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Calvin Coolidge--How Depression Killed a President
Can depression--that is, clinical depression--be fatal? Almost certainly, if indirectly, according to medical research into the condition. A recent study reported in USA Today found that depression can make a person twice as likely to develop heart disease within twelve years; furthermore, the study found that depression ranks with other factors such as diabetes and high cholesterol as a prime contributor to heart trouble. For the historian, this phenomenon can be studied by examining the final years of one of the most maligned Presidents of the early 20th Century, Calvin Coolidge. Often derided as lazy and "lackadaisical," a "do-nothing" President whose pro-business policies effectively caused the Great Depression (a fallacious liberal assumption that fails to account for the greed of the rank-and-file investing public), Coolidge actually represents an interesting illustration of how a life marked early on by personal tragedy can have a direct effect on a person's mental and physical well-being and performance. In particular, one specific tragic event during Coolidge's first year as President not only had a dramatic effect on his mental and physical well-being, but directly impacted how he performed as Chief Executive, which in turn influenced the course of the nation's history following Coolidge's retirement. Finally, Coolidge's depression contributed to his own death less than four years after his return to private citizenship.
Coolidge lost two members of his family with whom he was very close at a relatively young age. His mother, Victoria Josephine Moor, died, possibly of tuberculosis, in 1885 when Calvin was 12; his only sibling, Abigail Grace, died five years later at the age of 15, when her brother was only 18. These tragedies left a father, John Calvin Senior, an authoritarian who ruled his family with an iron hand, conditions that left his son a legacy of anger and resentment which he managed to keep bottled up for the most part. Coolidge also grew up with an attitude of hard work and industry that is quite at odds with the later historical impression of him. (Cal's resentments may have contributed to his dropping his first name, John, in his 20s. Also, can it be a coincidence that he chose as his future wife a woman named Grace, his sister's middle name?)
Coolidge's record in public office prior to becoming President certainly belies the historical impression. This record indicates he behaved with energy, diligence and ability during stints as a Massachusetts state legislator, mayor of Northampton, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor. His strong stand in ending the Boston police strike won him nomination as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, running alongside the genial (and incompetent) Warren G. Harding. As Vice President, Coolidge established a precedent by attending Cabinet meetings, and made several speeches throughout the country. He was, in fact, very effective as a speechmaker, but it was as Vice President that his reputation for taciturnity, and his nickname, "Silent Cal," were established; this is where the jokes started. Coolidge, however, came to cultivate this reputation for political purposes.
On August 2, 1923, President Harding died, and Vice President Coolidge, who was visiting his family home in Vermont, was sworn in by his father, a notary public. (Coolidge was later given the oath of office by a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.) After his first, late-night, swearing in, Coolidge went to bed, but again, this action unfairly feeds into the false image of the man. Once in Washington, Coolidge quickly took command. Among other things, he began giving regular press conferences (he would give over 500 during his Presidency); hosted a series of bipartisan breakfasts and dinners with members of Congress to promote his programs; pardoned thirty people who had been convicted of violating the Sedition Act during the Great War; and established a committee to investigate the scandals of the Harding Administration. The new President also reestablished diplomatic relations with Mexico, and acted so quickly in dispatching the Pacific Fleet to Japan to provide relief for victims of the Great Kanto earthquake on September 1923 that they arrived even before Japanese relief ships.
Coolidge's first State of the Union Address, delivered in December 1923, provided clear indications that he would be a vigourous and strong Chief Executive. Coolidge, adressing Congress in person, made several proposals, including but not limited to: ratification by the Senate of the treaty establishing the World Court; reduction of taxes, including "war taxes;" enaction of anti-lynching legislation; increases in the army and navy budgets; creation of a separate Cabinet department of education and welfare, thirty years before this was actually done; restriction of immigration and registration of "aliens" already in the country; legislation promoting reforestation; and laws restricting child labour and establishing a minimum wage for women. Many of his proposals were passed by Congress during this first session, and Coolidge was nominated overwhelmingly for a term in his own right by the Rebublican National Convention in June 1924.
Coolidge apparently took a great deal of pleasure in his successes in this first year in office. Shortly after his nomination, however, his pleasure, and well-being, would be shattered by tragedy; from here on out, he would come to see his enjoyment of the Presidency as a sin worthy of punishment. "I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House," he would write five years later in his Autobiography about the death of his younger son.
On June 30, 1924, both of his son's--Calvin Junior, 16, and his older brother John--participated in a tennis match with two White House doctors, playing several sets that extended to the next day. Calvin had worn no socks during these matches, and a blister formed on one of his toes. On the third day, he developed a fever, along with red streaks on his leg that indicated he had contracted blood poisoning. He fell into a coma, and died on July 7.
The loss of Calvin, his favorite son, was devastating to the President, and within a short time he was displaying every one of the symptoms--including loss of appetite, feelings of extreme guilt, reluctance to speak, extreme indecisiveness, and loss of energy--that the American Psychiatric Association says are signs of a "major depressive episode." He spent much more of his time sleeping--he turned in at 10 p.m., and rose at 9 a.m., and took naps in the afternoon lasting from two to four hours a day; so in all, he spent only about four hours a day working after his son died. Furthermore, the hours he did work were largely unproductive: He basically abdicated his duties for the next four years, retreating from direct interactions with both Congress and his own Cabinet, proposing no major legislation or programs while generally deferring more and more to Congress, and avoiding involvement in foreign policy; he even stopped giving his annual messages to Congress in person, instead letting clerks read them to each house as previous Administrations had done. Personally, Coolidge became increasingly irritable and would often explode with anger. outbursts that were directed at his staff, at the Secret Service men protecting him, and even at his family. His wife Grace was often embarrassed by these episodes, and his surviving son John also was upset over his father's often cruel attacks as well as constant unfavourable comparisons to his brother. In 1927, Coolidge became irrationally convinced that Grace was having an affair with a Secret Service agent assigned to her, and had him replaced.
The question of the role that Coolidge's condition played in events subsequent to his Administration, namely the Great Depression, is an interesting one. Many can speculate that Coolidge's inaction as President prevented the passage of measures designed to regulate the rampant Wall Street speculation that lay behind the stock market crash of 1929; he followed economic conditions closely throughout his career, and took steps to help the economy in his first few months in the White House. Herbert Hoover, his Secretary of Commerce and eventual successor, had urged him to put his weight behind regulatory efforts, and he later blamed Coolidge for not doing more. In particular, Hoover thought that the wartime debt owed by Great Britain and France to the U.S. should be restructured or cancelled, which would have not only helped the European economy, but also relieved American overproduction by opening up a market for its manufactured products, not to mention possibly providing some relief to Germany, struggling to pay reparations forced on them by the Alliance. Coolidge refused to follow this advice. Coolidge's conservative principals would have kept him from getting too deeply involved in the economy in any case, but his grief-induced depression could give some ammunition to those defending him against charges that his "do-nothing" policies caused the Depression.
The theory that this depressive state caused his death less than four years after he left office is purely speculation, but it is based on the above-referenced circumstantial evidence. It is known that if a "major depressive episode" is left untreated, death can result. Suicide is common, but as recent research has revealed, heart disease and heart attacks are just as likely. Coolidge, from all outward appearances, gave no signs of heart problems--he was obviously not overweight, and he did not drink alcohol; he apparently liked his tobacco, but presumably not to excess. This leaves depression as the cause of his condition. Nevertheless, it is true that Coolidge died of a heart attack on January 5, 1933, at the age of 60. His final moments culminated a process of slow death that began more than eight years earlier, with the death of his son--this and any other conclusions are (again) highly speculative, but they are still better than the unsubstantiated assumptions of his critics.
See also: Marilyn Elias, USA Today, "Depression Can Break the Heart," from http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-03-04-depression-heart_N.htm
The American Presidency Project, "Calvin Coolidge: First Annual Message, December 6, 1923," from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29564
Robert E. Gilbert, The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression, from http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&vid=ISBN0275979318&vid=LCCN2002029894#v=onepage&q&f=false