A champion of the people

Mellon (front row left) seated with president Coolidge (front row center) and Chief Justic Taft (front row 2nd from right) at a 1927 Smithsonian regents' meeting

Mellon (front row left) seated with Secretary of State Kellogg (2nd from left), President Coolidge (front row center) and Chief Justice Taft (front row 2nd from right) at a 1927 Smithsonian regents’ meeting. Looks like someone didn’t get the dress code memo! (thanks to reader T.S. Schurk for that observation)


I’m piggybacking here (and a few days late at that) on another excellent blog post by the always enjoyable Burt Folsom. Next to Calvin Coolidge, there is hardly a politician dearer to my heart than Andrew Mellon (ol’  Andy Mellon, as Coolidge is supposed to have referred to him; not to his face, one assumes). Folsom neatly and briefly encapsulates Mellon’s accomplishments; for anyone interested in the full account, the substantial biography by David Cannadine is highly recommended. Taxation to Mellon was “the people’s business” and with the full support of presidents Harding and Coolidge, he strove to reduce the tax burden on all except the very rich while reducing the onerous debt burden left over from WWI. There is some poignancy in that Mellon’s life, while outwardly a huge success story, was tinged with failure and sadness on the personal and relationship levels – and, as Folsom mentions, the final years of his life were marred by the politically motivated campaign waged against him by FDR. He deserves to be remembered with respect and admiration.

Dinner politics

Harlan Fiske Stone


In a fascinating though biased piece at http://www.dailybeast.com, Jonathan Alter speculates that a conversation over dinner in 1934 may have played a part as a precursor to last week’s momentous Supreme Court turnaround on Obamacare. Apparently, FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, was worried (as was her boss), that the Court might invalidate many of the previous decade’s New Deal schemes, such as the NRA. President Coolidge’s only Supreme Court appointee and fellow Amherst alumnus Harlan F. Stone assuaged Perkins’ fears over dinner, stating in effect that anything framed as a tax fell under the broad taxing powers of the government and would be upheld.

Although Frances Perkins went to FDR and swore him to secrecy on the advance opinion from the court, the president and his administration were heartened by Stone’s view as it moved forward with what would become the most sweeping social program in American history. Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act)  is the completion of the all-encompassing insurance coverage that Roosevelt envisioned when he launched Social Security. By reaffirming its constitutionality in terms of the government’s taxing power, the 5-4 majority opinion of the Roberts court follows in the footsteps of Justice Stone, who was rewarded by FDR with the post of Chief Justice when it opened up in 1941.

Standing athwart history

In pushing through parts of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly told one wavering congressman, “I hope you will not permit doubts as to constitutionality, however reasonable, to block the suggested legislation.”

Even if not literally accurate, this statement does accurately condense, in the proverbial nutshell, the mindset that liberals and progressives had regarding the Constitution – which continues even down to this day (read on after the jump):

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Chester Arthur, anyone?

The good folks at Vanity Fair/60 Minutes (now there’s a pairing) give us (in October, mind you) their December 2011 poll; unfortunately, they give no clues as to the selection process by which they arrived at the five choices of former presidents, leaving the scientific credentials of this “poll” somewhat in doubt. Now, we’ll never know if there is a groundswell of support for a zombie Calvin Coolidge (note the Halloween topicality here) to take the reins. Anyway, there seems to be a recency effect at work; while some people actually do remember those halcyon Reagan years, few if any Americans living today were also around during William Henry Harrison’s short-lived presidency. 😉

Sinful Caesar sipped his snifter

100 bonus points for anyone who recognizes the classic “Singin’ In The Rain” as the source for the just barely appropriate headline! It continues “…seized his knees and sneezed.”

Presidential greatness has been a subject on this blog quite a number of times. It does not take a genius to discern that the reason for this is that our favorite man Calvin Coolidge rarely (ok, never) is mentioned among the “great” presidents. And the reason for that is clear as well – the commonly used criteria for greatness (management of great crises, preferably wars, or the expansion of governmental reach into the lives of citizens) have been cleverly framed so as to exclude Mr. Coolidge. I have approvingly quoted Gene Healy and others who have questioned the very concept of whether presidents are supposed to be “great” and I’m pleased to see at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website today another article that questions the greatness of two presidents perpetually jostling for prominence at the top of “great presidents” lists. Lincoln and FDR violated the Constitution in so many ways and created unconstitutional precedents on such a scale that author John V. Denson rightly labels them American Caesars, and while some neocons may take this to be a compliment, it is not intended as one. Writing from Germany as I am, I’m seeing our own administration and parliament embark on such reckless and dangerous actions in the name of “necessity” or of “saving Europe” that I would like to hurl at them the William Pitt quote: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”

Calvin Coolidge had a deep respect for the Constitution and consulted it to determine the proper course of action. He did not read between its lines and he did not freely interpret its meaning to make it mean what he wished it to. He refrained from acting on stock market speculation because of several reasons, but one was that he felt the stock markets were a matter for the states to handle. He was under popular pressure to lead the U.S. into war with Mexico but instead expressly instructed his ambassador Dwight Morrow to “keep us out of war.” The man obviously had no idea what it takes to be considered great!  In my humble view, this least Caesarean, least imperial of presidents is a clear candidate for the upper ranks of presidential greatness. But then I’m biased.

A pair of strange White House guests

In an interesting photo dated Sep. 26, 1924, president and Mrs. Coolidge are standing in front of the Executive Office Building with two somewhat incongruous guests – Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

The Coolidges with Mother Jones and Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.

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Calvin Coolidge – an appreciation

Calvin Coolidge

Reacting to the momentous event of his being sworn in as president following the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge deadpanned “I believe I can swing it.” In the minds of his contemporaries, he did indeed swing it, but in the intervening decades, most historians have frowned on the Republican. Several times over the last half-century, the father-son duo of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. have asked their fellow professors to rank America’s chief executives. These academics always deem Coolidge “below average”–in other words, they think he’s about as accomplished as the dithering Millard Fillmore. Cool Cal didn’t do much better in a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 “distinguished historians”; they placed him immediately behind Jimmy Carter. In the 1997 Ridings-McIver survey of historians and former politicians, Coolidge came in at number 33, right below Richard Nixon. It may be said that he was unfairly treated by historians almost from the day he left office.

Yet Coolidge deserves better. Continue reading

Contrast Coolidge, not Hoover, with FDR

With several partisan plans for budget austerity on the table, and with the budget situation shaping up as one of the main issues in the upcoming presidential campaign, the anti-austerity faction has been busy hauling the tar barrel out of the garage and trying to tar the GOP in particular with the image and memory of Herbert Hoover – you know, that laissez-faire guy who sat on his hands in the White House while the country slid ever more deeply into the recession.

Never mind that this is a caricature of Hoover that gets everything wrong. Robert Murphy, in an incisive post over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, neatly uses the liberal pundits’ own words to discredit the point they are trying to make. It really is one of the more irksome yet persistent myths of American history that Hoover was a free-market ideologue who sat out the onset of the Great Depression – in fact, he was the most interventionist chief executive outside of war up to that time, and FDR merely extended and expanded Hoover’s interventionist agenda.

Coolidge and Harding are the two presidents whose policies provide a sharp contrast to those of both Hoover and FDR. It is a matter of conjecture what Calvin Coolidge would have done differently, had he been in office when the depression set in. If his life story, his philosophy, and his actions as chief executive are any guide, it is reasonable to assume that he would have stayed pat and attempted to steer the country through a brief albeit severe recession as Harding had done in 1920/21. There really is no way of knowing whether this would have worked better than the Hoover/FDR policies, other than the undisputable fact that these latter policies demonstrably did not work and the country was not lifted out of the depression until WWII.

Finally: remember that Coolidge had no great love for Hoover and famously remarked that “that man has given me nothing but unsolicited advice, all of it bad.”

Inactive presidents

It’s always fascinating to see, courtesy of WordPress, the search terms that lead people to this site. Today, I note that someone typed in “why were the 1920s presidents considered so inactive?” which led her or him to this blog.

I only have the briefest of moments to begin commenting on this question today and hope to flesh it out a little more in the near future. The charge of “inactivity”, leveled against any president, is usually based on a very expansive view of the role of the presidency. Presidents, in this view, should be the movers and shapers of the national agenda in a proactive way.

It should be noted that this expanded view of the powers of the presidency goes far beyond what the Constitution’s framers had in mind. The last thing they intended for the presidency to be was a carbon copy of the British monarchy, and thus they circumscribed a very limited set of powers and competencies for the “chief magistrate.”

Harding was elected by a landslide in 1920 on a platform of “normalcy” which he rightly understood as a mandate to get the government off the backs of the people and not burden them with any more progressive schemes. Coolidge followed that policy, and saw it as his mandate to stand, as William F. Buckley later said in a different context, athwart history yelling “Stop!”

In 1926, Walter Lippmann described Coolidge as having mastered the “technique of anti-propaganda” by reducing public interest in government, by deflating enthusiasm for ambitious programs, projects, and political dreams coming from Washington. The Democrats and Progressives of his time worked hard to whip up passions for policies, programs, for politics generally—but Coolidge managed to take the wind out of those schemes:

“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly. Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to detail, with such conscientious devotion to the task. Inactivity is a political philosophy and a party program with Mr. Coolidge, and nobody should mistake his unflinching adherence to it for the soft and easy desire to let things slide. Mr. Coolidge’s inactivity is not merely the absence of activity. It is on the contrary a steady application to the task of neutralizing and thwarting political activity wherever there are signs of life.”

Progressives of his day and historians of today may decry and belittle Coolidge’s penchant for inactivity, but it gave the country a much-needed respite between the progressive experiments unleashed by presidents Wilson and FDR, respectively. It is more than a little ironic that anyone aiming to emulate Coolidge today would need to do a lot more than merely being stubbornly inactive – he (or she) would need to actively roll back the progressive accomplishments of the past 80-some years.

Presidential greatness reconsidered

While it is of course far too early to even consider the question of whether or not Barack Obama will turn out to be a great president, a mediocre one, or perhaps even a failed one, the very fact that the public and the pundits have saddled him -as they have every recent president- with the responsibility of solving all great and small ills of the nation does not bode well for a vision of limited and constitutional government.

In the sense that mainstream historians -who generally are of a left- liberal persuasion- favor activist, visionary presidents who sought power to make far-reaching changes, he certainly appears to be on the right track to join the exalted ranks of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wilson and, yes, George W. Bush, who bent or ignored constitutional limitations and vastly expanded presidential power.

Scholars such as Robert Higgs, Gene Healy, John V. Denson and Ivan Eland have written about how rankings of presidential greatness are all but turned on their heads once constitutional considerations are factored in, that is, when it is taken into account how faithfully each chief executive fulfilled his oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.

Higgs, for one, asserts, that by this standard, no president since 1932 and arguably since 1896 has been true to his oath of office.  About Calvin Coolidge, he writes: “Of the presidents since Cleveland, I rank Coolidge the highest. He sponsored sharp tax cuts and greatly reduced the national debt. As Mencken wrote, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was no nuisance” – high praise in view of the many execrable men who have served as president during the twentieth century.”

The fact that “he had no ideas” sounds almost derogatory to our modern ears, whether or not it was meant that way by the author, is telling: the populace expects, nay demands sweeping vision and grandiose, transformatory dreams from the president. The very idea that someone might simply “do the day’s work”, in Coolidge’s words, is nearly alien to us now.

In truth, Coolidge was close to the founders’ ideal of a president, for the people who ratified the original Constitution never intended the presidency to be a vastly powerful office occupied by “great men”. A meager four paragraphs comprise Article II, sections 2 – 4 which enumerate the powers of the president. Indeed, the presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial position whose occupant would limit himself to enforcing federal laws. Gradually, over time, massively during Lincoln’s and FDR’s presidencies and then progressively during the 20th century, presidents seized more and more power. This trend is not likely to be overturned as long as “elites and masses alike look to the president to perform supernatural feats and therefore tolerate a virtually unlimited exercise of presidential power” (Robert Higgs).