Our 30th president has solutions that we could use today
In the midst of a crazy election year, it’s worth considering the events of almost 100 years ago at the dawn of the Progressive Era, and the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. The time bears a sometimes uncanny resemblance to our own; his challenges are our current challenges. His solutions have been embraced successfully by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and by the Gingrich Congress in the 1990s. We can hope that they can be used again.
Amity Schlaes wrote her biography of Coolidge in 2012 after her masterful work on the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man. She writes in the introduction, “in researching that book on the 1930s, I discovered I was writing the prequel, the story of a forgotten president from the 1920s.”
The book covers his upbringing in Vermont and education and early political career in Massachusetts, culminating with his becoming governor. It was in that position that he dealt with the Boston police strike which catapulted him to the national scene.
That event, which captured the attention of the entire nation, Coolidge advanced the principle and precedent that those who served the public safety did not have the right to strike. Like Reagan and the air traffic controllers strike, Coolidge and the Boston police commissioner fired the strikers.
At the end of the crises, Schlaes writes, Coolidge felt certain that conciliation with progressives was not possible. There was no middle ground. In a century, nothing has changed.
Coolidge was elected vice president under Warren G. Harding in 1920. Their plan was to return the country to “normality” following Woodrow Wilson and his involvement in World War I.
It is amazing to the 21st century constitutional conservative to learn of the dictatorial powers assumed by Wilson following the declaration of war. While one may have heard of the Sedition Act of 1918, Schlaes mentions other things not as well known: nationalization of the railroads and price controls. These didn’t automatically go away when the war ended.
Wilson had built up a huge debt—almost $26 billion by the time he left office, even though the income tax had passed in 1916. Harding began the process of reducing that debt. Coolidge, through careful budgeting and a policy of tax reduction, brought the debt down to $17 billion by the end of his presidency.
Interestingly, Treasury Secretary Mellon and Coolidge practiced what we would today call supply-side economics, although Mellon called it scientific taxation. He theorized that reducing tax rates, especially on the wealthy whose rates hovered around 70%, would stimulate production and return more money to the treasury.
He was right. Surpluses were used to pay down the debt but also to return money to taxpayers in the form of refunds. Coolidge was hard-pressed to prevent the Congress from spending the surplus.
Coolidge felt that the government should get out of the way of commerce. He made a virtue of inaction. He said that it was more important to block bad bills than to pass good ones. Always one to act upon his beliefs, Coolidge wielded the veto pen and the pocket veto frequently-even against a Republican Congress.
One of the most interesting questions of the 1920s is why the country under Coolidge recovered quickly from the 1922 depression but the economy fell completely apart under Hoover and Roosevelt after the stock market crash of 1929.
Schlaes gives some insight.
Coolidge knew that business needed stability from government policy. He detested “experimentation.” In 1928 he sensed a correction was coming and he suspected Hoover would react wrongly. It happened, and Hoover did. Franklin Roosevelt—a former assistant secretary of the Navy and vice presidential candidate in 1920, won a landslide victory in 1932 and the rest is…the subject of The Forgotten Man.
Coolidge knew the Democrats couldn’t handle money. In the succeeding century, nothing has changed.
Coolidge was wildly popular with the people and would have won a third term in 1928 but unlike FDR, he chose not to break precedent. He lived long enough to see the disaster of Hoover’s presidency and the wild experimentation of the beginning of Roosevelt’s. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1933.
Other issues of Coolidge’s time are reflected in our own. Immigration. Natural disasters and the role of the states versus the federal government. A time of rapid technological progress, with the rapid growth of the automobile, aircraft and telephones. The progressives wanted to control these industries, as well as the energy industry. Coolidge was for federalism and a small federal government.
We are at an inflection point in our national history very much like Coolidge’s time. As Schlaes lays out the story of Coolidge’s times it gives us much to think about.
I bought the book when it first came out, at a lecture given by Schlaes. As she autographed my copy, she noticed my Gadsden Flag lapel pin and asked what it meant. When I said, “Tea Party,” she replied that I would like Coolidge.
She was right. Silent Cal deserves to be better known and Schlaes’ book is a great way to learn about him.