Coolidge Cliff Notes

Calvin Coolidge hated the national debt he inherited from his pre-predecessor Woodrow Wilson, it is safe to say. Like Warren Harding before him, he made it the top priority of his administration to sharply reduce the debt, scrimping and saving a couple of million here and there to produce budget surpluses year after year in the process. It also is safe to say that he would be aghast at the fiscal mess the country is in today, a mess caused by Democratic and Republican administrations and Congressional majorities.

While reporting on the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, commentators have chosen to focus on the supposedly catastrophic mix of tax increases and “draconian” spending cuts going over the cliff will entail. Well, I hope I’m not taking too great liberties with his legacy when I say I firmly believe that Calvin Coolidge would be the first to go over the cliff with flags flying, because it is precisely the dose of bitter medicine the U.S. needs to wean itself off profligate spending. Coolidge was no fundamentalist when it came to taxes, and I think he would also be the first to agree that in the present situation selective tax increases will need to be part of the package to reduce the staggering deficit.

So, in closing this blog post and this year, and while we still don’t know if the wheelers and dealers in Washington D.C. will wheel and deal themselves out of going over the cliff (still the likeliest outcome, I’m afraid), I would like to call out to them what I think would be Calvin Coolidge’s and Andrew Mellon’s view – do your job, swallow the pill, go over the cliff, get your fiscal house in order. It may be the best thing to happen to the country in a long time.

Book recommendation “City of Scoundrels”

(don’t click to look inside – link is below in the text)

This not really a book review, as I haven’t read the book yet myself – but if you’re anything like me and enjoy a fascinating historical narrative, I expect you won’t go wrong picking up City of Scoundrels.¬† With a title like that, and the subject matter of Chicago politics, you’d be excused for thinking this is about the early career of President Obama (just kidding!), but it actually is a riveting account of a number of dramatic events that took place in the Windy City in July 1919 (within a mere 12 days, in fact), highlighting¬† the metamorphosis of Chicago from a chaotic boom town into a modern and diverse city. The author, Gary Krist, weaves the diverse events (including a blimp crash over the Loop, race riots, and the abduction and murder of a six-year-old girl) into a captivating narrative set against the backdrop of the great and farsighted Burnham Plan for the city. There is a Coolidge connection: 1919 also was the year of the Boston Police Strike which propelled Coolidge to national prominence. The rivalry between Chicago mayor “Big Bill” William Hale Thompson and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden¬† (the latter was a leading candidate for the GOP nomination in 1920) resulted in Thompson denying Lowden the publicity that he would have received by quelling the riots with help of the state militia. This may have played a part in denying Lowden the insurmountable early lead he would have needed to secure the Republican nomination that ultimately went to Warren Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge. In another Coolidgean footnote, Thompson was among the second-tier candidates for the Republican nomination in 1928.

There is an interesting conversation with the author about the book on

Night of the kerosene lamp

The night from August 2 to August 3 marks the anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s ascendance to the Presidency, which took place in the still of that night in 1923. Far away on the West Coast, in a San Francisco hotel, Warren G. Harding had succumbed to the somewhat mysterious illness that had bedeviled him. Coolidge, who was visiting with his father Colonel John Coolidge in Plymouth Notch, was awakened in the middle of the night, then took the Oath of Office as administered by his father, a notary public – famously by the light of a kerosene lamp. A humble man, Coolidge nevertheless was confident he could “swing it,” as indeed he did.

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.

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A rare NEW Coolidge publication…and website!

Well, lo and behold, the National Notary Association is finally publishing the long-announced essay volume “Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together”, filled with new material from noted Coolidge scholars, among them Amity Shlaes, who is also currently working on a new definitive biography of the 30th president. Why the National Notary Association, you may ask? Apparently, the nation’s notaries are honoring the fact that the candle-lit swearing-in of President Coolidge after the death of his predecessor Harding was performed by his father, a notary public (the ceremony was later reperformed with a different official at the White House, to make sure there was no question as to the constitutional legality). Actually, that is only one reason: the notaries also see a compelling connection between them and Coolidge in his conscientious and selfless conduct. But of course!

Obviously, I’m happy, nay, ecstatic about this publication and its accompanying website offering interesting material (some excellent high-res pictures for instance…I’m downloading a 34 MB (!) picture as I type this). I wonder why the people I contacted at the NNA at least a year ago to get some information about the pending project were unable to help or even get back to me, but all’s well that ends well, I suppose. I can only hope they will be a little more responsive in spreading the good news about this book, which you can order at the NNA website or, of course, from

To me, some of the material on the website appears more than a little questionable, as when the scant section on historical significance characterizes Coolidge as being perceived as bookended between two boisterous and raucous presidents, Harding and Hoover, both of whom were reviled for allowing rampant greed and corruption (my paraphrase). While this is all quite correct concerning Harding, I question whether anyone except the unnamed author would both characterize Hoover as “boisterous and raucous” AND tar him with an undeserved and illusory reputation for corruption. But I fully expect the essays in the book to be on more solid historical ground.

So, excuse me while I hurry to order my copy! I hope this will mark the acceleration of what I think is a trend to reassess the accomplishments and significance of Calvin Coolidge even for our day. And here’s a tip of the hat to the Silent Cal blog, who had it first.

You can see the man was (mostly) serious.