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1924: The High Tide of American Conservatism

By Garland S. Tucker III     The following is adapted from Garland S. Tucker III’s new book, 1924: Coolidge, Davis, and the High Tide of American Conservatism (Coolidge Press). […]

A Misunderstood Decade

By John H. Cochrane     This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of the Coolidge Review.   The 1920s were the single most consequential decade for the lives of […]

Casa Utopia: The Tale of an American Collective Farm

By Amity Shlaes     This review is from Amity Shlaes’s regular column “The Forgotten Book,” which she pens for “Capital Matters” as a fellow of National Review Institute.   […]

Coolidge Books for the Holidays

By Jerry Wallace   M. C. Murphy, Calvin Coolidge: The Presidency and Philosophy of a Progressive Conservative A new biography of Calvin Coolidge is certainly worth your attention. Mark C. […]

A Supreme Court Justice’s Private Views of Coolidge

October 11, 2023

By John William Sullivan


One of President Calvin Coolidge’s harshest critics—in private, at least—was Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. Both men had made their names in Massachusetts: Brandeis as a prominent Boston attorney, and Coolidge by rising up the ranks of Bay State politics to become governor. The two did agree on certain principles, most notably on federalism and the vital importance of states’ rights. Over time, however, Brandeis’s assessment of Coolidge grew more severe. Much of Brandeis’s criticism of Coolidge appears to stem from the justice’s overall frustration with the 1920s. The jurist saw it as an age of unparalleled materialism and noted with alarm how the country had pushed back against the march of progressivism. Brandeis blamed Coolidge above all others for this rollback.

A Progressive Justice

Brandeis’s progressive credentials were well known before he arrived at the Supreme Court. In the early twentieth century, the attorney began devoting much of his time and legal work to progressive reform. Brandeis entered national politics when he became a close adviser to, and a tireless campaigner for, Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential race.[1] Wilson won the presidency, and in 1916 he appointed Brandeis to the Supreme Court. According to political scientist Bruce Murphy, Brandeis stayed active politically even after his appointment.[2] As the New York Times summarized Murphy’s case, “For a quarter of a century Brandeis kept his protege and intimate friend Felix Frankfurter on an annual retainer to promote ‘joint endeavors for the public good’—political, social, and legislative programs the Justice could not ethically espouse on his own.”[3] With Frankfurter—who would later become a Supreme Court justice himself—Brandeis shared many of his fiercest criticisms of Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge emerged as a threat to Brandeis-style progressivism when the Massachusetts governor became the Republicans’ vice presidential nominee in 1920. The GOP ticket advocated a “return to normalcy” that year. Normalcy was a direct challenge to progressives, who had held the White House since 1901. The Republican presidential nominee, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, pledged to a weary nation “not revolution, but restoration”—a return to letting citizens manage their own lives in ways they saw fit.

Upon the nomination of the Harding-Coolidge ticket in June 1920, Brandeis voiced his displeasure to his brother Alfred. “The elevation of Harding and Coolidge, and the rejection of [Herbert] Hoover, is a sad story of American political irresponsibility,” he wrote. Hoover, much more a technocrat than Harding, was Brandeis’s friend—at least back then. Brandeis foretold that, eventually, Americans would “awake” and “cast aside in shame our present mistakes.”[4]

Unfortunately for the justice, Harding and Coolidge won in a landslide, taking 60.4 percent of the national popular vote. Brandeis responded to this result in a letter to Frankfurter on November 8, less than a week after the election. He wrote that “serious-minded public-spirited men”—a way to say progressives—should “devote themselves to State, City, municipal & non-political affairs.” Brandeis added, “if we are to attain our national ideals, it must be via the States, etc.”[5]

At that point, Brandeis may have harbored some hope about Coolidge. In a letter to Frankfurter, Brandeis called attention to Coolidge’s little-noticed inaugural address as vice president, in which he spoke in his capacity as president of the Senate. “The N.R. might notice that Coolidge thought of liberty in his first address to the senate,” Brandeis wrote.[6] Here, “N.R.” refers to the New Republic, where Frankfurter was a frequent contributor. Coolidge’s 1921 inaugural speech ran to just 435 words, and his reference to liberty read as follows:

To [the Senate] is intrusted the duty of review, that to negotiations there may be added ratification, and to appointment approval. But its greatest function of all, too little mentioned and too little understood, whether exercised in legislating or reviewing, is the preservation of liberty. Not merely the rights of the majority, they little need protection, but the rights of the minority, from whatever source they may be assailed.[7]

One could read a certain progressivism into the sentiments of protecting the rights of a powerless minority. Coolidge himself was proud enough of his speech, or at least of its official significance, that he included it in his second speech compilation book, The Price of Freedom, three years later. The New Republic made no comment, though.

In 1923, when President Harding died, Vice President Coolidge acceded to the presidency. Coolidge could have shifted the administration’s course. Instead, he committed further to the party’s counter-progressive 1920 plan. That meant cutting taxes and spending, as well as vetoing proposed spending that he deemed unconstitutional. Congress passed a bonus for veterans in the spring of 1924. What would Coolidge do? Brandeis wrote Frankfurter on May 11, 1924, that “C.C. will be up against vetoing or acquiescing this week & later which will test his mettle & judgment.”[8] Coolidge vetoed the legislation, but Congress overrode him.

Finding Common Ground

Despite Brandeis’s misgivings about Republican efforts to roll back progressive reforms, the justice praised Coolidge on occasion. Coolidge, early in his presidency, opposed subsidies to the states because they violated the spirit of both federalism and economy and harmed state governments and the federal government. Brandeis, a committed federalist, commented positively on Coolidge’s speech to the Budget Organization of the Government on January 21, 1924. He sent Frankfurter a copy of the speech, underlined the president’s opposition to increased state subsidies, and wrote “This of Coolidge deserves honorable mention.”[9] Both Frankfurter and Coolidge admired Thomas Jefferson and his vision of the importance of states.

Brandeis found more to praise in Coolidge’s federalism after one of Coolidge’s greatest speeches: “The Reign of Law.” To mark Memorial Day in 1925, Coolidge spoke at Arlington National Cemetery. He highlighted the role of states as the primary drivers of policy and change. The framers of the Constitution, said Coolidge, established the nation “upon the dual system of State government and Federal Government, each supreme in its own sphere.”[10] The president continued: “But they left to the States the main powers and functions of determining the form and course of society. We have demonstrated in the time of war that under the Constitution we possess an indestructible Union. We must not fail to demonstrate in the time of peace that we are likewise determined to possess and maintain indestructible states.”[11]

Brandeis commended Coolidge for his stance in favor of states’ rights, a position in line with the justice’s own aversion to “bigness” in both business and the federal government. “C.C. is doing goodwork for us on state functions,” he wrote to Frankfurter on June 2, 1925.[12] “What poor statesmanship & politics the Democrats have been guilty of, omitting to grasp this issue.”[13] Brandeis’s frustration that the Democrats were not exploiting the issue makes his praise seem more political than philosophical.

Coolidge’s Challenge to Progressivism

More often, Brandeis disparaged Coolidge. The justice made clear that he was no admirer of the president even early in Coolidge’s tenure. Days before the 1924 election, he wrote to Frankfurter about a straw poll of college students that showed Coolidge winning them overwhelmingly. This was, Brandeis commented with no small amount of melodrama, “the most discouraging feature in our life.”[14] The justice called the 1924 election itself, which Coolidge won handily, “a dismal deluge of surprises.”[15] Here again, Coolidge’s federalism provided one of the only “rays of sunshine.”[16] At least, Brandeis noted, the “extension of federal functions has rec’d an important check.”[17]

In the summer of 1926, President Coolidge delivered a speech likely to trigger a response from Brandeis and anyone who claimed to be progressive. Marking the sesquicentennial of American independence, Coolidge attacked the idea that any progress could be made beyond the principles of the Declaration:

It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. 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.[18]

Coolidge went on to debunk the great marketing point of the progressives in his day: that progressivism was the best path to the future. Referring to the rights recognized in the Declaration, the president said:

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. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.[19]

Brandeis soon escalated his private attacks on Coolidge. Within a few months, the justice remarked of the Coolidge administration that “it is in some ways worse than Harding’s.”[20] He noted that Coolidge’s enforcement of Prohibition “is said to be more corrupt, and all with CC’s connivance.”[21] Brandeis criticized Coolidge for acting as a “steamroller” in favor of the World Court, which Congress opposed.[22] The jurist observed a “tendency to repress congress” that he rated both “serious and stupid.”[23]

The justice reserved special criticism for Coolidge’s judicial appointments. Brandeis wrote to Frankfurter in 1926 that “C.C. is doing quite as badly as Harding in the gradual process of undermining the Federal Courts.”[24] When Coolidge’s nominees were thwarted, Brandeis noted “Canny Cal’s” failures with evident pleasure.[25]

Brandeis openly celebrated the 1926 midterm results, which were a disappointment to Republicans, as a political black eye for Coolidge. “I think,” he conjectured, “that there is many a Republican who feels malicious joy & will begin to talk that C.C. is a liability instead of an asset.”[26]

By 1928, his tone on the judiciary had become seething: “This Administration is debauching the judiciary with inexcusable political appointments.”[27] Brandeis said that in the interest of the law, as well as of soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, someone “ought to make a study of Cal’s enormities in this line—a long one.”[28] Merely a week later, he again simmered: “The Coolidge debauch of the Judiciary continues apace.”[29]

Brandeis also implicitly criticized Coolidge’s warmth toward the advertising industry. He sarcastically wrote to Frankfurter that Mrs. Frankfurter—a known opponent of advertising—would have liked a Coolidge speech in which he praised the lobby.[30]

Brandeis deplored Coolidge’s foreign policy, saying that Coolidge’s stances toward Nicaragua and Mexico—intervention in the former, threatening intervention in the latter—could be “the most shameful episode in our history.”[31] The same month, January 1927, the justice wrote that the State Department and Coolidge “are behaving as badly as man could conceive–it is amazing to me that Congress lets them.”[32] Brandeis even worked directly with Senator Robert La Follette, the leader of the Progressive Party, to place an editorial critical of the administration in the Congressional Record.[33]

When Brandeis spoke well of Coolidge’s foreign policy, his words were double-edged. Coolidge’s appointment of Henry Stimson as governor general of the Philippines prompted Brandeis to remark that “C.C. did the best of its kind…but I grow less patient with the kind.”[34]

Escalating Hostility

By far Brandeis’s most hostile statement about Coolidge came in reference to the president’s 1927 speech marking George Washington’s birthday. Coolidge emphasized the more practical aspects of Washington’s character—namely, his appreciation for thrift and sound economic policy, and his effective management of both the public purse and his personal finance. “He was an idealist…he was a prophet…but, essentially, he was a very practical man,” Coolidge said.[35] Brandeis wrote to his brother the next day, saying that “the President’s address yesterday, which I attended reluctantly (in robes) was one of the most painful experiences of a lifetime.”[36] In an agitated letter to Frankfurter four days later, Brandeis expanded: “You cannot conceive how painful, distressing & depressing it was to listen (officially) to Cal’s Washington’s Birthday address.”[37] This stylistic echo, mentioning that he attended the speech “(in robes)” in his letter to his brother and “(officially)” in his letter to Frankfurter, demonstrates his insistence that he never would have attended such a speech but for his office.

Brandeis wrote that his sources “from all high” told him that “the purpose of the talk…was to set the ‘key note for the next five years of talk.’”[38] So the justice expressed alarm at the idea that Coolidge would “confiscate the whole of G.W.’s good will for Big Business.”[39] Coolidge did this, Brandeis said, “by showing that we owe everything we value to the qualities of business efficiency, commercial courage & vision & thrift & that these were G.W.’s dominating qualities fitting him for the greatest of the World’s achievements.”[40]

A particular gripe of Brandeis involved Coolidge’s assessment of Washington’s religious views. “Even his religion,” Brandeis wrote, “was of the efficient business type, as described.”[41] Mixing potentially valid criticism with ad hominem invective, the justice skewered both speech and man. “There is no man in {the} U.S.,” he contended, “{who} could have so perfectly—by looks, voice & action—have {sic} deprived G.W. of every idealistic aim or emotion.”[42]

Brandeis concluded with a grim analogy. The last time he felt so poorly was when he “went to Long Island (Boston Harbor) Poor-House hospital & passed through the syphilitic ward,” he wrote.[43] “I had a like sense of uncleanliness.”[44]

The Justice’s View of the Coolidge Legacy

Brandeis dropped another comment the same year. Writing to his brother, the justice suggested that Coolidge’s reputation for silence enabled him to appear wiser than he really was: “He was on safe ground when ‘tun nichts, sag nichts’ [‘do nothing, say nothing’] was his practice. He was of those ‘that therefore only are reputed wise for saying nothing’”—the last words being a quotation from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.[45]

As Coolidge’s administration came to a close, Brandeis took another shot at the president in his summary of the 1928 election. Democrat Al Smith carried only eight states against Coolidge’s Republican successor, Hoover. Among the eight states was Brandeis’s—and Coolidge’s—home state, Massachusetts. “Massachusetts,” remarked Brandeis, “has redeemed herself.”[46]

The snipes continued after Coolidge left office. In 1930, Brandeis even accused Coolidge of anti-Semitism for failing to select Benjamin Cardozo for the Supreme Court. Brandeis said he had heard from Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, Coolidge’s Amherst College classmate, that “Coolidge objected to appointing Cardoza [sic] (whom S. as Atty [General] proposed) because he didn’t want two Jews on the bench.”[47] Stone, Brandeis claimed, added that “H.H. [President Hoover] would not be swayed by that, but might object to putting on another from N.Y.”[48]

Brandeis’s Coolidge anxiety remained. On January 28, 1930, the justice reported to Frankfurter, “There is a persistently recurrent rumor…that there is a danger that Calvin Coolidge may be appointed to our Court.”[49] Skeptical of the likelihood of this event but unnerved by its possibility, he concluded by wondering: “I can’t believe that there is any danger, but should anything be done about it?”[50]


[1] Melvin I. Urofsky, Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (New York: Schocken Books, 2009), chs. 14 and 15.

[2] Bruce Allen Murphy, The Brandeis-Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[3] “Judging Judges, and History” New York Times, February 18, 1982,

[4] Louis D. Brandeis, Letters of Louis D. Brandeis, Volume IV (1916-1921): Mr. Justice Brandeis, ed. Melvin I. Urofsky and David W. Levy (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1975), p. 470.

[5] Louis D. Brandeis, “Half Brother, Half Son”: The Letters of Louis D. Brandeis to Felix Frankfurter, ed. Melvin I. Urofsky and David W. Levy (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 47.

[6] Ibid., p. 68.

[7] Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom (New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), p. 33-34.

[8] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 167,

[9] Ibid., p. 155.

[10] Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic (New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), p. 233.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 203.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Louis D. Brandeis, Letters of Louis D. Brandeis, Volume V (1921-1941): Elder Statesman, ed. Melvin Urofsky and David W. Levy (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1978), p. 151.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic, p. 451.

[19] Ibid., pp. 451-452.

[20] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 257.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 229.

[23] Ibid., p. 230.

[24] Ibid., p. 315.

[25] Ibid., p. 236.

[26] Ibid., p. 260.

[27] Elder Statesman, p. 324.

[28] Ibid., p. 325.

[29] Ibid., p. 326.

[30] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 258-59.

[31] Ibid., p. 271.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 314.

[35] “Full Text of President Coolidge’s Eulogy of Washington”, New York Times, February 23rd, 1923,

[36] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 276.

[37] Ibid., p. 275

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., p. 275-76.

[44] Ibid., p. 276.

[45] Elder Statesman, p. 270.

[46] “Half Brother, Half Son”, p. 352.

[47] Ibid, p. 406.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., p. 408.

[50] Ibid.

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