On January 28, 1929 – just a few weeks before leaving the White House – Calvin Coolidge spoke at the 16th and, as it turned out, last meeting of the Business Organization of the Government. Looking back on 8 years of reining in a government structure “permeated with extravagance”, the president listed the stunning accomplishments, chief among them the unprecedented reduction in the national debt and the concurrent tax reductions. Beyond mere statistics, the speech clearly shows that this project was Coolidge’s major opus, the cornerstone of what he wanted to accomplish in office and what he intended to leave as his legacy. Yes, it must have rankled sometimes to be accused by some of “considering nothing but the material side of life” or charged with “advocating a penurious and cheeseparing policy.” But ultimately, having inserted “a golden page in our history,” this least war-like of presidents was justified in stating that “peace hath its victories no less than war.”
Characteristically, Coolidge cautions near the end of his speech that “the margin between prosperity and depression is very small,” urging continued vigilance against extravagance and waste. Not very much later, that depression really was at hand, and Coolidge’s successors chose to follow policies much different from his. Today, economists and historians debate whether their frantic actions, resulting in a huge expansion of government rather than “constructive economy”, prolonged and worsened rather than shortened the Great Depression. Be that as it may, Coolidge himself later stated that he felt out of touch with these new policies. It is poignant to me to note how proud he must have felt at the time of giving this speech, and how devastating it must have been later, when this proudest of his achievements was dragged down by the Great Depression and indeed his own policies were blamed as causes of the economic downturn.