President Coolidge's Burden

A recent biography places Coolidge's failed presidency in the context of the deep depression he fell into after the death of his son

Psychohistory has tended to be psychoanalytical history, the application of Freudian concepts to historical figures. This approach has come under fire for reducing motives to drives and the real conflicts of history to intrapsychic conflicts among the holy trinity of ego, id, and superego. Fifty years ago psychoanalytic theory and therapy dominated the culture. No more. The revolution in American psychiatry from the Freudian to the medical paradigm has given historians the basis for a fresh approach to psychology. Instead of focusing on posited conflicts between instinct and repression, they now tend to examine observable psychiatric illness rooted in childhood events. Depression may be less interesting than neurosis, but its symptoms are more open to empirical validation. And whereas neurosis is rarely disabling, depression stops you cold.

It stopped Calvin Coolidge cold. As Robert E. Gilbert shows in his recent psychiatric biography, The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression, Coolidge ceased to function as President after the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin Jr.

On the afternoon of June 30, 1924, Calvin and his older brother, John, played several sets of tennis with the two White House doctors; Tuesday, they played again, and agreed to play once more on Wednesday. Calvin Jr. did not show up for the Wednesday match. He was in bed with a temperature. He had not worn socks to play tennis, and had developed a blister on one of his toes. The doctors discovered it too late to stop the systemic infection that, five days later, killed him. As he was dying, his father repeatedly pressed a locket into his hand until his son fell into a coma and could no longer grip it. "It contained a photograph of [the President's] mother and a lock of her hair," Gilbert writes, "so similar to young Calvin's in color and texture."

That locket closed a circle of loss and grief: when Calvin was twelve Victoria Coolidge, thirty-nine, died of tuberculosis at their Plymouth Notch, Vermont home. "Mother wants to see you both before she dies," his father, John Coolidge, told him and his younger sister, Abbie. "Hurry now and remember no crying. Not now, you're almost a man." In his 1929 Autobiography Calvin Coolidge wrote: "The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again." Five years later, Abbie, to whom Calvin was especially close, died, probably of appendicitis, with her brother by her side. Calvin suppressed his emotions to withstand these losses, which left him vulnerable to major depression after his son's death. "The loss of a child often reactivates earlier losses suffered by the parents," Gilbert observes, "and precipitates a global reaction encompassing virtually every area of life."

That describes the next four years of the Coolidge presidency. Calvin Coolidge displayed all ten of the symptoms listed by the American Psychiatric Association as evidence of major depression. Gilbert lists them, and so will I. Depression is scandalously under-diagnosed and undertreated. Perhaps seeing this list will encourage some readers to seek help—and, unlike in Coolidge's time, psycho-pharmacological help is available.

If, for a period of two weeks or more, your mood is depressed and you take little pleasure in your activities, and you notice any four of the following symptoms—loss of appetite or weight; insomnia or hypersomnia; agitation or inability to sit still; slowed speech or reluctance to speak at all; decreased energy; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; difficulty in thinking, concentrating, or deciding; and recurrent thoughts of death—then you are suffering a "Major Depressive Episode" which, untreated, can lead to death. Thirty-thousand Americans commit suicide every year, and either biological or event-based psychological depression is present in nearly every case. A sufferer from major depression denying himself medicine that can alleviate his symptoms in order to "tough it out" is like a diabetic denying himself insulin to improve his moral character. It is that absurd—and tragic.

When, as Vice President, Coolidge assumed the presidency after Warren Harding's death in the summer of 1923, "he reveled in his success." According to an associate, "the President would almost tiptoe around, touching things and half-smiling to himself." He came to see Calvin Jr.'s death as a punishment for the enjoyment he took in the perks and pomp of office, writing in his Autobiography, "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House."

A heavy sleeper before, after Calvin's death Coolidge slept even more. He went to bed at 10, rose at 9 or, if earlier, took a nap before lunch. He napped between two and four hours every afternoon. Altogether, this man who had been famous for his diligence now worked no more than four hours a day.

Following Woodrow Wilson's stroke, in 1919, his wife, Edith, and the White House doctor, Cary Grayson, ran the government. The incapacitated Coolidge turned the reins over to his wife, his Cabinet, and Congress. Whereas previously, whether as mayor, Massachusetts senate president, governor, or President, he had not hesitated to use the powers of office, "After July 1924, he deferred to Congress, refused to assist members of his administration in making decisions, hid behind the separation of powers principle as a way of avoiding involvement with the independent regulatory commissions, shied away from foreign policy entanglements, and declined to use his powers as president to achieve his goals." Mrs. Coolidge "bore 85 per cent of the burdens of office."

So comprehensively had he answered questions at his first press conference that the White House reporters applauded. According to The Boston Globe, "the veterans, and there are correspondents here who have seen presidents come and go for a quarter of a century, declare that thus far President Coolidge is more communicative than any man, with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who ever sat in the White House." That was before. After, Coolidge earned the sobriquet "Silent Cal."

The Tortured President tortured his wife and surviving son, John, who reminded him of the better-loved Calvin Jr. He behaved sadistically toward the White House staff and the Secret Service. On one occasion he tried to catch a bodyguard's finger with a fishhook; on another, after being bitten by a mosquito, he asked an agent, "Why didn't you kill it?" When leaving his office for a walk, he would sometimes press the buzzer signaling White House employees that he was returning, throwing them into a panic of activity. He acted bizarrely. During a private dinner with Herbert Hoover, his Secretary of Commerce, he pointed to a nearby portrait of John Quincy Adams and asked, "Mr. Hoover, don't you think the light has been too shiny on Mr. Adams' head?" He had a servant get a stepladder, then "rubbed a rag with fireplace ashes and proceeded to blacken Mr. Adams' head."

The mention of Hoover raises a question: Did Coolidge's depression prevent him from addressing the speculative excesses that, seven months after he left office, in 1929, resulted in the Great Crash? His unlucky successor thought so. Coolidge, Hoover wrote in his Memoirs, believed that nine out of ten troubles "will run into the ditch before they reach you" so you could ignore them. "The trouble with this philosophy was that when the tenth trouble reached him … it had by that time acquired such momentum that it spelled disaster. The outstanding instance was the rising boom and orgy of mad speculation which began in 1927, in respect to which he sidestepped all our anxious urgings and warnings to take action." Gilbert shows that Coolidge had followed "economic conditions" throughout his career, and that, in his few months as a functioning chief executive, he had taken "a proactive stance in dealing with them." The implication is that Coolidge's incapacity helped produce the Crash. But this may ascribe to pathology inaction that arose from ideology. Coolidge was "a real conservative," in Hoover's words, who looked askance on government's regulatory role in the economy. The man he appointed to head the Federal Trade Commission, for example, called it "an instrument of oppression and disturbance and injury." Coolidge was staying true to his ideology in rejecting Hoover's pleas for policing Wall Street.

To Herbert Hoover the cause of the Great Depression, as David M. Kennedy relates in Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, was the only event of the century of comparable magnitude. "In the large sense," the first sentence of his Memoirs reads, "the primary cause of the Great Depression was the war of 1914-1918." The reparations forced on Germany by the Versailles Treaty weakened the European economy. The key to relief lay in the United States, which had extended $10 billion in loans to the Allies. To finance those loans, the French and British dunned Germany for reparations payments. Canceling or restructuring the Allies' war debt would have ended this punitive cycle, allowing Germany to recover and permitting Europe as a whole to buy more U.S.-made goods—crucial to the health of an economy haunted by overproduction. Yet, well before his depression, Coolidge rejected sensible advice to restructure the debt, saying, "They hired the money, didn't they?" That country-store economic fundamentalism, as much as any single U.S. action, was responsible for the Depression.

Coolidge's illness, Gilbert argues, should be counted among the "mitigating circumstances of his presidency." But Gilbert's findings are unlikely to raise Coolidge's low standing among presidential historians. He presided over five years of peace and prosperity, yet gets little credit for it—because of his indifference to what would come next. Thanks to Gilbert, historians of the 1920s can better understand how depression reinforced Coolidge's principled aversion to active government and his political fear of the costs of tampering with the speculation-driven dynamics of "Coolidge prosperity."