Amity Shlaes, Coolidge, 576 pp., $35.00.
AMITY SHLAES, the economic historian who almost single-handedly forced a reappraisal of the 1930s with her best-selling The Forgotten Man, now sets out to do the same for Calvin Coolidge, one of our forgotten presidents—and, where not forgotten, imperfectly remembered or purposely misrepresented.
In Where They Stand, his book on presidential performance, Robert Merry, editor of this magazine, writes of Calvin Coolidge and his low standing among historians:
By the standard of voter assessment, he merits respect for retaining the presidency after his nineteen-month incumbency [after succeeding Warren G. Harding, who died in office] and then retaining it for his party four years later. He presided over peace, prosperity, and domestic tranquility for nearly six years. . . . and Coolidge detractors might inquire whether their ratings stem from the fact that he was among the twentieth century’s most concise exponents of limited government.
Although Coolidge’s economic policies are held by some to have created an unsustainable boom that led to the Great Depression, the argument that Coolidge bears responsibility for that economic calamity is more theoretical than provable. And in fact, the debate about what brought on the Depression remains unresolved, along with arguments about whether the measures taken to combat it worked in significant ways or just exacerbated the problem until it was resolved by World War II.
But what is not theoretical is the prosperity that buoyed our nation during the Coolidge administration, as documented by Shlaes in this impressively researched and engagingly written chronicle of a successful president and his administration. In the process, she brings one of our more admirable presidents back to life, both as a man and as a representative of a fast-fading era.
As an old-school Republican and a Yankee from the days before New England became a quaint theme park for the pretty people, Coolidge believed in economy in all things, including language. And Shlaes wastes no words. Despite the length and heft of her volume, there’s no padding, no political or ideological skywriting, no invented drama. She shows us the man as he seemed—and wanted—to be and allows the life, the words, the actions and policies, the politics and the country itself to carry the story.
“There are plenty of personal events in Coolidge’s life,” writes Shlaes, “many of them sad ones, but he was principally a man of work. Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism and therefore harder to appreciate.”
In Coolidge’s personal life, writes Shlaes, from boyhood on, he “brought saving to a high art. Coolidge was so parsimonious that he did not buy a house in Massachusetts even after he became governor, so careful that the Coolidges owned no car until after he achieved the presidency, so strict about money that his son John never forgot it.” When the father became president, writes Shlaes, his younger son Calvin Jr. was working in a tobacco field in Hatfield, Massachusetts. Some friends suggested they wouldn’t be working anymore if their fathers were president. The boy replied, “If your father were my father, you would.”
As president, Coolidge applied his commitment to thrift and fiscal responsibility to the federal budget “with a discipline sadly missing in his well-intentioned predecessor, Warren G. Harding.” Under Coolidge, Shlaes points out, the federal debt was reduced: “The top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent,” and “the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent. . . . wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily. Under Coolidge, the rich came to pay a greater share of the income tax.”
And think about this: “When in 1929 the thirtieth president climbed onto a train at Union Station to head back home to Massachusetts after his sixty-seven months in office, the federal government was smaller than when he had become president in 1923.”
SHLAES GUIDES us through the early years in some detail, from his birth as John Calvin Coolidge (the John is gradually shed) in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, to John and Victoria Coolidge, through his boyhood in Plymouth, helping his storekeeper father and attending public school, then to the Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont, from which he graduated. He was admitted to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where after a slow start he hit his stride, graduating with honors in 1895. In his senior year, he entered a national essay contest sponsored by the Sons of the American Revolution and won first prize, a gold medal worth $150.
Upon graduation, he read law in a firm in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town that would become his home. In 1897, he passed the bar, opened a law office and began his involvement in Republican Party politics. He was appointed to the city council in 1900, elected and then reelected city solicitor, and appointed county clerk of courts in 1903.
In 1904, now chairman of the Republican City Committee in Northampton and rising in his profession, he still couldn’t find the wife he wanted. Apparently he didn’t have an easy way with women. “Perhaps the right girl would know to break through herself and get to him, first,” Shlaes writes. “Finally, she did.”