When Warren G. Harding died in office in 1923, in the midst of scandalous behavior by some members of his administration, his relatively little-known vice president, Calvin Coolidge, assumed the presidency. With a strong commitment to service and the dignity of the office and a core belief that less government was better, he restored trust and confidence. Coolidge went on to win a landslide victory in the 1924 presidential race. Many of his fellow Republicans wanted him to run again in 1928 and thought he could have won easily.
As president, he focused intensely on control of the federal budget, and his notable achievements included lowering the federal debt significantly and leaving budget surpluses while at the same time reducing the top income tax rate by half, and bringing unemployment down to three percent. He vetoed most spending bills, including those that would have benefited such groups as World War I veterans and farmers. Amity Shlaes is right on target when, in her enlightening biography Coolidge, she calls him “our great refrainer.” At the same time, the country’s economy grew strongly, and when Coolidge left office the federal government was smaller than it had been when he became president in 1923.
Despite these accomplishments, Coolidge is usually not ranked among our best presidents. One of the primary reasons is that shortly after he left office, the stock market crashed in October 1929, and the country began to descend into the Great Depression. Indeed, some readers may be surprised to learn that, as one of his closest aides recalled, Coolidge had seen economic disaster ahead but believed it was wrong to do anything about it.
Shlaes, author of the bestsellers The Forgotten Man and The Greedy Hand, guides us through Coolidge’s life, from his childhood in Vermont through a political career that lasted most of his adult life, beginning in 1898, when he was elected as a local councilman, until he left the White House in 1929. Along the way he served as a mayor, Massachusetts state senator and governor, where his leadership in dealing with the Boston police strike of 1919 brought him national attention. Shlaes’ detailed description of that event shows how Coolidge, in defense of the law, broke the strike and restored public order. Although the striking policemen did lose their jobs, Coolidge tried to find other positions for them—but not as policemen, and not in Boston.
Coolidge’s response to the greatest national emergency of his presidency perhaps demonstrates most dramatically his beliefs about the national government’s limited role in such a situation. During the disastrous Mississippi River flood of 1927, Coolidge did not think it was appropriate for a U.S. president to go into governors’ territory. He established and tested a policy position for the federal government: rescue operations, yes; reconstruction, no. He believed the latter should be the responsibility of the states. Coolidge did have his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, who had extensive experience with relief work, head an effort to help, but Coolidge himself did not visit the afflicted areas, and when his own New England suffered the same kind of natural disaster later, he also refused to go.
Readers will appreciate a glimpse into Coolidge’s personal life as well. Shlaes tells us about the importance of Coolidge’s wife, Grace, in his work and his political career. It was an attraction of opposites: He was a man of few words, while she was outgoing, but both had wide-ranging interests and shared a belief in the importance of family. They were devastated when one of their two sons, Calvin Jr., died during their time in the White House.
Toward the end of his life, Coolidge spoke about the “importance of the obvious.” For him, that included his core beliefs: the importance of perseverance, property rights, contracts, civility to one’s opponents, silence, smaller government, trust, certainty, respect for faith, federalism and thrift. Probably his best-known public statement was, “The chief business of America is business.” But, Shlaes points out, there was a counterweight to business, as he articulated later in the same speech: “The chief ideal of America is idealism.”
In this detailed and illuminating biography, Shlaes helps us to better understand Calvin Coolidge and his era, and makes a strong case that he deserves to be more highly regarded by historians.