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April 2013 - Volume 19, Number 2

   

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Singular Cal

By Ryan L. Cole
The Manhattan Institute

Amity Shlaes provides a long-overdue assessment of an underrated and misunderstood president in Coolidge (Harper).

 

Occasionally, what goes around does come around. Eighty years after Calvin Coolidge and his reputation were laid to rest, the 30th President is enjoying a renaissance. New Deal historians unfairly blame Coolidge for the Great Depression and consign him to the dustbin, but modern conservatives, inspired by his frugality, see him as a muse.

 

“Governor Romney, please meet Gov. Coolidge,” pleaded the American Thinker last year; “It’s time for a little Calvin Coolidge in our Economic Approach,” demanded the American Spectator.

 

Economists, searching for ways out of the country’s economic doldrums, gathered at Dartmouth to contemplate what advice he would give — while Republicans searched for a reincarnation.

 

Coolidge admiration is not entirely novel — Ronald Reagan hung Silent Cal’s portrait in the Cabinet Room. Many fans celebrate less the man than the silhouette: a taciturn New Englander who cut taxes and spending and presided over the booming twenties. But a serious discussion of Coolidge’s ideas and the importance of his presidency has been lacking.

 

Amity Shlaes’s Coolidge is a definitive biography that should move appreciation beyond conservatives and into the mainstream. Hers is not the only recent Coolidge study, but is in a league of its own. Coolidge is masterfully researched and lyrically written, balancing detailed economic history with a fascinating and moving human story.

 

As Shlaes explains, Coolidge’s austere character was forged in and forever linked with Vermont. He was, from childhood on, an outsider. Unlike generations of Coolidges who farmed the Green Mountain State’s flinty soil, Calvin left Plymouth Notch, the family homestead, for Amherst, Massachusetts. There, he grew from an awkward adolescent to a self-assured and determined young man whose career in law led, quickly, to politics.

 

From the city council to the statehouse, from the mayor’s office to the governor’s office, Coolidge’s career was a frenzy of realized ambition. But he was not always the tax-cutter and small-government champion of conservative lore. Originally a mild supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, and an advocate of unity at all costs, Coolidge often made it a priority to hold the middle ground. He didn’t hesitate to support his party, even if it meant more spending. “There should be no parsimony in the care of our unfortunates,” he declared in 1916.

 

But Coolidge began to see the destructive power of overzealous regulation and legislation, careless budgeting, and stifling taxation, both on businesses and individuals. He fought off demands to build new city halls, consolidated 100 state departments, and, most famously, as Massachusetts Governor, dismissed over 1,100 striking Boston policemen in 1919. The decision was difficult: the picketing police had legitimate grievances, but waves of violence and looting forced his hand.

 

The incident launched his national star, landing him a spot on the 1920 presidential ticket with Warren G. Harding. The duo pledged to return the nation to “normalcy” — a phrase Shlaes rescues from historical ridicule and translates as a promise to restore the order lost, and peel back the excessive layers of government. Harding pursued these goals with vigor, holding the line on spending and cutting government.

 

Miserable in the vice presidency, Coolidge provided little assistance. But then Harding suddenly died in 1923, and the task of normalizing the country fell to his deputy. In perhaps the most humble passage of power in American history, Coolidge was sworn into the presidency by his father, a notary public, near the flickering light of a kerosene lamp at Plymouth Notch.

 

Shlaes focuses on two key components of Coolidge’s presidency: spending and taxes. The new President relentlessly cut government and searched for savings. Government employees were issued one pencil at a time, and the government purchased lighter, less expensive paper. The Weather Bureau stopped sending out postcard forecasts, the post office made bags with new, cheaper material, and government-wide red tape was replaced with white string.

 

Coolidge, a master of the art of rebuffing congressional spending requests (he vetoed 50 bills), even in the executive mansion, where he chastised his housekeeper for excessive ham procurement. Collaborating with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, the President lowered the top income-tax rate to 25 percent on the theory that the reductions, paired with budget cuts, would bring more money into government coffers. It worked: revenues surged, wartime debt declined, and the President both balanced and decreased the federal budget.

 

Shlaes’s book is valuable for its insight into his life and character. The retiring Vermonter was actually an ambitious, shrewd politician; capable of great warmth and striking eloquence; and his domestic life was mostly tranquil. But Coolidge knew tragedy — the death of his mother and sister colored his youth, while the death of his teenage son, Calvin Jr., darkened his presidency and the rest of his life.

 

Shlaes discredits the image of Coolidge as incurious. He was a complex thinker who possessed a New Englander’s knack for expressing intricate ideas in common language. Nor was Coolidge a Luddite. He embraced technology, particularly aviation, and saw clearly that it was key to prosperity. He rebuffed the Ku Klux Klan and called for tolerance toward immigrants.

 

Coolidge refreshingly viewed power, and especially the presidency, coolly. When faced with the possibility of running, and likely winning, his own second term in 1928, which would have made him the longest-serving U.S. President at that time, Coolidge declined. “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man,” he wrote.

 

This reticent legacy offers contemporary America, deep in debt, spending wildly while growing anemically, and obsessed with presidential celebrity, an alternative path — or, in Shlaes’s phrasing, a useful “gift.”

 

At the end of his term, Coolidge was besieged with requests for federal assistance after destructive floods hit the South. A committed federalist, the President refused, pointing out that the states, rather than Washington, were best situated to provide relief. When flooding next devastated Vermont, Coolidge stood firm, while the nation grew restive and called for action.

 

Could an equally restrained President find favor today? Whatever the answer may be, Shlaes offers a long-overdue, three-dimensional version of Calvin Coolidge. Her book is not unlike its namesake: thoughtful, modestly eloquent, dryly humorous, and above all, relevant.

 

Ryan L. Cole, a former advisor to Governor Mitch Daniels, writes from Indiana.
The Mahattan Institute, City Journal, Vol 23, No. 1, March 15, 2013, reprinted with permission, <http://www.city-journal.org/2013/bc0315rc.html>.

 

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