A New Look at Calvin Coolidge
Remarks by Peter Hannaford at the annual meeting of The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation
August 5, 2001 Plymouth Notch, Vermont
PETER HANNAFORD’s latest book is The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: Sensible Words for a New Century, his sixth about a U.S. President.
Shortly after he was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan ordered a portrait of Calvin Coolidge hung in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
The news of this startled the Washington press corps. Why, they wondered, would Reagan want to hang the picture of a man who had nothing to say and little to do when he occupied the White House? They reminded us that biographers described Coolidge as cold, aloof, unfeeling, materialistic, in the pocket of big business and, otherwise, a cipher.
Ronald Reagan knew differently. His action came as no surprise to me. I was closely associated with him for a number of years and knew that Coolidge was one of his favorite predecessors and that he considered Coolidge to have been greatly underrated.
One dramatic action in Reagan’s first year as President can be traced directly to an action that Coolidge took many years earlier.
In August 1981, the air traffic controllers’ union called a strike. President Reagan said that, as public employees, they could not do that and any who weren’t back on the job within 48 hours would be fired. Those who went back to work kept their jobs; those who didn’t were fired. Today, no one remembers the name of the man who ran that union, but he’d probably be around still if he had bothered to read what Reagan had said many times as Governor of California. That is, that public employees dealing with public safety did not have the right to strike and should be terminated if they did strike.
Ronald Reagan’s view was inspired by the stand that Governor Calvin Coolidge had taken in 1919, when the Boston police went on strike. On the verge of the strike, the police commissioner had assured him everything was under control, but once the police went out, looting and rioting ensued. Coolidge stepped in, took charge, brought out the state militia and fired the strikers. Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFofL, wired him, asking him to take back the striking policemen, Coolidge’s answer was right to the point, this famous statement:
“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
The British historian Paul Johnson is an admirer of the United States. He describes Coolidge as favoring “minimalism” in government. Like Coolidge, President Reagan believed that, to the greatest extent possible, government should get out of the way and let people and their private organizations conduct their own transactions.
Reagan also liked Coolidge’s position on taxes. Coolidge contended that reducing high marginal tax rates would produce more revenue for the government, not less. He argued that the money saved by taxpayers would be plowed into new investments. As you know, he engineered substantial tax-rate cuts. He was right about the increased revenue.
So was Reagan.In 1981 he took a leaf from Coolidge’s book and pushed through across-the-board tax cuts. They resulted in half-a-trillion dollars or so of unexpected revenue pouring into the treasury’s coffers. As in Coolidge’s time, it was the result of new investments and other new economic activity generated by the tax-rate cuts.
All of this is the long way of saying that it was Ronald Reagan who aroused my interest in Calvin Coolidge. I had been Reagan’s director of public affairs in the Governor’s Office in Sacramento. And, for the five years between his governorship and the presidency, his office was in the suite of Deaver & Hannaford, Inc., the firm Michael Deaver and I founded upon leaving Sacramento. We coordinated Mr. Reagan’s public program during those years and I had senior positions in his 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns.
I was so steeped in the views of Ronald Reagan that I wrote four books about him. The fourth one, The Quotable Ronald Reagan, was published in late 1998 and, like two of its predecessors, is still being actively sold.
The following year, 1999, I decided to do a book about George Washington. Why Washington? The proximate reason was that I had served on the advisory committee at Mount Vernon from 1990-96 and my interest in our first President had been renewed by the enthusiastic women who make up the governing board there.
They lamented the decline of attention paid to Washington in the nation’s schools, and they deplored the conversion of Washington’s Birthday into a three-day mattress and used-car sale called “President’s Day.” They didn’t just wring their hands about these things, however, for they are activists.
They have created an excellent teaching unit about the meaning of Washington which they have distributed by the tens of thousands to school districts throughout the nation. As for the birthday, they have been working with several members of Congress to pass legislation reaffirming the official name of that holiday, George Washington’s Birthday.
One problem with George Washington is that his time seems so remote to us. When we look at photos from Lincoln’s time, we recognize real people. Their clothing and hair styles are different and the photos are often stilted; nevertheless, they are recognizable. For Washington’s time, we have no photos, only paintings, statues, sketches. They wore powdered wigs, buckled shoes and satin breeches. The women wore many-layered gowns. The people of the American Revolution seemed to be players in a costume drama.
Washington, from his pictures, looks stern, even cold. He was anything but. When I interviewed the historician David McCullough for my Washington book, he said, “I find his love of fox hunting, dancing, cards and the theater all very appealing.”
Martha Dangerfield Bland, a friend of Martha Washington, accompanied Mrs. Washington to New Jersey in March 1777 to help nurse the general back to health after a heavy bout of the flu. There was a lull in the war at the time. Mrs. Bland wrote to her sister:
“We often make parties on horseback. General Washington throws off the hero and takes on the chatty, agreeable companion. He can be downright impudent sometimes–such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like.”
Here, then, is an animated George Washington, not the stern man of the marble bust. I reasoned that many people would like to get to know him better, but few would have the time to read a seven or eight-hundred-page biography, even though there are several good ones available.
I set out to find out what Washington’s contemporaries–friends and foes–thought about him. Then, I wanted to find out what major figures of the 19th and early 20th Centuries thought about him. Finally, I wanted to include the observations of about two dozen of our contemporaries. The result is a book entitled The Essential George Washington: Two Hundred Years of Observations On the Man, the Myth, the Patriot.
It was published at the end of 1999 by Images From the Past, a company based in Bennington and headed by a lady with a contagious zest for history, Tordis Isselhardt.
In the course of doing my Washington book, I read many things he had written and said. As a result, I thought there might be a place for a book of his quotations. I talked it over with Tordis. I said that I would do some preliminary research and that if I could find, say, 25 to 30 good quotations, I would send her a formal proposal for a book that would end up with ten times that number.
I had nearly reached my target of 25 to 30 quotations when I received an e-mail message from Tordis. She had been checking out other small publishing houses’ web sites on the Internet and came across one in Madison, Wisconsin that was beating the drum for its latest book, The Quotable George Washington, compiled by a University of Wisconsin professor! We called down to the gift shop at Mount Vernon. Sure enough, they had it in stock.
Tordis and I agreed there would not be a market simultaneously for two books of Washington quotations, especially since the one just out was organized in about the way we had in mind for my book.
George Washington was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt was another. In fact, the first time he was old enough to vote, in 1932, Reagan voted for FDR. Still, I put the possibility of a Roosevelt book aside. A great many books had been written about him. That is when Calvin Coolidge’s name came to mind. Reagan liked him, which, a I said earlier, surprised many people, and he felt Coolidge was underrated.
I talked it over with Tordis. She said there had been signs of a revival of interest in Coolidge and that the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation was hoping this would continue. She encouraged me to do some initial research. I did, starting with Claude Fuess’s 1939 biography. I soon found I liked Coolidge. He lived a life that embodied what we think of as Yankee virtues: belief in hard work, thrift, modesty, respect for others, a strong dedication to democratic principles, deep faith in God and, not least, plain talk.
Before going on to other books about Coolidge, I decided to concentrate next on his own words. I read dozens of his speeches, his Autobiography, all of his newspaper columns and many miscellaneous comments and documents.
His grasp of the classics gave him an ability to use the English language in a way that was–at once–both simple and eloquent. I was impressed, too, by the fact that throughout his long public career he wrote all of his own speeches and statements.
Time and again I found myself marking passages that seemed as apt for the new 21st Century as they had been when he said them in the 1920s. There were broad parallels: He presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity; there was a great burst of technological innovation; and the world was, for the most part, at peace. At the same time, there was a great thirst for something more than materialism. As you know, Coolidge addressed these things often and with common sense.
I was also struck by Coolidge’s foresight; his grasp of the future implications of innovations and ideas that were quite new in his time.
Here are two examples. In 1931, he foresaw not only the rise of television, but the invention of videocassette recorders–VCRs. He said, “A new social force is being developed by radio waves…Report comes simultaneously of a successful experiment in television by which people in Leipzig were able to recognize the image of a man in Schenectady. The time may not be far away when it will be possible to have a receiving set in the home that will produce a sound motion picture…It is difficult to comprehend what an enormous power this would be.”
“Globalization” is a term we hear often nowadays in connection with the integration of economies, businesses and trade around the world. Coolidge didn’t use the word, but he understood the concept and he told the country to get ready for it. In 1924 he said,
“We must realize that our relationships with the outside world, already enormously important, will increase in number, complexity and importance in their influence on our social structure. We cannot begin too soon to prepare for this future.”
As my research continued I found myself agreeing with Ronald Reagan that Coolidge had, indeed, been underrated. He was the right man for his time. Unfortunately for him, the people who interpreted his time and him were associated with FDR’s New Deal and believed ardently in widespread government intervention in the private affairs and institutions. of the people. The Depression, which was a searing experience for many Americans, seemed to bear out their conclusion at the time.
For several decades after his death, Coolidge was subjected to a negative rendering of his personality and his presidency. The acolytes of the New Deal, quite naturally, were anxious to keep Roosevelt in power. One way to do that was to blame his predecessors for all problems. So, they kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of what they called the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era. This was an era, they said, of rank materialism, speculation, the stock market crash and the Great Depression. It was all the fault of this trio, they said, and their assertion stuck.
They said that Coolidge should have clamped down on widespread stock speculation. While it is true that the very low margin requirements for stock purchase encouraged speculation, it is unlikely that more than one percent of the population engaged in it.
The chroniclers of the New Deal spun the tale that the market crash of October 1929 caused the Depression. Yet the large drop in stock values was nearly reversed by the following spring, before the market slid gradually downward again. Many latter day analysts think the real Depression culprit was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
Once begun, the depression was aggravated by the tax increases passed in 1932 under President Hoover. Hoover mistakenly thought it would raise much-needed revenue. It fell short. Alas, Hoover had ignored what President Coolidge had often said about the economic benefits of tax-rate cuts. The man on whose work the New Dealers most drew their inspiration for stereotyping Calvin Coolidge was William Allen White, a Kansas newspaper editor who also wrote articles for national magazines. He was a Republican and had participated in all the party’s conventions since McKinley’s nomination in 1896. With Teddy Roosevelt’s ascendancy, White became enamored of the so-called Progressive cause and never got over it.
During President Coolidge’s years in the White House, White visited him several times. He wrote two biographies of Coolidge. The second one, which came out in the late Thirties, was titled A Puritan in Babylon, in which he covered Coolidge’s strong points, but also criticized him for his belief in “minimalist” government. Like so many of today’s journalists, White measured an office-holder’s success by the number of new or expanded government programs he promoted.
Since the New Dealers felt the same way, they used White’s criticism as fodder for their propaganda, ignoring the praise White had bestowed on Coolidge.
Coolidge and White had fundamentally different visions of the role of government.
Although he came to the job unexpectedly, Coolidge, like successful presidents before and since, had a clear agenda and the determination necessary to carry it out. First, he rooted out the corruption in government that came to light shortly after Harding’s death. His larger goal was to expand the economy. It had already begun to blossom with the pent-up consumer demand that followed World War I, combined with a burst of technological advances. Coolidge’s tax-rate cuts fueld even greater economic expansion.
Thematically, President Coolidge emphasized self-reliance, character-building, the religious roots of our political freedom, and the Jeffersonian concept that “he governs best who governs least.”
He believed that in normal times the government should get out of the way and let the people build and expand economic prosperity. He put it this way:
“I want the people of America to be able to work less for the Government and more for their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom.”How successful was he? By any objective standard, very.
He produced balanced budgets, along with reductions in the national debt of about $1 billion a year.
Per capita income surged by nearly 50 percent. Automobile production grew nearly ten-fold.
There was a surge in technological innovation based upon electricity and the internal-combustion engine. It took another 50 years to match the number of patents issued between 1918 and 1934.
The stocks of many famous companies went on the market in the Twenties, survived the Depression and went on to produce great amounts of wealth.
Radio promoted self-improvement and beauty. Heroes and heroines–such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Admiral Byrd–captured the public’s imagination. Movies were abundant, inexpensive and popular–and so were their stars.
None wasmore popular than the president. Calvin Coolidge–embodying thrift, industry, dignity, morality and civility–was the antithesis of the image we have of the Roaring Twenties. He reminded his fellow citizens constantly that the pursuit of material things was not an end in itself. He said:
“…wealth is not an end but a means. We need it only for the use we can make of it. The real standard of life is not one of quantity but of quality; not of money but of character.”
As to being cold and aloof, he was a shy man, but not a cold one. His shyness, combined with his rearing as a Yankee farm boy, meant that he was reserved and personally modest. Most people would consider these worthy characteristics.
Much of his feeling went into his writings. Of his mother’s death, he wrote:
“When she knew that her end was near she called us children to her bedside …In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday. I was 12 years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.”
Of his vivacious wife, Grace, he wrote
“We thought we were made for each other. For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities and I have rejoiced in her graces.”
Of country life, he said
Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities.
And about taxes, he said,
“I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more.”
In my book, I wanted to convey to readers Coolidge’s famously dry and ironic sense of humor, so I included a entire section of examples of it. You probably recognize these samplings:
Once, when he was asked by a reporter if it was true that he paid $35 a month rent for his Northampton, Massachusetts duplex, he said,
“Don’t print that. It’s really only $32, he might raise it on me.”
When he was President of the Massachusetts Senate, he was asked for a ruling by a fellow senator who had been told by a colleague to “go to Hell.” Coolidge said,
“I’ve looked up the law, Senator, and you don’t have to go there.”
One time in the White House, his Secretary told him a delegation was waiting outside, insisting that Coolidge had promised to address their annual convention. The Secretary had told them they were mistaken. Coolidge said,
“That’s right. You stick to it, and I’ll amplify your statement by saying nothing. “
In 1998, the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation sponsored a symposium with the John F. Kennedy Library, entitled “Calvin Coolidge: Examining the Evidence.” In the same year two new biographies came out which set aside much of the mythology promoted by the New Dealers, thus putting Coolidge in a more objective light.
We now know that “Silent” Cal held an off-the-record press conference every week–the first president to do so–and that he was very talkative at these gatherings.
His step-by-step climb up the political ladder was, of course, always a matter of record. It is now being reexamined for its overall success, from the Northampton Republican town committee, the mayor’s office, the state House of Representative, the state Senate (and its Presidency), Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Massachusetts, Vice President of the United States, then President. Altogether he stood for office 20 times and won 19 times.
What the recent reexamination of Coolidge’s life is now yielding is a closer look at the steady development of his political ideas: his enlightened approach to public policy in Massachusetts, his thoughtful and eloquent examinations of American liberty as vice president, and the dynamic growth of the nation under his stewardship as President. His career is finally being measured against his philosophy of government.
In politics, as in war, the victors get to write the terms of the peace, at least for a time. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal followers believed in government intervention, ad infinitum, to cure the nation’s ills. By their yardstick, Coolidge was a failure, because he pursued a policy of non-intervention. Yet, if you consider “minimalist” government as a legitimate philosophy and measure his work by that yardstick, he was a great success.
When Calvin Coolidge died suddenly in January 1933, Miss Aurora Pierce, the long-time housekeeper here at Plymouth Notch, said simply, “He was a good and kindly man.”
Coolidge’s friend Will Rogers put it this way:
“History generally records a place for a man who is ahead of his time. But we that lived with you remember you because you was WITH your times. By golly, you little red-headed New Englander, I liked you. You put horse sense into statesmanship.”
©Peter D. Hannaford, 2001