Coolidge and the 1920s – the last hurrah of the Gilded Age?

The more I begin to read up on the Coolidge era, the more I also see the need to research more deeply into the years and decades preceding it. And my (preliminary) conclusion is that Calvin Coolidge indeed was the last of that breed of presidents who, by virtue of their traditional, narrow constitutional view of the presidency, largely refrained from “embiggening” (to use a Simpsons word) the importance and reach of that office.

With the exception of a few comparatively activist presidents, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln come to mind, that view had been dominant from the inception of the United States. The framers had devoted a lot of discussion to the question of what powers the “chief magistrate” should have, which is only natural as the new nation was about to escape the oppressive rule of the king of England. I’m no constitutional scholar, but if you consult the articles about the president, it is easy to see that an office with the extraordinary powers it has amassed today was far from the framers’ minds.

In the decades following the Civil War, the country had a nearly unbroken string of Republican presidents, none of whom left much of a mark on the office. The single Democratic president, Grover Cleveland (also the only president ever to serve two non-consecutive terms) was to all intents and purposes as conservative as the Republicans. But by the 1890s, progressivism began to rear its head and between then and the end of the Coolidge presidency, there was a tug of war between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. The assassination of president McKinley in 1901 brought the first progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, to accidental power. Re-elected in his own right in 1904, he unleashed a torrent of nature conservancy and trustbusting legislation. The one-term presidency of William Howard Taft was a largely conservative interlude before the two activist (and mostly wartime) terms of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Following WWI, the country was by then tired not only of the war but also to some extent of taxation and government interference necessitated by the war effort, and longed to the return of “normalcy” as promised by Republican Warren Harding. Hardings presidency, better than its reputation but tainted at the end by the Teapot Dome scandal that may actually have hastened the president’s death, was followed by that of Calvin Coolidge – untouched by scandal, and personally as well as philosophically unlikely to pursue any form of aggrandizement, either of his person or of the government.

One instance of where Coolidge’s limited view of the powers conferred on his office by the Constitution came to the fore was near the end of his elected term, when he refused to intervene in countering stock market speculation on the grounds that speculation pertaining to the New York Stock Exchange was strictly a matter of the state of New York. Not for him the “bully pulpit” so dear to Theodore Roosevelt’s heart.

Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, is often (particularly in school textbooks) merely listed as the last of three undistinguished Republican do-nothing presidents of the 1920s. Actually, though, Hoover marked a fairly radical departure from Coolidge. It is worth noting that Hoover cast his first presidential vote in 1912 for Roosevelt’s breakaway Bull Moose Party, and was a top-level functionary in several WWI and post-war relief efforts. An engineer by training, he believed in the superiority of government planning over the unfettered market. One of the first measures he took after assuming office was to call an emergency session of Congress to deal with the crisis in agriculture, something Coolidge would never have done. Thus, Hoover’s is actually in my view the third activist, progressive presidency, following Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Of course, Hoover’s successor FDR steered the country away even more radically from the path of conservatism… and the U.S. has not in fact since that time seen a truly conservative presidency in the sense of one that curtails the powers of its office, making Coolidge the last true conservative to hold the office. Presidents of today, even nominally conservative ones such as George W. Bush, are now expected to be, as Gene Healy points out in his excellent “The Cult of the Presidency” ( see an earlier post for a free download from the Cato Institute), “no mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws, but a soul-toucher, a hope-bringer” charged with “protecting us from harm, growing the economy, spreading democracy, end even to heal spiritual malaise”.

Every evidence we have seen and are seeing points to the fact that governments in general, and presidents in particular, ought not to be charged with these expectations. It may well be that those governments, and those presidents who, like Coolidge, do little and leave individuals to their own devices also do the least harm. It is the central progressivist fallacy that the activities of hundreds of millions of individuals can be planned “top-down”, that insecurity and instability can or even should be controlled. While this may address human wishes and desires, it is above anything else an expression of hubris, of overreaching – and of arrogance on the part of the planning classes.

Thank you for bearing with me – more to follow!

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