10 Reasons to Love 'Silent Cal'
This week’s Historiat post focused on Calvin Coolidge’s deft use of the radio, at that time a new medium of mass communication, to reach the American people. While doing research for the post it quickly became apparent to me that Silent Cal is one of the most understudied presidents in American history, on par with the likes of Grover Cleveland, Chester Arthur, or Rutherford Hayes. Here are 10 Reasons to Love Silent Cal:
10. He was a small government conservative, which is probably why he doesn’t get a lot of attention from historians, who lean overwhelmingly to the left of the political spectrum. Small government conservatives avoid crazy world wars and expansive, expensive federal policies that attempt to remake American society into a utopian image. Often, they are elected to clean up the messes made by predecessors who tried to use their power to fight major wars and remake American society. Coolidge was one such example of a small government republican foisted into the role of president in order to clean up the mess made by a big government ideologue.
9. Fought against racism. Silent Cal spoke out often against the chronic racism of the South and its party, the Democrats. Lynching had gotten so bad in the 1920s that the Republican Party made anti-lynching legislation part of its platform in the early part of the 20th century. Coolidge tried to push through anti-lynching legislation that would make that heinous act a federal crime, but as an executive there was not a whole lot he could do about it except use his bully pulpit (which he did, and often). He used his bully pulpit (and the new medium of radio) to speak out in favor of racial equality and against the white supremacist ideology that dominated the South and the Democratic Party at the time. Kurt Schmoke, the President of the University of Baltimore, has a great, short essay on Coolidge’s fight against the K.K.K. during his presidency.
8. A true constitutional federalist. Coolidge’s anti-lynching stance is all the more remarkable because he was, by and large, a man who sought to keep the federal government limited. The lynchings were so heinous, however, that Coolidge and other Republicans believed federal legislation was necessary to fight the Klan. America’s 30th president was far more careful when it came to other kinds of federal legislation, though. Coolidge vetoed several bills given to him by Congress, including a spending bill that would have given World War I veterans significantly more money thanks to a budget surplus (Coolidge’s veto was overridden). Coolidge also routinely vetoed farm subsidies, and at one point deigned to remind the American people that “farmers have never made much money,” and “I do not believe we can do much about it.” In five years Coolidge vetoed 50 bills (music to a libertarian’s ears).
7. Coolidge was quiet, and quite against Washington social life. Ever wonder where Coolidge got his nickname “Silent Cal”? It wasn’t until he got to Washington, as vice president to Warren Harding, that Coolidge became known as Silent Cal. Apparently the socialites who invited him and his lovely wife to parties thought he was odd because of his silence, and mockingly nicknamed him Silent Cal. For Coolidge, though, the nickname was a badge of honor. In the world we live in today, where bombasts and outright demagogues grab all the headlines, Coolidge’s words are all the more important: “The words of a President have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” If only today’s political class had as much respect for history and power as Coolidge.
6. Foreign policy. Republicans were elected back into the presidency after Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous campaign to make the republic into a world power. Part of the Republican platform called for the U.S. to stay out of the newly created League of Nations, and Coolidge did just that. While not opposed to the idea of a League of some sort, Coolidge did not think the League of Nations as it was constructed would serve American interests. Coolidge was not an isolationist, though. Instead, he harkened back to an earlier era, and focused on maintaining consistency in regards to the Monroe Doctrine. The Coolidge administration recognized a new revolutionary government in Mexico, established a police force in the Dominican Republic, and continued to occupy both Nicaragua and Haiti. Coolidge’s only foreign visit during his presidency was to Havana (ninety miles off the coast of American soil), which marked the last time an American president would visit the island until Barack Obama did so in 2016. Many historians give Coolidge low marks for his foreign policy, arguing that he did too little, and as a result contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe and East Asia. The reality, though, is that Coolidge had a sophisticated, constitutionally focused, tradition-based understanding of international relations, and placing the blame of fascism’s rise on Coolidge and other Republicans instead of on Woodrow Wilson, who sought to make the world safe for democracy by destroying three old, multi-ethnic empires and replacing them with democratic polities, is disingenuous (at best).
5. Native Americans. Coolidge and other Republicans were not content with fighting anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. In June of 1924, Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, which gave all Native Americans living on reservations American citizenship. This was no small feat, as just a generation before Americans and Indians were engaged in a brutal struggle for control of the lands west of the Mississippi, and few Americans thought that Indians deserved to have equal political status with whites. With one simple, quiet stroke, Coolidge took a big step towards equalizing the three American races that Tocqueville did such a good job describing in 1835.
4. A team player. Coolidge did not like Herbert Hoover, but he refrained from publicly criticizing him. In an age where loyalty and cooperation are viewed as weaknesses, especially in the realm of politics, Coolidge’s team mentality was refreshing. Coolidge was such a good team player, in fact, that he went to bat for Hoover during his run for presidency in 1929. Coolidge’s sophisticated small government republicanism clashed mightily with Hoover’s vulgar technocratic utopianism, but the Republican Party’s commitment to ending the racism of the Democrats held the two clashing ideologies together throughout Coolidge’s one full term and both of Hoover’s runs for president. Without Coolidge’s public support for Hoover, it is unlikely that the republic would have made as much progress as it did in regards to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.
3. Stepped down after one term. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who continued to seek the power of the presidency long after its burdens affected his health, Coolidge chose to look after himself and his family after his first full term in office, and refused to seek a second term. When GOP operatives came calling for him in 1932, after Hoover’s disastrous term was nearing its end, Coolidge politely declined to run again. Clearly, Coolidge’s presidency was not about power, and his refusal to re-enter politics after a full term as president speaks volumes about his sophisticated small government republicanism. (One a somewhat related note, don’t forget to check out “10 Dictators Who Gave Up Power” here at RealClearHistory.)
2. Immigration. At odds with the rest of his anti-racist administration, Coolidge’s immigration policy was his weakest link. Although he was not opposed to immigration personally, and although he used the bully pulpit to speak out in favor of treating immigrants with respect and dignity, Coolidge was a party man, and the GOP was the party of immigration quotas in the 1920s. Reluctantly, and with public reservations, Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, which significantly limited immigration into the United States up until the mid-1960s, when new legislation overturned the law.
1. Debt. Under the Coolidge administration, the federal debt was significantly reduced (by about one-quarter), even though the Republicans inherited a $22.3 billion deficit from the disaster that was World War I. Coolidge remained the last president to put a significant dent into the federal deficit until Bill Clinton came along in the 1990s. While not terribly exciting or sexy, the reduction in federal debt is probably the most important contribution that Calvin Coolidge made, as President of the United States, to the republic. In an age where Democrats and Republicans spend and spend and spend, the administration of Calvin Coolidge continues to look better and better.
Coolidge does not get the attention of historians the way Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt do, but there are a number of studies dedicated to America’s 30th president. Three books on Coolidge worth reading are Robert Sobell’s Coolidge: An American Enigma (2015), Robert Ferrell’s The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), and Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge (2014).
Have a good weekend.