Coolidge Foundation in Georgetown Celebrates Centenary of 30th President
By November 8, 2023 0 597•
What do the following have in common: The Roaring Twenties, Prospect Street in Georgetown, an August 3, 2023, historical re-enactment inside a Vermont barn after midnight, and the future of American laissez-faire? You guessed it – Calvin Coolidge.
One-hundred years ago – August 3, 1923, at precisely 2:47 a.m. – our nation’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) took the presidential oath of office by the light of a kerosene lamp inside his family’s barn house in the little dirt-road farming village of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, swearing fidelity to the U.S. Constitution on a bible held by his father, John Coolidge, an enterprising farmer, cheesemaker and notary public, in a makeshift ceremony surrounded by family and sundry witnesses. Only two hours earlier, news of President Harding’s death had reached Vice President Calvin Coolidge.
As the president said “So help me, God,” the nation was climbing out of a post-war recession in the early 1920s and the American economy – fueled by the tunes of the Jazz Age – was beginning to roar. It was the Age of Radio, Prohibition, speakeasies, automobiles hot-off-the-assembly-line, the new airline industry, and American ascendancy as a world power.
The “chief business of America is business,” Coolidge wrote in 1925 and the best way to keep the economy humming, he believed, was to keep the books balanced and the federal government small by embracing a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to businesses. And from 1924 to 1929, the nation’s GDP rose 16.2 percent.
With the slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” Coolidge, a Republican, easily won reelection in 1924 and presided over four more years of growth, prosperity and peace.
But the president had his detractors at the time. The country “wanted nothing done” while Coolidge was in the White House, someone said, “and he done it!” H.L. Mencken retorted, while also jibing Coolidge for napping excessively in the White House.
The Georgetowner spoke with Matthew Denhart, president of the Coolidge Foundation – headquartered in Plymouth Notch, Vermont – about the group’s expansion to Georgetown with their 2018 purchase of the historic Quality Hill house at 3425 Prospect St. NW formerly the longtime home to Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.
As Calvin Coolidge was the last American president without an official U.S. memorial library, his son, John Coolidge, along with a “group of fellow Coolidge enthusiasts” established in 1960 in Vermont the Coolidge Foundation dedicated to “perpetuating the memory of Calvin Coolidge,” who lived from 1872 to 1933.
By the mid-2000s, Denhart explained, the foundation created a strategic plan “with a real emphasis on expanding more nationally, recognizing the centennial of the Coolidge presidency would be here before [we] knew it.” Then in 2013, the economic historian and biographer of Coolidge, Amity Schlaes, “joined the board and eventually became [its] chair.”
As a champion of Coolidge’s laissez-faire presidency, Schlaes and other conservative economic historians have drawn liberal criticism for their contention that 1930s New Deal programs launched by Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt actually prolonged rather than helped cure the Great Depression. Other pro-business figures in American life, such as multi-millionaire Steve Forbes, who now sits on the foundation’s board, have also gravitated, unsurprisingly, to the foundation’s messaging.
As part of its strategic plan, the board “developed a number of new programs,” Denhart said. They included full-ride Coolidge Scholarships “modeled after the Rhodes scholarship program.” A related program called the Coolidge Senators also features a select group of the top-100 [students applying] each year. “Maybe you’ve seen them walking around Georgetown. We bring them most years to a sort of Weekend Summit Program in Washington and they’re based there at the Coolidge House.”
“Each year, thousands apply to the scholarship program,” Denhart said. “This year there were over 4100 students. It’s a very competitive reward and the applicants are highly qualified. We also gave out five ‘full-ride awards this year,’ [as well as smaller scholarships] of $1000 to the top-100. And more important than the scholarship money to them is the opportunity to take part in [our] programs. So we bring them here to Washington… And, in most years it’s all based out of the Coolidge House here” in Georgetown.
“We thought we really needed a base of operations somewhere more central and Washington, D.C. was the obvious choice as a center of history tourism and the world of policy ideas,” Denhart said. “So, in 2018, we were able to acquire Quality Hill. And it’s been just a wonderful house in Georgetown from the era of the founders.” Built by the nephew of George Mason with “his emphasis on federalism, the Bill of Rights,” and other principles Coolidge would have admired, “it seemed like a fitting place.” The architecture is “just beautiful, in the Federal and Classical style – very evocative of Coolidge and his philosophy in a civic arts way… So, we’re really pleased it [all] worked out and very grateful to the Georgetown neighborhood for embracing us.”
Since acquiring Quality Hill in 2018, the Coolidge Foundation has converted the site into a library, research center and museum with a staff of four, plus an occasional intern from Georgetown University, a local high school, or elsewhere. A “graphic art exhibit” space supplemented by Coolidge artifacts designed to “tell the Coolidge story,” was created on the property’s second level. “I think it’s a wonderful place for folks to come and learn about Coolidge,” Denhart said, “and also a good spot for us to host events and to bring students…. It’s a good place to give Coolidge a presence, I think.”
In addition to publishing the scholarly journal The Coolidge Quarterly, the foundation also runs a student debate program. For their centennial-year prompt, students debated whether “Coolidge Should Be in the Top-Ten” of American presidents. Following the debates, “the students came away thinking, ‘actually, that’s not an absurd proposition,’ ” Denhart said. Most recently, CSPAN had ranked Coolidge at number 24 all-time.
For Denhart, Coolidge indeed deserves a much higher presidential ranking. Today, presidents are rated according to how they “overcame crisis” while in office, Denhart asserted. But Coolidge helped the country thrive, even though he believed the president’s role to be severely proscribed. “He strove to serve the office as it’s defined in the Constitution, which is of course a limited role for the president.”
During Coolidge’s presidency, America saw a “period of prosperity, of innovation, and really the decade when America entered the modern age,” Denhart observed. Moreover, Coolidge “managed to balance the budget every year and he reduced the size of the federal government which is sort of unheard of today,” Denhart said. “He cut the top tax rate [from 77 percent] all the way down to 25 percent. And he paid down about a third of the national debt.”
But, without “any major catastrophes” during his administration, Coolidge’s presidency tends to be passed over pretty quickly in the history textbooks.
In many ways, Denhart offered, Coolidge is the opposite of many politicians today. He was loath to seek attention or monuments enshrining his legacy. “Just this week, we came across a letter – Steve Forbes is a trustee of ours and he’s going to gift it to us” – concerning Coolidge’s nixing the idea of a bust sculpted in his honor.
And even though he was indeed “taciturn” and his nickname was “Silent Cal,” Denhart agreed, Coolidge’s intellect was much deeper than most imagined. When you read Coolidge’s speeches, “you’re just kind of blown away… They are not ‘silent.’ There’s just a tremendous depth of thought… and I think, when you contrast him to what you think of as a politician today, he’s the opposite — but in a very refreshing way.”
Ironically, “Silent Cal,” not only had “very good relations with the press,” but gave “more press conferences for his time in office than any other president.” How’s that possible? Questions were submitted in advance and all answers were kept on background. Nevertheless, Coolidge held over 500. Another project for the foundation: digitizing and building a virtual library of “anything we can get our hands on,” Denhart said, including transcripts of those 500 press conferences all available on the foundation’s website at CoolidgeFoundation.org.
For the centennial year, the foundation also partnered with the Library of Congress, hosting a two-day national conference – covered by CSPAN – called “Coolidge and the American Project.” A screen debut of a new PBS documentary called “Coolidge: Rediscovering an American Presidency,” from executive producers Amity Schlaes and Steve Forbes, highlighted the conference.
As Coolidge’s birthday is July 4th, festive firework celebrations of his legacy were held Independence Day in Vermont, and a wreath sent by the White House was laid at Coolidge’s grave at Plymouth Notch. And then, at precisely, 2:47 a.m. August 3, the foundation hosted the re-enactment of Coolidge’s oath of office at the family homestead, “in the actual room where it all happened.” Coolidge descendants “played the major roles” and “we had our Coolidge Senators… take part.”
On December 5, the foundation will also be hosting an end-of-year gala in New York City with keynote speaker Fred Smith, founder of FedEx.
To Georgetowners, Denhart says: “We’re just thrilled to have the space at Quality Hill. We hope that folks will get in touch. And they’ll bring their kids and grandkids and encourage their schools to visit. We just love to help Georgetown ‘Keep Cool with Coolidge.”