Coolidge’s Depression

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire says that eighty years ago this month, a game of lawn tennis changed the course of a presidency.

(Daulaire) July 4th, 1924, should have been a triumphant holiday for Calvin Coolidge, the president from Plymouth Notch. The Fourth of July, our nation’s birthday, was also the birthday of the Vermonter who had just begun what promised to be an extraordinarily vigorous presidency.

But on that high-summer day, 80 years ago, the president’s 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., lay dying of blood poisoning. And there was nothing the most powerful man in the world could do about it.

Today, our state’s most famous son is remembered as “Silent Cal,” a do-nothing president. Yet he had climbed the political ladder with vigor, and when Warren Harding died in 1923 he became one of the youngest presidents in history. Famously committed to Yankee thrift, Coolidge also envisioned an actively caring America.

“Our national government is not doing as much as it legitimately can do to promote the welfare of the people,” he’d said in his first State of the Union address, boldly proposing the creation of a new agency dedicated to social betterment — the ancestor of our Department of Health and Human Services. A half-century ahead of his time, he also called for a Permanent Court of International Justice. He seemed to love being President, and in early 1924 was on his way to making a lasting mark on America and the world.

Then, on the last day of June 80 years ago, Calvin Jr. played lawn tennis at the White House without wearing socks and got a blister. The blister festered and within days, a trivial infection – easily treatable with today’s antibiotics – killed the boy.

It was a sudden and shocking end and the elder Coolidge fell into a terrible depression. Many people now believe that he never recovered.

Although a few months later he won the election of 1924 by a landslide, Coolidge lost the will to guide America in cultivating “the humanitarian side of government.” Overwhelming grief led to his conclusion that his ambition had caused his son’s death: “I do not know,” he wrote years later, “why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

The man who used to rise with the roosters in Plymouth Notch began sleeping eleven or more hours a day. He became infamous for watching, seemingly benumbed, as the economy spiraled toward the Great Depression. Feeling that the power and the glory of the presidency (had) died with his son, Coolidge refused to run for a second full term in 1928, and died in early, inert retirement at the age of 61.

His visionary department was not created until thirty years after he had proposed it.

Before he was disabled by tragedy, Calvin Coolidge declared that, “Our enormous material wealth … our whole form of society, can not be considered fully successful until their benefits reach … every individual.”

There was nothing small about that ideal. It still speaks for the very best of Vermont. What a shame for all of us that circumstance – and his apparent mental illness – kept Cal from achieving his cherished goal.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Dr. Nils Daulaire is president of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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