Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (New York: Harper, 2013), 456 pages.
I am for economy. After that, I am for more economy.
— Calvin Coolidge (1920)
Amity Shlaes’s Coolidge is a compelling biography of John Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), 30th president of the United States. It is a well-paced narrative with elements of novelistic plotting and repeated themes both great and small. Indeed, the story begins with debt and thrift among Coolidge’s 19th-century Vermont ancestors, a theme found throughout the book. (Other themes are cooperation, compromise, and loyalty.) Coolidge emerges as a representative of an older and often admirable American type: a crusty New Englander thoroughly committed to good morals, a service ethic, economic independence, and a naive faith in creditor ideology. The book may (as some suggest) reflect some larger project requiring rehabilitation of early 20th-century Republicans; in any case, it is a useful and readable book about a president who has deserved more attention than he has normally received.
Growing up among religious, hardworking, and parsimonious Vermont farmers, Coolidge learned early the value of good management and thrift to survival and success. After graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1895 he read law in Northampton, Mass., and opened his own law office in 1898.
Rising in his profession through quiet diligence, Coolidge found himself drawn into Republican Party politics. Here, too, he advanced steadily through the ranks: town councilman, solicitor, state legislator. Personally frugal, Coolidge was a mild Progressive when it came to state legislation, but seems to have had no distinctive views on the world war.
After serving as lieutenant governor (1916–1918) Coolidge became governor of Massachusetts and gained considerable national attention by successfully suppressing the Boston police strike of September 1919. (Here his mild Progressivism had reached its limits.) The next year an unsought vice-presidential nomination threw him directly into national affairs, running alongside Republican presidential nominee, Warren Gamaliel Harding of Ohio, a powerful senator and influential glad-hander. Harding offered the American people “normalcy” — a turn toward everyday pursuits, away from war and world-improving crusades.
As vice president, Coolidge focused on reducing federal debt ($27 billion) run up during the late insanity (1917–1918). On Harding’s death (August 2, 1924), he continued economizing and worked closely with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, an important industrial and investment capitalist. Duly nominated and elected, Coolidge became president in his own right. Valuing continuity, he retained Harding’s cabinet until various scandals involving Harding’s free-wheeling associates forced his hand.
Shlaes reconstructs the economic thinking behind Coolidge’s and Mellon’s budgetary and tax initiatives. The argument was that, given existing arrangements (corporate capitalism, politically immovable tariffs, et cetera), the path to growth and general prosperity lay in cutting high marginal tax rates on the wealthy and severely reducing federal spending, while paying off debt and avoiding deficits. Lower rates would yield higher revenues, and for a few years that was the case. Then natural disasters and other unforeseen occasions for spending arrested their fiscal strategy.
Shlaes sketches Coolidge’s adventures with his big-business sidekicks Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone. Generally opposed to public projects, Coolidge was drawn into sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s ambitious Mount Rushmore scheme and set up his summer-vacation White House in South Dakota.
Foreign affairs are largely absent. Shlaes notes American intervention in Nicaragua but emphasizes Coolidge’s support for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, or General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy. The death of Coolidge’s son John Jr. in July 1924 was a severe blow. For personal details the author draws partly on the memoirs of Secret Service Agent Edmund Starling — an American classic. Coolidge’s decision not to run for reelection confounded friends and foes alike and cleared the way for his secretary of commerce, the ambitious and consciously corporatist Herbert Hoover. Back home in Northampton, Mass., Coolidge took on a new challenge: a popular and well-received newspaper column, which he wrote for one year. He died on January 5, 1933.
It might tempt us to see the so-called Old Right movement of roughly 1933–1955 as an effort to sustain Coolidge’s “limited government” against the onrushing tide of New Deal state-building. If we were naive, we might even link Coolidge with a single “conservative” movement continuous with the present. Shlaes is quick to make comparisons between the economic rhetoric of Coolidge and recent Republicans. In terms of rhetoric that seems fair; in most other ways, no. After Congress passed an expensive veterans’ bonus bill over Coolidge’s vetoes, Sen. Carter Glass (D.-Va.) said, “If the Republicans had possessed courage, they would have created a deficit and then we would not have a bonus.” Here indeed was a lesson for the future, and that future did belong to Ronald Reagan and others, but only after a further lesson had been learned. Best expressed by John T. Flynn, the lesson was that the White House could more easily stampede Congress into massive spending on alleged “defense” than on any other project. (Politicians who sow enough deficit, debt, and doubt by stuffing the military-industrial beast may squeeze social spending somewhat, but they needn’t take up bragging about any across-the-board frugality. Even Grover Norquist is figuring this out.)
Sins of the Republicans
Such big issues of policy demand context. Once New Deal partisans had written the history of their times, it became controversial to defend the Republican administrations of the 1920s from two great crimes laid at their feet: “isolationism” and “laissez faire.” A handful of historians try to lessen these charges by minimizing the first and denying the second. Thomas B. Silver writes that neither Coolidge nor Hoover “ever uttered a word in favor of laissez-faire” (true enough) and cites a committed laissez-faire economist, Murray Rothbard, as “a bitter critic” of those presidents (also true). (See Silver’s Coolidge and the Historians.)
The real sins of the Republicans
Let us pursue these twin infamies of the 1920s. In foreign affairs we find a continuation (in milder form) of both Republican Open Door imperialism and its Wilsonian implementation through international agreement. (Wilson wanted to work through a Big-Powers’ League; the Republicans through successive treaties.) Certainly, American imperial policymakers of the 1920s worked under certain constraints, including budgetary ones, and tended to limit their military interventions to the Western Hemisphere, but their economic diplomacy reached everywhere. Little “isolationism” comes into sight.
Laissez faire was equally absent, but deeper background is needed. As Richard F. Bensel has written, from 1865 American central government busily subsidized industrial development and protected the big accumulations of capital that resulted (Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877). It was “weak” in European terms, maybe, but strong and ruthless enough to defend its clients by all means necessary. (This is my evaluation. See Gabriel Kolko’s Main Currents in Modern American History.)
Thomas Ferguson describes the resulting System of 1896 as a coalition of large, labor-intensive, and protectionist corporations and Republican officeholders. (“From Normalcy to New Deal: Industrial Structure, Party Competition, and American Public Policy in the Great Depression,” International Organization, Winter 1984, pp. 41–94.) This coalition’s programmatic goals were “limited,” no doubt, compared to those of socialists or certain Progressives, but its powers tended to be as unlimited as elite interests dictated. Domestic repression during World War I had taught even the very dim this lesson about latent but available powers. (After the war a rising bloc of capital-intensive, internationalist firms interested in “free trade” would threaten the 1896 settlement and ultimately triumph in the New Deal, according to Ferguson.)
Despite the system’s rather rigid parameters, Mellon’s mantras on sundry water-like flows of general prosperity contained some truth, but lacked appeal, for example, to farmers burdened by tariffs and deflation. (Shlaes notes this problem.) Foreign markets were supposed to take up the slack, but getting them without reducing tariffs made roundabout methods necessary. As Rothbard tells us in America’s Great Depression, they included monetary expansion by the Federal Reserve (encouraged by Mellon) to ensure European purchase of American exports, including farm products, to bail out British economic positions, and to prop up specific acceptance banks.
Limits of the concept of limited government
By helping to bring on a boom-and-bust cycle, the Republicans’ nonisolationist foreign economic policy would have injured “laissez faire” at home, had such a thing been on hand. As a creed, Official Laissez Faire Liberalism was already what Albert Jay Nock called it in 1935: the “touting of ‘rugged individualism’ and agonized fustian about the Constitution,” which were “frankly unscrupulous” (Our Enemy the State). Under the circumstances, it was somewhat idle to speak of preserving “limited” government; instead, it was a matter, perhaps, of how much more unlimited it might become. (The sky’s the limit in this land of the free.)
Little enough of that was Calvin Coolidge’s fault. Like the hedgehog, he had one trick. His was economizing, and he was very good at it. His very narrowness of focus permitted him to serve as short-run spokesman for a class to whom he was generally superior. We could hardly say the same for any of Coolidge’s political heirs.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.