Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet Riot

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Ah, the Roaring Twenties—an era defined by flappers, jazz, gangsters, speakeasies, and "¦ the most boring president ever!

Calvin Coolidge, a buttoned-up Puritan from New England, wasn't much for hobnobbing, even when it could have helped him politically. His wife, Grace, liked to tell people about the time a woman approached her husband and said, "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." Coolidge's reply? "You lose."

But what most people don't know about Silent Cal is that he could be quite the prankster. Sometimes, he'd ring the buzzer at the White House, wait for all the maids and ushers to snap to attention, and then run away.

When he wasn't pestering his servants or being the mute of the party, Calvin Coolidge slept—eight hours a night, plus two or three hours in the afternoon. In fact, his very first act as president of the United States was to go to sleep. At the time, in 1923, Vice President Coolidge was visiting his parents' farm in Vermont. After a hard day in the fields, a tuckered-out Coolidge went to sleep at 9 pm. Then, in the middle of the night, a messenger arrived to announce that President Warren G. Harding was dead. Coolidge needed to be sworn in immediately, so it was particularly convenient that his father happened to be a notary public. They conducted an impromptu inauguration ceremony in the living room, lit by kerosene lamps, after which Calvin promptly went back to bed.

Of course, all of this would be simply quaint and amusing had Harding's sleepy, hands-off style not laid the groundwork for the Great Depression. Coolidge disdained welfare and put all of his faith in the free market. He passed pro-business tax cuts and let industry go unregulated. And when it came to the plight of the American farmer, he was aloof to the point of being cold. He vetoed two bills designed to protect farmers from the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy, mostly because he thought farming was a lost cause. He once told the chairman of the Federal Farm Loan Board, "Well, farmers never have made money. I don't believe we can do much about it." Coolidge quietly left office on March 4, 1929, and Black Tuesday struck on October 29.

[Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.]

Jenny Drapkin is the Senior Editor of mental_floss magazine. We're currently serializing "All The Presidents' Secrets," her fantastic feature from the September-October 2007 issue. Friday: Lyndon Johnson. Thursday: Richard Nixon. Wednesday: Andrew Jackson. Tuesday: Teddy Roosevelt. Tomorrow: Rutherford B. Hayes.

April 21, 2008 - 3:32am
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