Coolidgeby Amity Shlaes
Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, delivers a brilliant and provocative reexamination of America’s thirtieth president, Calvin Coolidge, and the decade of unparalleled growth that the nation enjoyed under his leadership. In this riveting biography, Shlaes traces Coolidge’s improbable rise from a tiny town in New England to a youth so/b>… See more details below
Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, delivers a brilliant and provocative reexamination of America’s thirtieth president, Calvin Coolidge, and the decade of unparalleled growth that the nation enjoyed under his leadership. In this riveting biography, Shlaes traces Coolidge’s improbable rise from a tiny town in New England to a youth so unpopular he was shut out of college fraternities at Amherst College up through Massachusetts politics. After a divisive period of government excess and corruption, Coolidge restored national trust in Washington and achieved what few other peacetime presidents have: He left office with a federal budget smaller than the one he inherited. A man of calm discipline, he lived by example, renting half of a two-family house for his entire political career rather than compromise his political work by taking on debt. Renowned as a throwback, Coolidge was in fact strikingly modern—an advocate of women’s suffrage and a radio pioneer. At once a revision of man and economics, Coolidge gestures to the country we once were and reminds us of qualities we had forgotten and can use today.
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By Amity Shlaes
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Amity Shlaes
All rights reserved.
They were the ones who stayed.
They told themselves this as they trudged past the houses up the road to the old lot in the spring snow. The lot itself was a challenge. Farming there was especially difficult because the soil was too rocky; the hill curved up too steeply. For a period the family had burned lime there, but the railroad had not chosen to come to Plymouth and no one could get the lime out. Now, in the 1870s, they found themselves returning to the limekiln lot for humbler, simpler harvests: wood or sugar. The logs could be sold by the cord. The lot lay above their farm, to the west, and sugar maples were plentiful there. In April, they tapped the trees. Their family fashioned the wooden buckets themselves, sometimes branding the bottom with their name in capital letters. They carried the buckets of sap to a sugar house, where it was heated and made into syrup. Each year eight hundred to two thousand pounds of maple syrup and hard sugar were produced this way. They liked the trees, which grew up with them, like siblings or children. Others, even relatives, had deemed such harvests paltry. Those others had headed west to the Great Plains, where your prosperity unfurled before you, flat and vast, like a yellow carpet.
But not John and Victoria Coolidge. If the land tested them, they liked that about it. The spring sugaring was only one part of an annual cycle of ingenuity, well established by the time John, of the fourth generation of Coolidges in Plymouth, became an adult, in the 1860s. After the sugaring came other challenges, which one could lay out in a list beside the names of the months: Mend fences. Shear sheep. Weave. Raise horses or puppies. Get the cows to pasture. Plant hay. Get hay in. Even the level fields below the lot were tough to cultivate. Later, in fact, a study would show that not one acre of the land in Plymouth, a town of farmers, was truly arable. Still, the rhythm of the cycle kept them going. By autumn, they were slaughtering animals. The last to be slaughtered was a cow. There was always milking, summer or winter. But without a railroad, milk was like lime: hard to turn into money. Milk spoiled. To sell a calf or a peacock, they had to take it twelve miles by cart to Ludlow, where the depot was.
Because nothing was ever quite sure, it was best to have a hand in everything. John Coolidge kept the small store at the center of the village. He also served as insurance agent, sheriff, tax collector, notary, everything a man could be in a town. John's wife— her full name was Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge— gardened and sewed. His mother, Sarah, taught Sunday school, delivered babies, and did the weaving. His father, Calvin Galusha, had experimented with peacocks and horses. In 1863, Galusha put out to stud Young Arabian, a fifteen-hand bay with "all the action and command of limb that a cat or greyhound is master of," for a fee of $10. Through his mother Calvin Galusha claimed a trace of Indian blood, and in him there seemed to be the ingenuity of the Native Americans and the Puritans combined.
The stage on which they lived their lives was small: their house, five rooms behind the store; the 1842 church, with a pew for which Calvin Coolidge, John Coolidge's grandfather, had paid $31; a stone schoolhouse; and a few other farms. Beyond the store, a few dozen rods away, about two or three hundred feet, lay the house of Calvin Galusha and his wife. Beyond that were the lakes, the river, and the twelve mile trip down the steep hill to Ludlow. In the old days there had been cabins; now the houses in Plymouth, Plymouth Union, and other hamlets in the area were mostly white clapboard, with red barns. While the weather was still warm, John Coolidge and Calvin Galusha traveled about the county or the state, often on official business but always keeping an eye out for new ways to gain a livelihood. There had been a gold rush in the area back in 1859. with several hundred miners converging on the town that June, claiming to find four to eight dollars' worth a day. Disappointment had followed excitement. "Gold is found upon the farm of Mr. Amos Pollard near Plymouth Pond," the paper in Ludlow, Massachusetts, had written. "The metal is so diffused that it costs more to get it than it comes to." Granite too had been found here in Plymouth, enough for fence posts but nowhere near the amounts that could be mined in other parts of the state, such as Barre, Vermont, which called itself the "Granite Center of the World." Windsor County had always suffered bad luck: long ago the state capital had started out in the town of Windsor but had relocated to Montpelier, depriving the area of much commerce. Death came too often, so often that there were two hearses stored in the town, one on wheels for summer and one on blades for winter. John Coolidge's brother, Julius Caesar Coolidge, had died around the time he had married. Others had wasted away from tuberculosis, or consumption; the cold long winters there seemed particularly hospitable to the illness, which was known as the "New England disease." Victoria also seemed susceptible.
To explain their life to themselves, villagers like the Coolidges turned to the classics: the plays of William Shakespeare, other old English texts, and the Greeks and Romans. They saw analogies in the stories of rebels after whom they were named: Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, or Julius Caesar. It was to Julius Caesar that Mark Antony had "thrice presented ... a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse."
In Plymouth at town meetings citizens also invoked Cincinnatus, who left his plow to serve in Rome as dictator, settled a dispute among warring tribes, then returned to his plow once the crisis was past rather than settling into dictatorship. There were also, of course, analogies to the American Revolution; it was a matter of lively debate in Vermont whether Brutus had been justified in his assassination of Caesar, or whether Ethan Allen had been right in playing off New York, the new Congress, and Canada against one another.
Church and church meetings filled any time that remained in their days. And the Bible was the villagers' basic text; it reached everywhere, even into their cooking. The Coolidge family recipe collection contained instructions for "Scripture Cake":
One cup of butter. Judges 5:25
Three and one half cups flour. I Kings 4:22
Two cups sugar. Jeremiah 6:20
Two cups raisins. I Samuel 30:12
One cup of water. Genesis 24:17
Two cups figs. I Samuel 30:12
Two cups almonds. Genesis 43:11
Six eggs. Isaiah 10:14
One tablespoonful honey. Exodus 16:31
A pinch of salt. Leviticus 2:13.
Spices to taste. I Kings 10:2
Two tablespoonfuls baking pow. I Cor. 5:6
Follow Solomon's advice for making good boys (Proverb 23:14), and you will have good cake. Bake in a loaf and ice.
The autumn made town meetings, churchgoing, even socializing, harder. And snowfall could shut Plymouth Notch off suddenly and entirely, making the steep hill road impassible. Such isolation could come in a matter of hours, as in a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, "Snow-Bound." "A fence-less drift what once was road," as Whittier had put it. The only way out was to build a new road, an ice road, laboriously, by packing snow over so that a sleigh might slide across the hard surface. Keeping the house warm was another challenge. In the bedroom there was soapstone to be heated on the stove; it warmed the bed for hours at night in the winter. In Whittier's own New England village, Haverhill, Massachusetts, the sun was so weak it gave off, at noon, "a sadder light than waning moon." In such a place, "ere the early bedtime came,"
The white drift piled the window frame And through the glass the clothes line posts Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
There was a kind of comfort in the snowbound period; it was the only time the Coolidges had a moment to take stock of their accomplishments. They belonged to no one else; they succeeded because they lived economically. John Coolidge wrote down everything in small notebooks: the taxes to be paid, the taxes to be levied, what might be collected, what might be spent on a trip to Ludlow or Boston. The Coolidges believed that others might succeed as well if they managed similar thrift. The terrifying price of not living within one's means had long been evident, both to them and to others, and could be heard in the family lore they repeated to one another when they told the old stories. The second name of John's father, Galusha, could be heard in some of those stories. Jonas Galusha had been a famous Vermonter who had come to prominence as a captain fighting against General John Burgoyne during the Revolutionary War. When Daniel Shays, the farmer rebelling against debt, had fled north, Galusha had been charged with repulsing the refugees and driving them back south. From 1781, Galusha had served as sheriff of Bennington County, a job where he had come to know the consequences of debt as few know them. Debt collection and cruel laws made enforcement "onerous and perplexing to the last degree," as a later historian put it. In the Vermont records is the notation of the state's obligation of 10 pounds, 4 shillings, and 6 pence to Galusha for fulfilling the sentence of the Supreme Court of the state by cutting off the ear of one Abel Geer and branding his forehead with the letter "C," probably for "counterfeiter." Such experiences were not easy to forget: debt preoccupied Galusha, an upright dignitary, all his days. Later Galusha went on to serve as judge and governor, holding the latter post for multiple terms. In those final years, he wrote explicitly that he disliked the debt collection process. The reality, Jonas Galusha saw, was that "more money is spent in the collection of such debts than is saved by the collection." Another Coolidge cousin, Carlos Coolidge, had also served as governor of the state for two years, and in that period too there had been legislation to deal with debt. Nowadays that was not possible: repeated terms for an incumbent offended Vermonters' sense of independence from their own government, so they rotated governors, one year's service each, from the two sides of the Green Mountains. The tradition of one year service would be known as the "Mountain Rule." If a man could stay within his means, if he could stay healthy, this life of independence was the highest choice of all. Some who had left had come back or longed to. In the Plymouth Notch cemetery was the grave of Barton Billings, son of another family daughter, Calvin Galusha's sister Sally. Billings had died in Kansas, and his epitaph read: "Carry me back to old Vermont, where the rills trickle down the hills, there is where I want to lie when I die."
Still, John and Victoria could not help seeing, the majority of the Vermonters who left did not want to come back. Over the years Calvin Galusha, Sarah, and John found themselves lonelier than they imagined. Nor were the Plymouth citizens alone in leaving. In the 1850s alone, 50,000 more had departed Vermont, mostly heading west, than had come in. A factor they had never imagined, the Erie Canal, had made that western migration possible. Talents like the Rutland-born blacksmith John Deere had abandoned Vermont and founded great companies out west.
Indeed, one could argue that it was their own line, John, Calvin Galusha, and Calvin before him, that was breaking tradition by not leaving. A move was not necessarily cowardice; sometimes one moved on to build a better life. Their Coolidge ancestors had left Cottenham, England, and come over in the time of John Winthrop, perhaps even in the same fleet with the Arbella. On that voyage, Winthrop had delivered a sermon about living as a model: "Wee shall be as a city upon a hill, the eies of all people are upon us.
"Winthrop's first City on a Hill had been named Plymouth, after Plymouth in England, to signify that the settlers must improve upon what others had built at home. The Coolidges had made their own city across the river from Boston, in Watertown, where they had fast established a reputation for ingenuity and thrift. Trade with Boston was important, but the Charles River was in the way. The Coolidge ancestors had worked out a solution: one had built the first bridge across the Charles River by stringing eight foot baskets across the span, then fortifying it with wood and stone. The settlers of Watertown were not content with an ocean to separate them from old England; they sought political separation. In 1631, the inhabitants of Watertown objected to a levy for public defense imposed from above by their English governors. They, still Englishmen, were being taxed without consent. The result was that free men in the colony were permitted to have representation, elect a governor, and choose a deputy to a general court. Coolidges created and attended some of the first town meetings, helping to establish what would become a familiar form of government in New England.
A Coolidge forefather had signed the Dedham Covenant, which explicitly posited as its goal to keep out those who did not fit: "That we shall by all means labor to keep off from us all such as are contrary minded, and receive only such unto us as may be probably of one heart with us." The reasoning was simple: create virtue and lead by example. Testing virtue— inviting too many different thinkers into your midst— was, in their view, too dangerous. There were still numerous Coolidges all around Boston, many wealthy and distinguished. A few were also descended from Thomas Jefferson.
Excerpted from Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. Copyright © 2013 by Amity Shlaes. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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