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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Cal and the Big Cal-Amity

Coolidge takes heat from progressives because any other stance ruins their narrative and undermines their agenda.

I washed my car this morning and it rained this afternoon. Therefore, washing cars causes rain.

So-called “progressives” tell us that Calvin Coolidge was a bad president because the Great Depression started just months after he left office.

This is precisely the same, lame argument expressed in two different contexts.

In five years (August 2023), we will mark the 100th anniversary of the day that Silent Cal became America’s 30th President. I intend to celebrate it along with others who believe in small government, but you can bet there’ll be plenty of progressives trying to rain on our parade. So let’s get those umbrellas ready.

Let’s remember that the eight years of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) were economically disastrous. Taxes soared, the dollar plummeted, and the economy soured. A sharp, corrective recession in 1921 ended quickly because the new Harding-Coolidge administration responded to it by reducing the burden of government. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Coolidge became President and for the next six years, America enjoyed the unprecedented growth of “the Roaring ‘20s.” Historian Burton Folsom elaborates:

One measure of prosperity is the misery index, which combines unemployment and inflation. During Coolidge’s six years as president, his misery index was 4.3 percent—the lowest of any president during the twentieth century. Unemployment, which had stood at 11.7 percent in 1921, was slashed to 3.3 percent from 1923 to 1929. What’s more, [Coolidge’s Treasury Secretary] Andrew Mellon was correct on the effects of the tax-rate cuts—revenue from income taxes steadily increased from $719 million in 1921 to over $1 billion by 1929. Finally, the United States had budget surpluses every year of Coolidge’s presidency, which cut about one-fourth of the national debt.

That’s a record “progressives” can only dream about but never deliver. Yet when they rank U.S. presidents, Coolidge gets the shaft. If you can get your hands on a copy of the out-of-print 1983 book, Coolidge and the Historians by Thomas Silver, buy it! You’ll be delighted at what Coolidge actually said, and simultaneously incensed at the shameless distortions of his words at the hands of progressives like Arthur Schlesinger.

Coolidge could have run for another four-year term in 1928 (and surely would have won) but he declined and retired from politics. His Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, won the presidency that year and assumed office in March 1929. The stock market collapsed in October and a recession gave way to full-scale depression in the summer of 1930.

Should Coolidge get any of the blame for the Great Depression? The Federal Reserve’s expansion of money and credit in the 1920s certainly set the country up for at least a mild fall, but that wasn’t Coolidge’s fault. He saw the Fed as the “independent” entity it was supposed to be and didn’t meddle with it. At least once he expressed concern that the Fed might be fostering a bubble but he otherwise didn’t make a stink about it. “Not my bailiwick,” he believed.

We can legitimately say that Coolidge should have criticized the Fed’s easy money policy more loudly. But if he had, it’s not likely that it would have made much difference over at the Fed.

Far worse than the Fed’s inflation was its deflation, which didn’t begin in earnest until the final weeks of the Coolidge administration.

In any event, far worse than the Fed’s inflation was its deflation, which didn’t begin in earnest until the final weeks of the Coolidge administration. After years of depressing interest rates artificially with easy money, the Fed by early 1929 was jacking them up and choking off money and credit. It continued to do so by either deliberate intent or actual effect for the next three years.

Every good economist concedes that erratic monetary policy at the Fed was at least a minor cause of the 1920s boom and surely a major cause of the 1930s bust. You can’t blame that on Coolidge. You should point the figure at the monetary “central planners” that progressives empowered and told the rest of us we could put our trust in.

Even six months after the October 1929 stock market crash, the economy wasn’t yet in a deep funk. Markets were, in fact, making a comeback in the spring of 1930 and unemployment had not yet hit double digits. Not until June 1930, when Congress and President Hoover raised tariffs and triggered an international trade war, did recession cascade into depression. Two years later, they flattened just about everybody who was still standing by doubling the income tax.

Franklin Roosevelt’s absurd interventions kept the economy in depression for another seven years.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt beat Hoover on a platform promising less government, not more. He then delivered just the opposite when he got to the White House. His absurd interventions kept the economy in depression for another seven years. The painful details are all in my essay, Great Myths of the Great Depression.

Coolidge takes heat from progressives because any other stance ruins their narrative and undermines their agenda. Silent Cal practiced small government. Progressives can’t admit that small government works or that big government doesn’t, so guess who they vilify and who they praise? Small-government Coolidge delivers prosperity and he’s the villain. The statist Roosevelt prolongs the Depression but he’s the savior. The high tax/high tariff/big spending Hoover is dismissed as another Coolidge-style laissez faire advocate, though he was nothing of the sort.

When Coolidge left office in March 1929, the federal budget was smaller than it was six years earlier. Knowing that fact is key to understanding why progressives either ignore him or smear him but never rank him high.

Our 30th President, it turns out, was infinitely smarter and more honest than an awful lot of progressives. Of solid personal character, this frugal New Englander grew up respecting the hard-earned property of others. He believed that the strength of America was not in its politicians and bureaucrats. Once, as Governor of Massachusetts, he asserted,

In a free republic a great government is the product of a great people. They will look to themselves rather than government for success. The destiny, the greatness, of America lies around the hearthstone… Look well to the hearthstone; therein all hope for America lies.

Progressives don’t like Calvin Coolidge because they know it wasn’t the government’s hearthstone he was talking about. It’s as simple as that, so don’t get suckered by the false claim that he or his policies produced calamities. Get to know this good man by reading the truth about him, such as you’ll find in this fine essay by another Cal (Cal Thomas).

Calvin Coolidge. The Great Depression. Association is not causation. Not even close.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is