This Day in History: “Silent Cal” passes away
On this day in 1933, President Calvin Coolidge passes away. He was a man known for his dedication to the Constitution and his determination to keep the government as small as possible. Perhaps a lover of small government is inclined to be less than generous in the number of words he uses?! Coolidge earned the nickname “Silent Cal” because he was frugal with his words, as well.
One anecdote about Coolidge is based on exactly this point.
“I have made a bet, Mr. Coolidge, that I could get more than two words out of you,” one lady apparently remarked to Silent Cal at a dinner one evening.
His response? “You lose.” (Ha.)
Silent Cal made a huge impact on the country during his time in office. The national debt LOWERED from $22.3 billion to $16.9 billion. He accomplished this feat while cutting the top tax rate in half! Better yet, the federal budget had a surplus and unemployment remained low. The economy thrived. It truly was the Roaring 20’s.
Yes, I know. At this point, some readers are thinking: But Coolidge caused the Great Depression! I recommend Amity Shlaes’s work if you’d like to read the counter argument to that perspective on history. Potentially, a few stock market crashes during Coolidge’s administration could have turned into longer depressions—and yet they didn’t.
Would his approach (different from Herbert Hoover’s) have prevented a longer depression if he’d been President during the stock market crash of 1929?
Obviously, we can never REALLY know.
Hoover was in office at the time of that stock market crash because Silent Cal had famously declined to run for one last term. In 1927, Coolidge had issued a rather simple statement to the press: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
Coolidge later gave several reasons for his decision, but one stands out. Coolidge suggested that it would be difficult to stay in office for too long without losing perspective.
“It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion,” he observed. “They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.”
He concluded with a statement that showed that he, at least, was not there yet.
“While I had a desire to be relieved of the pretensions and delusions of public life, it was not because of any attraction of pleasure or idleness. We draw our Presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
Truly one of our underappreciated Presidents.
Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (2013)
Charles C. Johnson, Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President (2013)
Neil A. Hamilton, Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary (2005) (2d ed.)