Coolidge by Amity Shlaes


Thanks to Liberal revisionism, the presidency of Calvin Coolidge has faded from living memory. It is a shame because looking at his record one could easily group him with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Eisenhower, and Reagan as a president that was highly effective and good for the long term health of our country.

Born in Vermont (1872), Coolidge learned thrift and perseverance on the family farm. He grow more confident while attending Amherst College and then went on to study law. Politics caught his eye and in turn he caught the eye of the GOP in Massachusetts- climbing all the way to Governor. His popularity reached far outside of Massachusetts. His conservatism was a welcome relief to radicalism and the progressive dogma that was such a drag on the United States after World War-I. Coolidge’s national renown landed him the vice-presidential nomination on Warren Harding’s 1920 ticket.

Harding and Coolidge enacted pro-growth policies, which kick-started the economy. Coolidge continued these policies after Harding’s death in 1923. Coolidge spent much of his energy cutting taxes with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and cutting the budget with General Lord. Coolidge successfully ran for re-election in 1924, but refused to run in 1928. Coolidge saw the economic downturn coming and was concerned how Herbert Hoover his former Secretary of Commerce would handle it. Poorly it turns out, enacting policies that did nothing but lengthen the Depression.

Shlaes’s biography is well written. It is long and there is a lot of detail in the book, maybe too much*, but you do finish the book feeling you know ‘Silent Cal’. You can’t help but like and admire this remarkable man. You also can’t help notice the parallels between then and now. It would nice to have a President willing to do the hard unpopular work of cutting government and returning to the original Federalist model; allowing State Governments more control and more responsibility to their citizens. Economic crises are not problems to be solved. Our current administrations cynically sees our current crises as opportunities to grow government. Coolidge reminds us: thrift, sound tax policy, and Federalism are the cure for economic downturns. These policies mean: economic growth, opportunity, and a rising standard of living for all citizens not just cronies of the administration.

576 pages

My Kindle Notes From The Book

Coolidge felt certain of one thing. The progressives could not be met. Conciliation would not work. As he made his rounds in the now quiet city, he went over the police strike and kept coming to the same conclusion. This time, there was no middle ground.  – location 3141-44

..come to the conclusion that the division of the people in the world is not really between conservative and radical, but people that are real people and people that are not. Calvin is one of the fellows who is real. He really wants to make things better not to pretend to make them better.” – location 3253-55

Barton sketched the place in U.S. politics where Coolidge belonged. “The great majority of Americans,” continued Barton, “are neither radicals nor reactionaries. They are middle-of-the-road folks who own their own homes and work hard and would like to have the government get back to its old habits of meddling with their lives as little as possible.” Then Barton introduced a phrase that he hoped might resonate: “silent majority.” – location 3373-76

America must not expect too much or experiment too much, he said. He warned against change for its own sake. It was time to retrench and give up perpetual progressivism. “No altered system will work a miracle,” he said. “Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.” – location 3877-79

Coolidge realized now. Alice Longworth slighted Coolidge because he represented a threat to the activist wing of the Republican Party and the legacy of her father, Theodore Roosevelt. Mrs. Harding, likewise, was not snubbing them out of pure nastiness; she was protecting her own husband’s patronage. Society ladies of the District had often mocked the Coolidges’ interest in Vermont and Massachusetts. But the ladies were mistaking federalism for provincialism. By talking about a state and its interests, you reminded Washington that the states had made the union. – location 4470-74

Progressives such as Meiklejohn seemed to push and push: one gave in to them only to feel them push farther. – location 4480

As Coolidge left Vermont, he put it simply. “I believe I can swing it,” he said. – location 4578-79

Grace’s sorority sisters at Pi Beta Phi commissioned Howard Chandler Christy to paint her portrait. She posed in a sleeveless red dress with another new dog, a white collie named Rob Roy. Grace was stunning in the dress, so stunning that it gave Coolidge pause. .. Did the dress in the painting have to be so red? Could it not be another color? The artist told Calvin the dress had to be red; contrast was important because the red set off the white dog. If contrast was necessary, Coolidge countered, why not dye the dog red? – location 5001-3

When Coolidge did choose a man he knew, he did not always consult that man. And once appointed, a Coolidge acquaintance operated alone. The secretary of labor, James Davis, was angling to find out what the president thought of something. Coolidge said to Starling, “You tell ol’ man Davis I hired him as Secretary of Labor and if he can’t do the job I’ll get a new Secretary of Labor.” – location 5133-36

“We have no money to bestow upon a class of people that is not taken from the whole people,” he continued; the individual was going to lose out to the group. – location 5181-82

The opposition was quick to crow, not only at the victory but also in mockery of Coolidge’s tactic of cutting first. “If the Republicans had possessed courage they would have created a deficit and then we would not have a bonus,” the Democrat Carter Glass told a ladies’ luncheon in Philadelphia on May 27. The surplus “was just an invitation to the Treasury raiders.” – location 5199-5201

Coolidge warned that the historic relationship with Japan was now disturbed, and unnecessarily so; instead of avoiding “new ground for misapprehension,” Congress had created it. – location 5229-30

The Progressives’ platform would include public ownership of railroads, higher taxes for the rich, and the abolition of injunctions in labor disputes of the kind Harding had used. – location 5380-82

There was a perpetual tension between Washington and the rest of the country. That tension showed up in tax battles or debt discussion, but also in other ways, between states and Washington, or even cities and Washington. New York knew it was rich, but it did not always understand that its value was political. Taxpayers, indeed all citizens, also benefited from every check on Washington’s power, including the presence of a separate financial capital to compete with the political capital. When the framers of the Constitution “made Washington the political center of the country and left New York to develop into its business center,” Coolidge said, “they wrought mightily for freedom.” A tax cut was a reduction in tax on capital; in other words, a blow struck for every place that was not Washington. – location 6081-87

Praise for Coolidge’s position came from The New York Times: “Fortunately, there are still some things that can be done without the wisdom of Congress and the all-fathering Federal Government.” – location 6455-56

A total of 4,727 professionals and technicians had left Treasury in the past seven years. Since it took years to build up an expert, the loss caused by that false economy, he estimated, was “incalculable.” The departure of one man, a key expert in negotiations of a tax settlement with mining companies, had been caused by a dispute over a $300-a-year salary difference. That man’s departure had cost the Treasury a full $100 million in revenues, he wrote pointedly in his note to Coolidge. – location 7094-97

Coolidge held his silence, then finally said to Starling, “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.” He went on, “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.” – location 7141-43

The real trick now for Coolidge, the test of character, was to get through the election year without veering from his determined path of retirement and without losing his temper. Succeeding would not be easy, especially given the mounting evidence that Hoover, the activist, would subvert the Coolidge legacy. – location 7523-25

.. a reminder that all Americans had a little Vermont in them. Vermonters did not mind starting small if they could do something themselves. They preferred it. Small was not the way of Hoover, the man who would be succeeding him in the presidential office, but it was Coolidge’s way. – location 7739-41

The Kellogg-Briand Treaty had been ratified by a thundering margin, 85-1. In this pact Coolidge won his final political victory. He had proved that he was far from isolated or weak. He had made a new partner of a cabinet member, this time Kellogg instead of Mellon, and with that partner had passed a law as ambitious as his tax legislation. He had demonstrated yet again his skills as an administrator, productively delegating to a crucial deputy, Kellogg, and thereby achieving a legislative victory far greater in scope than he could have won alone. He had outwitted fellow Republicans, shown he was ahead of them, and unified the Republican Party, pulling together the fabric of the party so many years after Lodge had first torn it. – location 7761-67

The state legislature of Wisconsin, whose Senator John Blaine was the only member of the chamber to vote “no,” was so furious that members promptly introduced resolutions to point out to Washington that Blaine’s position did not reflect general sentiment in the state. – location 7768-70

Toward the end, Kellogg’s office had received up to six hundred letters a day and the White House two hundred, – location 7778-79

Morrow; the friend who had made his way in the wilds of Mexico might not make it in the snake pit that was the U.S. Senate. – location 7962-63

In his columns Coolidge asked readers whether the market’s troubles would enlarge the government in a fashion that would prove irreversible once prosperity returned. Until then, the main work, in his view, was to endure bravely and ensure that the government not do too much damage. – location 7997-99

Grover .. Cleveland, Americans would remember, had not spent federal money in a depression; on the contrary, he had tightened up. Again he pushed, suggesting that the Democratic Party was no longer the responsible party it had once been. Cleveland had stood on sound and conservative principles. Indeed, “he was so sound on most economic questions that his party deserted him.” – location 8127-30

“When the American people make a major decision like the election of a President,” he said, “they do not offer themselves to the highest bidder but seek to determine conscientiously what justice and true patriotism require them to do.” – location 8133-35

The thirtieth president remained obscure for so long because of a love story and two principles. The love story is the story of his love for his wife, Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge. The principles were humility and federalism. – location 8275-76

* Do we really need to know 7,215 chickens were dead due to the great flood in Vermont?


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