It has now been 32 years since President Ronald Reagan shocked the Washington press corps — and the nation — by hanging a portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the White House Cabinet Room. Since that time, there has been a steady trickle of revisionist books arguing that Coolidge was a vastly underrated president. The most recent of these is Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, which has been widely and enthusiastically reviewed since it was released in February. British historian Paul Johnson has called Coolidge “the most internally consistent and single-minded of American presidents.” In 2008, historian Alvin Felzenberg published The Leaders We Deserved: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, in which he argues for a rating matrix that is more systematic than the old Schlesinger rating survey. In this scheme, Coolidge ranks in the top third of presidents.
While it appears that Coolidge’s reputation among historians is, deservedly, on the rise, the more important question is rather “Are Coolidge’s policies still relevant?” Reagan saw a compelling relevancy in Coolidge’s philosophy and policies. By hanging a portrait of Coolidge in the Cabinet Room, he was not simply paying homage to an underrated president; he was signaling that he intended to govern as Coolidge had. Indeed, Reagan’s philosophy of the role of government was very close to Coolidge’s, as were many of his policies, but Reagan’s successors have — to varying degrees — not espoused the Coolidge view. The nation continues to wrestle with defining the proper role of government.
Any understanding of Coolidge has to begin with his deep-seated confidence in individual liberty and free markets and his correspondingly deep-seated distrust of government. Coolidge explained, “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom.” He defined the role of government as “maintaining peace, promoting economy, leaving the people in the possession of their own property, and maintaining the integrity of the courts.” Coolidge constantly battled the tendency for government to expand, stating, “I favor the American system of individual enterprise, and I am opposed to any general extension of government and control.” In his 1928 State of the Union address, Coolidge said: “The end of government is to keep open the opportunity for a more abundant life.” In the final analysis, he believed “success must depend on individual effort. The people make the government, not the government makes the people.”
For Coolidge, these bedrock values provided not just guidelines but also the moral underpinning for his philosophy of government. As the Washington Post editorialized in 1925, “Few persons, probably, have considered economy and taxation as moral issues. But Mr. Coolidge so considers them. … [He holds that] a nation that dissipates its resources falls into moral decay.” As Coolidge was quick to explain, he favored limited government “not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people.”
Tax policy under Coolidge stemmed directly from his political philosophy. What was called “Supply-Side Economics” under Reagan actually began with Coolidge. When Harding and Coolidge came into office in 1921, the top income tax rate was at 77%. Coolidge declared high taxes “a species of legalized larceny” and worked with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to secure a series of tax cuts. When he left office the top rate was 24%. Under Coolidge, GDP grew at the fastest rate ever recorded for any eight-year period in American history. Similarly, Reagan achieved major reductions in tax rates and greatly simplified the tax code, resulting in the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. Coolidge knew that jobs are created by the private sector, not government.
Coolidge did not stop with tax cutting; he doggedly reduced the size and scope of government. Amity Shlaes has recounted how Coolidge methodically worked with his budget director, meeting on a weekly basis, to wring the excess out of government spending. There was clear direction from the president: “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”
Coolidge was relentless in his pursuit of economy, and he was able to communicate the wisdom of economy in terms the average American could understand. In language similar to the language Margaret Thatcher used in her famous “kitchen table discussion of the family budget,” Coolidge explained to the public, “I believe in budgets. I want other people to believe in them. I have had a small one to run my own home.” Unlike Reagan, who articulated Coolidge’s commitment to economy but fell far short of reducing government, Coolidge was able to cut spending. The federal budget was actually smaller when he left office than when he entered.
An integral part of Coolidge’s governance was his willingness to say “no.” He firmly believed “it is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” and he wielded the presidential veto with a vengeance. Coolidge vetoed 51 measures — many of them quite popular, such as farm subsidies and veterans’ pensions. The McNary-Haugen farm bill offered direct relief for hard-pressed farmers, passed both houses of Congress by wide margins, and commanded support from a majority of Coolidge’s own cabinet. Yet Coolidge vetoed the bill for applying “the coercive powers of the government for the profit of a small number of specially privileged groups.” In response to the great natural disaster of his term, the Mississippi flood of 1927, he resisted incredible pressure to expand federal spending for relief and left responsibility with state government and charities. Behind these policies of government restraint laid Coolidge’s firm confidence in the people: “In a free republic, a great government is the product of a great people. They will look to themselves rather than government for success.”
Finally, it is worth noting that these policies have a pretty good record of political success. Coolidge left office with the overwhelming support of the electorate. He not only was re-elected by an overwhelming majority in 1924, but he could undoubtedly have been re-elected again in 1928 had he chosen to run. Similarly, Reagan left office in 1988 with strong public support, which ensured the election of his Republican successor. Coolidge’s philosophical clarity and consistency resounded positively with the American public. There was no ambivalence. He had no trouble articulating what George H.W. Bush haplessly called “the vision thing.” The public instinctively understood Coolidge when he said, “The people know the difference between pretense and reality. They want to be told the truth. They want to be trusted. They want a chance to work out their own material and spiritual salvation. They want a government of common sense.” Let’s hope the people still know the difference.
Garland S. Tucker III is the president and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and the author of “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election” (Emerald Book Co: 2010).