Mental health concerning United States presidents usually isn’t mentioned when discussing their traits. In more recent years, the depression of Abraham Lincoln has come to light, the paranoia of Richard Nixon (although after the stolen election of 1960 the paranoia could be justified to an extent) and there have been occasional ramblings of Nancy Reagan’s seance meetings however mental health or interests in things beyond what is concerned normal, usually stops there. Beyond a few small events, mental health isn’t looked at closely in other US presidents. Other often neglected examples are Franklin Pierce and, who we’re going to focus on today, Calvin Coolidge.
Like many young children of the late 1800s, Calvin saw a lot of death. When he was six years old, he first experienced death with the passing of his grandfather, which caused him to clutch tighter to his mother.1 His mother died shortly after. Five years after the passing of his mother, his sister, Abbie died, likely from appendicitis.2 Deaths of people who were close to him came quickly and throughout his childhood.
While many children had parents die young due to disease or accidents, we can look at how this death impacted Calvin based on his later writings. In The Tormented President, it’s cited that Calvin wrote, “When we knew [our mother’s] end was near she called us children to her bedside, where we knelt down to receive her final parting blessing. In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday… we laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.”3 While the death of his grandfather and his sister had a traumatic effect on him, the death of his mother would be the most profound. He would mention many times once his had his own children, how much Calvin Jr. had resembled Calvin Senior’s mother.
While the death of his sister did affect him, his move toward a more morose view occurred after his mother’s death. We can note in his own diary where he wrote on the day his sister died, “Abbie died this morning at 12:45 she would have been 15 the 15th of next April.”4 Preceding these entries were just as dry and matter-of-factual notes when discussing the grave condition of his sister. Death, or perhaps more representative of his feelings, sadness, had become a way of life for Calvin.
We should note that Calvin wasn’t fatherless but it is expected that he probably felt that way while growing up. Calvin’s father was often out of the home and working. Since his father, John, was away so often, this caused many rifts between Calvin’s parents. While it seems they kept these issues away from the children, it has been noted that Calvin’s mother repeatedly refused to answer a number of her husband’s letters. We can surmise, as was written in The Tormented President, that the distant father attributed just as much to Calvin’s demeanor as the close deaths of his family, “…boys whose fathers are often absent tend to have less satisfying peer-group interactions than boys whose fathers are regularly present. The reason may well be that boys who have absent fathers have less chance to learn the behavior patterns that other boys in their community value.”5 Considering what we now know about mental health and how important parents are to the upbringing of their children, we can better understand the reasons behind why Calvin Coolidge was often reserved, silent and had conservatively considered his actions.
However, Calvin still maintained and developed close relationships. While there are stereotypes of the evil stepmother, Calvin, who’s father remarried, got along fantastically with his stepmother. In his later years he wrote, “My stepmother was all that a mother could be who was not your very own.”6 Likewise, his stepmother was also fond of Calvin where she proclaimed that she received at a minimum a letter a week from him and that no mother ever had a son like Calvin.7 Calvin did seem to have an affection for his adopted mother which was a rarity within Calvin’s life. It often seemed that if a person was not blood related to him, that he kept them at a distance. This distance included his wife.
There was a beam of hope within Coolidge when his sons, but it was notable when Calvin Jr., was born. In fact, he often compared his boys’ looks to Calvin’s own mother, Victoria.8 While Calvin Jr. may have shared a resemblance to Victoria, his demeanor, humor and other traits reflected his father’s; he wasn’t very athletic, he was quiet and he had a very dry sense of humor. In spite of sharing the name, it is little wonder why Calvin Jr. was the favorite.
However, Calvin Jr. didn’t receive any special treatment. In fact, the strict regimen Calvin had when he was younger was instilled within his own boys. While president, Calvin wrote to Calvin Jr., “The world will pass and leave you and you will see many boys that you do not think are very smart going right by you and leaving you behind to be ignored, pitied and despised. You will have to make the decision yourself. No one can make it for you. But unless you work, I do not propose to pay out money to let you idle around college.”9 The perception of Coolidge was that he was a demanding father, but no more so than other fathers of the day. He expected his sons to do well, especially if he was paying for their college, and he wanted to instill a drive within them. He wrote stating that they wouldn’t get anywhere without hard work. Being Calvin Coolidge’s son wasn’t going to be good enough to lead a fulfilling life.
Calvin would fundamentally change once his favorite son, Calvin Jr., died from a blister while playing tennis when he was sixteen years old. This occurred primarily through blood poisoning when he went out to play tennis without his socks and thus, blisters formed on his toes. Even before Calvin Jr’s death, Calvin Sr. wasn’t known for his emotions. The Boston Globe claimed, “Wild Indians could not have tortured a groan or a grin from him.”10 Likewise, Coolidge’s portrait painter recollected a story where Calvin was sitting on a porch and someone passed by in a wagon shouting, “Cal!” Calvin responded, “Howdy, Newt!” He asked of Calvin who that man was. Calvin replied that it was a cousin of his that he hadn’t seen for twenty years.11 If anything could be said of Calvin’s temperament before his son’s death, it was that he was stoic to a fault.
On the outside, most people probably wouldn’t have noticed a change within Calvin as he fell into what soon became a depression which lasted the rest of his life. While in the past he had eventually recovered to some extent when someone close to him had died, he never recovered after the death of Calvin Jr. Within his autobiography, Calvin Coolidge mentioned how he had blamed himself for his son’s death, reflecting that if he had never been president, that his son wouldn’t have been out playing tennis on the grounds.12 The energy of Calvin had left him as he wrote, “When [Calvin Jr.] went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.”13
Aside from Coolidge’s own admissions, his activity had also declined. As written in The Tormented President, “Coolidge became wholly apathetic toward the presidential campaign and left it to his running mate to speak on behalf of the ticket. Dawes traveled more than 15,000 miles and delivered 108 speeches while Coolidge did little but mourn his son.”14 There was also a story related to a Secret Service agent who saw a young boy peering through an iron gate because he wanted to meet the president. The agent offered to take the boy to meet President Coolidge and after their brief meeting, Coolidge told his agent, “Colonel, whenever a boy wants to see me, always bring him in. Never turn one away or make him wait.”15
Concerning Calvin’s depression, the earlier deaths had likely had an effect on the President. An article noted, “A child’s death often reactivates the parents’ earlier losses and precipitates a global reaction that touches virtually every area of functioning.”16 Likewise, Calvin’s change in eating habits and sleep were dramatic.17 After his mother died, he lost his appetite but after the death of Calvin Jr., he ate an incredible amount which resulted in stomach pains. Insomnia and trouble sleeping followed, added with screaming outbursts. The man who was famously known as Silent Cal would morph into someone who could be short-tempered even over little things18 whereas when he was a politician in Massachusetts, he was often described as being one of the nicest people anyone could meet. The death of his son had a traumatic affect on him, as it would of almost any parent.
The image of Silent Cal is a unique one. Often Presidents are bombastic and carry the weight of incredible authority but Calvin Coolidge often has the memory of a reserved man who didn’t do much while in office. It is true he didn’t prevent a lot while he was President but after he was elected, much of this had to do with his apathetic feelings over the loss of his son. He wasn’t nearly as involved in the state of affairs after Calvin Jr’s death as he had been before the death. The life force and the energy that Calvin had had mostly died out by the time of his first elected term. As a result, the stage was set to aid the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which was to follow. Although we shouldn’t blame Coolidge too harshly. Hoover wasn’t able to ameliorate the country’s problems in one term and FDR needlessly extended the Great Depression with horrendous progressive policies which still negatively affect the United States almost 100 years later. We should also note that there were multiple issues which brought on the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, Coolidge does shoulder at least some of this blame.
When we look at the history of Calvin Coolidge, we have to recognize that he wasn’t a completely hands-off styled politician; the death of his son caused him to no longer care. If his son had lived, or hadn’t chosen to play tennis that day without wearing his socks, Coolidge’s presidential term may have been fundamentally different. We must also consider the history of the nation may have also been radically altered. Calvin Coolidge was Silent both before and after the death. But after the death, it would be more appropriate to call him, Despondent Cal.
1. Gilbert, Robert E. Calvin Coolidge’s Tragic Presidency: the Political Effects of Bereavement and Depression (88).
2 Coolidge, Calvin.The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (17).
3. Gilbert, Robert E. The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression(17).
4. ibid. (20).
5. ibid. (15).
6. ibid. (31).
7. ibid. (30).
8. ibid. (48).
9. ibid. (54).
10. Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge (35).
11. Coolidge, Calvin.The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (35).
12. ibid. (190).
13. ibid. (190).
14. Gilbert, Robert E. The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression(161).
15. ibid. (162).
16. Gilbert, Robert E. “Calvin Coolidge’s Tragic Presidency: the Political Effects of Bereavement and Depression.
Coolidge, Calvin.The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1931.
Gilbert, Robert E. “Calvin Coolidge’s Tragic Presidency: the Political Effects of Bereavement and Depression: Journal of American Studies.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 8 Apr. 2005, http://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-american-studies/article/calvin-coolidges-tragic-presidency-the-political-effects-of-bereavement-and-depression/A61451553BE7527D3BD9D952B6A51EBF.
Gilbert, Robert E. The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression. Praeger, 2003.
Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge: The 30th President. Times Books, 2007.