Reassessing the Coolidge Legacy

March 1, 2013 Topics: HistoryThe PresidencyPolitics Regions: United States

Reassessing the Coolidge Legacy

Mini Teaser: Despite poor reviews from most historians, Silent Cal presided over a robust economy, surpluses, serious reductions in the national debt and generally very good times.

by Author(s): John R. Coyne Jr.

And swing it he did, dedicating the remainder of the first term to cleaning up the messes left by Harding, then proceeding to bring the federal budget under control. In 1924, he was elected president in his own right, campaigning on a platform of reducing taxes, cutting the federal debt, passing protective-tariff legislation, rejecting farm subsidies and enacting the eight-hour work day. It was an upbeat campaign, emphasizing peace and prosperity, effectively making use of the medium of radio for the first time, and with enthusiastic support from figures like Will Rogers and Al Jolson, who traveled to Washington to sing “Keep Cool with Coolidge” on the White House lawn.

Coolidge won handily, beating Democratic former West Virginia congressman John W. Davis and the Progressive Party candidate, Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette.

During his first full term, Coolidge’s emphasis was on encouraging economic prosperity; working closely with his budget director to cut costs and collaborating with his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, to cut taxes; and pushing the Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926 through Congress. In 1923, when President Harding died, the national debt stood at more than $22 billion. When President Coolidge left office six years later, the debt had been reduced to less than $17 billion. He had restored integrity to the nation’s financial balance sheet by cutting the war debt and steadily reducing tax rates. Day by day, much like a Yankee storekeeper, he kept track of government operations, scrutinizing expenditures and cutting wherever possible. He exercised direct control over the Bureau of the Budget, which he had created, and periodically spoke to the nation by radio, giving an account of his management of the national enterprise.

Add to the unprecedented prosperity the protracted period of peace, and it seemed unthinkable that Coolidge wouldn’t run for a second full term and win in a landslide. But that was not on the agenda. Coolidge, in his distinctive Yankee way, had said no. And having said no, there would be no changing his mind, no matter how hard his party’s leadership pleaded.

In 1927, the Coolidges spent much of the summer at a lodge in South Dakota. It was here, writes Shlaes, that Mrs. Coolidge and a trusted Secret Service agent went for a long hike and apparently got lost. Their extended absence caused the president some irritation and provided gossips with the only potentially salacious tidbit ever served up by the Coolidges, a close and unshakably married couple. The president and his wife were received enthusiastically by Dakotans, many of whom had migrated there from eastern states such as Vermont (among them Coolidge relatives) with many of the same economic problems. From the summer White House near Rapid City, Coolidge awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross to Charles Lindbergh, approved the work at Mount Rushmore and gave a much-needed boost to a variety of projects. The Coolidge visit, writes Shlaes, “was a crucial one for the South Dakota economy.”

DURING THAT summer, Coolidge was at the top of his game, enjoying unusually high national popularity, sure to win his election to a second full term in the coming year. On August 2, the fourth anniversary of Coolidge taking office, he and Senator Arthur Capper drove into Rapid City for a press conference. Meeting reporters, “Coolidge became downright chatty,” talking about his record on peace, the reduction of the national debt and tax cuts. Reports Shlaes, “After the press conference Coolidge waved the reporters off, but mentioned casually that they might want to come back a little later; he would have an announcement.”

Coolidge had given his confidential stenographer a note with instructions to make copies on twenty small slips of paper. “The slips were folded. At the conference itself, Coolidge asked a simple question: ‘Is everybody here?’ He then handed the reporters the slips.” They contained just twelve words: “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty eight.”

And that was it. No further comment, and reporters stampeded to move the story. The reaction, national and international, was predictable and especially intense among Republicans, who mounted campaigns aimed at persuading Coolidge to change his mind. But he had made his decision.

“New Englanders relished their independence,” writes Shlaes, “which was why Coolidge had said, ‘I do not choose,’ emphasizing his own authority.” She quotes Edmund W. Starling, head of Coolidge’s Secret Service detail: “Nothing is more sacred to a New England Yankee than this privilege as an individual to make up his own mind.”

And when he left office and turned the White House keys over to his successor, Coolidge could take pride in his conscientious and frugal economic stewardship. And what of other areas? In foreign policy, Coolidge was neither an isolationist nor an internationalist idealist. America’s involvement in World War I, an essentially senseless venture, had left it with a crushing debt that his administration successfully paid down. His primary foreign-policy concerns included keeping the United States free from entangling foreign alliances and strengthening its commercial relations, especially with Latin America. There were important U.S. commercial interests in Honduras and Venezuela, with troops to safeguard our interests in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. At times, U.S. policies in Latin America were heavy-handed—so much so, in fact, that Coolidge attended a Pan-American conference in Cuba to assure America’s southern neighbors of the U.S. commitment to good relations.

Shlaes provides a vivid account of the trip: Early in 1928, as the USS Texas steamed into Havana Harbor, “the people of Cuba gathered to mount the greatest welcome they had ever given a foreign leader.” At the conference, in addition to President Gerardo Machado of Cuba, “leaders from twenty-one Latin American nations were also in attendance.” In his remarks, “Coolidge spoke of respect, democracy, and law,” as well as in favor of “the principle of self-government for Latin American nations.” He spoke against force and for the need to heed “the admonition to beat our swords to plowshares.” Estimates were of as many as two hundred thousand people celebrating the visit in the streets of Havana. According to the Associated Press, “It was a spectacle such as this American President has never before participated in and recalled to mind the clamorous entry of Woodrow Wilson into Paris.” Cubans, writes Shlaes, “like the citizens of so many other nations, were not merely glad to undertake a common project with the United States. They were eager to do so. All they were waiting for was an invitation.” One result: Secretary of State Frank Kellogg issued a white paper arguing against military intervention in Latin America.

Kellogg, along with French foreign minister Astride Briand, later gave his name to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced war as a means of conflict resolution. The treaty was signed in 1928 in Paris by fifteen nations (and later by most of the world’s nations) and ratified by the U.S Senate after intense debate, 85-1. For the administration, it was both a political and diplomatic victory. “The vast majority of the United States had wanted this treaty,” writes Shlaes, as had many of the smaller nations of the world. Coming as it did on the eve of W. H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” the treaty has faded into history as just another ineffectual attempt to bring peace to the world. But at the time it was considered a great achievement. As Shlaes writes, “The treaty had value as law, as precedent, as a model. If the United States leaned on law, the restless nations of the world might do the same.”

For his efforts, Kellogg received a Nobel Prize, as did Vice President Charles Dawes for his work on behalf of post–World War I currency stabilization in Germany. Two Nobels—not bad for an administration not often credited with an imaginative foreign policy.

AS COOLIDGE’S White House departure neared, he expressed doubts about the future—and about the abilities of his successor to deal with it. Shlaes summarizes his thinking: “The downturn was coming. But bad policy, especially Hoover’s spending policy, would make any downturn worse; the deficit Hoover ran might cause investors to lose confidence in the United States and gold to go to Europe. Then the recession would worsen.”

As predicted, during his first term, “Hoover had spent more money than he should have; he had spent like a Democrat. But that spending hadn’t been enough.” Yet Coolidge had even less faith in Hoover’s Democratic challenger, Franklin Roosevelt, to set things right. As Shlaes writes, “Coolidge was concerned that economy—savings—might not occur, whatever the candidate had promised. . . . There was another problem: the Democrats would pursue action for action’s sake, continuing where Hoover had started.” In Coolidge’s words, “That only means more experimenting with legislation.”

In a speech at Madison Square Garden in support of Hoover’s reelection in 1932, Coolidge

opened with a lengthy defense of Hoover and warned against switching horses in the middle of a race. But Coolidge also got to a more philosophical point. Roosevelt might mention the forgotten man, but he could not claim to be the only one who would serve him. . . . the GOP had done its part for the forgotten man: “Always the end has been to improve the wellbeing of the ordinary run of people.”

Pullquote: In 1923, when President Harding died, the national debt stood at more than $22 billion. When President Coolidge left office six years later, the debt had been reduced to less than $17 billion.Image: Essay Types: Book Review