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Rule of Law

Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson

May 24th, 2013 - 11:17 am

Gilbert_Stuart_Portrait_of_William_Shepard

Your book describes Coolidge’s admiration of General William Shepard. Tell the readers who he was and his part in the long tradition of self-sacrifice to preserve the Rule of Law.

William Shepard was an “illustrious son of Westfield,” who had put down the insurrection of Shays’ rebellion. General Shepard, much beloved by some for defending Massachusetts “at all hazards,” feared that Shays’ 1400 men would use the weapons within the Arsenal to lay waste to the countryside. He feared that once armed, they would be difficult to stop. The men had encircled the Arsenal and stood ready to attack it as they prepared a siege of the already poorly equipped Shepard. Shepard, awaiting General Lincoln from the Continental Army, knew he could not afford to wait longer. Shepard ordered his men to fire at “waistband height,” successfully defending the Springfield armory with cannon fire, killing two instantly and wounding over twenty more with shot by ordering his men to strike at their waists with “grape shot.” The insurgents quickly broke their assault on the armory and fled.

Coolidge’s invocation of him and decision to speak before a group honoring him can only be seen through a political prism, coming as it did in the context of the police strike of 1919. Coolidge saw much to admire in him. To protect law and order, General Shepard, with a local unpaid militia of some 900 men, lacking either food or adequate arms, had disobeyed an order from Secretary of War Knox denying him permission to use the weaponry at the Springfield armory as Congress was not in session and so could not authorize taking the arms. Shepard, reaching the armory before Shays, took the arms anyways, and restored order, but it was not without personal cost to Shepard, who died much poorer.

For Coolidge, the political legacy of Shepard was evident: Here was a patriot who had freely given of himself so that his “ancient town” could have an “establishment of liberty, under an ordered form of government” by the “people themselves.” “When we turn to the life of her patriot son,” Coolidge told the Westfield crowd on the town’s 250th anniversary, “we see that [Shepard] no less grandly illustrated the principle, that to such government, so established, the people owe an allegiance which has the binding power of the most solemn obligation.” Just as Shepard rejected Shays’ mob, so too would Coolidge reject the mob of a general strike because it was Coolidge’s “solemn obligation” to uphold the law.

Coolidge was president soon after the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment brought the direct election of senators. Did he see this as a good or bad thing and why?

Coolidge supported the direct elections of senators in his early career, though as I argue it ultimately hurt his foreign policy to have senators so dependent on fickle public opinion rather than on state legislators for their support.

While Professor Ralph Rossum has shown in his book Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment: The Irony of Constitutional Democracy that it had an unintended consequence related to federalism by essentially making the states just another interest group to contend with, rather than relying on their input through the state legislations.

I’ve always thought that it’s possible in the age of Tammany Hall and machine politics that while the Seventeenth Amendment was destructive of federalism, it might have made things more republican. For example, when the first direct elections for U.S. senators were held in ’14, progressive candidates were defeated in droves.

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"The truth is something that Reagan noticed and applauded — that Coolidge did quite a lot and that he did it by standing up for constitutional, limited government and that this view of government is ultimately at odds with the small government, libertarian views that Amity presents."

Yes. Thank you.

There is a great deal of a difference between a Constitutionalist and a Libertarian. Especially when it comes to State matters.
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