Term in Office: 30th president, 1923-1929
Home State: Massachusetts
Calvin Coolidge, to my great horror, is back. In fact, the tight-fisted, laconic president who presided over the F. Scott Fitzgerald era, has been mounting a comeback ever since Ronald Reagan replaced a portrait of Harry Truman in the cabinet room with Silent Cal. In 1982, Thomas Silver wrote perhaps the worst book I read during my doctoral exam year, Coolidge and the Historians. It was veritably the Plan 9 From Outer Space of American history, picking nits and splitting hairs in the works of Arthur Schlesinger, William Allen White, and every other accomplished scholar who has taken Coolidge’s record to task. Amity Shlaes’ recent best-selling book on the man has brought this trend into the present day. Even in recent years, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann have singled him out for praise as a tax-slashing, budget-balancing paladin. David Greenberg, himself a Coolidge biographer, has noted that “the conservative regard for Coolidge is not a credible, serious historical interpretation; it’s an ideological interpretation, motivated by present-day political purposes more than any desire to understand his own life, times, and legacy.”
Here’s that case for Coolidge. He cleaned up house after the scandals of the Harding administration. His tax cuts and laissez-faire attitude toward the economy lead to one of the greatest economic expansions in the history of the United States. His team pursued a policy of peace and non-interference. He didn’t tamper recklessly with regulation, allowed industry to work its magic, and didn’t use the government as a laboratory for social change. If that’s your ideological bag, Coolidge isn’t just your man, he might even be your talisman.
But like all ideological arguments, they are selective and uncurious in what they reveal about presidential success. He did put a stop to the petty theft that took place under Harding. He did preside over what was, at least on paper, prosperity. And there is something appealing to Coolidge’s unilateralist attitude toward the rest of the world; at the very least the U.S. would not be jumping headlong into costly and counterproductive crusades to make the world safe for democracy. And yet, these arguments can, and should, be turned on their head. Cooldige’s laissez-faire attitude may have brought short-term prosperity, at least for Americans who were already doing well. In our popular imagination, the Coolidge 1920s is inexorably tied to flappers, speakeasies, and The Great Gatsby. It was a decadent Gommorah in art deco. But the lack of oversight contributed to the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the maldistribution of wealth that preceded it turned it into the deepest of depressions. The question that Shales and other Coolidge hagiographers falter in explaining is: if Coolidge guided the nation along a wise economic track, why did the United States face its greatest economic catastrophe six months after he left office? Nobody, not even Herbert Hoover, could cause that much damage in so short a time.
Let’s go back a little bit: Coolidge never really left the Vermont homestead farm where he spent his boyhood, scraping a living from unforgiving soil. The stereotype of the New Englander was a bit different back then. Today, we think of New Englanders as crunchy, liberal cappuccino-drinkers, but in Coolidge’s day, other Americans saw the Yankee as quiet, industrious, ingenuous to the point of deviousness, and betraying a hatred of extravagance. These were traits Coolidge both embodied and projected self-consciously to a tee. One early biographer called Coolidge “a Puritan in Babylon”, and therein lies the rub. He shares some kind of bizarre distinction with James Madison as our least well-traveled presidents. Before moving to Washington D.C. when he assumed the vice-presidency, Coolidge had almost never left western New England. If Harding brought a chummy Shriners ethos to the White House, Coolidge brought that flinty New England dourness. Palinesque, his speeches were almost ruthlessly vapid, littered with unchallenging patriotic rostrums, even by the unusually vacuous standards of 1920s oratory. They betrayed a hopeless provincialism and a lack of relevant experience. Nevertheless, he slowly went up the ladder of local politics to become elected governor of Massachusetts. He came close to becoming a household name after his decisive action during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, where he summarily fired the picketing lawmen, uttering the famously terse phrase: “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.” (As an aside, the Boston police force had many legitimate grievances that necessitated the creation of a labor union, not the least of which being that their salaries had not increased between 1854 and 1913.) This act earned him a berth on the sure-fire winning Republican ticket in 1920. While he was the first vice-president to regularly attend cabinet meetings, he contributed little to the Harding administration, and he was, fittingly, resting at his father’s homestead in Vermont that fateful day when two messengers arrived to inform him that Harding was dead.
Coolidge rests at #35, the 7th worst president in my ranking, substantially lower than elsewhere. The reason Coolidge is rated so low is not because of steps he took, or misdeeds he committed. Rather, he is faulted for sins of omission, a callous refusal to help those in need, or monitor a successful but unstable and uneven economy— in short, the things he did not, or refused, to do. The stance of the Catholic Church also applies on the Northumbrian Countdown: sins of omission are just as great as sins of commission. Ultimately, Coolidge swept away petty, illegal, small-scale theft from a bunch of two-bit Ohian crooks, only to preside over the large-scale, perfectly legal rigging of the American economy to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Harding’s greatest crime was a nebbish blindness to his subordinates’ graft. Coolidge knew entirely what was going on and willfully participated. Legendary journalist Walter Lippman called Coolidge’s unwillingness to monitor the market or take an active role in reform a “genius for inactivity” but “it is far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.”
Symbolizing this studied quiescence was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon. A holdover from Harding’s term, he was one of the richest men in America. Harding and Coolidge hoped that he could bring his smart business sense to the United States writ large. At the core of this strategy was trust, ultimately a mistaken trust, that business could regulate itself more efficiently than the government could. The result wasn’t quite laissez-faire— industry and government were too chummy to give it that designation. To give one example, John Raskob, from General Motors, was the manager of Coolidge’s 1924 campaign. While Coolidge never treated a poor man badly or held the destitute in contempt, he was of one mind with the business leaders of the country; there was no need to lobby or cajole or persuade Coolidge— he was already on their side, convinced that what was best for industry was what was best for the United States. Coolidge could not disassociate wealth from intelligence and virtue and work, and never seemed to make the connection between wealth and privilege.
While we are on the topic, the one place where Coolidge and Company were active lay in a series of lopsided tax cuts. Mellon euphemistically called this “scientific taxation,” a ruse for remaking the tax system so that those most able to pay ended up paying far, far less. Taxes on the very highest income levels were halved, while those who made under $4,000 annually found that income taxes deducted only 3 or 4 %. The loophole-ridden tax codes from the 1920s permitted many of the wealthiest Americans to avoid paying taxes altogether. George Norris, the renegade Republican senator, argued that Mellon personally had “a larger reduction [of taxes] than the aggregate of roughly all taxpayers in the state of Nebraska,” the state he represented. If this seems like supply-side economics, you are absolutely correct, and many of the supply-siders in Reagan’s day, such as Jude Wannaski, pointed to the Coolidge administration as proof of its success.
Coolidge took government inactivity to extremes even in his own personal habits. It is hard to think of very many presidents who spent fewer hours per day on the job; Coolidge slept nine hours every night, plus a two hour nap each afternoon. One factor behind this, some biographers have suggested, was the sudden death of his teenage son, who played tennis without socks on the White House lawn, developed a blister that became infected, and died. I don’t want to be callous, but suffering is often the crucible where greatness is made, and the crucial difference is that someone like Lincoln forged his greatness from the depths of woe, as Joshua Shenk argues in Lincoln’s Melancholy. Coolidge’s depression in some ways consumed him, rendering an already unlikeable and cranky man into a dangerously misanthropic and introverted individual. It’s hard to imagine Coolidge stepping up his game if the United States were in a period of domestic or international emergency, and this is a deep problem. As far back as the Federalist Papers, the presidency seems to have been designed to attract ambitious and active men, to be a place of high energy and assiduity. In different circumstances, Coolidge’s lethargy could have become a very costly character flaw. Even the most committed advocate of limited government should have difficulty abiding a president who spends half of his time unconscious.
Coolidge’s determination not to interfere with prosperity belies the fact that prosperity was elusive for many Americans. A farmer would have been surprised at the idea that the 20s were roaring and wealthy, and were desperate for some sense of aid during a number of agricultural crises. Poor soil conditions, overproduction, and the uncertain transition to mechanized agriculture all contributed to a toxic environment, where over half a million farmers went bankrupt, nearly all farmers faced deep indebtedness, and one in four farms were sold in order to pay said debts.
Two congressmen from farm states gave their name to the McNary-Haugen bill as a solution, a form of subsidy that would have allowed the government to purchase surpluses at a fair price and sell them overseas. Even though he was from a small farm very much like those that were imperiled, Coolidge thought it an unseemly interference, and promised to veto the McNary-Haugen Acts. This was, frankly, hypocritical; Coolidge favored tariffs, which were ultimately a backdoor way of helping a number of U.S. industries, but was against equalization fees for agriculture, which amount to nearly the same thing. (Such tariffs, it must be said, were of disproportionate help to industries to which Andrew Mellon had ties.) Even so, the vaunted prosperity of the 1920s was enjoyed almost exclusively by the middle and upper classes; few on the margins shared in its blessings, even indirectly. Almost half of all American families subsisted on one and a half grand annually, at a time when the government standard for a “decent” standard of living was closer to two and a half grand. Consider that for the lower 93% of non-agricultural workers, their weekly disposable income actually went down during the Coolidge years— a dangerous feature of an economy that was becoming predicated upon the purchase of consumer goods like radios and automobiles. Overproduction and underconsumption were on the horizon, although they would not be fully recognized until the market crashed. In fact, under Coolidge, wealth in America was more unevenly distributed in favor of the wealthy than at any point in American history, save the last ten years.
Maybe Coolidge’s policies did allow for growth, but that growth was unchecked, uneven, and, as it would turn out, ruinously unsupervised. One common practice was that of buying stocks on the margin— oftentimes, you could invest in the market after having put down a mere 5% of your stocks’ value, with brokers and bankers putting up the rest. This fueled a vast speculative bubble, and inflated and obscured the real value of stocks and their companies. All of these were, of course, factors in the Great Depression. Now, you might say, “but he could not have known a Depression was on the way; that’s a product of hindsight.” And you would be partly correct. Nobody knew with certainty that a Depression was coming, but there were plenty of sensible voices warning that the economy was showing signs of instability and stress. The economist William Ripley warned the Coolidge administration that the practice of buying stock on the margin would have dangerous ramifications. Herbert Hoover himself, serving as Secretary of Commerce, repeatedly tried to tell Coolidge that the speculation needed watching and regulating, but Cal dismissed Hoover, a man proven capable many times over, as “that wonder boy,” and groused in retirement that “for six years, that man has offered me unsolicited advice—all of it bad.”
Foreign policy is also a reflection of our domestic policy, and it is here that we see the ugly xenophobic side of the 1920s. Under Coolidge, the era of immigration, during which my own ancestors came to the U.S., was brought to a sharp, steel-trap close, as fears of cheap labour and foreign infiltration dominated. As Ira Katznelson points out in a recent piece over at The Daily Beast, Coolidge signed “the most restrictive and racist immigration act in American history that includes Japanese exclusion…and sent signals across the Pacific that ultimately helped propel Japanese hypernationalism.” While bearing little public or private animosity toward various groups of newcomers, he never really spoke out against their mistreatment, which seems relevant, since his presidency coincided with the mid-1920s resurgence of the KKK, not only in the South, but in such far-flung states as Indiana and Oregon.
Equally problematic was Coolidge’s insistence that debts which wartorn Europe owed the United States ought to be paid along the appointed schedule. England and France, pressed for cash, leaned on Germany to pay its reparations more quickly, contributing to the hyperinflation that wracked Weimar and contributed, of course, to the rise of Hitler. Even the signature accomplishment of Coolidge’s foreign policy looks unbelievably naive and stupid nearly 90 years later: the Kellogg-Briand treaty in which the U.S. and sixty-one other nations made a solemn pledge to forebear the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy. With no way of enforcing these lofty idyls, the treaty was as empty as a hermit’s address book. If someone like Dennis Kucinich or Henry Wallace pledged to sign an agreement outlawing war, we would call them moon-bats. When Coolidge did it, he became a conservative icon.
Collectively, here is our problem: doing nothing under the guise of laissez-faire isn’t a virtue. In a state of nature, power tends to accumulate to those who already have power and privilege. Coolidge was famous for declaring “the business of America is business,” and his administration committed itself to that philosophy. When six hams were purchased for fifty dinner guests, the president complained of the extravagance. Fewer wash towels were placed in the White House washrooms. But Coolidge’s thrift had profound public implications, and his economy of government went to inhumane extremes. Consider the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which was, I believe, the biggest natural catastrophe in United States history up to that time. At its worst ebb, an area the size of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut was flooded, and nearly one million people were driven from their homes. Coolidge dismissed out of hand any bills that might offer aid to those displaced by the flood, an act Amity Shlaes characterizes as “courageous.” Even more unbelievably, he refused to visit the flood area, or even heed the Red Cross’s request that he appeal for private donations via radio. One is tempted to argue that Coolidge’s presidency was the true disaster in all this.
Ultimately, Coolidge is a pitiable testament to the old adage, “penny wise, pound foolish.” In trying to bring his New England thrift to the United States writ large, he presided over an era of easy answers and empty character that bore no relation to the realities on the ground. People who saved their money, worked hard, and worked with ingenuity continued to do poorly, and were among those who were fleeced when the Depression came. Thrift, industry, and integrity can be virtues, but they will become vices unless they are tempered with generosity, compassion, and empathy. Coolidge was a man who saw desperate farmers, flood victims, veterans, you name it, as “special interests,” but saw industrial leaders and financiers as model citizens. Nearly every action Coolidge took as president, from sending errand boys to fetch an item and demanding exact change back, to refusing to payroll food and shelter for the Mississippi flood victims, suggests not so much fiscal conservatism, but mean-spiritedness and miserliness. As Coolidge pinched pennies, the country became privately more wealthy, but was, in a public sense, impoverished. In the end, Coolidge and most of the American electorate with him, lacked a sense of the commonweal, a sense of brotherhood or neighborliness, and with it, a want of wisdom, and a failure to appreciate how our fates are bound together. His actions in this vein caused plenty of hurt and harm in the short-run to those who did not share in the roar of the Roaring 1920s, but they wracked the nation with a righteous fury during the term of his successor, Hoover. Coolidge, then, is not so much a praiseworthy example, as Shlaes would have it, but a cautionary tale– both in the policies he pursued, and the civic virtues he embodied.