Calvin Coolidge: Libertarian Hero or Economic Assassin?

In the American right, there has been longing for a fiscal conservative. For years, the most touted example was Ronald Reagan, and although he presided over one of the nation’s largest tax cuts, he ran up major deficits. With the election of President Trump and the implementation of his multiple socially conservative policies, many conservatives have cast away Ronald Regan as their poster-child for a conservative icon. But as far as issues go, neither can hold a candle to the smallest-government libertarian in American history: Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge was born in Vermont in 1872 (ironically, the same state as the current democratic-socialist Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders). His father was a farmer, small business-owner and politician. Tragically, his mother died when he was only twelve years old. For college, Coolidge moved to Amherst in Massachusetts, then went on to open up a law firm in 1898. Seven years later, he married Grace Goodhue, a talkative social butterfly. She was an incredible contrast to Coolidge’s notoriously quiet and serious demeanour. Eventually, he started running for public office while branding himself as a progressive Republican. He quickly moved up through local government, the Massachusetts state legislature, and eventually was elected Governor. By today’s standard, one would think a progressive Republican from Massachusetts would be radically leftist, after all, Massachusetts is one of the most far-left states. However, over a hundred years ago, a progressive was not someone who advocated for transgender rights or the Green New Deal, but someone who fought for woman’s suffrage and the civil rights of people of colour. Nevertheless, they also saw a bigger and more powerful government as a means of producing this society. So how did Coolidge become both a libertarian hero and a “progressive Republican”?

As stated earlier, he was notoriously restrained: both in personality and in government action. He believed it was progressive to restrain the government from restricting the liberty of others’ access to civil rights. This stood in stark contrast to a stream of previous progressive Presidents who sought to expand the reach and size of government as much as possible, such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. In spite of his silent personality, Coolidge was chosen to be the Vice President of the Republican Nominee, Warren Harding, for the 1920 Presidential race. In a twist of fate, his opponent — James Cox — had chosen the polar opposite to be his Vice President: the one and only Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In that election, Harding and Coolidge won. Although Harding did have a very conservative administration, his corrupt practices got ahead of him in what is known as “The Teapot Dome Scandal.” In the midst of members right and left of Harding being found riddled with corruption, Harding died. Yes, just like that. He died.

Luckily for the country’s sake, Coolidge was not found to be corrupt and was supposed to succeed the President anyway. After Harding’s death in August, 1923, Coolidge finished Harding’s term and ran for a full term in 1924 and didn’t bother seeking re-election. But what was the Coolidge administration like? Again, it cannot be restated enough, Coolidge believed in as little government action as possible, in virtually all areas of life. In a speech, he once said, “Government extravagance is not only contrary to the whole teaching of our Constitution but violates the fundamental conceptions and the very genius of American institutions.” But how much did he enact this belief?

As for policy, Coolidge still held too many old-time progressive ideals. On civil rights, he accomplished much for his time. During the height of the Jim Crow era, where government-sanctioned racial discrimination laws were prevalent, Coolidge didn’t appoint any member of the Ku Klux Klan to government or the judiciary, even though some Senators and Judges held strong ties to it. He also helped pass several anti-lynching laws. It should be no wonder that during the election of 1924, historian John Berry estimated that “well over 90% of northern blacks voted Republican.” In addition, he supported child labour laws and women’s rights, making the first female appointment to the federal judiciary whilst giving Native Americans citizenship. He also fought in the most contested battle of freedom during the era: prohibition. Coolidge wasn’t known to be a major drinker, but as far as public policy goes, he was a bit of a mixed bag.

On foreign policy, he refused to recognise the new Soviet Union. Also, much to the delight of modern-day libertarians, he refused to join the League of Nations. Overall, he attempted to have America do as little as possible in foreign affairs. His economic policies really did reflect the libertarian Laissez-Faire philosophy. Even to this day, he has been the only Republican in the past 100 years to have a surplus budget in any year, and the only President to have had one every year he served. Compared to now, almost no federal regulations were in place. Coolidge cut taxes, and unashamedly fought against farm subsidies (a major issue at the time). In fact, perhaps Coolidge’s only fall from the libertarian’s grace is that he did favour tariffs to protect American manufacturing. But this was one of the major sources of revenue for the United States government and had been the biggest until the income tax was instituted in 1913.

Like his policy, Coolidge was a man of restraint. His nickname, ‘Silent Cal’, was given for a good reason. At a party, a woman once proclaimed that she had accepted a bet that she could get him to say three words. He curtly replied: “you lose.” During some periods of his Presidency, he would sleep for eleven hours and work only four hours a day. Some of that time was spent staring out of his window counting the cars that drove by. He would also hide in his office, then hit the emergency buzzer and see how long it took for the guards to find him.

As light-hearted the President might have seemed, he did not have a joyous presidency. While his son, Calvin Jr., was playing tennis without socks, he got a blister that became infected and shortly resulted in his death. He was 16 years old. As this happened during the election year, Coolidge barely bothered to campaign. He still won overwhelmingly, but carrying out the duties of his Presidency was clearly painful. In his own autobiography, he wrote that once his son had died, “the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.” Coolidge died of a broken man barely more than three years after leaving the Presidency at the age of sixty.

President Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Coolidge in the Oval Office and claimed he was his favourite President. Perhaps Coolidge did inspire Reagan on many issues, but other than that, there are few traces of Coolidge’s administration today. Because he was so restrained on enacting legislation, we have few reminders of his presence, unlike Presidents who used the government to take action and left strong impressions generations after they left office. Lincoln’s victory over the South, Wilson creating the Federal Reserve, FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s Great Society all serve as living reminders of their legacies well after their deaths. But in Coolidge’s case, the conspicuous absence of grand schemes is what serves as a reminder of his brilliant legacy.

Till this day, there is still a great debate on what caused the Great Depression, and how much Coolidge was responsible for it. Those who oppose capitalism see him as the obvious culprit. However, some economists credit tariffs to be the principal reason for the Great Depression, and since Coolidge did not remove them, he could be held partly responsible. Although most of the blame ought to fall on his Secretary of Commerce and successor: Herbert Hoover. Hoover was very much an interventionist in the economy and even expanded the tariffs by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

But what does this mean for us today? For one, it proves that there is no such thing as perfection or purity. As much as the American libertarian right would like to dream of a world without tariffs or silly government bans like prohibition, Coolidge was the best example of a libertarian President. But he also lived at a time when there was little government to restrain anyway. The United States was not entangled in virtually every region of the world, so there was little need to remove itself. There was no massive social safety net, nor sprawling government bureaucracy. Seven departments existed in the Executive Branch during Coolidge’s time and eight have been added since, not to mention so many government agencies within those departments: the government itself isn’t sure how many are there.

Although Coolidge was not perfect, he probably knew he couldn’t be. Perhaps that’s what made Coolidge so restraining. He knew he couldn’t do everything or be everyone. He simply did the best he could and allowed history to decide his fate. As all of us should.


Alex Madajian

Alex Madajian self-taught learner and a bibliophile. After deciding California wasn't big enough, he resettled in the DC area. He has worked as a journalist on Capital hill and now is a weekly contributor "The Fourth Estate"

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