Skip to comments.Calvin Coolidge Gets New Deal in Revisionist History
Posted on 02/25/2013 4:10:30 AM PST by Kaslin
For years, most Americans' vision of history has been shaped by the New Deal historians. Writing soon after Franklin Roosevelt's death, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others celebrated his accomplishments and denigrated his opponents.
They were gifted writers, and many of their books were bestsellers. And they have persuaded many Americans -- Barack Obama definitely included -- that progress means an ever bigger government
In their view, the prosperous 1920s were a binge of mindless frivolity. The Depression of the 1930s was the inevitable hangover, for which FDR administered the cure.
That's one way to see it. But there are others, and no one is doing a better job of making a counter argument than Amity Shlaes, whose 2008 book "The Forgotten Man" painted a different picture of the 1930s.
Shlaes agrees that Roosevelt's initial policies seemed to end the downward deflationary spiral. But then bigger government, higher taxes and aggressive regulation led to further recession and years of achingly slow growth. Sound familiar?
Now Shlaes has produced a book tersely titled "Coolidge." It shows the 30th president in a far different light than the antique reactionary depicted by the New Deal historians.
Calvin Coolidge began his political career during the Progressive era, a time of expanding government. But he came to national notice when that era was ending in turmoil.
It was a time of revolution in Russia and attempted revolutions elsewhere in Europe, a time of continuing war in parts of the world even after the armistice formally ended World War I.
At home, it was a time of unemployment and inflation, of bombs set off before the attorney general's house and on Wall Street, of labor union strikes in coal and other basic industries.
Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts and in charge of the Boston police when they went on strike in September 1919. The cops had legitimate grievances. But the strike was followed by nights of violence and murder, looting of department stores and shops.
Coolidge fired the striking policemen. He explained why in a telegram to labor leader Samuel Gompers. It concluded, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime."
"The time for disruption was over; in order for the next day to be better," Shlaes writes, "law must be allowed to reign now."
Coolidge became a national celebrity. The Republican bosses in the smoke-filled room picked someone else to be Warren Harding's running mate. But the convention delegates stampeded and nominated Coolidge.
That made Coolidge president on the sudden death of Harding (who comes off much better here than in the New Deal histories) in August 1923.
Shlaes tells how he settled into a routine of meeting regularly with the director of the new Bureau of the Budget, paring down spending any way he could.
Coolidge's Republicans had small majorities in Congress, and many favored big new spending programs -- veterans' bonuses, farm subsidies. Coolidge said no, with vetoes that were sustained.
At the same time, he pressed Congress for tax cuts. After Coolidge won a full term in 1924, the top income tax rate was reduced from the wartime 70 percent to 25 percent.
An economy that lurched from inflation to recession between 1918 and 1922 suddenly burst into robust economic growth.
That helped Coolidge achieve budget surpluses ever year -- surpluses that he used to pay down the national debt.
In the summer of 1927, while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Coolidge announced, "I do not choose to run for president in 1928."
All the political indicators -- random sample public opinion polls had not yet been invented -- suggest he would have won a second full term. And would have been in office when the stock market crashed in October 1929.
The New Deal historians depict the prosperity of the Coolidge years as illusory. In their view, the binge would inevitably be followed by the hangover.
More recent economic historians have suggested that policy mistakes by the Federal Reserve were the prime cause of the deflationary downward spiral. The onerous Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 may have been a culprit, too.
In any case, the standard of living of millions of Americans improved in the Coolidge years. Automobiles, refrigerators and radios became commonplace possessions.
Shlaes doesn't argue that Coolidge's policies could or should be replicated today. But she does establish that the 30th president is worthy of more respect than previous historians have accorded him.
Production should have been driving them down, but they were being kept 'stable'.
This led to the inflationary effect of malinvestment in higher goods, since the distortion of the price system and interest rate led investors to think there was more savings to support capital investment, then there was.
Prices don't have to rise for inflation to accomplish it's destructive work.
Cool Cal Ping!
I nominate him as the patron saint of the tea party.
Hoover and the Federal Reserve made poor choices engineering economic fixes to the economy.
Coolidge had been reluctant to choose Hoover as his successor; on one occasion he remarked that “for six years that man has given me unsolicited adviceall of it bad.”
Coolidge was emotionally devastated by the sudden death of his young son, John, in 1923. His dead pan concealed a man in anguish. His long hours sleeping, which began a kind of joke in the public mind, show evidence of a deep depression that sapped his energy and probably led him not to seek nomination, although he probably wished to be drafted, and when he was passed over for Hoover, made him feel worse. Then by implication, much of it coming from Hoovers supporters tried to put the blame for the crash on his shoulders and justify Hoovers progressive interventionism, which certainly failed. This must have weighed on Coolidge and led to his early death. Considering that his father lived to be a ripe old age. it is not too much to say that he died of a broken heart. At least this is my take.
Hoover the progressive became, in the politics of the thirties, Hoover the conservative. But hoover was a big government man, who like FDR after him, cranked up a national mobilization approach, involving of course, the big rich. FDR tried a more government centered approach with a much more inspiring style. Hoover had, unfortunately for him, the same down at the mouth public manner as Jimmy Carter, matched with a total lack of the common touch. Mrs. Coolidge was probably one of the most pleasant and approachable First Ladies, but Mrs Hoover was a entirely different sort.
Had Coolidge been President during the 1929 crash, I don’t think there would have been a depression.. Maybe a recession..
“Had Coolidge been President during the 1929 crash, I dont think there would have been a depression.. Maybe a recession..”
I suspect you are correct. I recall reading someone, explaining when the depression actually ended, and they said, “when Roosevelt’s heart stopped beating.” The more I considered it, the more sense it made.
Roosevelt just loved to change laws unexpectedly and without any rational basis. He was essentially a dictator. No one can make reasonable economic forecasts under such a system, so few invested.
It is much like the “system” Barack Obama is working hard to implement and keep in place today.
A couple years ago I was doing some research on American Presidents and Coolidge stood out in ways I’d never expected. As a kid of course George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, and JFK were some of the Presidents that had stood out. Out of those only Washington and Jefferson survived further scrutiny and even Washington though without doubt a good man indulged the counsel of Hamilton on the strength of a centralized govt to a fault. Coolidge became an immediate favorite for me particulary because I instantly recognized the congruencey of his message to that of Reagan though Coolidge succeeded in ways Reagan could have only hoped to.
Coolidge was the anti-politician in many ways and he was principled much as Tyler(another unappreciated President) had been in opposing bad policy even when it was his party’s bad policy. The real history of the 1920s has been distorted by New Deal historians so vigorously because it is a stark example of the strength of having a small govt and an empowered free market economy. It was during this time that the middle class emerged and real wages grew at an astonding rate for all classes. Calvin Coolidge is a President I would rank in position #1 for doing exactly what he said he would do and not wavering. Was he perfect? No but that is something that made him great, he was not an inflated man believing himself fit to be a king or one set on ensconcing his name in great gimmicks and programs to puff up his name in history. He was in essence the embodiment of the “Humble Servant” and he served America well and set an example that if it had been followed would’ve kept America far from the economic cliff upon which it now stands.
Obama isn’t a believer in big government. He’s a leftist who believes that society must be changed by a cadre of elitists.
I have Coolidge at 1 as well for the same reasons you cite. Coolidge, Washington, Jefferson, Reagan and Eisenhower. Eisenhower just keeps creeping up on my list as time goes on.
I like the fact that he was a man of few words, unlike our glib political weasels today.
Why were genuine conservatives Coolidge and Reagan succeeded by big-government Republicans Hoover and George Bush Sr. and then by far-left Democrats Roosevelt and Clinton (who only tacked right after the 1994 midterms)? Why aren’t successful conservatives replaced by conservatives?
“Why were genuine conservatives Coolidge and Reagan succeeded by big-government Republicans Hoover and George Bush Sr. and then by far-left Democrats Roosevelt and Clinton (who only tacked right after the 1994 midterms)? Why arent successful conservatives replaced by conservatives?”
Reagan beat George H.W. Bush for the nomination in 1980. In order to unify the party (i.e. get the establishment/moderate support), he made Bush his running mate. Reagan’s big failure was not replacing Bush in 1984 with a conservative VP candidate. He placed party unity over ideology. As soon as Bush became president he pushed conservatives out, even though he ran as a conservative.
In hindsight if Reagan had run with a conservative in 1984 and won, then focused on filling the key party positions with conservatives, there is a chance the conservative revolution would have been consolidated and perpetuated.
Coolidge made Washington and Jefferson look like comparatively big spenders.
I could see Coolidge having Burger King cater state dinners because it was taxpayer money.
Cater? He spent his whole term attending private dinner parties he was invited to by the high society in Washington. :)
thank you. This is the first I remember hearing about George Bush engineering a purge of the party after he was elected in 1988. Who were the victims?
Reagan had a portrait of Coolidge hung in his office. Ed Rollins stated that he never could figure out why. Ed Rollins is an idiot.
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