Speaking up for ‘Silent Cal’

calvin coolidge

Book reviews, when done well, can provide useful history lessons in and of themselves.

Take The Economist’s review of Coolidge, Amity Shlaes’ new biography of the underappreciated 30th US president.

“Mr. Coolidge’s hallmark was distrust of government. He saw it as an entity that uses ‘despotic exactions’ (taxes) that sap individual initiative and prosperity across the board …” according to publication.

“Coolidge learned at first towards the surging progressive movement, which supported state intervention and union involvement in the economy,” the review adds. “But his views shifted when he saw what those ideas meant in practice.”

The Economist is not noted for being a publication of a particularly libertarian bent by any means, but it recognizes Coolidge’s achievements during his five-and-a-half years as president, during which American debt fell by one-third, the tax rate by half and unemployment dropped precipitously. It’s unfortunate that more Americans haven’t taken note of Coolidge’s accomplishments.

While no means perfect, Coolidge offers an interesting counterbalance to FDR and his New Deal approach.

Coolidge took over as president in 1923 following the sudden death of Warren Harding. He was sworn in by his father, a notary public, in the family’s parlor in Vermont by the light of a kerosene lamp in the wee hours of an August morning.

The man who’d saved on school fees by studied law in a free library when younger, not surprisingly, felt that his duty to the public did not include protecting Washington’s influence. He embarked on cost-cutting measures that included cutting back on the use of pencils, changing the fabric of mailbags and lowering the tariff on paintbrush handles, according to Shlaes’ book.

“Government departments that reduced expenditures were rewarded with special citations,” The Economist writes. “Sensitive to the importance of personal example, he was equally tough on his own household, questioning even the amount of food on the White House table. ‘I am for economy. After that I am for more economy,’ Coolidge said as he faced an onslaught of interests seeking cash, from the army to civil engineers to pensioners to governors.”

Coolidge, nicknamed “Silent Cal,” was famous for not saying much, but his common sense and dry wit earned him a reputation for being wise.

“Coolidge refrained from giving public statements unless they were absolutely necessary, and when he did, they were short and to the point,” according to the blog Immigrating to America.

There aren’t a whole lot of politicians you can say that about today.

“Coolidge was, Ms. Shlaes writes, ‘the great refrainer,’ The Economist added. “He wanted government to support innovation by using it – he made the first presidential radio broadcast – but not get involved otherwise. ‘It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,’ he said. ‘Let administration catch up with legislation.’ Coolidge opposed the dams and power projects beloved by his successors, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. He also objected to public ownership of the Post Office, tax exemptions for municipal debt and farm subsidies, all of which have produced costs that still hang heavily over America.”

The Economist doesn’t say so, but it’s likely that a man with Coolidge’s approach to government would be fortunate to make it any higher than election to county council today.

Too many folks these days rush to express disdain over the wastefulness of elected leaders in general, but they’re eager to ensure that their official has his or her snout in the public trough, gobbling up as many goodies as possible to spread around back home.

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