Calvin Coolidge, Dr. Benjamin Carson, and Us

In Coolidge, her elegant and engrossing biography of the 30th president, Amity Shlaes writes that perhaps the deepest reason for Coolidge’s recent obscurity is that he “spoke a different economic language from ours”:

He did not say “money supply”; he said “credit.” … He did not say “private sector”; he said “commerce.” He did not say “savings”; he said “thrift” or “economy.” … Coolidge at the end of his life spoke anxiously about the “importance of the obvious.” Perseverance, property rights, contract, civility to one’s opponents, silence, smaller government, trust, certainty, restraint, respect for faith, federalism, economy, and thrift: these Coolidge ideals intrigue us today as well.

Coolidge spoke in concise language about character, culture, and religion, all of which he considered we needed more than bigger government:

We do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are not seen.

Back in 1924, when the first biography of Coolidge appeared, it was prominently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. The reviewer thought the author’s claim that Coolidge’s speech to the Massachusetts Senate as its president had been quoted as often as any in American history other than Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was an exaggeration; but that “if the speech has not been quoted as often as [the author] thinks it has, it deserves to be.” Parts of that speech, he wrote, “ought to be in every American citizen’s Bible.” He singled out this paragraph:

Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a standpatter, but don’t be a standpatter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.

Fast forward nearly a century, to the February 17, 2013 review of Coolidge in the New York Times Book Review, which treated the book as part of an attempt to “resurrect” Coolidge as a “prophet” of an “austere doctrine” of “Republican Calvinism,” with a “liturgy” based on Coolidge’s belief that the federal government should shrink, not grow.

The use of the religious imagery was not intended as complimentary. The reviewer asserted that Coolidge’s “actual record” shows he was “an extraordinarily blinkered and foolish and complacent leader” who is “no model for the present,” but rather “a bleak omen from the past.”

Coolidge’s “actual record”: he inherited a national debt of $28 billion and reduced it to less than $18 billion; he cut the top income tax rate to 25% while balancing the budget and producing surpluses each year; and unemployment was reduced from 5.7 million at the beginning of the decade to 1.8 million when he left office. The economy became popularly known as the “Coolidge prosperity.”

As actual records go, that is not too bad -- particularly compared to more recent ones.