WHY COOLIDGE MATTERS: LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM AMERICA’S MOST UNDERRATED PRESIDENT
By Charles C. Johnson
Encounter, $25.99, 408 pages
It is disappointing that Calvin Coolidge is consistently relegated to the hinterlands of America’s presidential landscape. There are several reasons for this. First, he is a victim of what Lincoln called the “silent artillery of time” — the way the memory of any earthly thing fades with the years. Secondly, the left has historically depicted Coolidge as a taciturn, arrogant, Mr. Burns-conservative, working for little but the advancement of business interests that, it claims, submarined the economy in 1929.
Journalist William L. Shirer, for instance, recalled “the incredible smugness and emptiness of the Coolidge era.” “Silent Cal’s” reputation for reticence, small government and protection of business is warranted. However, it is important to understand what animated his thinking on the subjects. As Charles C. Johnson shows in “Why Coolidge Matters,” Coolidge is worthy of distinction and praise for his application of the American founding principles to public service.
Where Amity Shlaes’ recent, excellent biography is primarily a linear chronicle of Coolidge’s life and economic ideas, Mr. Johnson’s book is primarily a survey of Coolidge’s attitude toward different issues, touching on topics such as taxes, education, defense, the Constitution, immigration and American Indians. The predominant theme of “Why Coolidge Matters” is how Coolidge’s political thought embraced the spirit of the American founding. For instance, Coolidge, then lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, told an audience on July 4, 1916, that preserving the spirit of the Declaration of Independence was essential to American civic life:
“Here lies the path to national preservation, and there is no other. Education, the progress of science, commercial prosperity, yes, and peace, all these and their accompanying blessings are worthy and commendable objects of attainment. But these are not the end, whether these come or not; the end lies in action — action in accord with the eternal principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
To his core, Coolidge believed in self-government, a view that stemmed from what Alexander Hamilton had written in the Federalist Papers No. 6 about the “ambitious, vindictive and rapacious” nature of mankind. With this consideration in view, Coolidge, like the authors of the Federalist Papers, reasoned that self-government, far from serving the worst aspirations of man, was an actualization of man’s instinctive desire to always gain more for himself. However, apart from moral restraint and individual productivity, the American experiment in personal freedom would fail. “If people can’t support themselves,” Coolidge said simply, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”
For Coolidge, the great tool for preservation of self-government was education, which he described as it as “the handmaid of citizenship.” He falls here into a school of educational philosophy embodied by Plato, John Locke and William James: that a cultivation of the soul must precede the transmission of skills. “Education which is not based upon religion and character,” said Coolidge, “is not education at all.”
On the question of economic and fiscal policy, Mr. Johnson holds up Coolidge as a sort of north star for today’s GOP. Coolidge rejected the big-government price controls and regulatory structure of the Franklin Roosevelt era after he left office, saying that these methods were doomed to fail in the regulation of business because “it is not possible to repeal the law of supply and demand, of cause and effect, or of action or reaction.”
On taxation, Coolidge favored a progressive code, but insisted that every dollar uncollected by the federal government was a dollar that was best spent by the American who earned it. Indeed, in 1927, 98 percent of Americans paid no income taxes at all, and the 2 percent who did were in the highest income brackets. As in all other things, Coolidge’s approach to spending was a moral issue. “I regard a good budget among the noblest monuments of virtue,” he wrote. Unsurprisingly, he balanced the budget and cut the national debt, largely with the aid of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.
The organization of Mr. Johnson’s book is both a benefit and a detraction. Each chapter is generally independent of another, producing a book that sometimes feels like a collection of long-form essays. This is a welcome subdivision for academics and researchers, and those of us with short attention spans. However, in the absence of a unifying narrative, the reader sometimes tires of reading dense expositions of block quotations, of which there are many.
In one segment, Mr. Johnson also unfairly accuses some commentators, most notably Amity Shlaes, Glenn Beck, Larry Kudlow and Steven Hayward, of trying to establish a “Coolidge cult.” Mr. Johnson says that this cohort claims Coolidge as “the antidote to the near-imperial presidency that we suffer today.” It is hard to see any distinction in tone between these observers and Mr. Johnson, or how the two camps might differently apply Coolidge’s political philosophy to our own time. Mr. Johnson, for instance, paradoxically caps his book with a chapter titled “Lessons for Obama from Silent Cal.”
According to Mr. Johnson, Coolidge was “great” because he was “modest, moderate, and thoroughly republican in an immodest time.” By embracing common-sense policies derived from a shrewd observation of human nature, Coolidge presided over a period of economic growth, governmental restraint and American idealism. America would be wise to learn from him, and Mr. Johnson’s book is a good starting place.
David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.