Amity Schlaes has done a great service to the United States of America with her biography on Calvin Coolidge.
We often know much more about the history of war than the history of peace. And we often read more of leaders who try to make a name for themselves rather than leaders who strive to serve.
By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe a president like Coolidge could have existed. Consider just these few facts:
-He was very much an introvert.
-He balanced the federal budget.
-He cut taxes and reduced federal government expenditures.
-While doing this, he oversaw one of the greatest periods of development and peace in American history.
There are character traits of Coolidge that remind me of our first president.
I read this Coolidge biography shortly after reading Ron Chernow’s biography on George Washington. In it, Chernow writes about Washington: “In surrendering the presidency after two terms and overseeing a smooth transition of power, Washington had demonstrated that the president was merely the servant of the people.”
Fast forward to the late 1920s, and Coolidge shows a similar mindset. Despite his popularity, he declines to run again in 1928. He merely gathers the press and succintly announces: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
That’s all. The press and Republicans are stunned. Republicans keep pressing him to run, but he doesn’t relent on his decision to resign.
Schlaes indicates that the reason may have been in part due to his health, but she also notes that he understood that power corrupts.
Coolidge also reminds me of Washington because both knew how to use silence to their advantage. Chernow wrote that Washington often made his point by what he didn’t say more than by what he said when confronting subordinates.
Coolidge just seemed naturally quiet.
Throughout Coolidge’s presidency, he was relentless in cutting taxes and reducing the debt. He was consistent in his belief that certain matters should be relegated to the states and that the federal government should stay out of it.
Sadly, his financial successes were short lived. The next president was Herbert Hoover, who seems to align more with the “Progressive” wing of the party. Hoover chose to spend much more liberally, but as Coolidge predicted, Democrats would outspend him. We all know the story after that: Franklin Delano Roosevelt follows Hoover, implements the New Deal, and spends like crazy. FDR’s New Deal policies don’t end the Great Depression. If anything, the Great Depression is prolonged. And yet, somehow FDR is recognized as a great hero, while Coolidge is mainly forgotten.
Schlaes notes early on that some historians blame Coolidge for the Great Depression, although economists don’t really blame him. It seems a bit odd to give credit to FDR for solving the Great Depression when he really didn’t, while blaming Coolidge for the Great Depression when Coolidge actually presided over a time of great peace and prosperity. But that’s why historians like Schlaes are important.
Schlaes has a tall order. She has to write about a president who had no desire to come across as exciting or flashy. She chose to write about a peaceful time in our history, and Coolidge’s biggest legacy is his budget successes. And budgets are not always seen as exciting.
In today’s day and age, it is actually extremely relevant. The fact that we had a president who reduced the budget and who willingly gave up his power despite being a very popular president seems foreign to us today. (Coolidge won 54% of the vote in the 1924 election, even though the Progressive Party has splintered off from the Republican Party. Keep in mind: the Progressives were largely Republicans. Teddy Roosevelt, a prominent “Progressive” had been a Republican.)
Coolidge should be a much bigger part of our history books. The fact that he is not an exciting figure is perhaps the reason we should pay attention to him. Some of the greatest statesmen are the ones who never seek the spotlight.
Another interesting part of the book is the reputation of the Republican Party back in the 1920s. Today there are those who say that the Democrat Party and the Republican Party have switched places. Some believe this because back then the South was largely Democratic and had been since the Civil War, whereas the North was largely Republican. People who believe this seem to ignore other realities, such as the fact that the large swath in the central part of the country from North Dakota down to Kansas has been predominantly Republican during this entire time.
But the Republican Party’s core beliefs have remained similar. In the 1920 election, Schlaes writes that the GOP had shifted away from the “progressive” ideology and was now more the “party of low taxes, tariffs, less central government, and stability.” Over the next several decades, the GOP would become known for wanting less central government and favoring lower taxes compared to the Democrats. (The Republican Party has shifted a few times on the matter of tariffs, and has just recently moved more toward favoring tariffs than they did 20 years ago.)
Coolidge had originally identified as more of a Progressive earlier in his political career, a common trend for Republicans at the time. But after a while, he started to evolve, as he saw the true nature of people on strike. He realizes that activism (despite its purposes) doesn’t create wealth.
Coolidge wrote his stepmother: “The leaders there are socialists and anarchists, and they do not want anybody to work for wages. The trouble is not about the amount of wages; it is a small attempt to destroy all authority, whether of any church or government.”
Coolidge seemed to be thinking along the same lines of President Taft, who was “tiring of the progressive onslaught,” Schlaes writes. Taft said: “Votes are not bread, constitutional amendments are not work, referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses, recalls do not furnish clothing, initiatives do not supply employment or relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity.”
“(Teddy) Roosevelt might favor redistribution, but he, Taft, did not not. Taft considered himself a conservative, and Republicans nominated him. Coolidge would follow in the more conservative school of thought as he developed his career.”
Today, some liberals claim that states rights activism is merely a “dog whistle” for racism.
Not once did I read about Coolidge being called a racist for favoring states rights. Actually, it was the Democrat Party that was trying to decide what to do with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1924 Democrat Convention, with two factions arguing over whether to separate themselves from it.
Coolidge favored states’ rights, limited government, and believed in reducing his own power.
Following him, conservatives would spend about half a century in the wilderness, until Ronald Reagan came along.
Here is a brief timeline, albeit a bit simplistic:
Coolidge: conservative Republican
Hoover: moderate Republican
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Democrat
Harry Truman: Democrat
Dwight Eisenhower: moderate Republican
(Somewhere along this time we have the emergence of conservative William Buckley, Jr., National Review, and Barry Goldwater. The conservative wing of the party that believes in social values, limited government, and anti-communism starts to overtake the party and the more moderate “Rockefeller” Republicans.)
John F. Kennedy: Democrat
Lyndon Johnson: Democrat
Richard Nixon: moderate Republican
Jimmy Carter: Democrat
Ronald Reagan: conservative
Schlaes notes that Coolidge accomplished something that Reagan didn’t come close to doing: he reduced the size of the federal government. Reagan did draw inspiration from Coolidge, though. And Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 has some striking similarities to when Coolidge, as governor of Massachusetts, fired Boston police officers for striking.
“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” Coolidge said at the time in 1919.
It’s interesting to see how history can repeat itself. And it’s also interesting to see how some things change but others don’t.
We can learn much from Calvin Coolidge and his legacy, and history teachers would be wise to reintroduce him.