American Portraits

Calvin Coolidge, Reducing the Debt, and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn from the example of Calvin Coolidge on how to use integrity throughout their lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.


In the middle of the night, Vice President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace Coolidge were sleeping at their home in Plymouth, Vermont, when his father knocked on his bedroom door and awakened them. With a trembling voice, his father informed them that President Warren Harding was dead. The startled couple looked at each other and quickly dressed. Coolidge collected himself and consulted his copy of the Constitution to confirm that the presidential office would “devolve on the vice president.” At 2:30 a.m., in a humble ceremony, Coolidge spoke on a special phone line and took the Oath of Office in the presence of his father, who was a notary, and his wife….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can acting with integrity help to improve the lives of others?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn from the example of Calvin Coolidge on how to use integrity throughout their lives.


  • Students will analyze the decisions made during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and understand how he maintained his integrity.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of integrity to their own lives.


As World War I ended in 1918, Americans faced a bewildering number of events at home and abroad that contributed to a sense of instability. The war had brought on a communist revolution in Russia in 1917 that soon descended into the chaos of civil war. The Versailles Peace Conference resulted in a treaty that severely punished Germany and created a League of Nations intended to ensure world peace. However, the Senate refused to ratify the treaty or join the League out of fears that Congress would lose its prerogative to declare war and be dragged unwillingly into future European conflicts. Meanwhile, several terrorist bombings by anarchists in the United States created a sense of fear. In addition, postwar inflation led to a series of worker strikes throughout the country while wartime spending had greatly expanded the size of the federal budget and increased the national debt to nearly $25 billion.

Calvin Coolidge was from small-town New England and had the sturdy, industrious, independent character common to the region. He attended Amherst College and then read law independently to prepare for the bar exam since the fees at Harvard Law were too high. Coolidge practiced law and then devoted himself to public service in a variety of local positions before being elected to the Massachusetts state senate in 1911. He thought that laws should be based “on the eternal foundations of righteousness” and believed in limited government, especially in the wake of its expansion under progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Beginning in 1921, he served as vice president under President Warren Harding, whose administration was committed to reducing the size of government and the national debt.


  • Bewildering
  • Instability
  • Versailles Peace Conference
  • League of Nations
  • Prerogative
  • Inflation
  • Industrious
  • Bar exam
  • Righteousness
  • Progressive
  • Strike
  • Consulted
  • Humble
  • Inaugural
  • Abnormal
  • Expenditures
  • Predecessor
  • Paramount
  • Symbolically
  • Uncompromisingly
  • Persisted
  • Surplus
  • Prosperous

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website


Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Calvin Coolidge’s identity? How was it related to his integrity?
  • What was Coolidge’s purpose in living with integrity?
  • What actions did Coolidge take that showed his integrity?
  • How did President Coolidge promote freedom for Americans?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Coolidge, Calvin. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.
  • Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge. New York: Times Books, 2006.
  • Johnson, Charles C. Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President. San Francisco: Encounter, 2013.
  • Pietrusza, David, ed. Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography. New York: Church and Reid, 2013.
  • Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.
  • Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1998.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.