Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "Writing"

On August 27, 1858, Daniel Marshall brought his young son, Tommy, into Freeport, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, where nearly 15,000 people had gathered in a downtown square for the second of seven debates between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln.  Marshall was a solid Democrat who had moved his family to Illinois from Indiana a year earlier and supported the incumbent Senator Douglas.

In Freeport, under the debating rules set by the candidates, Lincoln spoke first for 60 minutes, Douglas spoke next for 90 minutes, and Lincoln finished with a 30-minute-long rebuttal.  The population of Freeport tripled on the day of the debate and the proceedings took place in unseasonably cool, cloudy weather for late-August.

As Lincoln and Douglas engaged in perhaps the most newsworthy debate of their historic series, 4-year-old Tommy Marshall found himself the best seat in the house.  While Lincoln spoke, Tommy sat in the lap of Stephen A. Douglas.  When Senator Douglas responded, Tommy sat in the lap of Abraham Lincoln.

Decades later, after little Tommy Marshall had grown into Thomas Riley Marshall and became Vice President of the United States under Woodrow Wilson, sitting in the laps of history at the second Lincoln/Douglas debate remained one of his fondest memories.

I am writing all the time. I am writing when I am flying in a plane. I don’t mean literally writing; I am thinking about it. People often say to me, ‘How much of your time do you spend writing and how much of your time do you spend doing research?’ It is a great question, but no one ever says, ‘How much of your time do you spend thinking?’ That is probably the most important part of it — just thinking about it, thinking about what you have read, what you need to read, what you need to think more about. Putting things out literally on the table and looking at them. Putting a reproduction of a painting and really looking at that painting and thinking about that painting or the setting. Where things happened is very important to me. This whole book that I have just written [“The Greater Journey”] is set in Paris. Another book I wrote [“The Great Bridge”] was set in Brooklyn. Another was set in Panama [“The Path Between the Seas”]. Much of several books have been set here in Washington. I believe that the setting has great effect on the way things happened, the way things went. The setting is part of history, just as the ‘who’ is part of the why and so I really have to soak up the setting.
Historian David McCullough, explaining his writing process on CSPAN’s Q&A, May 2011

Don’t let my jokes about their names steer you away from the essay I wrote today about Pierce and Hawthorne. I think you’ll like it.


Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.

In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.

In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:

TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
.

On the next page, the dedication continued with a lengthy inscription beginning:
TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.

Hawthorne’s dedication ended with:
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE

Our Old Home was subtitled A Series of English Sketches and much of the book had been inspired (and written) by Hawthorne’s time as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, which allowed him to not only write, but to travel the English countryside. The Atlantic Monthly had published the manuscript as a serial, and editor James T. Fields was at the front of the queue demanding that Hawthorne drop any connection of the book with Pierce. Rather than scrubbing his idea of dedicating Our Old Home to Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared his undying friendship and appreciation for his friend with his inscription, in the strongest words possible. Understanding all of the accusations being made about Pierce, Hawthorne even offered a defense of his friend’s loyalty, reminding his readers that Franklin Pierce had spent nearly his entire adult life in public service and that the 14th President inherited his patriotism from his father, Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and early Governor of New Hampshire.

To Fields, Hawthorne responded, “I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.” Hawthorne stood his ground and the dedication remained once Our Old Home was published. Many others, however, did tear out the pages referencing Pierce, including Ralph Waldo Emerson who tore the dedication out of the copy he received directly from Hawthorne before allowing the book to join his personal library. It wasn’t just Our Old Home which was unpopular; Hawthorne wrote, “My friends have dropped off from me like autumn leaves,” to one of those who remained by his side.

Another who remained at his side was Franklin Pierce. In December 1863, Pierce’s long-suffering wife, Jane, died after years of lingering illnesses. Pierce was lonely when he was married — when a friend once asked him how the gregarious, fun-loving politician could marry someone with as such an opposite personality as Jane, Pierce answered, “I could take better care of her than anyone else was the reply.”. Life as a widower added to that loneliness, as well as the fact that his neighbors in Concord, New Hampshire shunned him, his political career allies had deserted him years ago, and one of his closest friends happened to be the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellious states then engaged with the Union in a bloody Civil War — Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It didn’t help that Pierce’s alcoholism was taking a severe toll on his health. But, as the dedication in Our Old Home had proven, Pierce still had Hawthorne at his side, too.

Hawthorne was at Pierce’s side in Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 as Jane was laid to rest. Pierce was devastated by his wife’s death, and Hawthorne was disturbed by seeing Jane in her open casket — he recognized that he, too, was nearing death. Hawthorne’s health had been failing for years and he had less than six months to live. As Jane’s casket was being lowered into her grave at Old North Cemetery, the grieving former President was thankful for his friend’s presence, but clearly worried about Hawthorne’s physical condition. At Jane’s graveside, Pierce took the time to adjust Hawthorne’s collar for him to keep him warm in the cold December wind of New Hampshire.

•••
"Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!" — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

In the spring of 1864, Hawthorne continued to decline. Stomach pain plagued him chronically, but he hoped that a trip to the White Mountains would be good for his health and asked Pierce to accompany him. Hawthorne’s friends worried that he was making a mistake by traveling in his physical condition and remained bitterly opposed to Hawthorne’s continuing connection with Pierce. But Hawthorne dismissed any concerns and his wife, Sophia, was supportive of the trip. Sophia, however, warned Pierce of how ill his friend really was and wrote, “He really needs to be aided in getting in and out of carriages, because his eyes are so affected by this weakness, and his steps are so uncertain.” In her letter of May 6, 1864, Sophia continued, “I would not trust him in any hands now excepting just such gentle and tender hands as yours,” and, “God bless you fear General Pierce for your aid in this strait.”

After meeting Hawthorne in Boston, the two friends traveled to Pierce’s home in Concord to wait for the weather to improve before beginning their journey into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hawthorne was gaunt, weak, and clearly dying, but in good spirits as they traveled from PIerce’s home to Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Pierce and Hawthorne arrived at the first-class Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about 100 miles from Dixville Notch. In the evening, Hawthorne had a bit of food and a cup of tea, fell asleep for an hour on a couch and then woke up and retired to his room. Pierce described the next few hours in a letter to Sidney Webster in 1868:

Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. To Webster, Pierce noted that as they were traveling by carriage to the Pemagewasset House earlier that day, Hawthorne asked him if he had read William Makepeace Thackeray’s account of death and “remarked in a low, soliloquizing tone, what a boon it would be if, when life draws to its close, one could pass away without a struggle.” Closing his letter to Webster describing Hawthorne’s final hours, he wrote, “The boon of which he spoke in the afternoon had, before morning’s dawn, been graciously granted to him. He had passed from natural sleep to that from which there is no earthly waking, without the slightest struggle, evidently without moving a muscle.”

Pierce notified Sophia Hawthorne by telegram and made arrangements for Hawthorne’s return to Massachusetts, accompanying the body of the legendary author in a solemn conclusion to their final journey together. As he was packing up their belongings, he found a pocketbook that felt empty, opened it up and found that Hawthorne carried a photograph of Franklin Pierce with him everywhere he went.

At Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce’s friendship with Hawthorne and care of the author in his final days was overlooked by Hawthorne’s other friends, who still shunned the former President due to political differences. Pierce was heartbroken that he was passed over and not included as a pallbearer. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of less controversial names like Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce’s was treated with respect as a former President of the United States, but nothing beyond what was required for proper society. To most of the people at the funeral, Pierce wasn’t the man who Hawthorne chose to spend his final days with; to them, he was a Northern President whose Southern sympathies had led them to Civil War. To them, Franklin Pierce wasn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best friend; to them, he was a close friend of Jefferson Davis at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate abolitionists. Franklin Pierce’s closest ally at Hawthorne’s funeral was the man lying in the casket, and all he could do was sprinkle apple blossoms into the grave.

"I need not tell you how lonely I am, and how full of sorrow," Pierce wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, shortly after Hawthorne’s death. Still devastated by Jane’s passing and now without Hawthorne, Pierce increasingly turned to the bottle. Drinking was punishing his body, and he began to decline. By the end, on October 8, 1868, Pierce was suffering from liver failure and reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds. Hawthorne stood by Pierce until the end, Pierce accompanied Hawthorne in the author’s final hours, but in the former President’s remaining years, he was increasingly lonely. He had been able to visit his other famous friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, shortly before Davis was released from prison, but that was the last time they saw each other. The war, politics, and time had taken a toll on Pierce’s health and reputation, no matter his years of public service as a State Legislator, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, or President of the United States. His dear friend Hawthorne had once written, "A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world," and Franklin Pierce could not overcome his political failures or personal demons. In the end he died alone, but linked (or remaining in "concord"), in a way, to Hawthorne by their hometowns and final resting places — Pierce is buried in Concord, New Hampshire and Hawthorne is buried in Concord, Massachusetts.
Asker Anonymous Asks:
How would you describe your writing style?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Gas. Brake. Dip.

AND Magazine has been redesigning some areas of their website, and I love the new profile pages for contributors. I’ve always loved how great AND makes my articles look visually, and I really like how each article that I’ve written has a really cool visual gateway on my profile page that takes readers to my work.

Go check out my profile page at AND Magazine, and then read a bunch of articles so you can “like” them on Facebook, share them with the world, and comment about how wonderful I am. But in only that exact order unless you want to be banished to a barren island in the South Atlantic Ocean with no potable water and Ted Cruz.

Many of you who have been following me since I was posting on my personal blog (which I no longer update) and started Dead Presidents were also followers of my good friend, Keith, in the various incarnations that his Tumblr blog has taken over the years. Since Keith is a husband and father and works hard, he sometimes takes sabbaticals from writing because, quite frankly, he has better shit to do. But anytime that Keith is writing and creating is a good time because, as I’ve said for 15 years — even when people weren’t listening and didn’t care — Keith is the best writer that I’ve ever known.

He’s back to posting on his Tumblr, Divided By Frames, so you may want to check it out and follow him. Now, Keith isn’t for everybody, and he’s certainly not writing about history. But if you are a fan of erotica and general assholery, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy Divided By Frames.

Before I close, I’d like to share a personal note about Keith. Now, this would be a great opportunity for me to let you know how good of a friend that he has been to me, and how he did more than just about anybody to convince me to leave a bad situation in Texas and spend time in Missouri to get my head right and recharge my batteries. This would be a good place to talk about how he let me stay in his home as I got settled in Missouri, and that if I killed somebody and had to get rid of the body, I’d only need to text Keith and he’d say, “I’ll bring the Pepsi and the shovel.” This is a perfect opening for me to share how amazing of a father he is to his adorable daughter. There is no better time than now to share all of those things.

But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to tell you about how this anti-establishment rebel, this non-conformist wordsmith of provocative erotica is a complete and utter phony. You see, before I left Missouri, Keith had asked if I knew where to find a copy of a certain book that he was having a hard time finding for a reasonable price. Even used copies were being sold at a minimum of $75-$90, he said. So, I said I’d see if I could help and figured it must be something really fascinating — something rebellious or radical, real cutting-edge literature that shocked and frightened the mainstream audience, something that was so seditious, so outrageous, so stimulating and exciting, that the reason the price was so high for the book was because few copies existed either because they were destroyed by people disturbed by the content, or held on to tightly by people inspired by the very fact that someone would write something so intoxicating.

Was it some crazy writer from the Beat Generation that I’d never heard of? First edition copies of Hunter S. Thompson classics? Some type of literature that I had never even imagined was being created? What was the book that Keith was looking for?

No, it was this:

That’s right, Keith desperately wanted to get his hands on a copy of Knowing Bass: The Scientific Approach to Catching More Fish by Dr. Keith A. Jones, PhD. That’s not some creative title masking subversive literature; it is what you think it is — a scientific study on the habits of BASS in order for nerds to “understand” them better when they go FISHING. I’m still disgusted in my friend.

We couldn’t find it cheaply online, but on my first trip to the wonderful Beers Books store after returning to Sacramento, I looked for the book and immediately found it for $12. So, the story has a happy ending for Keith, even though I hope that he is eventually ravaged by freshwater sharks or piranha or goldfish or whatever monsters are living in the water whenever he uses his “scientific knowledge about bass” while going fishing.

Don’t let this depressing story turn you away from Keith’s blog, Divided By Frames, however. As I said, he’s an amazing writer, even if he is an embarrassing excuse for a human being who needs a scientific study to help him catch stupid fish. Oh, and make no mistake about it — if I hadn’t found that copy of that silly book here in Sacramento and sent it to him, I am positive he eventually would have paid $90 for a copy.

Go read his shit, though, and try to pretend you don’t know this awful information about him when you’re enjoying his writing.

This is the workspace of a crazy man, and I am exhausted. Can somebody just please give me a book deal? Because the work is done. And I can’t stop writing.

I’ll probably need an editor, too, because nobody publishes or reads books that are over 6,000 pages long.

billscheft:

(Some background: In the last 16 years, I have written two pieces over 1000 words that haven’t been published. I have written several 800-word pieces which never saw the light of day…until now for the seven of you. 800 words is the length of a single-page magazine humor essay. So, when you…

I’ve said this many times, but if you’re not following Bill Scheft, a great author and humorist, you are missing out on one of Tumblr’s gems. So follow him and check out his new novel, Shrink Thyself (BOOK | KINDLE). Oh, and by the way, he’s been writing for a TV show hosted by some dude named David Letterman for nearly a quarter-century.

I always love when Longreads shows me some love — it’s been one of my favorite websites for a few years now. If you’re looking for great non-fiction and fiction pieces from fantastic writers, become a Longreads member today.

“I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.”


Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy. Biographical history is often painted with bright colors and written in a positive light, especially when it attains to leaders such as Presidents of the United States. Sometimes, a critical study is undertaken but even then, the route traveled is serious and often reverential. However, it is sometimes necessary to be direct, honest, and, yes, opinionated, and the truth is that Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy.

Born on the Fourth of July in 1872, Coolidge grew up in Vermont serious and stern, if not downright shy.  He went to Amherst College and began practicing law in Massachusetts after graduation, opening his own law practice in Northampton just before the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, Coolidge met and married a woman who was his polar opposite when it came to personality. Grace Anna Goodhue was vivacious and outgoing, popular and entertaining. Her first glimpse of Calvin Coolidge came two years before their marriage and was a memorable one. Grace was watering flowers and plants outside of the school for the deaf that she taught at; Calvin was standing in the room of his boardinghouse across the street, shaving in front of a full-length mirror while wearing nothing more than long underwear and a hat. The sound of Grace laughing out loud at the ridiculous sight of him led Calvin to notice his future wife for the first time and a few days later, he asked his landlord to introduce him to her.

When she married Coolidge, many of Grace’s friends were stunned at the union, unable to understand just what it was that she saw in him.  What she saw was a man driven by ambition and a savage work ethic, but also a man completely incorruptible and straightforward. She also learned that her husband was not the quiet, boring, dour man that he appeared to be to the public.  He was eccentric and funny, with a dry wit and mischievous streak that inspired many practical jokes. One of his favorite jokes as President was to simultaneously push every button on his desk in the White House and then hide as secretaries, military assistants, valets, Secret Service agents, and even Cabinet officers frantically searched for him.

Coolidge rose quickly in the Republican Party and Massachusetts politics, campaigning for William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and holding various local offices in the first few years of the new century. Over the next fifteen years, Coolidge climbed steadily through state and local politics, serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts State Senator, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and finally Governor in 1918. As Governor, Coolidge won nationwide popularity for his stance during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, where he famously stated that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”

Re-elected in 1919, Coolidge was nominated by the Republicans in 1920 as the running mate to Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding. Coolidge was not excited by the prospect of the Vice Presidency, but campaigned on behalf of the ticket nonetheless and Harding and Coolidge won a landslide victory and were sworn into office in March 1921. The Harding Administration was a disaster, ravaged by corruption and inefficiency, and President Harding was admittedly unqualified to be an effective or successful leader. Coolidge had very few duties as Vice President since the Vice Presidency had been a weak position in the American government up to that point in history.  Most Vice Presidents floundered in obscurity, stuck in a limbo; not quite a member of Executive branch and not quite a member of the Legislative branch.  Coolidge, however, was actually the first Vice President in American History to attend Cabinet meetings — something that is seemingly an automatic responsibility of the Vice President today.

Shortly after midnight on August 3, 1923, Calvin’s father, John Coolidge, was awakened by three men who knocked at the door of his farm in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Mr. Coolidge lived in a simple home and did not have a telephone, so the three men drove to the house from Bridgewater, a town about 15 miles away. They had urgent news to deliver and passed it to Mr. Coolidge who immediately walked upstairs and called for his son, who had been sleeping and was visiting his father while on vacation.

The Coolidge family never wasted words. John Coolidge simply notified his son that President Harding had died in San Francisco a few hours earlier. Calvin Coolidge calmly got dressed and walked across the street to a general store where he contacted Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes by telephone, drank a Moxie beverage, and left a nickel to pay for it. Coolidge then walked back across the street to his father’s home.

On the advice of Secretary Hughes and Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, Coolidge prepared to be inaugurated as President as quickly as possible. John Coolidge was a justice of the peace and notary public, and in that capacity the father administered the Presidential Oath of Office to his son at 2:47 AM on August 3, 1923. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States in the sitting room of his father’s simple home which was illuminated by candles and the light from a kerosene lamp since the house also lacked electricity. Just minutes after he officially became President, Calvin Coolidge went right back to bed and enjoyed a full night of sleep. The next morning, President Coolidge prepared to return to Washington. Despite the gravity of the situation, he only had a parting sentence for his father. As he left John Coolidge’s home, President Coolidge stumbled on a loose step in the front yard, turned to his father and simply said, “Better get that fixed” and headed to the White House.

“Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still,” President Coolidge was once quoted as saying and he was anything but an activist President. Coolidge was a forceful opponent of what we would presently identify as “big government”.  One of the new President’s main objectives was to restore confidence in the federal government which had grown wildly and been infected by scandals and corruption due to bad appointments and terrible leadership by Warren G. Harding. Coolidge achieved this objective by shrinking the government, touting private business growth, and eliminating programs and economic regulations that were born from World War I. Coolidge was a small-government conservative on the scale of Ronald Reagan, but sixty years ahead of his time. In fact, one of Coolidge’s biggest fans was Reagan himself who, after becoming President in 1981, replaced a Cabinet Room portrait of Harry Truman with Coolidge.

With his focus on balancing the budget, cutting taxes, and decreasing the size and role of the federal government, Calvin Coolidge would be a dream candidate for the Republican Party here in the 21st century. “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” Coolidge said while President. Minding his own business came naturally to President Coolidge.

While he was certainly ambitious and hard-working, that hard work didn’t necessarily mean long hours in the office.  Coolidge may have found admirers in successors like Reagan and George W. Bush for other reasons besides small government conservatism — it was well-known that the President enjoyed his sleep and usually slept no less than eleven hours a day.  Coolidge was sure to be in bed by 10:00 PM and normally awakened between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM. As if that wasn’t enough, Coolidge somehow found enough time to religiously squeeze in a nap every single day. In fact, maybe it should be said that Coolidge somehow found enough time to squeeze in some work every single day, as his midday naps lasted anywhere from two to four hours long, leading the great journalist H. L. Mencken to observe that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but Coolidge only snores.” Coolidge insisted that his sleep habits were actually a positive for the United States — if he was asleep, he couldn’t mess anything up — and the he often woke up and asked an aide, “Is the country still here?”. One evening, the President attended the theater to see the Marx Brothers perform Animal Crackers, and upon noticing Coolidge in the audience, Groucho Marx yelled to him, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”.

Undoubtedly, the most famous aspect of Calvin Coolidge’s life and the source of his nickname, “Silent Cal”, was his legendary taciturnity.  Coolidge was a man of few words who said as little as possible and only as much as necessary, treating each spoken word as if it was an endangered resource unable to be recycled and reused in the future.  Coolidge’s reticence is documented in a multitude of anecdotes, most of which also highlight his sense of humor.  While he said very little, what Coolidge said — or how Coolidge said it — was often very funny.  One of the most well-remembered stories is of a woman seated next to President Coolidge at a dinner party who turned to Coolidge and said, “You must talk to me, Mr. President! I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge looked at the woman and simply replied, “You lose.”

During the 1924 campaign in which Coolidge won a Presidential term of his own, he answered questions for reporters who had been pleading for a question-and-answer session. One reporter asked, “Have you any statement on the campaign?”. “No,” said Coolidge. “Can you tell us something about the world situation?”, asked another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge. “Any information about Prohibition?”, asked yet another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge once again.  Knowing that they weren’t going to get anything new from the President, the reporters began to disperse as Coolidge quickly said, “Now, remember — don’t quote me.”

Part of Coolidge’s reluctance to speak was that he was shy, but a bigger reason is that he was cautious. In his autobiography, Coolidge noted, “The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately”, and often said, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.” To the actress Ethel Barrymore, Coolidge said, “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them.” Coolidge’s restraint and quiet demeanor camouflaged a superb self-confidence of his own abilities.  When Charles Hopkinson was painting Coolidge’s portrait a few years into his Administration, he brought up the calm demeanor that Coolidge was said to possess when learning of President Harding’s death and realizing that he was now President. “Mr. President,” the painter asked, “What was your first thought when you heard that Harding had died?” If the artist was looking for some deep insight or a fascinating revelation about the new President feeling anxiety or intimidation about the sudden and dramatic transfer of power, Hopkinson didn’t find a hint of it. On his feelings about assuming the Presidency, Coolidge simply responded, “I thought I could swing it.”

There was certainly a fun-loving side to Coolidge’s austere personality. Many Americans had no idea that their restrained President had a mechanical horse installed in the White House that he rode regularly, sometimes while pretending he was a cowboy. And, oddly enough for man who was seemingly so shy, Coolidge is seen in more newsreels and photographs than any of his predecessors — an unusual number of which depict him wearing unique hats or colorful headgear. Also, despite his reserved nature, President Coolidge held more press conferences than any of his predecessors — 529 in all. While he may not have been the most quotable of Presidents or have given reporters answers with the details they were seeking, he gave them every opportunity to ask questions.

Coolidge and his wife were animal lovers throughout their lives and though the President had very few human friends and was uncomfortable interacting with his own species socially, he doted on his pets and considered them his closest friends. Even as President, he had numerous dogs, cats, and birds living in the White House. During his Presidency, people sent him animals as gifts, and he received a black bear, lion cubs, a hippopotamus, a wallaby, a wombat, and a deer, all of which Coolidge donated to zoos. The President’s most famous pet was Rebecca the Raccoon. Rebecca lived in the White House and Coolidge spent afternoons playing with her after he finished his paperwork, sometimes even walking her around the White House on a leash.

In 1924, Coolidge won election in his own right as President, but lost much more. His 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., received a blister on his toe while playing tennis in sneakers without socks on the White House tennis courts. Shortly afterward, the blister became infected and Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning. The Coolidges were devastated and in many photographs, the President is seen wearing a black armband in mourning. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” said Coolidge. “The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”

As 1928 approached, President Coolidge was enormously popular and the country was prospering, but in August 1927, a vacationing Coolidge gathered reporters so he could make a statement. The statement was just a single sentence passed out to reporters on a slip of paper: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928”. Without further explanation, he ended the press conference and walked away. Some historians believe Coolidge retired because he felt that the next four years would require greater spending by the federal government and he was ill-equipped to manage that type of government. Others, however, believe that Coolidge understood that a financial crisis was coming and he retired in order to protect his legacy of prosperity as President.

The Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover for President in 1928, and Coolidge was lukewarm about Hoover’s candidacy, noting, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for the past six years, all of it bad.” Hoover won the election, however, and Coolidge offered the incoming President advice of his own, suggesting that Hoover could rid himself of long-winded visitors by simply sitting still and remaining completely silent until the visitor stopped talking on their own, explaining that “If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes.”. After attending Hoover’s inauguration, Coolidge retired to his home, “The Beeches”, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Just months after Hoover’s inauguration in 1929, the stock market crashed and sent the economy into the Great Depression.

In retirement, Coolidge wrote his autobiography and a syndicated newspaper column, working from home in Massachusetts and enjoying his privacy. In 1932, some Republicans were hoping to dump the unpopular President Hoover — who was destined for certain defeat — from the GOP ticket and replace him with Coolidge. When Coolidge was told that his return to the White House would “be the end of this horrible depression”, the former President replied, “It would be the beginning of mine.” Coolidge refused to be drafted as a candidate and Hoover was destroyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.

On January 5, 1933, Calvin Coolidge quietly worked on a jigsaw puzzle of George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of “The Beeches” in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Grace Coolidge went into town to do some shopping at about noon and when she came home about an hour later she found her beloved husband, the 30th President of the United States, laying flat on his back on the floor in his shirtsleeves, dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 60. Fittingly, Coolidge’s last words went unrecorded and his Last Will and Testament was a total of just 23 words in length. Coolidge’s funeral was characteristically quiet and simple, and his headstone in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Plymouth, Vermont has only his name, date of birth, date of death, and a small Presidential seal inscribed at the top.

Many tributes were written and eulogies were spoken upon Coolidge’s death. With his official announcement of Coolidge’s passing, President Hoover said, “His name had become in his own lifetime a synonym for sagacity and wisdom; and his temperateness in speech and his orderly deliberation in action bespoke the profound sense of responsibility which guided his conduct of the public business.” The most appropriate tribute to Calvin Coolidge may have come from The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker. When told that Coolidge was dead, the writer said, “How can they tell?”

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Hey, I really appreciate the time and effort you put into the Jefferson Davis posts. My great grandfather fought in Gettysburg and it's really important to know the history. It's fascinating.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Thank you, I appreciate it.

Listen, I want to make something clear for those people who see the name of Jefferson Davis and automatically think that I’m some Confederate sympathizer without ever reading the essays.  I’m not.  When I lived in Texas for a year, I saw so many Confederate flag bumper stickers and license plates that it made me sick and was part of the reason that drove me out of the state.  I had never actually seen someone displaying the Confederate flag like that.  And to see it in 2010, proudly framing a license plate with “The South Will Rise Again” or “The South Was Right” was despicable to me, a guy who crew up in the inner-city in Northern California.  

Those essays aren’t excusing Jefferson Davis, either.  I’m not humanizing him because I’m trying to pardon him for his actions or beliefs.  I’m a history-lover and I think that humanizing important historic figures is a crucial aspect of getting other people interested in history.  Neil deGrasse Tyson frequently talks about the importance of “science literacy”, especially as science programs are scaled back in all levels of school.  I think they same thing goes for history, and I’m trying my best to expand “history literacy” — all aspects of it.  A subject like the Civil War requires studying both sides of the conflict and its causes in order to truly understand it.  I think that getting people fascinated by history — especially people who are only interested in history on a casual level — often requires planting interest through biographical information.  As I’ve said many times, history isn’t just the study of names and dates; history is a story about people.  

Like many modern Presidents, Ronald Reagan received thousands of letters each day from supporters, opponents, lobbyists, fans, nutjobs, regular Americans, and people around the world.  Like many modern Presidents, most of those letters almost never reached Ronald Reagan — but some did.  To take the pulse of the American people and try to escape the White House bubble that can isolate even the most down-to-earth of Presidents, Reagan requested that his correspondence secretaries give him a sampling of about 30 letters per month.  The letters were carefully screened, but not so one-sided that Reagan didn’t hear from people who weren’t happy with him or what he was doing as President.  

Sometimes, Reagan simply read the letters.  Most of the time, he picked up his pen and responded in his instantly recognizable handwriting and simple, smooth prose.  Longtime Washington fixture Clark Clifford, a former Secretary of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson, once memorably called Ronald Reagan an “amiable dunce”.  Reagan may have been amiable — although he had no close friends and even his children said that the only person who truly knew him was his wife, Nancy — but he was no dunce.  Exploring the private papers of the 40th President — personal diaries, notes, correspondence, and love letters to his beloved wife — one quickly realizes that Ronald Reagan was one of the best pure writers of all American Presidents.  The clarity of his writing, his common touch, and, of course, his sense of humor is readily apparent in his private responses to letters from the American people.

In 1984, 13-year-old Andy Smith of South Carolina wrote the President, “Today, my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area.  I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room.”  President Reagan’s response was not just funny — it also contained a subtle sermon on Reagan’s small government philosophy:

Your application for disaster relief had been duly noted but I must point out one technical problem; the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request.  In this case your mother.

However, setting that aside I’ll have to point out the larger problem of available funds.  This has been a year of disasters, 539 hurricanes as of May 4th and several more since, numerous floods, forest fires, drought in Texas and a number of earthquakes.  What I’m getting at is that funds are dangerously low.

May I make a suggestion?  This administration, believing that government has done many things that could be done by volunteers at the local level, has sponsored a Private Sector Initiative program calling upon people to practice voluntarism in the solving of a number of local problems.

Your situation appears to be a natural.  I’m sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster.  Therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program to go along with the more than 3,000 already underway in our nation — congratulations.

Give my best regards to your mother,
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

A year earlier, another child, Rachel Virden of Texas, wrote to the President and mentioned that she was nervous because she was going to have to start wearing eyeglasses.  Reagan sympathized and connected with the young girl:

Rachel I know how you feel about glasses.  I have been nearsighted all my life and when I was young I felt as you do about wearing glasses but I wore them.  Being able to see clearly was more important.  Now maybe seeing me on TV or my picture in the paper you wonder where my glasses are.  I’m wearing them — contact lenses.  Wear your glasses now and in a few years when your eyes have reached their full size you might look into the idea of contacts.  It’s very simple and easy to wear them.  I’ve been wearing them all my adult life.  But in the meantime don’t deny yourself the joy of being able to see things clearly.

Not all of the letters that reached Reagan’s desk were from children or easy for the President to digest.  In 1982, Gail Foyt of Ohio wrote to Reagan and noted that she had voted for him in 1980 but was regretting her decision because of economic problems that deeply affected her and her family since her husband was forced to find work in another state and leave for months at a time.  In her letter, Foyt suggested that the “very wealthy” President didn’t care about “people like me — not rich, nor poor — worth nothing except to each other”.  Reagan, who grew up in rural Illinois during the Great Depression as the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman who was once fired on Christmas Eve, took it personally:

I wish I could tell you there is some instant answer to the economic problems besetting us but I can’t.  However it is my strong belief that we are on the right track and the economy is turning up.

I hope and pray by the time you receive this your own situation is improved and that you are or soon will be united with your husband.

Mrs. Foyt your sentence with regard to my not being able to understand the real world touched a tender nerve.  I grew up in poverty, although in a small midwestern town you didn’t think of yourself as poor.  Maybe because the government didn’t come around and tell you, you were poor.  But I do understand very well what you were saying.  I’ve been making speeches for about 30 years on the fact that the forgotten men and women in America were those people who went to work, paid their bills, sent their kids to school and made this country run.

You said you’d pray for me and I’m grateful.  I have a great faith in prayer and I intend to pray for you.

Sincerely,
Ronald Reagan

President Reagan continued responding to selected letters screened by his correspondence secretaries for the remainder of his Presidency — something that other Presidents have also done, including President Obama.  But Ronald Reagan’s most famous letter and almost certainly his most beautiful and touching letter was the last message he ever wrote to the American people.  On November 5, 1994, the 83-year-old former President released this handwritten letter on his personal stationery to the American people — a simple, elegant announcement so raw that, when he made a mistake towards the end, he merely crossed out the word and left it on the page.  It was the letter that began Ronald Reagan’s long goodbye:

My fellow Americans,

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had cancer surgeries.  We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness.  We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing.  They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.

So now we feel it is important to share it with you.  In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition.  Perhaps it will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

At the moment, I feel just fine.  I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done.  I will continue to share life’s journey with my beloved Nancy and my family.  I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden.  I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.  When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.  When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.  I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Thank you, my friends.

Sincerely, 
Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, who was never afraid to be critical or controversial about Reagan, probably summed it up best in PBS’s American Experience documentary of the 40th President:  

"I can’t think of anything I’ve seen that was so transparently honest, courageous, and articulate.  The writing had the ultimate quality of good writing which is unblinking acceptance of the truth.  I find it very difficult to think emotionally about Ronald Reagan, but that is one thing he did that catches me in the heart — the courage with which he left his conscious life.  The courage with which he stopped.  He simply stopped."

President Reagan was rarely seen in public following his announcement in November 1994.  The journey that led him into the sunset of his life ended on June 5, 2004, when he died at his home in Southern California at the age of 93.  After full military honors, lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and the first State Funeral in over 30 years, Reagan was buried at his Presidential Library on a mountaintop in Simi Valley, California — fittingly, the 40th President was interred in his tomb at sunset.