Primary Source Analysis

Coolidge, Calvin. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929.

President John Calvin Coolidge Jr. occupies an interesting place among the 43 men who have served as the chief executive for several reasons. Coolidge was born on the Fourth of July, 1872, and followed a path of education in the law that led to his being elected to Massachusetts State Legislature in 1907. “Silent Cal” served in many different political positions within Massachusetts before eventually seeking the gubernatorial nomination, which he secured in 1919. The Republican Party eventually saw Coolidge as a solid candidate for Vice President in the 1920 Presidential Election. Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the President of the United States in 1923 following the death of President Warren Harding, making Coolidge one of eight men to have been sworn in following the death of a sitting President, and only one of four to occupy that position for the natural death of a sitting President. Coolidge was also the only President to have been sworn in by his father, a notary public, in a scene that occurred in the early morning by kerosene light in Coolidge’s childhood home in Vermont. He won the 1924 campaign because of his incredible popularity and decided not run for a second term in 1928, seeing the presidency as a transitory position. Coolidge felt that because “We draw our Presidents from the people” they should “return to the people.”[1] The Republican Party would have preferred to nominate Coolidge for the 1928 ticket instead of their eventual choice, the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.

The 1929 book The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge was published very shortly after Coolidge left office, and nearly five years before his death in 1933. It received instant and widespread acclaim. For a Presidential biography, Coolidge’s book is relatively short, totaling about 45,000 words. Brevity, however, serves Coolidge’s book because he wastes no words. The writing is succinct and straight-forward. Everything that is said is said with purpose. Unfortunately that purpose seems deliberately vague regarding the executive administration. That is not to say that it is free from style or humor, but it is relatively light on the decision points that Coolidge faced as President. Instead of focusing on financial issues, considering that Coolidge held meetings about the federal budget many times a week, Coolidge instead explains the social requirements of the first citizen in the chapter titled “Some of the Duties of the President.”[2]  This naturally consists of many pages dedicated to where Coolidge believes a President should be seated in different dining scenarios and the proper way to accept or decline event invitations. Interesting though it is, Coolidge writes in a way that demonstrates his private personal nature. This is best demonstrated when Coolidge writes about the death of his son. In a scenario that might have other authors writing entire books Coolidge spends less than two pages expressing the love he had for him.

Coolidge’s book is generally quiet concerning the duties of the President and what actually transpired while he was in office. However, he is quite open in his relation of the 1919 Boston Police Strike which occurred while he was Governor of Massachusetts. In this the researcher can find valuable information as to Coolidge’s actions during the ordeal. First it is necessary to briefly explain that ordeal. Conditions for Boston Policemen were seen as hard, as a result the police wanted to strengthen their union through affiliation with the American Federation of Labor. This was in direct violation of the rules of the department.  Coolidge explained that when the policemen took action to unionize, their leaders, also policemen, were “brought before the [police] commissioner on charges, tried and removed from office, whereat about three-quarters of the force left the Department in a body…this was much larger than expected.”[3] Coolidge goes on to explain that with a drastically diminished Police force, Boston became full of “disorder.”[4] After Coolidge, the commissioner, and the mayor agreed that something needed to be done, Coolidge called for the Massachusetts Militia to secure the city. This proved effective and the strike was soon ended, as the police no longer had leverage. Upon seeking their jobs back Coolidge wrote that “Later [he] helped these men in securing other employment, but refused to allow them again to be policemen,”[5] effectively meaning that the commissioner fired the striking police and Coolidge supported his decision. Coolidge is famous for saying “There is no right to strike against the public safety by any body, any time, any where (sic).”[6] This was hailed by the nation, not just the people of Massachusetts, as the correct decision and helped to propel Coolidge to the Vice Presidency.

Naturally the book is a memoir, meaning that everything is likely to be related through a lens that presents Coolidge in a favorable manner. This is done most prominently in the modesty Coolidge presents himself as having: From comments on how he did not wish to be elected to national office because of an artificial campaign but would have rather had the Party choose him for a position of their own accord[7] to the virtue that “a President should not only not be selfish, but he ought to avoid the appearance of selfishness.”[8] This is not necessarily unfair, and just because the book presents a certain bias should not exclude it from being a reliable document. It provides a keen insight into both some of the events of Coolidge’s life and his psyche, regardless of the understandably skewed way in which it is presented. To deride this document for its lack of perfect objectivity is pointless, and represents a misuse of information. Other biographies of Coolidge exist and any issues concerning the debate over historical fact or motivation in Coolidge’s book can be resolved by understanding that the book is a personal account and not scientific documentation. It should be known that the book was written in 1929, meaning that it was in print before the stock market crash and the worst of the great depression. Coolidge is often ridiculed for having contributed to the crash through his free market policies, but any serious debate over the cause of the depression occurred long after his own death. The book, therefore, exists in a unique place that might have been very different were Coolidge to have lived longer and written it at a later date. It also differs from other documents of the time in that it was written by Coolidge himself. If the source were to be a memoir from one of his staff members or a close friend there might be a deeper insight into President Coolidge than he would have given about himself, given his reserved nature.

Coolidge writes his Autobiography in a very reflective way and looks positively on his actions during the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, did not approve of the police men’s actions and saw it as a detriment to the American labor movement. Gompers did, however, see the police commissioner as more responsible for the situation than the police, a sentiment with which Coolidge and the nation did not agree. The American people feared that the Boston Police Strike was a symptom of the rising Bolshevism of the time and were glad to see a state Governor deal with it in a strong way. Coolidge’s book serves as a very insightful source and presents a unique view of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, a situation that may have shaped Coolidge’s decisions and conservative, small-government approach while President of the United States.

[1] Coolidge, Calvin. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929. 242.

[2] Ibid., 195.

[3] Ibid., 129.

[4] Ibid., 130.

[5] Ibid., 133-134.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Ibid., 112.

[8] Ibid., 241.