Leaving no paper trail

As we await the publication of Amity Shlaes’ new biography of the 30th president, it is appropriate to reflect a little on how difficult Coolidge has made it for his biographers. He was guarded and careful not to reveal anything too personal to the biographers that had an opportunity to visit with him, occasioning Claude M. Fuess to lament a “secretiveness almost unparalleled among American statesmen.” In marked contrast to most other recent presidents, Coolidge deliberately chose not to leave a paper trail of memoranda or letters that might serve to enlighten future generations about his innermost views and intentions guiding his policies. It appears that most letters in his personal files were destroyed as per his express wishes, but his longtime secretary Ed Clark later stated in effect that the loss was not that great because it had not been Coolidge’s wont to write long letters to his contemporary political luminaries. The great bulk of the correspondence that remains to be studied at the Library of Congress or the Forbes Library consists of routine replies to private citizens or business entities, most of it from the desks of his secretaries.

I submit that these apparently well-considered decisions -not to write any revealing letters in the first place, and to have destroyed what little valuable correspondence there may have been- is yet another manifestation of Coolidge’s well-grounded humility. Refreshingly, Coolidge did not think of himself as a “great man,” and consequently he may have felt that his correspondence was not of any great value. Not for him the careful creation of a legacy of letters to guide latter-day historians and the general populace gently but firmly to an appreciation of his genius and greatness. He never claimed to have a grand vision for the country, and indeed his conservative (non-)interpretation of the Constitution caused him to refrain from even trying to leave a lasting imprint in terms of landmark legislation or grand projects forever to be associated with his name. Doing the day’s work, dealing with the business at hand, were the ways in which he approached and carried out his office. He scorned those Congressional contemporaries who were ever ready to spend public money, preferring to be prudent and thrifty instead of boldly spendthrift. Today, as many grand schemes have turned into bottomless black holes, we appreciate his stance for the greatness it truly represents.

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