Calvin Coolidge presided over the Roaring Twenties. 

Overview

  • Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States in 1923, after the death of Warren G. Harding. He was elected president in 1924 and served until 1929.
  • Although Coolidge was a fiscally conservative Republican who believed that the size and scope of the federal government should be limited, he held some progressive beliefs and supported women’s suffrage.
  • Coolidge is known for being one of the very few US presidents who left office with a federal debt and budget deficit that was smaller than when he entered office.

The early life of Calvin Coolidge

John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born in Vermont on July 4, 1872, and was the only president in US history to be born on Independence Day. He served in the Vermont House of Representatives and the Vermont Senate, establishing a reputation as a Progressive Republican due to his support for women’s suffrage and the direct election of Senators.
Photograph of Calvin Coolidge.
Calvin Coolidge. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
In 1918, Coolidge ran for governor of Massachusetts, campaigning on a platform of fiscal conservatism, support for female enfranchisement and US involvement in the First World War, and opposition to Prohibition. He won the election by a narrow margin.
As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge pursued policies that reflected both his fiscal conservatism and his social progressivism. He cut state spending, trimmed the public debt, and supported legislation lowering the work week for women and children from fifty-four to forty-eight hours. He also famously vetoed legislation that would have raised the salaries of state legislators by 50 percent. In the Boston Police Strike of 1919, Coolidge deployed the National Guard and asserted control over the police. His approach to the strike gained him national prominence and the admiration of conservative Republicans.1^1

Calvin Coolidge as vice president

In the presidential election of 1920, Coolidge was nominated to run as Vice President on the Republican ticket, alongside presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, a Senator from Ohio. They won in a landslide, garnering over 60 percent of the popular vote—the largest margin of victory since the advent of reliable record-keeping.2^2
Although the office of vice president was largely ceremonial, Coolidge became the first vice president in US history to be invited to sit in on cabinet meetings.3^3 Despite Coolidge’s public speaking skills, he developed a reputation as a taciturn man, earning the nickname “Silent Cal.”
On August 2, 1923, while on a speaking tour of the Western states, President Harding died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Harding had been a popular president, and the nation was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his death. Coolidge took the oath of office and ascended to the presidency on August 3.

The presidency of Calvin Coolidge

As president, Coolidge immediately set to work on cutting taxes and reducing federal spending. In 1924, he signed the Immigration Act, which imposed limits on immigration from parts of eastern and southern Europe, though he inserted a statement expressing personal disapproval of the clause that specifically excluded Japanese immigrants.4^4
In 1924, Coolidge ran for president in his own right, on the Republican Party ticket. He won the popular vote and almost every state outside of the South. During his second term in office, the country experienced a period of economic growth and low unemployment. Coolidge subscribed to the laissez-faire ideology of free-market capitalism, and his administration lowered income tax rates, cut spending, and limited federal regulation of the economy. The federal debt and budget deficit shrank, and the economy boomed.5^5 Some have argued, however, that Coolidge’s laissez-faire approach to the economy brought on the Great Depression.6^6
In foreign policy, the Coolidge administration was hesitant to cultivate alliances with foreign powers. Coolidge himself was ambivalent about US entry into the League of Nations. Though he did not oppose the League in principle, he doubted that it would effectively serve American interests. His major foreign policy initiative was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was an agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Italy, and Germany to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Though the pact did not stave off a second world war, it did constitute one of the enduring principles of international law in the postwar period.7^7
Coolidge chose not to run for re-election in the 1928 presidential campaign. He was succeeded in office by Herbert Hoover, a Republican who had served as Secretary of Commerce in the Coolidge administration.

What do you think?

How would you characterize the Coolidge administration’s approach to the economy and labor relations?
Was Coolidge more of a conservative or a Progressive?
Do you think Coolidge was an effective president? Why or why not?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See Francis Russell, A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1975).
  2. Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1998), 206.
  3. Sobel, Coolidge, 208-209.
  4. For more, see Izumi Hirobe, Japanese Pride, American Prejudice: Modifying the Exclusion Clause of the 1924 Immigration Act (California: Stanford University Press, 2002).
  5. Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013),
  6. For instance, Robert H. Ferrell, The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998).
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