When I first learned of Ronald Reagan’s admiration of former President Calvin Coolidge, I was baffled. Most of my American history education had either ignored our 30th president or condemned him as one of the worst presidents in history. Somehow, the collapse of the world economy, among other things, was attributed to his administration, and his passion for Constitutional values, desire for social progress, and deep admiration of the American people was oversimplified into a lazy, dogmatic caricature.
New Deal historians, for half a century after the end of the Coolidge administration, worked hard to paint the picture of Coolidge that still prevails in schools and public memory. Ronald Reagan and historians like Robert Sobel and Amity Shlaes have since revised Coolidge’s image, but he is still regarded harshly by many. This is unfortunate as there is much that we could learn from Calvin Coolidge.
A quote from the New York Times obituary published the day after his death, on January 6, 1933, described his view of the responsibility of the president:
“President Coolidge was an outstanding example of a President who regarded his office, the most powerful in the world, as a stewardship–rather than as an opportunity to remake civilization.”
Coolidge was remarkably humble about his role as president. Instead of seeking to impose his vision of the “right” America, he laid out his view of progress and trusted the American people to create the change. Not only did Coolidge reject molding the people from the top down through federal legislation, he regarded it as impossible. In his First Annual Message to Congress, he asserted:
“There is an inescapable personal responsibility for the development of character, of industry, of thrift, and of self-control. These do not come from the Government, but from the people themselves. But the Government can and should always be expressive of steadfast determination, always vigilant, to maintain conditions under which these virtues are most likely to develop and secure recognition and reward.”
The role of the national government, in his view, was to create favorable conditions for the flourishing of the populace, and his role was to facilitate that to the best of his ability. He also saw it as impossible to remake society to his personal liking. According to C. Bascom Slemp, Coolidge’s private secretary, the former president believed that moral development and social progress could not be forced on the country from the leadership, but must come instead from the will of the people.
The lack of a comprehensive legislative agenda, or any form of political “Deal,” in the Coolidge campaign and administration was by design. In Coolidge: An American Enigma, Sobel explains, “Coolidge distrusted legislators and executives who had agendas rather than philosophies.” In forming his philosophy, Coolidge recognized progress not as overcoming the principles of a bygone age, but in perfecting them through the channels set forth by the Constitutional form. He expressly rejected the idea that a nation can progress beyond its founding principles:
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.
Coolidge firmly believed in unchanging principles and the fixed nature of humanity, but he was not averse to progress. He embraced progress in the economy and in technology, rejoicing in the improved prosperity of the people. Moreover, he regarded progress toward the perfect realization of these principles as central to the goals of his presidency. In his Inaugural Address, he highlighted some of the elements of this principled progress:
Here [the United States] will continue to stand, seeking peace and prosperity, solicitous for the welfare of the wage earner, promoting enterprise, developing waterways and natural resources, attentive to the intuitive counsel of womanhood, encouraging education, desiring the advancement of religion, supporting the cause of justice and honor among the nations.
Coolidge stood for a vision of a country of prosperous, principled, self-governed citizens with a distinct moral character. His decision to offer this philosophy to the American people rather than to organize a distinct agenda to solve them was a result of his belief in the sovereignty of the people and the idea that reform comes from change in social mores rather than the alteration of laws, but he regarded the responsibility to provide a philosophy for the American people as a crucial role of his presidency.
As president, Coolidge took federalism seriously partly because he venerated the traditional structure of government, but also because he saw the usurpation of more powers by the national government as both a threat to liberty and a task that the national government could not effectively carry out. While Coolidge did not support the argument of state sovereignty to justify abuses against the rights of the people, he held a strong conviction that the progress he desired could and ought to be carried out by states and localities only. Coolidge expressed this conviction thus:
While we ought to glory in the Union and remember that it is the source from which the States derive their chief title to fame, we must also recognize that the national administration is not and cannot be adjusted to the needs of local government. It is too far away to be informed of local needs, too inaccessible to be responsive to local conditions…It does not follow that because something ought to be done the National Government ought to do it.
Among Calvin Coolidge’s successes were balancing the budget, obtaining surpluses in every year of his presidency, regaining the trust of the American people after the scandal-plagued Harding administration, and transferring more power to the states. However, much more important than his policy decisions was the philosophy of government and view of the presidency which he passed on to future generations. He saw the presidency as a privilege and felt a sincere responsibility to maintain a free and prosperous country for the American people. He never saw himself as above the American people or feigned to know more than he did, but he took the role of a moral and political leader seriously. Most importantly, he had a profound respect for the enduring genius of our Founding principles and took the prudent stance that one must not change something without inquiring into its foundations first–that one must not knock down a fence without wondering why it was put up in the first place.
In an age of activist presidents and ignorance of the Founders’ logic, citizens and politicians alike would benefit from revisiting the thoughts and actions of Calvin Coolidge.