While we have recently been remembering the 40th President, Ronald Reagan, one of his heroes is almost forgotten today: the 30th President, John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., (1872–1933). If Americans remember anything about him, it’s for being a man of so few words that he was nicknamed Silent Cal. One story goes: a woman told him at a dinner, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.” But he deserves to be known as one of our greatest presidents, helping to produce one of America’s most prosperous decades, the ‘Roaring 20s’.
Coolidge was born on Independence Day, 1872, in Vermont, but moved to Massachusetts as a young man. In 1905, he married a fellow Vermonter, Grace Anna Goodhue, a teacher of the deaf, in 1905, and they had two sons. He first trained as a lawyer, but became involved in politics slowly, gaining experience by climbing the political ladder.
In 1896 he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, then being elected for Republican City Committee the next year. The year after that, he was elected to the City Council of Northampton.
In the first decade of the 20th century, he had times in the State House of Representatives, as well as two terms as mayor of Northampton. This experience was a first hint of his greatness, as he reduced both debt and tax rates in the city.
In 1912, he ran for the State Senate, and demolished his Democrat opponent. Two years later, he was elected Senate President. In his speech, “Have Faith in Massachusetts”, he presented his principles:
Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. … Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. … Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don’t hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.
He would thus be spinning in his grave at Obama’s class warfare demagoguery, knowing full well that you can’t give the poor a bigger slice of the economic pie if you punish the bakers.
In 1915, Coolidge ran for lieutenant governor under Samuel McCall, greatly contributing to their victories and re-elections (which were yearly at the time). In 1918, McCall didn’t run again, so Coolidge ran for governor, and defeated Democrat Richard Long.
The most famous action was breaking the Boston police strike, which left the city defenceless against violence and rioters, and nine people killed. Coolidge was very firm, calling the strikers “deserters” and “traitors”, and told the AFL leader, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.” He brought in Massachusetts State Guard to keep order, and eventually replaced the striking police with new recruits. For this action, he won re-election by a huge reaction, and was praised even by Democrat President Woodrow Wilson. It was also an inspiration to Reagan’s breaking the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike, as well as a good precedent for dealing with government teachers unions in Wisconsin and New Jersey.
Coolidge also showed his worth by refusing to raise taxes, and instead reduced the state debt by cutting government expenses by $4 million. This included vetoing a bill to increase legislators’ pay by 50%. But he also showed that conservatives are not anti-worker, by reducing the working week for women and children from 56 to 48 hours, saying, “We must humanize the industry, or the system will break down.”
And in an action that might seem quaint by today’s standards, he supported the Constitution even when it went against his own beliefs. He was an opponent of Prohibition, but still vetoed a bill that allowed liquor sales since by that time, the Constitution prohibited alcohol sales because of the 18th Amendment. Instead of using liberal judges to invent a new interpretation of the Constitution, he wrote: “Opinions and instructions do not outmatch the Constitution. Against it, they are void.” I.e. if we don’t like what it says, then amend it by the proper procedures (as happened in 1933 by ratification of the 21st Amendment).
For the 1920 Presidential election, Coolidge was surprisingly nominated for Republican Vice Presidential candidate, under Warren Harding, because another delegate read his “Have Faith in Massachusetts” speech. They faced off against the Democratic Presidential Candidate, and his running mate, someone called Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and won in a landslide, winning 60.3% to 34.1% of the vote (still a record) and 37 of the 48 States.
Harding and Coolidge inherited a far worse mess than Obama did. After the devastation of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu, America had 11.7% unemployment and a top marginal tax rate of 73% (for income over a million dollars). Liberals wanted some public works programs, which would now be called “Stimulus packages”. But Harding and Coolidge rejected those, first because they were unconstitutional (as shown above, Coolidge actually believed it), and second, because they would suck money from the private sector so would not help the economy overall (see also Spendulus Spin).
Instead, they cut the top rate to 25%, eliminating all income taxation for some two million people—and revenue went up not down! They also cut federal spending by 50%. So instead of budget deficits, America ran surpluses, American debt was reduced by 25%, and American credit was the most sought after in the world. And by 1923, unemployment had plummeted to 2.4%. And this was not just fake “make-work” stimulus jobs; allowing entrepreneurs to keep most of their money made this an incredibly fruitful time for new inventions. They developed Kleenex, scotch tape, the zipper, sliced bread, and especially the radio.
In August 2, 1923, President Harding died in office, and Coolidge succeeded him. He was visiting his family in Vermont at the time, and upon receiving this news, he said a prayer, and his father, a notary public, swore him into office after midnight. The next day, he was re-sworn by the Chief Justice of the Washington DC Supreme Court.
In the 1924 election, Coolidge was able to stand on the Harding–Coolidge record. It was so overwhelmingly obvious that even his Democrat opponent John Davis, likewise promoted limited government and lower taxes and regulation. The lefties fled to a third party candidate, Robert LaFollette (the silliness of third parties is explained in Why conservatives should hold their nose and vote Republican). This time, the spoiler effect was irrelevant, because Coolidge won convincingly with an absolute majority of 54.0% of the votes and 35 states, but it contributed to an almost 2:1 margin over his main opponent who gained only 28.8%. This was despite a family tragedy: the death of his younger son.
Coolidge declined to run in 1928, explaining, “If I take another term, I will be in the White House till 1933 … Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it—too long!” His Republican successor, Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary, ran on continuing Coolidge’s economic boom, and crushed the Democrat Al Smith by 40 states to 8 (58.2% to 40.8%).
As we now know, he did anything but that (despite textbook mendacity that he was a “do-nothing President). While Hoover had previously been a great humanitarian and businessmen, as President he was a control freak, who increased spending, taxes, regulation and tariffs, starting the Great Depression. Coolidge had presciently criticised Hoover’s nomination, saying “for six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad.” FDR easily defeated Hoover, sharply criticising Hoover’s big spending, but we now know that FDR was just Hoover writ large, and prolonged the Depression [update: see my later Patriot column Hoover and FDR: big government Presidents who prolonged the Depression].
Coolidge was not interested in running for President again, even when Hoover was headed for crushing defeat (FDR demolished him with 42 states to 6, and 57.4% to 39.7% of the vote). Instead, he was semi-retired, and was honorary president of the American Foundation for the Blind. He died suddenly of a heart attack on January 5, 1933, aged only 60.
Learning from Coolidge
Coolidge’s tax cut lesson was learned by President Kennedy, of all people, who likewise cut tax rates and increased revenues. Of course, Reagan also learned the lesson: slashing taxes, increasing revenues—and overwhelming winning re-election. Unfortunately Obama is learning FDR’s lesson: who cares about running up massive debt while the economy flounders, as long as he can buy votes?