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Counsels of Prudence

by Allis Radosh

Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes (Harper, 576 pp., $35)

Perhaps the last time Americans heard of Calvin Coolidge was when Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of him in the White House. As Amity Shlaes points out in her excellent new biography of our 30th president, Coolidge was a “rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts.” Coolidge may have been a hero to Ronald Reagan, but liberal historians have viewed Coolidge, along with Harding and Hoover, as closer to a villain.

Born in the rural hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vt., in 1872, Coolidge did not look like a future leader of men. The quiet, thin redhead did not participate in sports; like Harry Truman, another non-athletic boy, he turned to books. Coolidge lost his mother when he was twelve, but had a champion in his father, John Coolidge. The senior Coolidge had a modest farm, a store, and a cheese factory and was politically involved, serving in various offices in their small community and in the state legislature.

Calvin’s father sent him to Amherst College, where the introverted Calvin struggled to fit in. The key was politics, and Coolidge began debating current issues with the denizens of his boarding house. Success in this small arena gave him the confidence to move on to excel in school debates and eventually to success in public speaking. By the time Coolidge left Amherst, he had obtained a good education, oratorical skills that would be crucial, as well as valuable contacts.

Coolidge proceeded to read the law at Hammond and Field, a firm set up by Amherst men. After passing the bar, he hung up his shingle in Northampton, Mass., and in 1898 ran for a seat on the city council. The following year, the city council named him city solicitor. He soon met Grace Anna Goodhue, six years younger than he, who had come to Northampton to teach at a school for the deaf. Athletic, charming, and talkative, Grace was the opposite of her future husband. Her friends and family, especially her mother, were at a loss to understand her attraction to a man as introverted and uncommunicative as Calvin Coolidge. But at 26, Grace was not a youngster, and she saw things in her future husband that were not apparent on the surface.

Coolidge was, in short order, elected to the state house, the Northampton mayoralty, and the state senate. He supported many of the policies embraced by the progressive wing of the Republican party, including women’s suffrage, a state income tax, and the direct election of senators. He was soon appointed to head a committee to negotiate a strike by workers at the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, whose leaders belonged to the revolutionary-syndicalist IWW union. He reached a deal for a wage increase but came to the conclusion that, for the IWW, the strike was not about wages but was actually an effort to tear down all authority.

The men Coolidge had met through his connection to Amherst were now in influential positions. Frank Stearns, head of a major Boston department store, was fiercely loyal to his alma mater, routinely hiring Amherst alumni. With Stearns’s help, Coolidge was elected lieutenant governor and then governor. It is not entirely clear what motivated Stearns to help Coolidge advance: He never asked Coolidge for favors and never wanted to be in the spotlight. Shlaes argues that Stearns took pride in seeing the success of an Amherst man. But Stearns’s devotion went beyond that: He not only gave Coolidge money but served as a friend and almost became a surrogate father. When Coolidge became president, Stearns was the first person he welcomed in his new office, and Stearns was given a bedroom in the White House.

The event that brought Coolidge to national attention was a strike by Boston policemen in 1919. A wave of crime ensued. Much as Coolidge tried to find common ground with the strikers, in the end — like Ronald Reagan, who would fire striking air-traffic controllers — he decided that, as public servants, the police had no right to strike. He fired all who refused to work, and then refused to hire them back. A line in a telegram he sent to Samuel Gompers became famous: “There was no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” Coolidge’s tough response to the strike was picked up by newspapers nationally.  

In 1920, Republican presidential nominee Senator Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher from Marion, Ohio, tapped Coolidge to be his running mate. Like Coolidge and Grace, the two made an odd pair: Harding, the extrovert who loved being with people, and Coolidge, his small, silent partner. Shlaes points out that Washington did not quite comprehend Coolidge: As journalist Edward Lowry noted, he was an aberration, “a politician who does not, who will not, who seemingly cannot talk.” But while this verbal deficit exhibited itself in private conversations and at social events, “Silent Cal” was an effective public speaker and smart politician who benefited from being underestimated. Harding invited him to attend cabinet meetings, a first for a vice president; but Coolidge didn’t have too much to do aside from traveling and making speeches.

When Harding was elected, America’s landscape looked bleak. The country’s entry into World War I had caused the rapid growth of the government bureaucracy, and boosted employment, wages, and profits — but the collapse of demand at the end of the war in 1918 was devastating to the economy. Harding, running on the theme of “Normalcy,” received 60 percent of the popular vote, the highest share recorded up to that time, by promising to heal the nation and return it to prosperity. The way to Normalcy, according to the Republicans, would be to lower taxes from their wartime highs, reduce the debt, balance the budget, and make the bloated government smaller and more efficient. To achieve this, Harding wanted to recruit the “best minds” for his cabinet, among them Charles Evans Hughes for secretary of state, Herbert Hoover for secretary of commerce, and Andrew Mellon for Treasury secretary. Unfortunately, alongside these excellent choices, he picked some who would turn out to be crooks. While Harding was never alleged to have known of, endorsed, or benefited from their actions, he and his administration would be blamed for them, and his accomplishments would be overlooked.

In June 1923, Harding embarked on a cross-country trip. In San Francisco, on his way back home from Alaska, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Coolidge, now president, believed his mandate was to continue Harding’s policies. Coolidge retained Harding’s cabinet, but would have to pull off the difficult and delicate task of continuing the Normalcy program while distancing himself from its author. In order to restore confidence in the presidency, Coolidge scrupulously avoided any patronage appointments and went out of his way not to appoint any personal friends. To Stearns’s disappointment, Shlaes writes, Coolidge “never sought serious advice from Stearns, the way Wilson had with his Colonel House.”

Of all his cabinet members, Coolidge’s closest collaborator was Andrew Mellon, who had convinced him of his theory of “scientific taxation” — that when taxes are lower the economy is more productive, and revenues would go up because more economic activity would be generated. Coolidge viewed his and Mellon’s subsequent efforts to lower taxes as an experiment that would prove this theory. Coolidge also met frequently with General Herbert Lord, the new head of the Budget Bureau; they worked hard to come up with further spending cuts.

Coolidge was easily renominated in 1924, and, with the economy doing well, won the general election with 54 percent of the vote. He then doubled down on his tax-reform efforts. Reducing the size of the government and cutting spending were never far from his mind. As he told a group of Jewish philanthropists: “The budget idea . . . is sort of an obsession with me. . . . I believe in budgets. I want other people to believe in them. I have had a small one to run my own home; and besides that, I am the head of the organization that makes the greatest of all budgets, that of the United States government.”

The Revenue Acts of 1924, 1926, and 1928 reduced income-tax rates so that by 1927 only the richest 2 percent were paying federal income taxes. Mellon’s theory was validated. Revenues rose, and, by not increasing spending, Coolidge retired 25 percent of the federal debt. Shlaes concludes: “People understood now that lowering taxes might often be the better move. Scientific taxation could not offset great spending splurges, but it could relieve some spending, bring down the debt, and foster prosperity.”

Shlaes asserts that Grace Coolidge was one of the greatest first ladies, but presents little evidence of that beyond the fact that she was a gracious woman, “often serving as a bridge between her terse, preoccupied husband and the world.” Many mentions of her in the book refer to the attention paid to her clothes in the newspapers. While no one doubted their mutual love, Coolidge did not discuss politics with her; and he told the press that he was not going to run again for president in 1928 before he informed her of this fact. After the tragic death of their son Calvin from an infection, Grace increasingly retreated to a sky parlor she had built in the White House and to their collection of pets, which included a raccoon named Rebecca. Her trips up north to see her family increased. Coolidge missed her. Perhaps he realized his shortcomings; he wrote about Grace in his memoir, “For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities and I have rejoiced in her graces.”

Coolidge chose not to seek reelection in 1928, even though all indications were that he would have won. The country had been at peace, the economy was doing well (people called it “Coolidge prosperity”), and the straitlaced and somber man in the White House had restored honor to the presidency. However, there were signs that Coolidge had a foreboding that the good times might not last; and a downturn was coming. On one of the morning walks he took with his Secret Service man, Edmund Starling, he said, “Well, they’re going to elect that superman Hoover, and he’s going to have some trouble. He’s going to have to spend money. But he won’t spend enough. Then the Democrats will come in and they’ll spend money like water. But they don’t know anything about money. Then they will want me to come back and save some money for them. But I won’t do it.”

We live in different times, but readers will not fail to note the similarity between issues facing the country now and those of the 1920s. Perhaps Americans, thanks to Amity Shlaes, will come to appreciate all that Calvin Coolidge accomplished.

– Allis Radosh is an independent historian. She is working with her husband, Ronald Radosh, on a book about the presidency of Warren G. Harding.

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