Of America’s 46 presidents, only one shares a birthday with the country itself—and he was a mighty fine one at that. Calvin Coolidge, our 30th, was born on July 4, 1872. In the summer of 2023, we will note the centennial of his assuming the presidency but it’s never too soon or too late to celebrate this remarkable man.
Earlier this year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute published a beautiful new edition of The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, providing present-day readers an opportunity to get reacquainted with him. The book is accompanied with a timeline of Coolidge’s life and accomplishments, commentaries by two relatives of the president and a former Vermont governor, several of Coolidge’s speeches, and an Introduction by editors Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart. All these components blend to reveal a man of more sophistication in his thinking than he is usually credited with.
Today’s advocates of the spendthrift nanny state dismiss this practitioner of small government as a simple man of even simpler times. His wisdom, however, demonstrates the crucial difference between simple and simplistic.
In their Introduction, Shlaes and Denhart suggest that those who underestimate Coolidge usually do not understand him, nor do they appreciate the depth and breadth of what he had to say:
Coolidge’s restraint did not come out of weakness. The restraint reflected discipline, which is why those who like Coolidge call him the Great Refrainer. Today Americans expect presidents to charge ahead, waving multipoint plans to address the issues confronting their people. Coolidge knew what the Framers knew: that there exist many problems the government cannot solve, and there is much an executive should not attempt. The principles Coolidge recognized as key—civility, bipartisanship, federalism, government thrift, and respect for enterprise and religious faith—are ones many Americans long to see revived. These principles come straight from the Founders and served as the basis for our civilization long before that.
Do not count me among those who “expect presidents to charge ahead” as if they possess the knowledge to plan an economy or as if the rest of us could afford it anyway. Presidents put their pants on one leg at a time. As a rule, if they think of themselves as “great,” they are far from it. Coolidge was smart and humble enough to never fall for such delusions. In his words,
It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.
It is simple to appreciate one’s limitations and the limitations of government. It is simplistic to think they can be tossed to the wind if you are in charge because you’re somehow special.
Coolidge was not dumb enough to believe that passing laws, and piling them sky-high on top of previous ones, was a magic formula for national success. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he once wrote.
Scrutinizing proposed laws for their flaws and stopping stupid or destructive ones is simple if your principles are solid. Repealing nothing, and passing almost anything that expands government, is simplistic; in fact, it is what political simpletons do.
Going a step further, Coolidge demonstrated that he understood what good law really is. It is not a purely man-made concoction to keep one group happy at the expense of others. Good law, he believed, should follow from timeless truths of justice, sound economics, and honest dealing.
As he put it himself in a message to the Massachusetts senate,
Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness.
The notion that law should be more than whim or deceit is a simple but profound concept when you are grounded, as Coolidge was, in a commitment to truth. But if you think the good of the country is synonymous with partisan advantage, lying to get your way, or bankrupting future generations, you are simplistic at best.
On fiscal matters, Coolidge embraced a simple truth: It’s not the government’s money, it’s the people’s, and the government should treat the people’s money with utmost respect. “I am for economy,” he once said, and then added for reinforcement, “After that I am for more economy.” In his March 1925 Inaugural Address, he elaborated:
I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
During his tenure in the White House (1923-1929), Coolidge’s policies cut tax rates by two-thirds and reduced the national debt by one-third. The budget was balanced every year. Federal spending was lower when he left office than when he entered it. That is the last time that has ever happened. If you are tempted to dismiss him as simple, I’d like to see you try to accomplish that same feat today.
In 1920, the year he was elected Vice-President on the Republican ticket with Warren Harding, Coolidge expressed a view that would characterize his policies later as President:
Our government belongs to the people. Our property belongs to the people…They own it. The taxes are paid by the people. They bear the burden. The benefits of government must accrue to the people. Not to one class, but to all classes, to all the people. The functions, the power, the sovereignty of the government, must be kept where they have been placed by the Constitution and laws of the people.
The most simplistic policies are those that treat other people’s money as if it were trash, throwing it thoughtlessly by the trillions at problems (as well as non-problems) that look more like pet partisan projects than money well-spent.
Years before economist F. A. Hayek would famously write, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design,” Coolidge already knew it. He did not rise to office with grandiose plans to “fundamentally transform” other people’s lives. His plan was simple—to do his job as prescribed by the Constitution. He made no simplistic pretense to anything more.
Some might charge, “But didn’t the Great Depression start soon after Coolidge left office?” as if association is causation. To blame Coolidge for the Depression is worse than simplistic (see recommended readings below); it’s precisely wrong. The calamity of the 1930s was prompted by the “wise” and “sophisticated” money managers at the Federal Reserve, and then worsened by the interventions of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. It was a calamity of simplistic elitists.
When faced with a choice between simple and simplistic, you will usually benefit from the former and regret the latter. Give me a simple Coolidge over a pretentious, free-spending, snake-oil salesman any day of the week.
Happy birthday, Calvin Coolidge (and America too)! As icing on the birthday cake, I close with a few additional remarks from our 30th President:
Self-government means self-support. Man is born into the universe with a personality that is his own. He has a right that is founded upon the constitution of the universe to have property that is his own. Ultimately, property rights and personal rights are the same thing. The one cannot be preserved if the other be violated. Each man is entitled to his rights and the rewards of his service be they never so large or never so small.
The attempt to regulate, control and prescribe all manner of conduct and social relations is very old. It was always the practice of primitive peoples. Such governments assumed jurisdiction over the action, property, life, and even religious convictions of their citizens down to the minutest detail. A large part of the history of free institutions is the history of the people struggling to emancipate themselves from all this bondage.
There is no magic in government not possessed by the public at large by which these things can be done. The people cannot divest themselves of their really great burdens by undertaking to provide that they shall hereafter be borne by the government.
It is characteristic of the unlearned that they are forever proposing something which is old, and because it has recently come to their own attention, supposing it to be new.
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. 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 cannot 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. 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 a time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more "modern," but more ancient than those of our Revolutionary ancestors.
For additional information, see:
Calvin Coolidge’s Inaugural Address Warned of the Dangers of Legalized Larceny by Lawrence W. Reed
Cal and the Big Cal-Amity by Lawrence W. Reed
Sometimes, Contested Conventions Get It Right by Lawrence W. Reed
Clinton Vs. Cleveland and Coolidge on Taxes by Lawrence W. Reed
He Was a President Who Understood Principle by Jake Yonally.
Two Presidents, Two Philosophies, and Two Different Outcomes by Burton W. Folsom
Great Myths of the Great Depression by Lawrence W. Reed
Media are Still Peddling One of the Great Myths of the Great Depression by Lawrence W. Reed