Straddling the centuries

Calvin Coolidge has been described as “the last of the 19th century presidents”, because he construed the power and role of the presidency in a much more limited way than any president that followed him, as well as several 20th century presidents preceding him, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

As historian Richard Norton Smith has commented, 19th century (or, more precisely, gilded age) presidents are generally held in low esteem by that majority of historians that tend to lionize the more actively constructive type of presidency. Indeed, as Smith observes, the major “offence” of 19th century presidents is their refusal to act like 20th century presidents!

Arguably, though, the position taken by Coolidge and his “fellow 19th century presidents” is closer to the constitutional intentions of the founders, to whom the very idea of presidential leadership as it is widely understood and even demanded today, would be alien. The actual sea change in public attituted toward presidential leadership occurred with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt who saw in the Constitution an enabling document rather than a limiting one.

Thus we have, in the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, the final flowering of the bottom-up, democratic ideal of the rule of laws, not men. The founders, recognizing the over-reaching and ambitious nature of men, sought to limit the role of the presidency. Recent decades have seen the office grow in importance and ambition, with the all the attendant risks.

Coolidge had it right when said, “it is a great advantage to a president, and a great source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.”

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