University of Colorado at Colorado Assistant Professor of Political Science Springs Joseph Postell makes the case for Calvin Coolidge as the greatest conservative president ever, in the February issue of Townhall Magazine.
Presidents’ Day offers us an opportunity to learn from the examples of great presidents who offer guidance for today’s challenges. For conservatives, the most important president to re-examine is Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was the most effective, most eloquent, and most conservative American president since the Civil War. And his ideas have a great deal of meaning for us today.
Rather than provide a general overview of his political philosophy, this article will focus on two of Coolidge’s ideas that are profoundly relevant to today’s political issues: Coolidge’s defense of representative government and strong political parties, and his emphasis on equality and natural rights, including his actions on civil rights. In both of these areas Coolidge’s words offer great wisdom for considering the way forward for conservatives today.
AN UNPARALLELED RECORD OF LIMITING GOVERNMENT
Upon inspection, Coolidge’s policy record would make any conservative giddy if implemented today. True, Coolidge was not a free-trader, and he favored a national rather than a state-and-local solution to the problems of child labor. Still, on the whole, Coolidge’s record on federal taxing and spending dwarfs the accomplishments of great conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan.
America emerged from World War I with massive debt and a severe depression. Unemployment was 11.7 percent in 1921, and the debt had increased from $1.5 billion in 1916 to $24 billion in 1919. Warren Harding (Coolidge’s predecessor) and Coolidge went to work and quickly turned things around. From 1921-1924 annual federal spending was reduced by a remarkable 43 percent, from $5.1 billion to $2.4 billion (That’s not a misprint: a 43 percent reduction in federal spending!).
Tax measures passed in 1921, 1924, and 1926 reduced the top marginal income tax rate from 73 percent to 24 percent (Again, not a misprint). Such reductions in income tax rates are unimaginable today.
Thanks to his fiscal conservatism, Coolidge was able to reduce tax rates and still reduce the national debt by almost a third, from $24 billion to $16.9 billion. Much of this work was accomplished by the Bureau of the Budget, which imposed extensive cost savings in government. The Bureau’s director would check employees’ desks for excessive use of stationery, paper clips, and other supplies, and one official report proposed that government employees be given “only one pencil at a time and not receive a new one until the unused stub was returned.” Quite a far cry from the management of federal agencies today.
Given these accomplishments, it is surprising that Coolidge has been neglected by historians. Compared to many of the more highly-ranked presidents in historians’ rankings, Coolidge’s administration was far more peaceful and consequential. Coolidge’s policy achievements on taxes and federal spending were predicated upon, not a substitute for, his core political principles. In other words, to learn from Coolidge, we have to revise our understanding of what politics is about. We cannot define conservatism by the policies we think are best in this particular moment. Rather, we must define the policies we think are best as those which flow from the principles of conservatism. Policies follow from principles, not vice versa. To understand what Coolidge has to teach us, we must understand the principles that served as the foundation for his actions.
STRONG POLITICAL PARTIES AND REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT
The most significant feature of American politics today is the chasm that divides our government officials and the resulting failure of our government to achieve meaningful progress on the looming fiscal issues that threaten our generation and future generations. The conventional wisdom is to blame the politicians. This is the easy way out, since it involves blaming someone other than ourselves.
The fact is that we, not our politicians, are to blame. Our elected representatives, now more than ever, are held accountable by a system of hyper-democracy where a single misstep can doom a career. During the 1950s, political histories have shown, politicians were giants on Capitol Hill. They wielded immense power. This power was often abused, but politicians were also able to exercise discretion, to work with opponents to make compromises, and had fewer incentives to sling mud. Today, our representatives are little more than mirrors of the most rabid and best organized constituencies powerful enough to hold them hostage. Political contests are now about power and mobilization, not cooperation and compromise.
Coolidge and his other Republican counterparts of the early 20th century (particularly President Taft) would be unsurprised at our present fate. They watched as America was transformed from a representative system with strong political parties to a system of direct democracy. They noted the ills that came with direct democracy, and argued that our political system would be fatally wounded by the demise of strong parties. They were right. Today, as we think about the best way to get things done, we need to consider the wisdom of a system that has strong political parties.
PROGRESSIVE POPULARITY CONTESTS
While a student at Amherst College, Coolidge fell under the tutelage of Anson D. Morse, a history professor who instilled in him an abiding affection for the virtues of political parties. Parties, Morse believed, played an essential role in any well-functioning democracy. Without them a representative democracy would descend into a mass of disorganized opinions and candidate-centered elections that would serve as little more than personality contests. Voters would decide on likability and sound bites marketed as widely as possible, rather than attachment to parties as collective organizations that represented clear principles.
Following Morse’s teaching, Coolidge consistently defended representative government and the role of parties in our system. During his career Progressives worked to destroy the power of political parties, which had come to dominate American government during the late 19th century. In place of representative government through party leadership, Progressives pushed for direct democracy and politicians who built personal organizations rather than worked through party channels. They pushed for reforms such as the referendum, recall, and direct primaries, all of which undermined the traditional understanding of a representative who would “refine and enlarge the public views,” as James Madison explained in “Federalist No. 10.”
The Progressives succeeded in imple- menting their agenda, and the rise of direct democracy created candidates and office-holders who were independent of their parties. While they remained affili- ated with a party, they were not beholden to party leaders for support, and so they acted independently of the party’s lead- ership. Instead, they followed their own political ideas, and more importantly, they became more beholden to new sources of support: organized interest groups and mobilized constituencies back home. The result of this was to pre- vent deliberation and compromise: when a representative’s job is merely to follow the will of those constituencies which are most essential to re-election and most effectively mobilized, a representative can- not make concessions to political opposition in order to get (in Ronald Reagan’s phrase) “half a loaf ” rather than nothing at all. In short, the effect of direct democracy as initiated by the Progressives was to produce individualized candidates rather than party cohesion, mobilization rather than compromise, and the use of force rather than argument to win political battles.
Coolidge understood this tendency, and he denounced it vehemently. As he wrote in 1920, “We have had too much legislating by clamor, by tumult, by pressure. Representative government ceases when outside influence of any kind is substituted for the judgment of the representative.” While he was quick to point out that “[t]his does not mean that the opinion of constituents is to be ignored,” he was adamant that representatives needed to have the freedom to work through their parties, to deliberate, and even to make compromises rather than constantly be held to the fire by angry constituents. As Coolidge argued, “The binding obligation of obedience against personal desire is denied in many quarters. If these doctrines prevail all organized government, all liberty, all security are at an end. Force alone will prevail.”
Coolidge’s indictment of direct de- mocracy as opposed to representative government through party organizations is one of the most significant lessons we can apply to our situation today. Much of the paralysis, the snark, and the incivil- ity in Washington today can be traced directly to the decline of political par- ties in American politics. Without party leadership, there can be no deliberation, no conference, no compromise, and no true representation. The Progressives re- defined the rules of the game, and today both sides are forced to play by the new code. But as Coolidge warned, though we might win temporary victories through the use of direct democracy, the long- term health of our Constitution will be in jeopardy.
NATURAL RIGHTS AND EQUALITY
Arguably Coolidge’s most important contribution to American conservatism is found in his statements on equality and natural rights. Of all our presidents since Abraham Lincoln, Coolidge was the staunchest defender of the natural rights enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. In his two greatest speeches, titled “The Inspiration of the Declaration” and “The Price of Freedom,” Coolidge laid out the basic logic of the Declaration of Independence, a logic which served as the core of his own political philosophy.
As he explained in “The Price of Freedom,” both religious teachings and the teachings of political philosophy (such as those of John Locke) gave the Founders the idea of “the divine origin of mankind.”
“From this conception,” Coolidge con- tinued, “there resulted the recognition that freedom was a birthright. It was the natural and inalienable condition of be- ings who were created ‘a little lower than the angels.’ With it went the principle of equality, not an equality of possessions, not an equality of degree, but an equality in the attributes of humanity, an equality of kind. Each is possessed of the divine power to know the truth.”
In this concise and eloquent statement, Coolidge set forth his own political philosophy and the philosophy of American conservatism. Why is there a basic equality among all human beings? Because we are all created “a little lower than the angels.” Not one of us is so great, so wise, so powerful, that we have a right to rule other people. But we also have something that sets us apart as human: “Each is possessed of the divine power to know the truth.”
So all human beings are fundamentally equal, because they are less than angels, but have certain attributes that animals do not have. This is the basic equality of human nature to which Coolidge refers. This means that we have a fundamental equality not of possessions, but an equality of natural rights. We have an equality of rights as the starting point for our pursuit of happiness, not an equality of outcomes.
THE PARTY OF CIVIL RIGHTS
Directly related to Coolidge’s defense of equality and natural rights was his admirable record on race. It surprises many today to hear that the Republican Party was the party of civil rights prior to the New Deal, and that the GOP commanded substantial majorities from the African-American community during the Coolidge years.
The reason is uncomplicated. The Republicans believed strongly in the principles of equal rights and individual liberty. Their counterparts either clung to neo-Confederate principles denying the soundness of the Declaration of Independence, or subscribed to a Progressive philosophy which denied the existence of natural rights altogether. It was Woodrow Wilson who approved explicitly of the introduction of segregation in the Treasury Department and the Post Office during his administration. When Democratic majorities in Congress passed laws banning interracial marriage in Washington, D.C., Wilson signed the legislation.
By contrast, Republicans such as Coolidge and Harding openly advocated the passage of anti-lynching legislation at the national level, arguing that, if anything, the 14th Amendment’s “Equal Protection Clause” allowed the national government to intervene when local officials deliberately failed to grant basic protections to an entire race of people. Harding even went to Birmingham, Alabama in 1921 to deliver a speech condemning lynching and calling for racial harmony. Both Coolidge and Harding pressed for the creation of commissions to help bridge the divide between the races, although Congress failed to go along on either the anti- lynching legislation or the commission proposals.
Coolidge also adamantly opposed the segregation of the civil service that Wilson had inaugurated, personally intervening in several instances where departments (such as the Interior Department) attempted to segregate workers. Sadly, the rise of “classified” or career bureaucrats reduced Coolidge’s influence in many agencies, and he was unable to eradicate segregation entirely.
Coolidge’s actions on civil rights flowed from his conviction that America was a land based on equality of rights and individual liberty. As he said in a dedication of a statute to Swedish immigrant John Ericsson, “As we do not recognize any inferior races, so we do not recognize any superior races. We stand on an equality of rights and of opportunity, each deriving honor from his own worth and accomplishments.” Thus, Coolidge refused to define individuals by their membership in a particular race or class. This was a message of hope for the African-American community, that their government would protect their equal opportunity to pursue their own happiness rather than treat them as a member of a segregated group.
Coolidge also practiced what he preached. During a conversation with his secret service agent Edmund Starling, Starling referred to the White House butler, Arthur Brooks, as a “fine, colored gentleman.” Coolidge immediately replied: “Brooks is not a colored gentleman. He is a gentleman.”
Coolidge’s emphasis on the natural rights philosophy of our Declaration of Independence is a crucial source of inspiration for conservatives seeking the alternative to our present approach to race relations. Just as important, it is central to any attempt by conservatives to re-engage minorities. The message of hope in the quest for true equality lies within our founding principles and documents, not in the inner recesses of centralized administrative agencies.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONSERVATIVE
In short, Coolidge was not a great president because he solved a crisis by taking leadership of the entire American political system. Coolidge and other constitutional conservatives like him did not believe it was a good thing to consolidate all political power in one person. A system of self-government, they argued, was incompatible with such an expansive conception of leadership. To crown a president the leader of the government would be equivalent to ending collective self-government of the people and by the people.
Part of Coolidge’s greatness, therefore, is that he was a restrained president, conforming to checks and balances and the rule of law, without being aloof from the people. Though he would likely have won a second full term in office in 1928, he declined to run. His reasoning was simple: “We draw our presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.” He did not envision a president as someone who stood above the people, godlike, towering over them. He came from the people, and returned quietly to engage in self-government alongside them.
Coolidge, our only president born on the Fourth of July, represents the spirit of America and therefore of American conservatism. No president in the 20th century more eloquently defended the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No president advanced policies that fit with those ideas more effectively. Coolidge’s words, and his example, offer fitting lessons on how we should approach the challenges of today. •
Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is the co- editor of Toward an American Conservatism: Constitutional Conservatism during the Progressive Era, which explores the political ideas of conservatives such as William Howard Taft and Calvin Coolidge.