The Magazine

Not-So-Silent Cal

The underestimation ends here.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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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.