Father knows best

What was Calvin Coolidge like as a dad? For one thing, as running for office and holding office were his (only) hobbies, he was often absent, particularly in his Boston years, when he commuted home to Northampton on weekends. When he did spend time with his boys, he was apt to imbue them with the spirit of thrift and discipline. Thus, when walking past the Northampton bank where John and Calvin Jr. had their savings accounts, he would remind them, “Boys, listen here a minute and maybe you can hear your money working for you.”

There is little question that Coolidge was of the stern-yet-kind father variety portrayed in period movies. Raised on 19th-century notions of child rearing, he expected prompt obedience from his boys, resorting to the occasional cuff to the ears when they were misbehaving, but largely ruling by direction and precept rather than force. Placing great value on education, he closely scrutinized their reports and made tart observations when they were doing less well than they could have.

But his strictness was generally tempered with humor. An anecdote related in Ishbell Ross’ biography of Grace Coolidge relates one incident where Calvin Jr. was on the receiving end of his father’s impish humor:

The Coolidges sometimes went to Rahar’s Inn in Northampton for Sunday supper, where Calvin had taken his meals for seven years before his marriage. The boys considered this a treat. They had the run of the place and here young Calvin had his first encounter with a finger bowl. A thin slice of lemon floated on the water. He looked up at his father and inquired about its purpose.

“To drink,” said his father solemnly. Calvin picked it up and drank, until his mother explained the true function of the bowl.

Another episode related by Grace Coolidge concerned a lesson in thrift. The family had spent a night with Mr. and Mrs. Stearns at their Swampscott residence. There, Mr. Coolidge overheard Mr. Stearns asking young Calvin about a gift of five dollars, which he had sent him as a birthday gift and which the boy had neglected to acknowledge.

“All the way to Poland Springs the following day, his father questioned Calvin about what he had done with the money. After we arrived and had been shown to our romms young Calvin was seated at a desk, given a pencil and paper, and bidden to write down all the things he could remember for which he had spent his five dollars. At dinner time he had not made much headway.

The following day was an uncomfortably hot Sunday. We attended service in the chapel. The visiting minister had a long sermon. There was no air stirring. I do not believe that many who were in the congregation followed the discourse closely. After we had left the church and were walking back to the hotel, my husband turned to me and asked, “Mammy, what was the sermon about?” “Mercy,” I said, “don’t ask me!” Turning to the boys, he asked, “John, what was the sermon about?” “I don’t know,” was the answer. Then it was Calvin’s turn. The question was repeated. The boy squirmed uncomfortably and said he didn’t remember. “Yes, you do, too,” his father told him and kept at it until, with a resigned shrug, his son murmured, “Aw, spending money!”


4 thoughts on “Father knows best

  1. How do you judge a father? Was Coolidge a good father? It was my good fortune to know his eldest son, John Coolidge. John was the result of his father’s parenting & based on the result: Calvin Coolidge was an excellent father. And: He certainly believed that he knew best.
    Lately, I’ve been thinking of President Coolidge’s father – John Calvin Coolidge and of his father – Calvin Galusha Coolidge. They are an interesting study of comparison and contrast. Each man fathered two children and each lost a child at an early age.

    Here is an extract from a letter President Coolidge writes in 1925:

    “Dear Father: It was two years ago tonight since you woke me to bring me the news that I was President. It seems a very short time. I trust it has been a satisfaction to you. I think only two or three fathers have seen their sons chosen President of the United States. I am sure I came to it very largely by your bringing up and your example. If that was what you wanted you have much to be thankful for that you have lived to so great an age to see it. Your son, Calvin Coolidge.”

    I find the last sentence – haunting.

    • Jim, as always, thanks for a very thoughtful comment. My own view is that parenting is somewhat overrated; it seems to me we should be careful to ascribe too high a proportion of either our own adult deficiencies on parental neglect, nor of our adult successes on good parenting. But it also is true that parents can make it easier or more difficult for us to bring out our own qualities and to succeed in life, and it appears that Calvin (and Grace) Coolidge provided a nurturing environment for their sons.
      The extraordinary bond that existed between president Coolidge and his father never ceases to fascinate me. I need to read up on Calvin Galusha Coolidge.

  2. In his Autobiography Coolidge devotes several paragraphs to his grandfather noting that “Old Galoosh” did not approve of his son, Col. John, as a storekeeper. “In his mind, the only real, respectable way to get a living was from tilling the soil.”
    The best source of information on Calvin Galusha is Claude Fuess’ “Calvin Coolidge – The Man From Vermont” (1940) which, in my view, is the “best” CC biography if you wish to “understand” Coolidge.

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