Published March 10, 2013
Calvin Coolidge did all the things we’d like to see a politician do today: Coolidge cut the federal budget, cut taxes, and vetoed spending bills. He acted on principle when public-sector unions challenged the public safety. Finally, Coolidge left the presidency with a higher reputation than it had enjoyed upon his arrival.
What enabled Coolidge to do all these difficult things, to succeed where other politicians fail, was his faith.
Calvin Coolidge wasn’t as vocal as some presidents about his religious belief. But that faith was real, strong enough to help him surmount personal setbacks, to make unpopular decisions, and to restrain his own vanity and so govern better.
Coolidge spent his childhood steeped in religion. The Vermonter grew up among northern Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists. His own ancestors constructed the simple clapboard church in their town, Plymouth Notch. His grandfather encouraged his first reading by having Coolidge read to him from the Gospel of John.
No regular minister served Plymouth Notch, but growing up Coolidge was taught Sunday school by his grandmother. Before his mother’s death, and perhaps after, prayers sessions took place in the Coolidge home. Even food preparation had a religious flavor. Among the Coolidge recipes I found while reviewing documents at the Vermont State Archive was one for “Scripture Cake”:
One Cup of Butter: Judges 5:25
Three and One Half Cups of Flour: I Kings 4;25
Two cups Sugar: Jeremiah 6:20…
Coolidge attended a Baptist boarding school, followed by a stint at St. Johnsbury Academy, where he attended at least one service with the “Congos,” as he called them – Congregationalists. He matriculated at Amherst College, a school originally founded for the education of Protestant ministers. As a young lawyer in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge met his future wife, Grace, a member of the Edwards Church, and followed her to services there.
Coolidge didn’t join a church until very late, well into the presidency. But from an early age he came to lean on his faith as a support in hard times. His mother and sister both had died while he was young, and he carried a lock of his mother’s hair with him, a symbol of the afterlife and his expectation that he would join her.
While in the White House, another tragedy befell Coolidge. His son Calvin developed a blister from playing tennis on the White House courts. The blister led to sepsis and he died within a week. The Coolidges could not understand the “ways of providence” that had taken Calvin from them. But, as the president later recalled, “my wife and I bowed to the Supreme Will and with such courage as we had went on in the discharge of our duties.”
As president, Coolidge started the tradition of a national Christmas tree as a symbol of America’s faith. After his son’s death, Coolidge could not bear to see any living thing die. He decided that the national Christmas tree would be a living tree, tended by gardeners.
Coolidge respected others’ faith as well. And he was acutely aware that government intervention in society, no matter how subtle, could impinge upon the spiritual forces at work there.
Coolidge’s piety gave him an understanding of what we call natural law, the idea that some laws come not from jurists but from above. “Men do not make laws, they do but discover them,” he told fellow lawmakers in Massachusetts while he was still a young politician.
That led Coolidge to veto numerous bills as president, representing his conviction that the souls of people, and the collective of society, fare better when the government refrains.
Even in his tax cutting, Coolidge’s plans reflected faith. He cut taxes, he said in his 1925 inaugural, not only because tax cuts work, but also because high taxes were morally “wrong.”
This Coolidge conception, that a surfeit of earthly laws reflects earthly arrogance, differed mightily from the theory advanced by progressives, who believed in law almost as a religion itself.
One of the most revealing speeches Coolidge made was to Jewish leaders and community philanthropists in 1924. He applauded them for taking care of one another, a good role for any church-related community. “I want you to know that I feel you are making good citizens, that you are strengthening the Government, that you are demonstrating the supremacy of the spiritual life and helping establish the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Coolidge could be wary of individual clergymen, concerned they too might exploit his office or fame. He pointedly refrained from raising money for his church in Washington, First Congregational. But Coolidge did see great value in churches. The Coolidges’ membership at First Congregational gave prominence to the church, which had long been associated with promoting the rights of negroes. During the Coolidge presidency the church invited the singer Marian Anderson to perform a concert, the beginning of steps that would lead to her famous performance on the Mall years later.
In the summer of 1927, Coolidge and his wife attended a little white box of a church in Hermosa, S.D., that resembled the church back home in his boyhood Vermont. The ladies at the church noticed that Grace Coolidge knew every hymn and sang them well. During this same trip Coolidge decided not to run again.
It was a difficult decision, because his policies were a success and because Coolidge, like any president, was getting used to that success. My own sense in looking over his life was that Coolidge’s faith – his understanding that men must always remember that there is a force greater than themselves – played a role in his willingness to turn down his party’s warm invitation to run again.
Coolidge died in 1933. At his funeral, appropriately brief, the guests sang “Lead Kindly Light.” To Coolidge the light of faith had been a beacon all along.
The general tendency of presidential history is to blinker out the faith of presidents. Yet when we do this our accuracy suffers. Coolidge the budgeter or tax cutter provides a useful model for today, but the thirtieth chief executive becomes more useful when we understand the role of faith in his day-to-day policies.