New Coolidge bio – the reviews keep coming in

Just a quick share of the Wall Street Journal’s new and glowing review of Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge biography.

And here is the review in Forbes.

Here’s Gene Healy at

A Vermont review in the Burlington Free Press – thanks Doug Gladstone for alerting me to his fine review!

USA Today with a fine review.

The review over at The Economist.

The NYT weighs in here.

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.

Captain EO

Gene Healy has an interesting column this week in the Washington Examiner, focusing on presidential abuse of the Executive Order (EO) pen. Apparently, Teddy Roosevelt was an early addict of that Constitution-bending tool, and Healy highlights several other egregious uses by presidents of both parties leading up to the present; he also speculates that president Obama may be tempted to use it more frequently given the makeup of the Congress following the midterm elections.

I assume that Calvin Coolidge also gave in to the temptation of bypassing Congress with one stroke of the pen, although I’d like to think he did so sparely and reluctantly. Perhaps one of my discerning readers knows more?

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.

Continue reading

Free e-book… for a limited time only

Just a quick note to alert y’all to the limited-time-only offer of a free e-book or pdf download of the complete Gene Healy book,  “The Cult of the Presidency” at the Cato Institute website (a  $ 15.95 value).

This is a fantastic book that details the shocking development and growth of executive power far beyond its original constitutional limits. In my own view (can’t yet say if Gene Healy bears me out), Calvin Coolidge was the last president to be aware of and feel constrained by those constitutional limits. And I’ll use this opportunity to also hype Gene’s own blog, where he offers “punditry by the pound” 🙂  (but doesn’t update frequently…the last entry is from Oct.  2009)

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).