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Calvin Coolidge: That Vision Thing

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge

Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge by Charles Syndey Hopinknson, 1932. PD.

Amity Shlaes new book, Coolidge, has proven that it is vital to examine all the presidents, even the obscure, to fully appreciate historical developments we see today.  Shlaes asks why such a popular president in his own time became largely forgotten.  She argues two main points: his personality was not a big one, especially compared to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, and Coolidge’s presidency focused on economics, mainly reducing the federal debt after World War One.  There are other factors, as well.  Coolidge’s reputation got trashed when the Warren Harding administration faced many scandals and people blamed both Coolidge and Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression.  People wanted to forget that past. In his book, Calvin Coolidge, David Greenberg adds another important element to this discussion: Coolidge did not have much of a vision for his presidency.  Robert Sobel, in his 1998 book, Coolidge: An American Enigma, also argues that the popular perception of Coolidge is as an accidental president, someone who had no agenda. Coolidge was buried under a new active presidency that began with Theodore Roosevelt and was fully realized by his cousin Franklin. 

Sobel writes that Coolidge believed in a “passive executive branch” (pp. 14).  For Shlaes, “Coolidge is our great refrainer” (pp. 9).  For modern readers, this is hard to comprehend, a president who does not act or waits to act.  This usually means trouble for a modern president. 

Shlaes correctly draws our attention to the fact that Coolidge did do something. Coolidge wanted to balance the books.  He represented fiscal discipline in an environment where people around him, mainly members of Congress and Hoover, wanted to spend federal dollars.  Yes, you read correctly, Herbert Hoover.  Near the end of his term, Coolidge did not favor Hoover, because he worried that Hoover would ruin his budget legacy by spending money on the Colorado River dam project, among others.  By the time Coolidge left office in 1929, he had managed to cut over $10 billion of debt in eight years.  To do this, he had daily meetings with his budget director, Herbert Lord, held the line against Congressional spending, and spent a large amount of political capital on tax reductions with the help of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

He also campaigned for modern technology like the radio and aviation, and he used his last bit of political muscle to help get the Kellogg-Briand Pact ratified by the Senate.  

However, how did this legacy withstand against the Great Depression and World War II?

Shlaes’ book is an important contribution in highlighting Coolidge’s continued relevance today and there are many aspects of his presidency to which readers will relate. The first is Coolidge’s focus on fiscal responsibility, especially in an age where the federal debt stands at over $14 trillion.  The other is Coolidge’s philosophy of less government intrusion.  He believed the people knew best.  Ronald Reagan famously brought Coolidge’s portrait into the White House and hung it in the Cabinet Room for inspiration. 

Furthermore, Shlaes’ contribution has opened the door for future research.  Coolidge’s place in the fight between progressives and conservatives within the Republican Party needs to be examined.  It would also be interesting to learn more about why Coolidge did not undo (or whether he attempted to undo and was unable) what progressives Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson enacted before him.  

Most importantly, Shlaes offers us context that is forgotten in the wake of the modern presidency.  It is interesting to learn that even in Coolidge’s time Americans began to expect the executive branch to do something.  For example, during his presidency, Coolidge was expected to intervene to help victims in the South and New England in the wake of large-scale flooding. 

To fully appreciate and learn from our past, we need more biographies on our presidents, even the obscure ones. Amity Shlaes has made an important contribution to our knowledge of an underappreciated president. Readers will come to understand how important a vision is for any president in today’s political world.  Possibly Coolidge thought being the “great refrainer” was his vision.  It takes forbearance to provide fiscal responsibility and less government.  Today, for a modern president, refraining has become a tool, and Coolidge can provide valuable lessons.  However, it is not much of a vision.  Many citizens expect action by their president, even if, at times, the expectation is unrealistic like singlehandedly turning the economy around. 

Learn more about the presidency of Calvin Coolidge on the Miller Center’s website here and read some of Coolidge’s speeches here.

Comments

Is it not giving too much credit to Coolidge by stating that “he had managed to cut over $10 billion of debt in eight years” as he was President for a little over five and a half years?

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