The climb to the White House: 100 years ago today, Northampton’s Calvin Coolidge rose to the presidency

By BOB FLAHERTY

For the Gazette

Published: 08-02-2023 7:22 PM

One hundred years ago last night, Vice President Calvin Coolidge of Northampton went to bed. He and his wife Grace had taken leave of Washington and were visiting his father in rural Plymouth Notch, Vermont, sleeping in the very house he’d grown up in.

Though the place had neither telephone nor electricity, the vice president had received encouraging telegrams from the general store across the road indicating that President Warren G. Harding, being treated for exhaustion in San Francisco, was feeling much better.

The pounding on the door shook the house. Someone was out there hollering about Harding being dead and that Coolidge should be sworn in with great haste. It was the husband of a long-distance operator in a nearby town who took the message and ran with it. The Coolidges got dressed.

Though Harding’s exhaustion was thought to have been caused by a grueling trip through Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, the rumors of massive corruption within his administration were just starting to surface. Teapot Dome and the Ohio Gang were about to enter the public lexicon as rapidly as Watergate.

At any rate, Harding had been feeling better, right up until, as the New York Times screamed: HARDING DIES SUDDENLY; STROKE OF APOPLEXY. CAME WITHOUT WARNING.

Coolidge had aides wake Florence Cilley at the general store and established contact with Washington. His first dispatch was to Supreme Court Chief Justice and former President William H. Taft, in an effort to ascertain whether the elder Coolidge, a notary public, was qualified to administer the oath of office. The rapid reply: “Perfectly legal. Best wishes. Taft.”

The Coolidge’s youngest son Calvin Jr. was back home working on a Hatfield tobacco farm while his older brother John was a cadet at Camp Devens.

At 2:47 in the morning of Aug. 3, in a scene lit by kerosene lamp, John Coolidge swore in his son as the 30th president of the United States.

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And then the president famously went back to bed, advising others to do the same. He and his wife, along with his chauffeur and an aide, would be up at dawn for the drive to Rutland to grab the train to Washington. The president prayed at his mother’s grave and they were off.

He is next seen posing with the First Lady at the White House, a black armband on his coat sleeve.

Celebrating a local celeb

The shock and grief of losing a president, and getting one Americans barely knew did not lend itself to celebration, a far cry from the bash Northampton put on for then Gov. Coolidge when he was nominated for vice president three years earlier.

“Will you accept?” the press pressed him.

“Well I guess I have to,” he said, in his typical way.

The Gazette headline: COOLIDGE ACCEPTS NOMINATION. GOVERNOR MOWS HIS LAWN.

From the coverage: “Doc” Plummer stood all morning on the steps of his half of the duplex on Massasoit Street that he shared with the Coolidges, expressing chagrin that he paid a dollar more in rent for his half and that “he was tired of having his hand squeezed and his arm pumped up and down by strangers who insisted upon greeting him as Governor.”

Some 20,000 people filled downtown Hamp and paraded the nominee all the way to Smith College and Allen Field. He gave a short speech but didn’t exactly body surf the crowd.

He later remarked: “We need more of the office desk and less of the show-window in politics.”

He also returned to the State House the Monday following the convention to finish his job as governor, offering assistance to the campaign “only as his duties in Boston may permit.” Running mates ain’t what they used to be. Running mates in general were (and are) picked strategically to “balance” a ticket. They were then supposed to go and hide somewhere until such time as balancing again becomes necessary.

The veep

“It struck me how little people thought of the competency of the vice president,” said Michael Gerhardt, author of “Forgotten Presidents,” during a panel discussion last month hosted by Bill Scher of Washington Monthly and the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum. “No president inherited such a massive plate of scandals as Coolidge. He handled it as well as anybody ever handled it. He had certain qualities that served him well in a circumstance that was rife with the potential for chaos.”

Author Nathan Masters, during his research into the Harding scandals for his book “Crooked,” came away with newfound admiration for Coolidge.

“He had commitment to higher principles at the expense of his political well-being. He seemed to think that public service was one of the highest purposes in life. Today, from a perch a hundred years later that seems a little quaint. But I was impressed.”

The stringent Immigration Act of 1924 that Coolidge signed into law, practically slamming the door on Asian immigrants, is seen as the low mark of the president’s administration as well as missteps that may have led to the Great Depression that shortly followed his presidency.

“He’s firing the engine of the economy so strong it’s going to burn out and he’s not going to see that it’s going to burn out,” Gerhardt said. “Calvin Coolidge has to take responsibility for the fact that when the economy goes down it really goes down.”

Climbing the ladder

Silent Cal, as the short-cut press called him, had a dry sense of humor and a policy of not wasting any hot air impugning his opponents, a thing unimaginable in 2023.

Coolidge historian Richard Szlosek of Northampton believes it started back in 1895 when Coolidge graduated from Amherst College, the place where he honed his debating skills.

“He was supposed to give this speech, the purpose of which was to satirize his classmates,” Szlosek said. “He was wonderfully successful at it, but didn’t really care for it. As a result, he never campaigned negatively and barely mentioned his rivals.”

After college Coolidge came to Northampton to study at Forbes Library, which had only opened the year before. Coolidge had heard about Judge Forbes’ personal collection of law books, and dug into its volumes by candlelight. He had already started his political career by the time he met Grace Goodhue, a teacher at the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. They married in 1905. After losing a school committee election because voters didn’t want someone who had no kids, he said, “You might give me time.”

Coolidge’s career, though devoid of naked ambition, is a primer for rising through the ranks. In 11 short years he went from mayor of Northampton to the State Senate to lieutenant governor, governor and vice president. In a 1914 speech to the State Senate, Coolidge cautioned: “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.” This caused his name to be bandied about for statewide office. He rose to the Senate presidency by championing women’s suffrage.

In 1919 as governor, inserting himself into the police strike in Boston, he backed the police commissioner who had fired cops who had tried to start a union. When famed labor leader Samuel Gompers tried to reason with Coolidge that the strike was caused by the over-reaction of the commissioner, Coolidge fired back: “Your assertion that the commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”

The statement went viral, if that was a word in 1919, and Coolidge was suddenly a national figure. Many Americans trembled at the idea of strikes, fearing that such uprisings would lead to the second coming of the Russian revolution in their own backyard.

In Boston Gov. Coolidge was a pariah. “He lost Suffolk County after that but carried the rest of the state,” said Julie Bartlett Nelson, archivist at the Coolidge Museum.

“As president, he was popular, likeable, and the country was looking for a calming presence,” Nelson said. “He paid off war debt, balanced the budget every year he was in, got federal aid for flood victims and granted citizenship for Native Americans. People tend to forget the presidents between wars.”

“But it’s hard to overlook the signing of the Immigration Act,” said Nelson “It’s difficult to teach, difficult to explain that time period.”

It’s also a period where a president, in his own country, had to speak out, unsuccessfully, in favor of legislation to outlaw lynching, the Ku Klux Klan’s practice of hanging Black people without judge or jury. And we think legislation is slow on guns and global warming.

Tragedy strikes

The low-key but popular president, who most pundits in 1923 predicted would serve out Harding’s term and go home to Northampton, breezed to his party’s nomination in 1924. And then Calvin Jr., age 16, played tennis with his brother on the White House courts without wearing socks. He developed a blister on his toe and raging fever and infection set in. Sepsis.

“We don’t have penicillin yet,” Nelson said. “The treatment for blisters then was to lance it, which we now know not to do. Infection spreading. He’s at Walter Reed. The president, who has access to anything and anybody, can’t save his child.”

“A Greek tragedy, it happened so quick,” said Szlosek. “He’d gotten the nomination end of June, his birthday was July 4, he’s 52 years old, sitting on top of the world, three days later his son is gone.”

“When he went,” wrote Calvin Coolidge in his autobiography, “the power and the glory of the presidency went with him.”

Though it would be three years before Coolidge uttered his famous “I choose not to run” line over seeking another term, the heartbroken president had already decided that in July of 1924.

“His was a tormented presidency,” Nelson said. “He blamed his political ambition for his son’s death.”

But as he urged his colleagues in that speech of 1914, “Do the day’s work.”

Private citizen,Northampton

Coolidge still maintains his office at 25 Main, walking from his home at The Beeches. He wrote his daily syndicated newspaper column, Calvin Coolidge Says, from that office in 1930 and 1931, made some dough. Grace was very active at Edwards Church and volunteering at Clarke fundraisers.

“During Coolidge’s White House years, the First Lady visited Northampton far more often than the president, but they usually came back to vote,” Nelson said.

When he was governor he stayed in a Boston hotel — Massachusetts doesn’t have a governor’s mansion — while Grace stayed with the kids here. Came home weekends.

Even when he wasn’t here, people would drive up and down Massasoit craning for a presidential glimpse. About every six seconds it was estimated by that guy next door. “That’s why they bought The Beeches in 1930,” said Szlosek. The Coolidges had always been renters up to that point. “He had hangups about debt. His father was a tax collector, here’s this little kid going around with his father, watching him have to foreclose on mortgages … He saw property repossessed. He saw how easily you could lose a home.”

“His salary as president was $75,000,” Nelson said. “As vice president it was 12. As a lawyer it was 8. The state Senate was in session only half the year. He had anxiety over money most of his career.”

A lost election meant a loss of income, a risk, in his mind, that didn’t jive with taking on mortgages.

As Northampton moved from a Republican enclave to a Democratic one, he sort of faded into a name you’d say to give directions to the Coolidge Bridge. It didn’t do much for his legacy in left-leaning Hamp to be hailed by Republican President Ronald Reagan as his favorite president.

When Reagan was presented with the Calvin Coolidge Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award, he spoke of their parallel administrations: “There were no wars, a period of low inflation, high prosperity and the easing of federal controls of business.” He also made a point of thanking “all the fine citizens of Northampton” for the award.

Nelson wants more of Calvin Coolidge. The autobiography’s OK but doesn’t go deep enough. “There’s no diary for either one of them. Can’t you see him reflecting on his life, the Depression, if he could have foreseen World War II? And why, WHY did he choose not to run? I wish we’d find a diary beneath someone’s floorboards or something.”

Ghost house

Of those floorboards, the couple who’s owned The Beeches since 1989, author and former City Councilor Rita Bleiman and retired ophthalmologist Bruce Bleiman, say they haven’t found a darn thing related to Coolidge.

“There was a locked closet under a stairwell,” said Bruce. “We thought for sure something was hidden away. Our son came over — who knew he could pick a lock? — but there was nothing there at all.”

Rita says it’s mere happenstance that an author who’s published two novels about Texas/Washington sex and intrigue and worked for Vice President Mondale and waved to President Kennedy as a high school kid in Dallas seconds before he was shot, now lives in a late president’s house. “Absolutely! We were just looking for a secluded place with a view.”

“Ironically we lived on Massasoit,” said Bruce, “couple houses down from where the Coolidges rented a duplex. Not typical of a president, then or now.”

The seven-bedroom home has been described in newspapers as having 14 bedrooms, which drove Bruce so crazy he wouldn’t talk to the media. In Coolidge’s day they called it a 17-bedroom monolith.

“It must be,” said Coolidge. “I keep reading about it in the paper.”

Coolidge lived only three years at The Beeches, and died there of coronary thrombosis in 1933, age 60. The Boston Globe once called it a haunted house but the Bleimans have heard no ghostly groans, or even fragments of speeches. Nothing.

“He was as quiet in death as he was in life,” said Rita Bleiman.

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