Coolidge’s men: John Garibaldi Sargent

John Garibaldi Sargent

John Garibaldi Sargent was born in Ludlow, Vermont, on October 13, 1860. He graduated from Black River Academy in 1883, a few years before Calvin Coolidge did, and went on to earn a B.A. degree from Tufts College in 1887, and a M.A. in 1912. He studied law in the interim and was admitted to the Vermont bar in 1890. Early in his college years, Sargent became active in the Zeta Psi Kappa Society; through the fraternity’s activities he was introduced to many of Boston’s influential politicians, later including the Coolidges.Sargent joined the firm of Stickney, Sargent & Skeels, then served as State’s attorney in Windsor County, Vermont, until 1900. From 1902 to 1908, he argued the majority of his cases in federal court, and he established a national reputation as a trial lawyer.

In 1908 Sargent was named attorney general of Vermont. While in office, he was involved in one of the leading cases in the history of Vermont’s highest court. In Sabre v. Rutland Railroad Co. (1912), attorneys for the railroad argued that the powers enjoyed by Vermont’s Public Service Commission (which regulated railroads) violated the Vermont Constitution by commingling legislative, executive, and judicial functions. Sargent, arguing for Sabre and the state, disagreed. His position was that the Separation of Powers was only violated when one branch exercised all of the powers of another branch. The court agreed with Sargent and recognized the quasijudicial powers of executive-branch state agencies. The decision led the way for commissions and boards across the country to wield court-like powers.

Sargent came to a prominence he had never sought, because Charles Dawes, Coolidge’s Vice President slept through a tie vote in the Senate.

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The Business Organization of the Government

Incredible as it may seem, procedures for government spending up until the early 1920s were mostly fairly haphazard. The Treasury Department submitted yearly estimates of expenses for all government departments, which resulted in as many as fourteen separate appropriations bills. In 1919, President Wilson had called for the establishment of a national budget system as Congress was separately working on such a proposal, but a compromise worked out between a House and Senate bill was not satisfactory and ultimately vetoed by Wilson.

Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding had the good fortune to secure from Congress a budget measure that gave the president complete authority over all budget matters. Charles  G. Dawes, who had been Harding’s first choice as Secretary of the Treasury, was named as the first ever Commissioner of the Budget. Dawes warned Harding that “you must realize that you are the first president to tackle the job of a coordinated business control over the departments. I doubt if you recognize the strength of the 150 years of archaisms which you must fight.” Nevertheless, Dawes accepted the job, on the proviso that it be for only one year.

Successive budget directors Charles G. Dawes (left) and Herbert M. Lord in 1922

Harding and Dawes inaugurated the Business Organization of the Government, which first met on June 29, 1921. All members of the cabinet and 1200 bureau and divison chiefs met in the auditorium of the Interior Department. Harding told the assembly that “there is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures…we want to reverse things.” With something close to evangelistic fervor, Dawes then spoke for an hour, indicating his specific goal as the removal of “fat” and extravagance from the government. He concluded by requesting all those in the audience upon whom he could depend in this quest to rise – the entire audience rose. Harding later commented that Dawes was the only man he had ever seen who while talking could keep “both feet and both arms in the air at once.”

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Random Coolidge pictures

Admittedly a poor excuse for a blog post, but I’m always pleased to find Coolidge images. All images courtesy of the Digital Collections of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

An almost smiling Coolidge with Vice President Dawes, July 1924

Men in hats: Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge

President Coolidge meeting with the Harding Memorial Association, including secretaries Mellon (seated 2nd from right) and Hoover (seated 2nd from left)

President and Mrs. Coolidge at the circus

Back when Republicans still won Nobel Peace prizes…

These days (or decades), the Nobel committee doesn’t seem to even consider the possibility that Republicans might be deserving the Nobel Peace prize (Ronald Reagan, anyone?), but there was a time when Republicans actually did find favor with the committee. In the early days of the peace prize, it was even granted to the first president Roosevelt, a figure not usually associated with a peaceful approach to politics.

While Calvin Coolidge himself never seriously was in the running for the peace prize, his first vice president Charles G. Dawes was co-recipient of the 1925 prize for his work on the eponymous Dawes Plan, an attempt to find a solution that would allow the collection of war reparations from Germany while at the same time preventing a collapse of the German economy. One criticism of the Peace Prize has been that it usually is awarded for relatively recent achievements (in marked difference to the scientific awards which generally come at the end of long and distinguished careers) so that some awards have been somewhat tarnished by subsequent developments. This is also true for the Dawes Plan which,  while initially successful,  proved to be unsustainable and was abandoned in favor of the Young Plan by 1929.


President Calvin Coolidge and Vice-President Charles G. Dawes

Dawes is an interesting figure, with a long career that included work in banking, the military, and politics. He was not Coolidge’s favorite for the vice-presidential slot in 1924, having been nominated on the third ballot only after Coolidge’s choice, Illinois governor Frank Lowden, declined. In office, the relationship between Coolidge and Dawes, such as it was, started on a low note when Dawes imperiously informed the president by letter that he did not intend to sit in on cabinet meetings. It quickly sank to a new low only days into the new administration, when Dawes, in his function as President of the Senate,  failed to prevent this body’s rejection of Coolidge’s nominee for attorney general, Charles B. Warren, famously opting to take a nap at the Willard Hotel when his presence as a tie-breaker was needed in the Capitol.  Coolidge may have suspected that Dawes’ absence was not entirely accidental, as Warren was a highly controversial nominee. Notwithstanding Warren’s qualifications, his rejection by the Senate is named by some as Coolidge’s most embarrassing political defeat. Dawes later was at cross purposes with Coolidge over the McNary-Haugen farm relief bill, supporting passage of the bill in the Senate. When someone remarked to Coolidge that Dawes seemed to be well liked among farmers, Coolidge replied, “Yes, I have noticed that the McNary-Haugen people have their headquarters in his chambers.” On a positive side, Dawes was helpful in getting the Kellogg-Briand Pact passed in early 1929.

Coolidge biographer McCoy notes that “Dawes (…) would not accept direction from the President, and almost as bad, when his views coincided with Coolidge’s there was the possibility that his work on behalf of Administration measures would hurt them. He was eagerly used by Coolidge’s opponents and resented by many of the President’s allies.”