Born July 4, 1872, in Plymouth, Vermont, Coolidge was the son of a village storekeeper. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts and worked his way up in the political ranks in that state as a Republican, from city councilman in Northampton in 1898 to governor in 1918. Coolidge made it onto the Republican ticket in 1920 as Harding’s running mate, and they won a decisive victory over a Democratic pairing of James Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1923, Harding’s administration was tainted by the emergence of corruption scandals involving Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and other high government officials, a group known as the Ohio Gang. A distraught Harding sought refuge from Washington during a summer vacation but died suddenly in San Francisco late on August 2, after suffering a heart attack or stroke. Coolidge got the news of Harding’s death early the next morning, while visiting family in Vermont. He took the oath of office by the light of a kerosene lamp; his father, a notary public, administered it using the family’s Bible.
Coolidge immediately began working to rehabilitate the tarnished image of the government’s executive branch, projecting an image of old-fashioned New England values and Puritan austerity that reassured a troubled public. A man of few words—he was known as “Silent Cal”—Coolidge became an extremely popular president, winning more than 54 percent of the popular vote when he was reelected in 1924. His time in the White House coincided with an era of unprecedented material prosperity and technological advances, with consumers snapping up widely available new products such as automobiles, radios and household appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines.
Strongly conservative, Coolidge believed the government should do little to interfere with business and industry, whether it was to check the growing power of big corporations or to aid struggling industries such as agriculture. He supported tax cuts for businesses and high tariffs to protect U.S. goods, but vetoed aid to farmers as well as a plan to produce electric power cheaply on the Tennessee River. Taking office just five years after the First World War ended, Coolidge favored isolationism in foreign policy, and opposed American membership in the League of Nations.
Though he almost certainly would have won reelection in 1928, Coolidge decided not to run, retiring from politics before the stock market disaster of November 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression that crippled the country. He died of a heart attack in January 1933. Though remembered fondly for restoring dignity to the White House, the Coolidge era also went down in history as a time of governmental complacency in the face of impending economic disaster.