The Corner

Corner of Presidents: Calvin Coolidge, Prophet of Thrift

The most neglected virtue in modern life is thrift. Coolidge, however, understood that thrift gives us the miracle of plenty. An old-fashioned Vermonter, he also understood that thrift took devotion. What I’ve come to discover in researching a biography of Coolidge is that he made a religion of thrift and became its prophet. As a result, Coolidge achieved something Reagan did not: Coolidge left office in 1929 with a smaller budget than the one that greeted him when he came in.

 For Coolidge, no savings was too small to overlook. Recently William Jenney, the archivist for the state of Vermont at the Coolidge homestead, pulled out for me an old looseleaf notebook. It contained the White House housekeeper’s journal of outlays for White House entertainment. The White House, even then, received tens of thousands of visitors a year; the Coolidges hosted Col. Charles Lindbergh and Ignacy Padereweski, the pianist and politician. There were many days when Coolidge shook 2,000 hands. But he also kept an eye on the budget. For 1926, the housekeeper itemized each purchase for each event; the total was $11,667.10. For 1927 she managed to get the amount down to $9,116.39. The president reviewed this and wrote her a note: “To Miss Riley, very fine improvement.”

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— Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Forgotten Man, is at work on a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge.


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