It is a great misfortune that Calvin Coolidge consistently ranks as one of the worst presidents in American history.
There are many reasons for this reputation, but Coolidge’s relative obscurity seems to be chief among them. People simply aren’t interested or well acquainted with the man who supposedly had so little to say during his time as president. We Americans prefer our presidents to be loud and boisterous, as clearly evidenced by the rise of Donald Trump.
But it wasn’t always this way.
“Silent Cal” Coolidge — possibly America’s most underrated president — actually had a lot to say, especially about the institution of the presidency under the Constitution.
Coolidge, who took over the presidency following the unexpected death of Warren G. Harding in 1923, and later won re-election in his own right in 1924, described the office of president most clearly in his book, “The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.”
In perhaps the best example of presidential memoirs, with the probable exception of Ulysses S. Grant’s, Coolidge emphasized what he called the “two minds” of the American presidency. Coolidge argued that these two minds are absolutely necessary for responsible executive leadership and are part of the essential makeup of what goes into a good president.
The first mind is “the mind of the country,” or public opinion.
Long before Nate Silver, or even George Gallup, it was Calvin Coolidge who successfully tapped directly into the public mind. And more impressively, he did it without the help of regular opinion polls.
The president, Coolidge believed, must make himself familiar with the people’s wants, passions and interests, which is to say, he must seek to understand the people as they understand themselves.
The American people, Coolidge doggedly believed, are largely intent upon ruling themselves, content to look after their own personal affairs without relying too much on outside support. They do not look to the president, or government more generally, for aid and comfort. They prefer to be left alone to solve their own problems and for government to stay out of the way, except in cases where the public well-being may require it.
At the same time, they are willing to contribute and sacrifice mightily for the public welfare, possessed by a certain patriotic pride in the goodness and justice of their country. They have a desire to see that the right things are done well, that the country remains happy and prosperous, and they are more than willing to pay to place the United States in the lead.
But understanding the mind of the country does not mean the president is free to give the people whatever they want or to command them without their consent. If these things were true, then nothing would distinguish him from the sordid populists or petty tyrants of the world. And because public opinion is always changing and changeable, the president must be mindful to keep at least one finger on the pulse of the nation, sometimes leading it, at other times being led by it.
The first mind, therefore, must be checked by something else, and that’s how we come to discover the second mind, what Coolidge called “the political mind.”
The political mind includes intimate knowledge of the Constitution and the first principles of republican government under law, especially the separation of powers and federalism.
While the day-to-day operations of government may oftentimes appear dirty and less than glamorous, they are nonetheless ultimately responsible for much of mankind’s happiness or misery. “To live under the American Constitution,” Coolidge said, “is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”
As the purpose of the first mind is to understand the people as they understand themselves, the purpose of the second mind is to understand the American founders as they understood themselves — i.e., to “think the thoughts which they thought,” as Coolidge put it.
For the promotion of good and just government, the president must combine both minds in one office. He must be at once a man of the people and a student of the founding; he must belong to the present and to the past. In other words, the president must be in touch with what Thomas Jefferson had called in 1825 “the American mind,” attaching public opinion to first principles. The American mind is what emerges when the mind of the country meets the political mind, when the people think the thoughts of the founders.
That, according to Coolidge, is what will make for a good president.
Coolidge was immensely popular in his own time, winning 17 out of 19 electoral contests in his lifetime. If he had chosen to run again in 1928, he surely would have had no problem securing re-election. And although Coolidge seems to be undergoing a political revival of sorts in recent decades, he still remains mostly unknown by average Americans today.
But lucky for us, “Silent Cal” Coolidge still speaks through his many writings. We need only be mindful and avail ourselves of their lessons.
• Jason W. Stevens, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Ashland University, home of the Ashbrook Center and its educational programs on constitutional self-government. Dr. Stevens teaches political thought and history concerning the founding of America, the presidency and political parties and conventions.