On Grief and Energy

An entry from Theodore Roosevelt's diary upon the death of his wife and mother on the same day.

An entry from Theodore Roosevelt’s diary upon the death of his wife and mother on the same day.

Much has been made with the hypothesis that Calvin Coolidge, once his youngest son died, succumbed to intense grief and settled into an acute depression from which he never rose again for the rest of his presidency. Consequently, those who maintain this premise not only accept the do-nothing legacy of Coolidge as historically accurate but help reinforce it not as a principled position of “refraining” as Amity Shlaes would assert, but as an emotional and mental exhaustion from clinical depression. Robert Gilbert, the foremost proponent of this theory, assembles quite a collection of carefully selected observations, public statements, and private accounts to support the idea that Mr. Coolidge did virtually sleep away the rest of his term, devoid of the same energy with which he approached the first eleven months in office. Mr. Gilbert sees a sharp difference between the Cal of 1923 and the Cal of 1924-1929. He builds much out of the phrase Coolidge himself writes almost five years after his son’s death, “The power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.” But, as with any theory, interpretation is prone to leave out certain facts that run contrary to the conclusion. Mr. Gilbert is no more immune to forced conclusions, whether they always fit or not, than is anyone else in “the business.”

Consider the parallel utterances of Theodore Roosevelt, who suffered the added loss of his mother the same day he lost his beloved wife, Alice, in 1884. His private diary entry on that day summarizes his outlook. Even a cursory examination of TR’s diaries during this period of his life confirms the devoted love and absorbing adoration he possessed for Alice. She was his everything. As he would write elsewhere, “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.” When she died from Bright’s disease while his mother surrendered to typhoid in the same house, he considered the place cursed and said so. The indescribable anguish he had to feel as he rearranged his entire existence, leaving their young daughter with his sister and moving out West to start over, can only be admired never fully understood. In one of only two occasions TR would mention his late wife, he said,

“She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the one history knows went on to great, even transformational, deeds, declared that “the light went from…life forever.” How could he say so and still travel the world, reform politics, lead America into its status as a world power, wage tireless campaigns in war and peace, and accomplish more in life at younger ages than anyone ever had before him? No one seriously claims that TR’s very strenuous life was limited by depression. Yet, Coolidge is relegated to insignificance despite going on to win an historic landslide, secure income tax reductions three more times, maintain six annual budget surpluses of $1 billion per year, decrease the national debt by 24% percent (the last President to ever pay down that debt), approve much-needed judicial reform in 1925, address Indian problems in 1928, modernize aviation and radio in 1926 and 1927, privatize the Merchant Marine in 1928, secure national defense with the Cruiser Act of 1929, and appeal to law in the Kellogg Pact as the binding authority for all nations, replacing the old regime of the strongest over the weakest. The glory and power of the Office was over, he asserted, yet he did so much. Why fail to see all that Coolidge did after his son’s death as minor, inconsequential, or nothing at all when both Teddy and Cal clearly declare life was never the same for them? Why assign a prognosis that ignores one man’s accomplishments but credits another for energy when both suffered tremendous grief? It is certainly true that people do not undergo loss the same way but neither does the record support that grief disabled one while invigorating the other.

The records of both men illustrate there was a greater force at work than their own personal situations. The Office summoned not only a duty to be supplied but the requisite “power” (as Cal would call ‘ability’) to meet the obligation. This is the real lesson to be gleaned here. Both men could have been completely thwarted by their losses but both connected to a higher measure of endurance and stamina to finish the course before each of them. Coolidge faced different challenges but did so with no less resolve or competence than the “Bull Moose” had in his time. We sidestep or too readily consign Coolidge to oblivion when we accept the premise that Mr. Coolidge’s losses undid him, defeated him, and kept him from doing anything worth noting because see only part of the picture. It closes our eyes to see all he did do, a series of accomplishments that took focus, discipline, and determination, especially when we consider no one since has replicated a reduction of the debt. He is characterized as sleeping through the Presidency out of lazy obliviousness but in so doing it fails to understand Coolidge’s life-long habit of afternoon siestas came not from depression but from the intense energy he poured into each task, from writing his own speeches to defending policies that were anything but easy to pass let alone implement.

Keep in mind, as well, that he had just succeeded a man who died in office under its intense pressure. Coolidge notes how the office had virtually killed more than one good and able man. Being a Senator in those days was also arduous to one’s health. Coolidge observes in his Autobiography how many Senators died during his time in Washington. He was anything but clueless about what was going on around him or the smallest details of his administration. Cal understood the importance of refusing to micro-manage or assume the constitutional and personal obligations that fall to others. Instead, he believed that by empowering subordinates to do their work responsibly, it perpetuated faith in our system of self-government. All this and more weighed on his shoulders. It speaks more to his fortitude of character that he did not buckle under the strain while yet in office.

Though both TR and CC died young, at but sixty years of age, they overcame (more than once) circumstances that could have permanently cut life shorter than it did. Even as the country sank into what would become the Great Depression, Coolidge’s deep concern for people never led to despair but only strengthened his faith in eternal truths. For both Teddy and Cal, an irrepressible faith kept them through the darkest ordeals, not only a faith in the people of America but a very real, personal faith in God. The oath Coolidge had taken meant too much to slouch and “kill time” with the Presidency. He knew God was watching how he handled what had been given to him. He could say in 1929 that he had finished the work entrusted to his care. He would never look back and yearn for its powers again but, to the very last day of office, he gave it everything he had.

CC drawing


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