon me and my sister who was three years younger. There was a touch of mysticism and poetry in her nature which made her love to gaze at the purple sunsets and watch the evening stars. Whatever was grand and beautiful in form and color attracted her. It seems as though the rich green tints of the foliage and the blossoms of the flowers came for her in the springtime. And in the autumn, it was for her that the mountainsides were struck with crimson and gold. When she knew that her end was near, she called us children to her bedside where we knelt down to receive her final pattern blessing. In an hour, she was gone. It was her 39th birthday. I was 12 years old. We laid her away in the bluster and snows of match. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me.

Life never to seem the same again. Coolidge learned so much observing the other adults around him as he was growing up in Plymouth Notch. They were hardy New Englanders, people who believed strongly in service, in citizenship. He noted that they carried themselves with dignity. Everything they did was honest. They believed in community and they had strong faith.

They were especially modest. Coolidge learned from the people in Plymouth Notch that you don't judge your fellow man or woman and other citizens by their wealth or by what they have but instead by their character. Here's Coolidge on the people of Plymouth Notch and how they viewed wealth and class distinctions. They held strongly to the doctrine of equality.

Whenever the hired man or the hired girl wanted to go anywhere, they were always understood to be entitled to my place in the wagon, in which case I remained at home. This gave me a very early training in democratic ideas and impressed upon me very forcibly the dignity and power, if not the superiority of labor. It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. He also often reflected back on his childhood and he didn't believe that he lost out on anything, having grown up in a rural, small place. In fact, he thought that Plymouth Notch imbued in him the kind of values and traits that were necessary to succeed later in life. Here's Coolidge writing about the benefits of growing up in the country. We felt the cold in the winter and had many inconveniences, but we did not mind them because we supposed they were the inevitable burdens of existence. It would be hard to imagine better surroundings for the development of a boy than those which I had. While a wider breadth of training and knowledge could have been presented to me, the mind was given sufficient opportunity thoroughly to digest all that came to it. Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities. If it did not afford me the best that there was, it abundantly provided me the best that there was for me. And you're listening to the story of Calvin Coolidge when we return more of this remarkable life, this country life, here on Our American Story.

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Humiliated, he returned home to Plymouth Notch and spent months helping his father rebuild the countertops in the general store. However, he remained determined to pursue a college education, especially at Amherst. He learned that he could pursue a remedial term at St. Johnsbury Academy, a high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

And through a special program, he was able to gain admittance to Amherst, showcasing his persistence even at a young age. There were two professors who were particularly important to Calvin Coolidge at Amherst. The first was Anson Morse. Morse was a historian and a professor of government. From Morse, Coolidge learned about the proper role of government, the nature of our Constitution, and the relationship, as it should be, between the government and its citizens.

Here's Coolidge writing about Professor Anson Morse. He placed particular emphasis on the era when our institutions had their beginning. Washington was treated with the greatest reverence, and a high estimate was placed on the statesmanlike qualities and financial capacity of Hamilton, but Jefferson was not neglected. In spite of his many vagaries, it was shown that in saving the nation from the danger of falling under the dominion of an oligarchy, and in establishing a firm rule of the people, which was forever to remain, he vindicated the soundness of our political institutions. The whole course was a thesis on good citizenship and good government.

Those who took it came to a clearer comprehension, not only of their rights and liberties, but of their duties and responsibilities. After Amherst College, Coolidge prepared himself to become a lawyer. However, rather than going to law school, he instead read the law. Reading the law meant that he was a clerk in an actual law firm.

That firm was Hammond and Field in Northampton, Massachusetts. He learned from the older lawyers almost as an apprentice would. He read his law books at night in the public library and prepared himself to pass the bar exam. By reading the law, Coolidge was following in the footsteps of another great American president, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, of course, was one of America's greatest lawyers of all time, and he never went to law school. Coolidge was a young lawyer in Northampton, Massachusetts, when he met the love of his life, Grace Anna Goodhue. The story goes that Coolidge was shaving in his first floor apartment when Grace was outside peering through the window and chuckled to herself, seeing this young man struggling to shave. They later would exchange letters in court for a time before becoming married. Here's Coolidge, nearly 25 years later, reflecting on his years of marriage to the love of his life, Grace Coolidge. From our being together, we seemed naturally to come to care for each other. We became engaged the early summer of 1905 and were married at her home in Burlington, Vermont, on October 4th of that year. I have seen so much fiction written on this subject that I may be pardoned for relating the plain facts. We thought we were made for each other.

For almost a quarter of a century, she has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces. Coolidge would quickly get involved in politics. In fact, he served in almost every office imaginable and eventually was elected governor of Massachusetts. There was a good deal of labor unrest around the country and indeed around the world. Here's Coolidge on the growing spirit of radicalism in America in the 1919s. It appeared to me in January 1914 that a spirit of radicalism prevailed which, unless checked, was likely to prove very destructive. It had been encouraged by the opposition and by a large faction of my own party. It consisted of the claim in general that, in some way, the government was to be blamed because everybody was not prosperous, because it was necessary to work for a living, and because our written constitutions, the legislatures, and the courts protected the rights of private owners, especially in relation to large aggregations of property. The previous session had been overwhelmed with a record number of bills introduced, many of them in an attempt to help the employee by impairing the property of the employer. Though anxious to improve the condition of our wage earners, I believe this doctrine would soon destroy business and deprive them of a livelihood.

Coolidge's first great test as a public leader came in 1919. In Boston, the police believed that their pay and conditions were inadequate. The police walked out on strike. Panic ensued. There were riots in the city.

People died. Coolidge took a hard line. Coolidge said, There was no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere. With that, he signaled that he would not hire the striking policemen back, that they would lose their jobs.

In fact, he said that they had abandoned their contract to protect the city. He would help them find new jobs, but he believed that the rule of law was of the utmost importance. The political ramifications of Coolidge's actions in the Boston police strike had the opposite effect from what he had feared. Rather than spelling doom to his political futures, it propelled him to the national stage. He was praised by politicians around the country, even including President Woodrow Wilson. That made Coolidge somewhat of a household name in the coming presidential election. Coolidge was not selected as the Republicans' candidate for president in 1920. However, having caught the nation's attention, Coolidge was named to the vice presidential slot on the 1920 ticket running alongside Warren G. Harding.

On August 2, 1923, while on a trip out west, President Warren Harding tragically died. Calvin Coolidge, vice president, was with grace in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, visiting his father at his boyhood home. Even in those days, Plymouth Notch did not have telephone service or electricity. Word had to be sent by telegram.

It was first received at the next village down from Plymouth, the town of Bridgewater. The dispatcher received the telegram, and he himself drove the news in the middle of the night to Plymouth Notch. He arrived around midnight.

It was pitch black. He knocked on the family's door and gave the news to Calvin's father, Colonel John Coolidge. And you've been listening to Matthew Dennart of the Coolidge Foundation telling the story of Calvin Coolidge and also the Coolidge impersonator, Tracy Messer, reading periodically from Coolidge's remarkable autobiographical memoir. When we come back, more of this remarkable life story from little Plymouth Notch to the White House. Calvin Coolidge's life story continues here on Our American Stories.

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For full prescribing information, please call 1-855-213-2138 or visit Prevnar20.com. And we're back with Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on Calvin Coolidge. When we last left off, President Orangy Harding had died. Coolidge was in Plymouth Notch with his father and family. And again, this is a time when there was no telephone. The messenger had been dispatched from a neighboring town to go to the Coolidge household. Let's pick up where we last left off. He arrived around midnight.

It was pitch black. He knocked on the family's door and gave the news to Calvin's father, Colonel John Coolidge. Here's Calvin Coolidge in his memoir, writing about how he learned that he was president of the United States of America. On the night of August 2nd, 1923, I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs, calling my name. I noticed that his voice trembled.

As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred. His emotion was partly due to the knowledge that a man whom he had met and liked was gone, partly to the feeling that must possess all of our citizens when the life of their president is taken from them. Coolidge was now president and he needed to take the oath of office. Rather than have a grand inauguration, Coolidge did what was practical.

He gathered Grace and his father and a few others who were visiting, bringing them to the family sitting room. Colonel John Coolidge was a notary public, giving him the authority to administer the oath of office to his son. So standing in the family sitting room with the family Bible on the table, Coolidge raised his right hand before the light of a kerosene lamp and took the oath of office, becoming America's 30th president. Asked later why he thought he had the authority to administer the oath, Colonel John Coolidge said, Well, nobody told me I couldn't.

The next morning, Coolidge visited his mother's grave for inspiration and then took the train down to Washington. Coolidge believed the proper course for policy was to follow the policy set forth by President Harding. That meant a return to normalcy, balancing the government's budget, cutting taxes and letting Americans get back to the normal lives after a disruptive progressive period and World War. Coolidge thought that only by getting back to basics would America prosper. It was my desire to maintain about the White House as far as possible an attitude of simplicity and not to engage in anything that had an air of pretentious display. That was my conception of the great office. It carries sufficient power within itself so that it does not require any of the outward trappings of pomp and splendor for the purpose of creating an impression. It has a dignity of its own which makes it self-sufficient. Of course, there should be proper formality and personal relations should be conducted at all times with decorum and dignity and in accordance with the best traditions of polite society.

But there is no need of theatricals. Coolidge believed first in constructive economy. That meant taking the utmost care with the public's money. He was a ferocious budgeter. He balanced the budget of the federal government every year while president.

Coolidge brought the top marginal tax rate on the income tax all the way down to 25%. Wealth comes from industry and from the hard experience of human toil. What is dissipated in waste and extravagance is disloyalty to humanity.

This is by no means a doctrine of parsimony. Both men and nations should live in accordance with their means and devote their substance not only to productive industry, but to the creation of the various forms of beauty and the pursuit of culture which give adornments to the art of life. When I became president, it was perfectly apparent that the key by which the way could be open to national progress was constructive economy. Only by the use of that policy could the high rates of taxation which were retired in our development and prosperity be diminished and the enormous burden of our public debt be reduced.

The results were astounding. We hear about the Roaring Twenties today and they did roar. It was in the 1920s when most American households received electricity. It was in the 1920s when indoor plumbing finally arrived, even in Plymouth Notch. It was also in the 1920s when Americans became so productive that they were able to finally have a day of leisure.

That day became known as Saturday, a day off. Automobiles became much more widespread. This was the era of Henry Ford's assembly line.

This was the era of Thomas Edison and invention. Race relations improved considerably. At the beginning of the decade, the Ku Klux Klan was on the march.

By the end, it was greatly in decline. Tragedy would visit President Coolidge again. It was the summer of 1924. His sons, John Coolidge and Calvin Jr. were visiting the White House.

They went out back to the White House tennis court to play a game. Calvin Jr. was not wearing socks. He developed a blister.

It seemed harmless at first, but soon became infected. The infection would take over his body. Although Calvin Jr. had the best medical care available at the time, not even those doctors could save him. Writing in his memoir, Calvin Coolidge says, In his suffering he was asking me to make him well.

I could not. When he went, the power and the glory of the presidency went with him. With Coolidge's first term nearing an end, he was a shoo-in to be re-elected. Americans were very happy with the job Calvin Coolidge was doing as president. In fact, the Roaring Twenties were often referred to as Coolidge prosperity. The party leaders were almost demanding that Coolidge run, and they wanted an answer.

The press, of course, were also very interested. It was the summer of 1927, and Coolidge and Grace were in South Dakota, the summer White House, escaping the heat of Washington, D.C. Coolidge called a small press conference together. Rather than deliver a major address, he instead handed the newspaperman a small slip of paper.

Upon it, he had earlier written just a few words. Those words read, I do not choose to run for president in 1928. With that, Coolidge made his intention clear. He would do the almost unthinkable, step away from power, from the grandest office in the world, and return to life as a private citizen.

The country was shocked. People wondered, what did he mean by, I do not choose to run for president? Was it that he wanted to be convinced? A few years later, Coolidge would reflect on what he meant by these words in his memoir. Here's Coolidge explaining his decision not to run again. Perhaps I have already indicated some of the reasons why I did not desire to be a candidate to succeed myself. The presidential office takes a heavy toll on those who occupy it and those who adhere to them.

While we should not refuse to spend and be spent in the service of our country, it is hazardous to attempt what we feel is beyond our strength to accomplish. In his memoir, Coolidge said, we draw our presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. Coolidge retired quietly from the presidency in 1929, moving back home to be with the people in his adopted hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. He and Grace moved back into the half of a duplex home on Massasoit Street where they had spent so many years.

The crowds did overwhelm them coming to visit, so they eventually moved into a slightly larger house. Not long after completing his memoir, Calvin Coolidge died in his New England home on January 5th, 1933. The former president was only 60 years old. Coolidge had once said, be brief, above all things, be brief. True to that, his funeral was a mere 22 minutes.

He was buried in the Hillside Cemetery in Plymouth Notch alongside generations of his family before him. You might expect the headstone of a former president to be grand. Coolidge's isn't. Coolidge's headstone is simple. Engraved in the granite is only his name, Calvin Coolidge, and the years of his birth and death. You could be forgiven for not knowing that this is the headstone of a former president. After all, the only markation is the presidential seal engraved quietly at the top of the headstone. And a great job on the production by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks to Matthew Dennart and a special thanks also to the Coolidge impersonator, Tracy Messer, who was doing dramatic readings from Coolidge's remarkable memoir, which weighed in at a mere 246 pages.

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