The dog that did not bark – a new look at presidential greatness

A new study on presidential greatness revisits some of the ground that has been covered in this blog. While authors David Henderson and Zachary Gochenour use data that have been utilized before, most prominently by Dean K. Simonton, they add the new variable of American lives lost during a president’s tenure. The main finding is that this variable is a strong predictor of presidential greatness – as ranked by historians. I’ll report in more detail, especially as I take issue with some of the older variables, but here is a telling excerpt that features our own favorite president:

(…) historians do tend to think a president is greater if, all other things equal, he has made “tough” decisions. Tough decisions often involve getting the United States into costly wars or, if other countries’ governments have initiated, not avoiding wars. Consider, for example, the following quote from law professor John O. McGinnis: “To be sure, Coolidge was not a truly great president, like Washington or Lincoln. While he successfully handled small foreign policy crises in China, Mexico, and Nicaragua without saddling the United States with permanent and expensive commitments, he was never tested by a substantial foreign war.”

McGinnis is a law professor, not an historian, but the tone of these remarks is similar to that of many historians. McGinnis judges Coolidge negatively because he was never “tested” by substantial foreign wars, rather than positively for having kept the United States out of major wars. McGinnis and many historians commit the mistake highlighted by 19th century economic journalist Frederic Bastiat of not paying attention to “what is not seen.” In this case the unseen is the wars that various presidents could have inserted the United States into but didn’t. Or, to take an analogy, when a president avoids war, it is like the clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze:” the clue was that the dog didn’t bark. It takes a clever man like Holmes to realize that the dog’s not barking is what’s important. It takes an historian different from the usual to realize that a president’s decisions that helped make a war not happen are also evidence of leadership and greatness.

As Zachary Karabell, biographer of president Chester A. Arthur has written: “Presidents who govern during a time of calm and prosperity often suffer the barbs of history. They are remembered as bland.” This indeed troubling. As the authors of the new study conclude:

Most presidents, after all, probably want to be thought of as great. When they spend resources on war, they are spending almost entirely other people’s money – and lives. They get little credit for avoiding war. Martin van Buren, for example, effectively avoided a war on the northern border of the United States. How many people know that today? Indeed, how many people have even heard of Martin van Buren? (…) We should stop celebrating, and try to stop historians from celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn’t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted.

If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.


Causes and Cures of War

President Coolidge standing with Mrs. Coolidge and representatives of women's organizations, 1925

Having fought for and won passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, in 1924 women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt turned her attention to world peace and convinced nine of the then leading national U.S. women’s oganizations of the need for a conference on the cause and cure of war. The Committee on the Cause and Cure of War was founded at a meeting in Washington in 1925. Catt served as chair until 1932, and as honorary chair thereafter.
The CCCW was composed of organizations of educated women who attempted to understand the causes of war, rather than protest against it. They wrote letters to members of Congress, gave lectures, and organized petitions and study groups known as “Round Tables.” In 1940, the CCCW changed its name to the Women’s Action Committee for Victory and Lasting Peace, which after World War II became the Committee on Education for Lasting Peace. Its “General Information” sheet stated that the “problem of the peace movement is less to overcome outspoken and convinced opposition than to arouse inert masses of people to a sense of responsibility for the elimination of war.”
The original CCCW was composed of the following women’s organizations: American Association of University Women, Council of Women for Home Missions, Federation of Woman’s Boards of Foreign Missions, General Federation of Women’s Clubs, National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association, National Council of Jewish Women, National League of Women Voters, National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the National Women’s Trade Union League. In 1940 the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the National Women’s Conference of the American Ethical Union became members.
Catt was active in anti-war causes during the 1920s and 1930s. Following Hitler’s rise to power, she organized the Protest Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany; she also campaigned to ease immigration laws in order to ease Jews’ access to refuge in the U.S. Catt died at age 88 in 1947.
I am aware that one should not read too much into photographs such as the one accompanying this post and depicting president and Mrs. Coolidge standing with representatives of the women’s organizations at the time of the CCCW’s founding in 1925; still, I’d like to think that the peaceable cause of these women struck a chord with Calvin Coolidge, who was definitely one of the least military-minded of presidents. Notably, he also was a proponent of women’s suffrage.
Note: I THINK but am not sure that Mrs. Catt is standing at Mrs. Coolidge’s right in the photo.