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.