American history, Amity Shlaes, biographies, book reviews, Calvin Coolidge, Claude Fuess, Donald McCoy, Horace Green, presidential biographies, Presidents, Robert Sobel, Robert Woods, William Allen White
My introduction to Calvin Coolidge on this journey included seven biographies providing nearly 3,000 pages – and almost two months – of entertainment (well…scholarship).
Like many former presidents whose memories are dulled by lazy parodies or unreflective caricatures, Coolidge proved to be more interesting than I initially suspected. Yet he remains far more mysterious than I (or presumably his biographers) would have hoped.
Probably by self-design, Calvin Coolidge is a very difficult person to get to know. It is often recalled that George Washington possessed a demeanor so reserved that his personality was impenetrable to anyone outside his family. Coolidge, on the other hand, possessed a mien so restrained and remote that even the NSA could hardly have deciphered his true inner self.
Based on what I do know of Coolidge, I don’t think he would be the least bit disappointed to know he didn’t quite make my list of the Top 40 former presidents I would love to have over for dinner and drinks. It is fascinating, however, that the woman he married (Grace Goodhue) was well-known for being everything he was not: outgoing, vivacious and incredibly charming.
But, in the end, Coolidge is perhaps most memorable (and commendable) for being something that is in short supply today: a politician who means what he says, and says exactly what he means.
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* The first Coolidge biography I read was Amity Shlaes’s 2013 bestselling “Coolidge.” Shlaes provided by far the most informed and well-described perspective on Coolidge’s economic policy of any of the biographies I read and she proved a thoughtful defender of his reputation and legacy.
Nonetheless, the book fell short in terms of the author’s writing style (which felt like a forced march rather than a smoothly-flowing narrative) and her failure to analyze Coolidge’s character more deeply or vibrantly. But if Amity Shlaes’s “Coolidge” is quite not the perfect “one-stop” Coolidge biography…it is a must read for anyone seeking to really understand his economic philosophy.
(Full review here)
* My second Coolidge biography was “The Preparation of Calvin Coolidge” by Robert A. Woods. Published in 1924 (shortly after Coolidge became president) this is more a campaign biography than a conventional one – but is essentially a detailed character study of Coolidge.
Wood’s book cannot serve as a comprehensive “go-to” reference on Coolidge as it was written ten years before his death (and prior to most of his presidency). But it did an excellent job reviewing the various public offices he held on his way to national office and explaining the qualities Coolidge possessed which the author felt prepared him for the presidency. (Full review here)
* Next I read Horace Green’s 1924 “The Life of Calvin Coolidge.” Also published during the first months of Coolidge’s presidency – and weighing in at a scant 224 pages – Green’s treatment is neither comprehensive nor particularly deep.
Nonetheless, it is a fast-paced and enjoyable review of the first five decades of Coolidge’s life. Green provides a perspective of Coolidge which is sympathetic but not fawning, and is revealing without being tedious or overly-detailed. But while it does not feel particularly scholarly and lacks many of the elements of an ideal Coolidge biography, it adds a unique texture to the portrait of Coolidge which emerges from his other biographies. (Full review here)
* The fourth Coolidge biography I read was “Calvin Coolidge: The Man From Vermont” by Claude Fuess. Published in 1939, this seems to be as close to an authorized biography of Coolidge as has been written. And because it was viewed as an effective rebuttal to anti-Coolidge biases which were emerging in the 1930s, it also has the reputation of being as close to a hagiography of Coolidge as exists.
Fortunately, Fuess’s fondness is rarely heavy-handed and I did not detect an attempt to conceal or disguise Coolidge’s flaws. But Coolidge’s years on the national stage are under-covered and readers seeking to understand Coolidge’s presidency in significant detail will have to consult other sources.
(Full review here)
* My next biography was William Allen White’s 1938 “A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge” (available free here). White was a well-known newspaper editor of Coolidge’s era and a leader of the Progressive movement. Based on his ideological perspective, one might expect that White’s biography of Coolidge would be “interesting”…and indeed it was.
Unfortunately, while this is a serious biography it is deeply flawed. At times it feels too blindly opinionated and distant from the facts. And it is often more a series of apocryphal stories and anecdotes than it is a true biography. So although White provides the reader with a fascinating journey through Coolidge’s life, it is a journey best taken with a grain of salt. (Full review here)
* My penultimate biography of Coolidge was Donald McCoy’s 1967 “Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President.” Steering a middle course between the two extremes of thought on Coolidge, McCoy ultimately finds this former president “a man of his time” but “not for his time.”
With a systematic approach to covering Coolidge’s life and an unpretentious, matter-of-fact writing style, McCoy’s biography scores higher for content than its entertainment value. But its best attributes are its thorough coverage of Coolidge’s presidency and a particularly thought-provoking final chapter which considers Coolidge’s fitness for – and performance as – president.
(Full review here)
* My last Coolidge biography was Robert Sobel’s “Coolidge: An American Enigma.” When published in 1998, this was the first comprehensive Coolidge biography in over thirty years. Nonetheless, Sobel was quick to admit that his book offered fresh interpretations of Coolidge rather than new insights or major revelations.
It was disappointing that Sobel’s narrative lacked the vibrancy I enjoy in a great presidential biography as well as fresh insight that makes a biography hard to resist. But it offered the clearest and most coherent description of Coolidge’s presidency and balanced depth versus efficiency exceptionally well.
(Full review here)
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Best Biographies of Calvin Coolidge:
– “Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President” by Donald McCoy
– “Calvin Coolidge: The Man From Vermont” by Claude Fuess
– “Coolidge: An American Enigma” by Robert Sobel
Best Discussion of Coolidge’s economic philosophy: “Coolidge” by Amity Shlaes
Jim Kane said:
I like your approach Steve to reading. Appreciate the insights that you have brought to this very hard to understand President. Looking forward to more posts!
Among your biographers was there any consensus on the impact of the death of Coolidge’s son — in the middle of the 1924 election — on the president? Some medical scholarship suggests he entered a profound depression that he never completely recovered from.
For the biographies published after his son’s death there was a near-universal consensus that it affected him enormously. Even though his inner emotional state was never really unlocked or dissected (in any biography) they did generally agree that he entered a state of lifelong depression and that his son’s death sapped him of his love of politics. The way I read his life, his son’s death affected him deeply on a very personal level but other than the year or so immediately following the loss, Coolidge didn’t let the tragedy alter what the external world saw of him (perhaps easier when you demonstrate little joy or grief in your daily life in the base case?)
Interesting. I’ve wondered whether his son’s sudden death factored into his decision not to run for what would have been an easy second full term.
Read This: said:
Robert E. Gilbert. The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. 288 pp.
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I am a little less than 100 years behind you. My journey is the best bio of each president, not all of them. I am very grateful to you for these reviews as they help me choose which biography to select.
Your writing style is very enjoyable. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thanks for the note and I hope you’re enjoying your own adventure as much as I’m enjoying mine! If/when you find a biography where we disagree, please let me know! And if you read something I missed I would love to hear what you thought of it-
I would add a cautionary note to Gilbert’s book: We all have our biases but be aware of Dr. Gilbert’s interpretive framework. He basically lays out a conclusion and then forces all data into that sieve, omitting what doesn’t conveniently fit the conclusion. He argues that Coolidge basically started out as an active President until his son died and he sank into a depression that yielded his “do-nothing” reputation for the rest of his tenure. The facts don’t quite fit. While Cal himself said, “The power and the glory of the Presidency” went with his son, he hardly checked out or abdicated what he continued to see as his obligation to the country and his office. A survey of his policy actions – be it the strict budget program he vigilantly maintained all the way to 1929, the increased use of the veto power between 1925-1929 and the foreign and defense policy accomplishments of 1927 (Nicaragua and Mexico), 1928 (Sixth Pan-American Conference), 1929 (Kellogg Pact and Cruiser Act) are just some of the evidence that undermine Gilbert’s case that Cal just quit trying and did nothing more of note after his son’s death. See a couple of my pieces on this: http://crackerpilgrim.com/2015/07/27/on-grief-and-energy/; http://crackerpilgrim.com/2015/05/13/calvin-coolidge-didnt-get-much-done-think-again/.
Greg Foley said:
I was recently researching the best Coolidge biographies on Amazon and Goodreads when I found your amazing site on a Google search. I my own research I came up with four Coolidge biographies that sounded worth reading, and two of them aren’t on your list:
– Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President, by Charles C. Johnson
– Coolidge and the Historians, by Thomas B. Silver
I probably won’t read the latter, though, because it’s older (I think newer biographies are better in general) and not available in eBook format.
If you want another project after this one’s done, consider doing the same for other great achievers, e.g. politicians like Churchill, military leaders like Alexander the Great, and businesspeople like J. D. Rockefeller.
Thanks for the Coolidge referrals – I’ll check them out. Oddly enough I prefer physical books to eBooks so the Silver book may still be of interest to me.
I’ve been creating a list of the ancillary / supporting characters to the presidents of the type you mentioned: Churchill, William Seward, John Hay, Louis Howe, Douglas MacArthur, Alexander Hamilton, Elihu Root, Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, etc., etc. Reading biographies for that list of “great achievers” will take me some time to get through – and it doesn’t even include many international folks.
I have also been asked to consider doing a similar project for all the British Prime Ministers which would be enormously educational to say the least…
Or all the Kings/Queens of England that led up to us even having a president in the first place 🙂
Nancy O'Brien said:
I am in the middle of Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography and was wondering if you read it. He makes many insightful observations that, to me, would fit in today’s political world as well as they did almost one hundred years ago. Here is one, “Nothing is more dangerous to good government than great power in improper hands.”
Enjoyed your reviews, thanks from a Vermonter
I have not yet read Coolidge’s autobiography but I’ve been told by many that I will love it – and Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs as well. I’ll try to get to them right after I finish my first round of presidential biographies in about 18 months…
Tyler Wolanin said:
I wonder if, on your Coolidge journey, you ever encountered a little book called “Cal Coolidge, President” by Roland D. Sawyer? It was printed in 1924; Sawyer was a fellow Massachusetts state legislator from Hampshire County, and a pretty prolific small-press publisher on the side. I am doing a little work on Sawyer himself; he ran for Congress in Coolidge’s home district in 1925, and the biography was definitely a talking point on the campaign trail in a time and place where Coolidge was very popular.
That isn’t a book I remember running across. And, in general, if a biography was hard or expensive to obtain I didn’t include it on my list since I didn’t want to fall in love with a presidential biography which no one would be able to read. In this case I don’t see anything in my notes whatsoever…