Ronald Reagan astonished much of Washington when, in 1981, he hung Calvin Coolidge’s portrait in the White House Cabinet Room.
The punditocracy saw in Reagan’s gesture further evidence that he was, indeed, an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford maintained. Only a fool would choose to emulate a predecessor whom the chattering classes of his own era thought a fool. But Reagan knew what he was doing. In selecting a role model to symbolize the direction in which he wished to take the country—or in Obamaspeak, the trajectory he chose to embark on as a transformational president—Reagan cast his sights back to a time when Washington played less of a role in people’s daily lives and the creative impulses of the American people soared.
This took Reagan back nearly 60 years, and to Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933). Reagan’s search for a beacon to guide him, at least in the domestic sphere, should not have surprised his skeptics all that much: He had majored in economics in college at a time when the free market—rather than Keynesian economics, or “mixed economies”—was the order of the day. It was natural that his journey from New Deal liberal to Goldwater conservative would uncover some long-buried roots. Reagan’s tip of the hat to Coolidge began a decades-long feast of Coolidge revisionism.
Now, Amity Shlaes’s new biography ushers in a long-overdue rehabilitation of the 30th president. Coolidge follows The Forgotten Man, her 2008 account of how the policies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt prolonged the Great Depression. Contrary to what was commonly believed, and too often taught at the time and since, Shlaes argued that FDR and Hoover were more alike ideologically than different. Coolidge appeared in a subordinate role in The Forgotten Man, voicing reservations about Hoover, to whom he referred sarcastically as “the Wonder Boy.” In Coolidge, the taciturn New Englander moves to center stage, and, cast by Shlaes in the role of the “great refrainer,” he delivers a compelling performance.
The theme of this biography is that the prosperity that characterized the 1920s was the product of a determined president, backed by a tenacious budget chief and sagacious secretary of the Treasury. At the helm stood Calvin Coolidge, the president who rode shotgun over a Congress eager to spend more of the people’s money on popular programs. Time and again Coolidge had the courage to say “no”: to what he considered overly generous veterans bonuses (overridden); to farm subsidies and price supports (sustained); to increased military spending (sadly sustained). He wanted to say “no” to flood control as well, and when he yielded, he eschewed credit for what was, at the time, the single largest federal expenditure since the Great War. (He let Hoover, by then running for president, have it all.)
Shlaes begins her account by relating how a distant relation of Coolidge went to prison for owing a neighbor $24.23. This she takes as a representation of a lesson Coolidge learned early: Debt can destroy both individuals and nations. Coolidge came from a well-known and well-established family, descended from English colonists who settled in New England in the 17th century. Unlike his more urbane and wealthier kinsmen who inhabited the region’s eastern enclaves, the Coolidges of Plymouth, Vermont, where Calvin was born, were Swamp Yankees. To this day, the term connotes rural folk who display a penchant for frugality and a streak of stubborn independence. (“Tell me, Mr. President,” someone asked Coolidge in a receiving line, “are you related to the Coolidges of Boston?” His purported reply: “They say ‘no.’ ”)
While Coolidge’s immediate forebears were hardly wealthy, they more than made ends meet: Calvin’s father worked the land, ran a cheese factory, operated a general store, and served in the Vermont state legislature, as a justice of the peace, and as a notary public. In this last capacity, he swore his son in as president. (“Nobody said that I couldn’t,” he announced afterwards.) After graduating from Black River Academy, young Calvin enrolled at Amherst where, for the first time, he showed promise of future leadership, taking inspiration from the popular philosophy professor Charles Edward Garman. Garman taught his students that there was no such thing as group progress and that the true path to happiness lay in individuals bettering themselves through their own efforts. He urged his charges to think of their future career as if it were a body of water: If they stayed with the mainstream and avoided the crosscurrents, they would increase the odds that they would be pulled forward by chance.
Chance moved Calvin forward many a time, and he was always ready. After reading law with a local luminary in Northampton, Massachusetts, he began practicing and was elected to the local Republican City Committee. At the age of 26, he was elected city councilman, the first of a series of offices that he would hold until he retired from the presidency. He would subsequently serve as city solicitor, clerk of the county courts, state representative, mayor, state senator, president of the state senate, lieutenant governor, and governor. In a span of 30 years, Coolidge lost only one election, an early campaign for the Northampton school board.
In his pre-presidential career, Coolidge cut a figure as a progressive Republican in the Theodore Roosevelt mode. He favored higher salaries for teachers, women’s suffrage, direct election of U.S. senators, and maximum hours for workers, and he opposed child labor. Coolidge particularly enjoyed serving as president of the Massachusetts state senate because it allowed him to vote on legislation, often permitting him to cause a tie, which could doom legislation he opposed.
Shlaes demonstrates how, in one instance, Coolidge used that power to defeat a business regulation. But she does not mention that he cast the tie-inducing vote that prevented the tabling of a bill to establish a censorship board empowered to shut down performances it deemed incendiary. The legislature’s target was D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film which Civil War veterans and African Americans had protested because of its negative portrayal of freed slaves and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Coolidge’s action in this instance, as well as his call for anti-lynching legislation in each of his annual messages to Congress, and his espousal of a Department of Education as a means of providing education to Southern blacks, suggests that, once persuaded that individuals were discriminated against as a class, Coolidge was prepared to see the state intervene.
Coolidge rose to national prominence in 1919 when, as governor of Massachusetts, he declared during the Boston police strike that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” thus breaking the strike and restoring order. Over the objection of party leaders (and the senior senator from his own state, Henry Cabot Lodge), delegates to the 1920 Republican convention foisted Coolidge onto Warren Harding’s winning ticket. Two years and four months into his term in the White House, Harding died suddenly, and Coolidge succeeded to the presidency.
As president, Coolidge made it his first orders of business to extricate the country from the Harding scandals (Teapot Dome and its lesser cousins) and to realize Harding’s program. On the former, he acted with dispatch, naming two independent counsels (one from each party) to investigate—and kept congressional inquisitors at bay. The Harding program that Coolidge carried on was an effort to restore the nation to peace and prosperity after a decade of Progressive reforms and a world war: Harding had promised a “return to normalcy,” and Coolidge set out to deliver it.
Taking advantage of legislation which Harding had signed establishing a federal Bureau of the Budget, Coolidge met regularly with division heads to ensure that fiscal limits were obeyed. His budget chief established “2 percent” clubs, offering memberships to agency heads who cut their budgets by that amount. Anticipating Reagan’s appreciation for good visuals and public relations, Coolidge, when presented with two lion cubs as a gift, named one “Tax Reduction” and the other “Budget Bureau.”
When it came to cutting taxes, Coolidge stood steadfastly behind his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, who argued in advance of supply-siders that lowering marginal tax rates would bring increased revenues into the Treasury. By the end of the Coolidge presidency, Mellon’s “scientific tax experiment” was widely seen as a towering success: Spending was flat, with the states spending more than the federal government; revenues had tripled; the highest tax rate had dropped to 25 percent (down from wartime levels of 73 percent); and the national debt had fallen by a third.
Reflecting Coolidge’s “obsession” with the economy, Amity Shlaes makes his handling of the economy her primary focus. Shlaes’s analysis is less insightful when she turns to other aspects of the Coolidge presidency. The bill he approved severely restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, for example, erected obstacles that, a decade later, had dire consequences for would-be refugees from Nazi persecution.
And, surely, Coolidge understood the folly of loaning Germany funds to pay war reparations to Great Britain—funds which were returned to the United States as payment on Britain’s war debt. Yet he let this shell game continue. Regarding Prohibition, the elephant in the room throughout the Roaring Twenties, Shlaes makes only a handful of brief mentions, with Coolidge weighing in only once (when he asked the governor of South Dakota how enforcement was going).
Shlaes also leaves it to future biographers to explain why a man of Coolidge’s obvious intelligence invested so much energy in naval reduction agreements and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, through which signatories (including Germany, Italy, and Japan) renounced war “as an instrument of national policy.” She cites economy as Coolidge’s primary motivation: Half of the federal budget in Coolidge’s time went toward funding the War Department, interest payments on the debt, and veterans’ benefits—all byproducts of the “war to end all wars.” Fair enough. Yet one sees why, in his search for a model of preserving the peace through strength, Ronald Reagan sought inspiration elsewhere.
Still, Amity Shlaes definitively lays to rest the picture of Calvin Coolidge as a do-nothing, out-of-touch placeholder who served in the interlude between the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Her Coolidge is a president who worked tirelessly in pursuit of noble ends, for which he gave unsparingly of himself. And Coolidge, in spite of its length, is a compelling, endlessly rewarding, and persuasive contribution to historical scholarship.
Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author, most recently, of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.