On this day in 1924, President Calvin and First Lady Grace Coolidge lose their youngest son. The teenager had been under the care of doctors at Walter Reed Army hospital for several days.
It was an unexpected and shocking tragedy that left the Coolidges devastated.
The 16-year-old boy had been playing tennis on the White House lawn just a few days earlier when he got a seemingly harmless blister. He wasn’t wearing socks that day. Unfortunately, the blister got infected. It’s the type of injury that would be quickly treated with antibiotics today, but back then the infection was life threatening.
Needless to say, Calvin Jr. was soon very ill.
President Coolidge is often remembered as a stoic figure, but his son’s illness left him distraught. How frustrating to hold such a powerful elected position, but to be completely powerless in the one area that matters: Coolidge could not help or cure his own son. He must have been desperate for *something* to do because he soon took an unusual step: He caught a small rabbit in the White House garden and brought it to young Calvin’s room. He knew that his son would love it, and he hoped to bring a moment of cheer.
What an odd time that must have been. Remember, Coolidge had then been in office for less than a year. He was supposed to be celebrating his first Independence Day as President, not hovering by his sick son’s bedside. He was also supposed to be celebrating his own birthday. Coolidge was the only American President born on July 4.
None of it was to be. Presumably, Coolidge was never again able to commemorate his birthday—and the nation’s birthday—without also remembering and mourning those final days with his son.
Future Vice President Charles Dawes remembers passing the door of Calvin’s room at about that time. He saw the President sitting near Calvin Jr.’s bedside. “I think I have never witnessed such a look of agony and despair that was on the president’s face,” Dawes concluded.
Ultimately, Calvin Jr. was unable to overcome the infection. He died of blood poisoning on July 7.
President Coolidge was devastated.
A journalist happened to be with him soon after Calvin Jr. had passed away. The President was crying. “He was not the president of the United States,” newspaperman John Lambert reported. “He was the father, overcome by grief and love for his boy. He wept unafraid, unashamed. The brief moments seemed to bear the age of years.”
In the weeks before Calvin’s death, Coolidge had been nominated by the Republican Party to serve as its nominee during the 1924 election. Coolidge was elected that year, but his heart wasn’t really in it anymore. When the 1928 election came around, no one could convince him to run for a new term.
Did he blame himself for his son’s death? After all, if Coolidge had not been President, there would have been no occasion for a game of tennis at the White House.
“We do not know what might have happened to him under other circumstances,” Coolidge would write, “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.”
Many have suffered tragedy and hardship in service of this great nation of ours. President Calvin Coolidge was no exception.
Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (2013)
Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929)
Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (2012)
White House Tennis Court (White House museum website)