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Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson

If Coolidge was right, that character, education and religion are necessary for the nation to survive and the principles of the Rule of Law and individual freedom to prosper, how could he possibly be happy about what is happening in America today?

I’m not so sure he would be, especially when you add to that the fact that local government is a den of corruption. In fairness, though, so many of these problems were also alive and well in Coolidge’s day as well. Civilization seems to be a constant struggle.

The Obama administration is characterized by twisting (or disregarding) the law that Congress has passed to achieve ideological ends. For example, the Justice Department has brought cases twisting gender discrimination law to allow for middle school boys to dress in drag and has waged a totally unsuccessful war against peaceful prolife protesters. What would Coolidge think of the executive self-legislating and what were his views on the job of the executive branch?

Coolidge very much believed in the separation of powers and in what we might call the unitary executive theory today. He understood that the division of powers between those who make the laws and those who execute them is an essential part of the development of republican constitutional governance. He knew that the separation of powers had its origins in the English Civil War, when pamphleteers called for disentangling the executive from the legislative authority in hopes of diminishing the arbitrary power of the king. These early republicans, who included Paradise Lost author John Milton in their company, sought to guarantee the stability of their envisioned republic by separating those who made the laws from those who executed them.

“Our Constitution has raised certain barriers against too hasty change,” he said. “I believe such a provision is wise,” Coolidge continued. “I doubt if there has been any change that has ever really been desired by the people which they have not been able to secure. Stability of government is a very important asset. If amendment is made easy, both revolution and reaction, as well as orderly progress, also become easy.”

Considering what sort of President Coolidge was, it’s no surprise that the leftists in the ivory tower of academia have treated him badly. What are some of the familiar attacks they’ve used to reconstruct the Coolidge narrative over the years?

One of the biggest slurs against Coolidge is that he was somehow responsible for the Great Depression. The presidents who put the “great” in “Great Depression” were Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Coolidge, though he was a Republican like Hoover, disliked him immensely. He criticized Hoover’s “socialistic notions” of government in his post-presidential column, as well as dismissively referring to him as a “wonder boy” and saying “for six years that man has offered me unsolicited advice, all of it bad.”

The recession of 1920 was, in fact, more pronounced than the crash of ’29. The Harding-Coolidge ticket essentially did nothing, cut the size of government and taxes, and we got the roaring 1920, where average incomes increased 33%. Many Americans wanted Coolidge to run in 1928 and even in 1932. He remained popular and there was a widespread belief that he could end the Depression were he to run again. When asked about running to end the depression, he said that running again would be the beginning of his depression!

Describe Coolidge and his approach toward racial issues of the 1920s, including lynching and the Klan’s power in politics of the '20s.

Coolidge was perhaps the 20th century’s first civil rights president, an honor that was only recently just noted by Kurt L. Schmoke, vice president and general counsel at Howard University. Coolidge thought of blacks, Native Americans, and women as full and equal citizens because he believed in the natural equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. He thought that as these groups had partaken of the duties of self-government, they were entitled to full rights and privileges.

These two quotations best express his point of view and really speak for themselves:

“The American theory of society is founded in part on this condition. It asserts the equality of men. That means equality of kind. All are endowed with the same kind of mind, for it is mind alone that makes man, the capacity to know the truth. That capacity, once it comes into being, does not change. It is the same now as at the dawn of its creation, however it was created.”

“There should be no favorites and no outcasts; no race or religious prejudices in government. America opposes special privileges for any body and favors equal opportunity for every body.… As a plain matter of expediency, the white man cannot be protected and as a plain matter of right…justice is justice for everybody.”

Did Coolidge subscribe to the eugenics movement of the time embrace by Democrats like Woodrow Wilson or did he subscribe to the Christian view of mankind?

The Republican platform of 1920 explicitly supported eugenics, but Coolidge did not, because it was impossible, he said, to measure the “possibilities of human soul.” “It is not only what men know but what they are disposed to with that which they know that will determine the rise and fall of civilization.” The Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest was also similarly flawed, Coolidge suggested, for it was not through survival but through sacrifice that republics revealed their best men. Coolidge believed that as we had a common Father in God we were all brothers and that the only form of government that was possible was self-government in a republic.

Are Coolidge and Reagan the two great Republican defenders and admirers of the principles in the Declaration of Independence in the 20th century?

Coolidge and Reagan both understood that America had a special purpose in the world.

“We must always remember that America is a missionary country, and I do not limit that word to its religious sense,” Coolidge said when accepting the nomination for the vice presidency. This missionary sense came from America’s founding, in which she was conceived as a “new power destined to preserve and extend the rights of mankind.” As such, her people “are not without justification in assuming [she] has been called into existence to establish, to maintain, to defend, and to extend that principle,” as he told an audience of black veterans.

The Coolidge influence ran deep with Reagan. Clark Judge, a Reagan speechwriter, had told me that “it seemed as if we were quoting Coolidge every day.”