The Coolidge Presidency

Intro Note Menu || Historical Overview
Next Intro Note: Herbert Hoover, Economic Mastermind

Previous Intro Note: Taylorism and Economic Efficiency in the 1920s

Users of this collection have electronic access to large portions of Calvin Coolidge's presidential papers as they relate to the 1920s economy. Although many of President Coolidge's papers evidently were destroyed before deposit and those that remain do not, by and large, include letters, or replies to letters, by Coolidge himself, the material, much of it correspondence sent by ordinary citizens and businessmen to the White House, provides insight into what people were thinking and feeling about economic issues -- and about Coolidge himself -- during the decade. In addition to contributing a sense of immediacy, the letters also afford glimpses of Coolidge as policy-maker. (DIRECTORY NOTE Calvin Coolidge Papers) Readers interested in a more detailed sense of how the president spent his days may consult the Coolidge Appointment Books in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room.

"Reading copies" of 59 Coolidge speeches, preserved in the personal papers of Everett Sanders, one of the president's private secretaries, including never-published addresses, provide users of this collection with an immediate sampler of Coolidge statements and a sense of his "voice." Earlier Coolidge speeches, dating back to the vice-presidency, come from the papers of Edward Tracy Clark, another of President Coolidge's secretaries.

Coolidge's addresses illustrate the way in which the language of commerce and the language of religion, and of spiritual development and spiritual well-being more generally, interpenetrated each other during the decade. (INTRO NOTE Spirituality) In fact, no matter what else Coolidge had to say about the ostensible occasion of the speech or its designated subject, virtually all of his pronouncements and speeches come down to some variant of the following: Material well being is a right of each member of society, but is not by itself enough; it must go hand in hand with spiritual well being and development; the things of the spirit matter most and breathe life into the rest. His characteristic note is not so much one of Christianity per se, as of a universalized spirituality.

Vice President Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency in August 1923, upon the death, in midterm, of President Harding, at a time that we now know was bracketed between two depressions: the more limited one of 1920-21 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The papers of Everett Sanders preserve eight speeches about the budget, given by President Coolidge at the twice-annual meetings of the "Business Organization of the Government", which picture the federal government as a cost-conscious "business organization" that had to be concerned with such measures as paying off the national debt and eliminating waste. (DETAIL NOTE Business Organization of the Government) Coolidge's Appointment Books indicate that the single person with whom he met officially most often during his time in office was Herbert M. Lord, his Director of the Bureau of the Budget.

Although reputed to be "Silent Cal," President Coolidge's impact on the consumer economy can be seen as significant; the speeches show him sounding the notes to which Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover's economic initiatives gave concrete expression. The president's budget-conscious themes were central to Secretary Mellon's battles for the revenue acts of 1924, 1926, and 1928, in which he led the charge to reduce personal and business taxes. (DETAIL NOTE Andrew Mellon) Commerce Secretary Hoover waged a "war on waste" in government and in private industry, through standardization and simplification of industrial parts and procedures. (INTRO NOTE Herbert Hoover)

Coolidge enjoyed a close personal relationship with Secretary Mellon, but evidently did not get along particularly well with Secretary Hoover. Photographs of Coolidge and Hoover, included in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, invariably show the two, when pictured together, as staring away from each other, as though pretending they were not in the same photo.

There is, of course, a tart irony in the fact that for all of his language of frugality, President Coolidge -- apotheosized by the Thrift Movement of his time as a modern-day "apostle of thrift" in a line of direct descent from Benjamin Franklin -- presided over an age that, by comparison with what had gone before, was marked by such zeal for corporate and individual spending. (INTRO NOTE Thrift) Social observer Samuel Strauss speculated that the calming sense of old, familiar values associated with the president allayed anxiety and reassured people that it was safe to proceed in the midst of excess.

In the Coolidge Papers case file on Advertisement Exploitation, for example, readers can learn about the president's run-ins with businesses that wanted to use his name, words, or photograph, as, in effect, a product endorsement, to help advertise their wares. In a surprising corrective to the image of Calvin Coolidge as "the business president," in the great majority of cases Coolidge refused to grant permission. Overall, the case file suggests limits to how far the president was willing to go in support of business. Several items show that when a company persisted despite lack of authorization, President Coolidge called in J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The file as a whole provides an invaluable overview of company practices, commercial climate and advertising strategies, across many different lines of business, that would have been encountered by consumers during Coolidge's years in office.

Another Coolidge Papers case file, however, Federal Trade Commission, 1923-29, containing correspondence marked "confidential," shows that President Coolidge appointed as commissioner William E. Humphrey, who took pride in softening the stance of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) toward business. (See Humphrey's November 21, 1925 letter to President Coolidge in the case file). And indeed, material in the case file shows that during this time, the level of anti-trust activity conducted by the FTC in the public interest declined. A new FTC initiative forestalled legal action against alleged perpetrators of consumer fraud by organizing business conferences intended to forge voluntary, industry-by-industry consensus on what constituted fair trade practices. These conferences were in keeping with the Coolidge administration's faith in the ability and willingness of business to monitor and, when necessary, reform itself. (DETAIL NOTE Federal Trade Commission)

Secretary of Commerce Hoover implemented the president's creed by organizing these fair trade practices conferences and giving public addresses in favor of truth-in-advertising, a legal issue that came under FTC province because it was located at the intersection between fair competition and consumer information. (INTRO NOTE Advertising) Secretary Hoover's tenure as commerce secretary was noted for cooperation between the country's business leaders, social science research agencies, and capitalist-funded philanthropic foundations (such as the Russell Sage Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation), which undertook fact-finding investigations aimed at stabilizing business conditions and promoting worker and consumer prosperity under the umbrella, but not the direct intervention, of the federal government. (INTRO NOTE Herbert Hoover

A famous Coolidge anecdote discussed at some length by Donald R. McCoy in Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President (1967, rpt. 1988) captures the sense that Coolidge sometimes took positions that encouraged business while at the same time not necessarily personally agreeing in full with the significance or ramifications of his positions. Perhaps it is useful to think of Coolidge as occupying a place that, to paraphrase the Christian teaching, was "in the (business) world, but not of it."

McCoy comments on Coolidge's January 6, 1928 statement to the press that he had no evidence that brokers' loans (which had jumped to almost $4 billion in value) had expanded too rapidly. McCoy notes: "His statement declared that brokers' loans were not excessive because they reflected steadily increasing bank deposits and the larger number of securities on the market. To give emphasis to his reassuring view, he allowed it to be quoted directly in the press. . . . A few days later H. Parker Willis, who was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Commerce, discussed the statement with Coolidge at the White House. The President indicated that his official view and his personal opinion were divergent. He said, 'If I were to give my own personal opinion about it, I should say that any loan made for gambling in stocks was an "excessive loan."' He continued by way of explanation, "'I regard myself as the representative of the government and not as an individual. When technical matters come up I feel called on to refer them to the proper department of government which has some information about them and then, unless there is some good reason, I use this information as a basis for whatever I have to say; but that does not prevent me from thinking what I please as an individual'" (pp. 319-20). (DETAIL NOTE Federal Reserve Board)

Material in the Charles S. Hamlin Papers, in the Hamlin Memorandum and Diary Extracts . . . shows the anxiety at the Federal Reserve Board occasioned by Coolidge's public statement on stock market speculation.

A more personal view of Coolidge the man, including his predilection for window-shopping and his family relationships, emerges from the just-opened papers, in the collection of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, of Joel T. Boone, the president's physician.

Selected motion picture footage and recorded excerpts from speeches broadcast on the radio flesh out the portrait of Calvin Coolidge.

Intro Note Menu || Historical Overview
Next Intro Note: Herbert Hoover, Economic Mastermind

Previous Intro Note: Taylorism and Economic Efficiency in the 1920s