The Eloquence of ‘Silent Cal’
by Katherine Paterson
The story is told that the famous wit, Dorothy Parker, was once seated by President Calvin Coolidge at a dinner party. Miss Parker said to the president that she had bet a friend that during the course of the meal she could make him say more than five words.
“You lose,” the president said.
Or so the story goes. There are many such stories about Calvin Coolidge sitting through entire social events without uttering a word. He himself said: “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called on to repeat it.” And at another time, “I have never been hurt by what I have not said.” And again, “You can’t know too much, but you can say too much.” Also, “No man ever listened himself out of a job.” When he was vice president, he attended every cabinet meeting, but unless he was asked a direct question, he never opened his mouth. But all the time he was listening, absorbing every detail. As the newspaperman William Allen White says in his book about our 30th president, he came out of those sessions “a well-equipped man for the job Fate held in store for him.”
Coolidge was a surprise choice for vice president at the 1920 Republican convention. The power wielders of the Republican party had chosen one of their own for the presidency, Senator Warren G. Harding from Ohio. Then, satisfied with a job well done, they went back to their hotels only to learn later that their choice for vice president had been passed over, and Calvin Coolidge, the Governor of Massachusetts, had been picked by the remaining delegates. The party regulars were appalled. This self-effacing New Englander who had been born in a Vermont village and who, when he deigned to speak, did so with an unpleasant Yankee twang, was not their idea of a proper candidate. They sent him off to campaign in the South and in Appalachia where they thought he’d do the least harm, never dreaming that in just over two years, Harding would die, and the man they had treated so condescendingly would become president.
It was somehow fitting that Coolidge, who was born on July 4, 1872, was president when the country celebrated its 150th birthday July 4, 1926. Quoting the Declaration of Independence he pointed out that the nation was celebrating the birth of a new nation where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.”
He then went on to say that the Declaration of Independence by “placing every man on a plane where he acknowledged no superiors, where no one possessed any right to rule over him, [meant that a citizen] must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government. This was [the signers’] theory of democracy. In those days such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country. This was the purpose which the fathers cherished. . .We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.”
Touring his home state of Vermont which was still recovering from the devastating flood of 1927, he said these words to a crowd gathered at the Bennington Railroad station:
“Vermont is a state I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here that I received my bride; here my dead lie, pillowed on the loving breast of our everlasting hills.
“I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
Calvin Coolidge was elected in his own right as President in 1924, but he chose not to run for a second full term in 1928. While he had been in office, he lost both his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin, and his father.
He writes movingly about these two deaths in his autobiography:
“We do not know what might have happened to [Calvin] under other circumstances, but
if I had not been President he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis in the South Grounds. . . .
“When he went the power and glory of the Presidency went with him . . .” the grieving father says.
And of his beloved father’s death, he writes, “I knew for some weeks that [my father] was passing his last days. I sent to bring him to Washington, but he clung to his old home.
“It was a sore trial not be able to be with him, but I had to leave him where he most wished to be. When his doctors advised me that he could survive only a short time I started to visit him, but he sank to rest while I was on my way.
“For my personal contact with him during his last months I had to resort to the poor substitute of the telephone. When I reached home he was gone.”
“It costs a great deal to be President.”
Perhaps the cost of these two deaths on the very human Coolidge influenced his decision not to run again, but in his autobiography he gives a further reason.
“We draw our Presidents from the people,” he says. “It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
Coolidge, Calvin. An Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929.
Lathem, Edward Connery, Ed. Introduction by Coolidge, John. Your Son, Calvin Coolidge: A Selection of Letters from Calvin Coolidge to his Father. Montpelier, Vermont: Vermont Historical Society, 1968.
Slemp, C. Bascom. The Mind of the President. New York: Doubleday, 1926.
White, William Allen. Calvin Coolidge. New York: Macmillan, 1925.
Bittinger, Cynder. “Born on the Fourth of July.” Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, July 4, 2007.
Please check the Our White House “Presidential Fact Files.”
Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation: Calvin-Coolidge.org.
More famous quotations from Calvin Coolidge can be found on the Internet, including sites such as: BrainyQuote.com.
© 2008 Katherine Paterson; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance