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