Leave it to Calvin Coolidge to have an understated presidential library.
Coolidge’s library and museum, which contains the largest collection of his papers as well as artifacts, photographs and other memorabilia relating to his life, is nothing like the presidential libraries we now expect.
Though funded solely through private donations, newer libraries draw headlines for their extravagance, and are often criticized as public relations exercises aimed at shaping a president’s legacy once he has left office.
George W. Bush’s library, which cost $250 million, was the most expensive to date when it opened in 2013. That expense, however, will probably be surpassed by Barack Obama’s library, which is expected to cost about $300 million. And sources close to Donald Trump have said the former president hopes to dwarf those efforts by raising $2 billion for his library.
In contrast, the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum comprises all of two rooms covering barely 2,000 square feet. It is also the only presidential library located in a public library.
And while every presidential library since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s is operated by the National Archives, the Coolidge site receives no state or federal funding, which is fitting, given the former president’s love of small government.
Coolidge chose to have his collections housed in a public library because “he had the sense that things should be free and open to the public,” explains Julie Bartlett Nelson, archivist at the Coolidge library. The federal government’s decision to fund the operation of presidential libraries, as well as modern public records laws, gave birth to the massive institutions we see today, she says. “Now pretty much anything presidents touch, breath on, or see becomes federal property,” Nelson says.
When Coolidge was elected vice president, no laws required politicians to make their papers public. Coolidge had no room for them in his house, however, so he donated them to his local library, the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts.
That Coolidge would pick a Massachusetts library, not a Vermont one, to house his collections might strike some as odd. After all, Silent Cal is often viewed as the quintessential Vermonter, and he remains the only one ever elected president. (Vermont’s other president, Chester A. Arthur, completed James Garfield’s term after the latter was assassinated.)
Coolidge might have grown up in Plymouth Notch, but his adult life was rooted in Massachusetts. After graduating from Amherst College, Coolidge settled in nearby Northampton, about 30 miles south of the Vermont border. Coolidge had an affinity for the city’s Forbes Library, which opened in 1894, the year before he arrived.
The Forbes allowed patrons to browse open stacks, which was unusual at the time. Most libraries required patrons to request specific books from the librarians, who would retrieve them.
At the Forbes, Coolidge read the law books of the library’s benefactor, Charles Forbes, who had been a lawyer and judge. Coolidge was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1897, and began his political career by winning election as a city councilor and city solicitor. During this period, he met and married fellow Vermonter Grace Goodhue, a native of Burlington, who taught at Northampton’s Clarke School for the Deaf.
Coolidge was elected Northampton mayor in 1909 and was soon a Massachusetts state senator. In 1915, he became lieutenant governor and three years later was elected governor.
Coolidge gained national attention by putting down a Boston police strike, declaring in his typically terse style, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” His action lost him support from organized labor, but won other allies.
Coolidge’s newfound fame helped win him a spot on the Republicans’ 1920 national ticket as the vice presidential candidate, running alongside Warren Harding. When he and Harding won the election, Coolidge donated materials from his time as governor — including his correspondence, scrapbooks, photos and other memorabilia — to the Forbes. As vice president, Coolidge had his staff occasionally ship materials to the library.
He continued the practice after he became president when Harding died unexpectedly in August 1923. Coolidge won election in his own right in 1924 and served until March 1929.
Upon leaving office, he and Grace moved back to Northampton. Only then did they buy their first home. Coolidge lived in the city until his early death, at age 60 from coronary thrombosis.
Nelson, the archivist, expects an increase in interest in Coolidge with the centennial of his presidency approaching. She cites an intriguing period in 1924 during which Coolidge gave the commencement address at Howard University, a historically Black institution, praising the valor of Black soldiers during the First World War; granted full citizenship to all American Indians, an issue brought to the forefront by the service of many Indians during the recent war; but also signed the Johnson-Reed Act, perhaps the most restrictive immigration law in U.S. history.
“When you think that the same guy did all three things in the same month, you have to ask what is his legacy,” Nelson says. “It speaks to the complexity of presidential legacies.”
Historians consistently put Coolidge somewhere in the middle of presidential rankings. He didn’t serve during wartime, which often boosts a president’s ranking, and didn’t experience any major scandals or enslave people, which often lowers his ranking.
“He’s sort of in the middle,” Nelson says. “That’s not a bad place to be.”
Despite its small size, the Coolidge library and museum’s collection includes 450 linear feet of papers, roughly 4,000 photographs, 1,500 artifacts and 60 art objects. The other major Coolidge collections are stored at the Library of Congress and at the Coolidge Homestead, a Vermont state historic site in Plymouth Notch.
Nelson says most of the documents have ended up with the Forbes’ collection and at the Library of Congress, while the state historic site has more of the physical objects, because it has more space to store and display them.
But the Forbes Library has its share of interesting artifacts, including the door to his Northampton law office, with the firm’s name, “Coolidge & Hemenway,” painted across the glass. The museum also has the electric mechanical horse Coolidge rode for exercise while at the White House — the president loved horses, but was allergic to them.
The most striking artifact is the long, eagle-feather headdress presented to Coolidge by the Sioux Nation during the president’s tour of the West in 1927. The Sioux wanted to recognize Coolidge for his support of Native American rights. Coolidge’s predecessors had pushed for Indians to be assimilated into American society, but he wanted them to preserve their culture while enjoying full citizenship.
Nelson believes the headdress would probably have been Coolidge’s favorite item in the collection. The president loved the West, a fact evident in the museum. Western-style hats sit in a prominent display case. A particularly poignant artifact, a special pair of beaded moccasins, is currently in storage. The Sioux also presented elaborate moccasins to each member of the Coolidge family. All but one pair were fashioned with leather soles. The other pair had beaded soles, since they would never be worn. The Sioux made that pair in honor of the Coolidges’ younger son, Calvin, who tragically died in 1924 of blood poisoning at age 16.
Nelson’s favorite objects are the portraits of Calvin and Grace painted by Howard Chandler Christy, which were commissioned by Grace’s sorority at the University of Vermont. Another Christy portrait of Grace hangs in the White House.
During the 1950s, the Massachusetts Legislature allocated $30,000 for a statue of Coolidge to stand on the Statehouse lawn, adjacent to Boston Common. Grace suggested the money might be better used to refurbish the Calvin Coolidge Library and Museum. The Legislature agreed and reallocated the money. Perhaps Grace thought Silent Cal would have been more comfortable with this quieter tribute.
Editor’s Note: The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Museum and Library at 20 West St. in Northampton, Massachusetts, is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. Visits on evenings when the Forbes Library is open can sometimes be arranged. Reservations are required for researchers using the Coolidge archive; call 413-587-1014.