Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was so taciturn that he came to be known as “Silent Cal.” His pro-business, small-government approach won him admirers decades after he left the White House in 1929, though others blame his policies for deepening the Great Depression.
Some historians have suggested that he carefully cultivated his image as a man of few words. As Coolidge himself once wrote, “The words of a president have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”
But others say he came by his silence through a lifetime of suffering that only intensified when he was in the White House.
Born John Calvin Coolidge Jr. on July 4, 1872, he lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was only 12; his sole sibling, Abigail Grace, died six years later. His father, John Calvin Coolidge Sr., was so harsh and authoritarian that his son preferred to be known simply as Calvin Coolidge.
A distinguished debater at Amherst College, Coolidge passed the Massachusetts Bar in 1897, and launched his political career when he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1905. But it was as governor that he catapulted to national fame with his decisive action in ending the Boston police strike of 1919. The following year, Warren G. Harding was elected president, with Coolidge as his running mate.
The vice president was at his Vermont home in August 1923 when he got word that Harding had died in San Francisco while on a national tour. Coolidge dressed, said a prayer, and came downstairs to greet reporters. His father, who was a notary public, administered the oath of office to his son. The next day, after traveling to Washington, he was sworn in again at the Capitol.
Coolidge and his family – wife Grace and teenage sons John and Calvin Jr. – moved into the White House. The following summer, 16-year-old Calvin Jr. developed a blister on his foot playing tennis on the south grounds of the White House. The blister became infected, and within a week, he died of sepsis.
Grief-stricken, Coolidge, who just weeks earlier had won Republican nomination for the presidency, ran a very subdued campaign for the 1924 election. The president lost his customary energy and appetite, fought mood swings, irritability, and flew into rages at his wife and staff. He suffered from insomnia, followed by bouts of sleeping 15 hours straight. He wore a black arm band in mourning and withdrew from many presidential activities
His grief and depression affected his presidency – and his health in ways that would soon become apparent.
Calvin Coolidge was elected president on Nov. 4, 1924, winning 2.5 million more votes than the two other men on the ballot combined.
But he later admitted that the job had lost its allure, writing after he left the White House that when his son died, “the power and glory of the presidency went with him.”
He lost interest in politics and served out his term a broken man.
Coolidge withdrew from his regular meetings with members of Congress and had clerks deliver his messages. He instructed Congress to determine its own legislative agenda, telling members they were “closer to the people.”
His approach to foreign affairs was similar. “You settle the problem, and I’ll back you up,” he told the secretary of state. He admitted not knowing details of agriculture policy, and also claimed ignorance of rampant stock speculation that earned the era its “Roaring ’20s” nickname.
The first lady said her husband “lost his zest for living.” The chief usher of the White House described him as “highly disturbed.”
Coolidge announced in 1927 that he would not seek reelection in 1928.
Post presidency, Coolidge moved to Northampton, Mass. and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Calvin Coolidge Says.” He tried to relax by taking his small motorboat on the Connecticut River.
He was just 61 when he died of a heart attack, officially recognized as coronary thrombosis, Jan. 5, 1933. Shortly before his death, Coolidge confided to an old friend: “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”
Depression has been linked with cardiovascular disorders through a number of mechanisms. People who are depressed may not take prescribed medicines or they may abuse substances including drugs and alcohol. They may eat and sleep poorly, and not get enough exercise. But depression also leads to chemical changes that can harm the heart, such as increased blood pressure, stress hormones, insulin, cholesterol, and glucose levels, as well as higher levels of inflammation and blood clotting.
Not only has depression shown to be a risk factor for heart disease, it may also contribute to a poorer prognosis after a heart attack.
Allan B. Schwartz, M.D., is a professor of medicine in the division of nephrology and hypertension at Drexel University College of Medicine.