Today, career politicians are out of fashion. In light of Washington’s dysfunction and a hyper partisan culture, the words of politicians offer little reassurances. Their deeds even less. One career public servant is finding his popularity on an upswing exactly eighty years after his death. I asked my grandfather, who turns 97 in July, to rank America’s great presidents? He immediately answered Ronald Reagan, almost reflexively. And then paused for a few moments and declared, “That Calvin Coolidge fellow was good too.”
To remember Coolidge is to remember an altogether different America. One that was rapidly modernizing but still deeply connected to rural life and its foundations. But even for his era, John Calvin Coolidge was a throw back, a man who emerged deep from within Vermont’s rugged hills. The symbols of his humble origins were magnified after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Coolidge, awakened in Vermont, was immediately sworn in to the greatest office in the world by kerosene lamp by his father, a public notary.
Oft forgotten or lampooned as a “simpleton,” there are no grand monuments for America’s 30th president. He certainly wouldn’t have sought such recognition. But in Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, she offers a kind of monument not just to Coolidge’s economic heroism, but his character.
Coolidge governed and taught from the deep well of America’s Founding and eschewed the material for the spiritual, declaring, “The things of the Spirit come first.” He was leery of progressive schemes saying, “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.” He added, “If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.”
Coolidge began his career from the humble origins befitting him, as a small town country lawyer. He studied for the bar in a law office, not a law school, which were surging in popularity during his time. But he would go on to dedicate himself to a lifetime of public service as a mayor, state legislator, Lt. Governor, Governor, and President. He understood power and continually warned against its corruption, much like Lord Acton, as Shlaes points out in her biography with a Coolidge quote. “It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness,” said the president.
Coolidge is chiefly known for his deft handling of the Boston Police Strike in 1919, his government cutting, pro-growth, and tax slashing policies as president, and for his moniker “Silent Cal.” One of the misconceptions Shlaes puts to rest in her book is the perception that Coolidge slept away the presidency or was a disinterested overseer. He was famously derided by H.L. Mencken with the line, “Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.” Coolidge’s effort to limit government, by shrinking it, was deeply deliberative and a constant battle. It has not been done since. His speech was deliberate too, much of what he said and accomplished was silenced by his detractors with the tidal wave of progressivism and the centralization of federal power that soon followed.
In the first sentence of her book, Shlaes declares, “Debt takes its toll.” The connection of where we are today and the debt that hampered America after World War I are obvious. Debt has taken its toll on America, and worse, we have yet to truly feel the looming pain and bankruptcy of America’s overspending. We lack leaders of character willing to rectify the crisis and ambivalence among the American people seems commonplace. Debt is now a permanent way of life for most Americans. Old time thrift and its virtues are nostalgic and for many just another romanticized value from America’s forgotten past.
Perhaps one of the biggest indictments upon our society today is the quick assumption that the old way of doing things is stale or inferior. Coolidge reminds us so often of the fallacy of that line of thinking. On the progressive dream to reshape society he believed it was impossible to progress beyond America’s founders. “Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers,” declared Coolidge.
Shlaes offers a rich look at the life of a leader who charted a far different course for our economic crisis and ills. Coolidge left office at the peak of his popularity. His popularity is surging today because even though he spent a lifetime in government, he did not enrich himself from it or cling to power. He spoke with an almost unusual but refreshing clarity about America and its ideals. While Americans face massive centralization of power, debt, and looming economic bankruptcy, Shlaes most importantly, in telling Coolidge’s story, reminds us it doesn’t have to be this way.