This Day in History: Keep Cool with Coolidge
On about this day in 1924, Calvin Coolidge visits his family home in Vermont. He needed a break from his presidential campaign. He was also still mourning the recent death of his 16-year-old son.
Did you know that Coolidge had a teenage son who died less than a month after the Republican Party named Coolidge as its 1924 nominee?
The younger Coolidge had been playing tennis on the White House lawn when he got a seemingly harmless blister. He wasn’t wearing socks that day. Unfortunately, the blister got infected, and Calvin, Jr. died of blood poisoning on July 7, 1924.
His father was devastated, to say the least.
“We do not know what might have happened to him under other circumstances,” Coolidge later wrote, “but if I had not been President he would not have raised a blister on his toe . . . . The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”
The young Calvin’s death cast a shadow over a campaign that had otherwise been going well.
Mere weeks earlier, his father had won the Republican nomination in a landslide. The party convention that year was pretty much the opposite of the 2016 convention. In fact, it was downright boring! Coolidge easily won the nomination on the first ballot with 96% of the votes cast.
How’s that for unity in a convention?!
The Democratic Convention was not nearly as peaceful. To the contrary, the convention ran for 16 days—the longest convention ever! It took 103 ballots before the delegates were finally able to agree on a nominee, John W. Davis. Even then, the party was so split that a third-party run was mounted under a Progressive label.
The oddest part? The third-party progressive candidate was none other than Robert La Follette, a Senator who had originally tried to obtain the Republican nomination. La Follette ended up running to the left of both major party candidates, and he took more votes away from Davis than Coolidge.
Success in the Electoral College requires coalition-building, and Coolidge worked towards this in many ways. A letter that he wrote to his running mate gives an interesting glimpse into his thinking:
“If you keep as much as you can to an expression of general principles, rather than attempting to go into particular details of legislation, you will save yourself from a great deal of annoying criticism. More people will agree with you if you say we ought to have protection, than if you begin to discuss various schedules. More people will favor opposition to high surtaxes, than the adherence to specific rates.”
In other words, keep people focused on their similarities, not their differences.
It worked. Most voters wanted to continue with Coolidge. The country was doing well. They liked their incumbent President and believed him to be an honest man. “He somehow managed to be both an average American and a likeable eccentric,” one group of historians concludes.
Well, maybe so! When Coolidge was on his August vacation in Vermont, he was memorably photographed bailing hay into a wagon. He did so in overalls—even as he wore a more expensive brown hat.
In the end, Coolidge won in a landslide. He earned 382 electoral votes, compared to Davis’s 136 and La Follette’s 13.
The victory must have been bittersweet to Coolidge. He began the campaign with a son who was gone by the time it ended.
Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (2013)
CQ Press, Presidential Elections 1789-2008 (10th ed. 2009)
Gil Troy et al., History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008 (4th Edition 2011)
Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns (rev ed. 1996) (updated version available HERE)