Why Coolidge Matters: an Interview with Charles C. Johnson

There are a couple of Coolidge books out there right now. How is the Coolidge you describe different than their Coolidge, particularly Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes? Who was closer to the mark, and why?

Having read Amity’s book, I think she tried to write a history of the 1920s more than she was interested in Coolidge’s political thought, which is unfortunate, because I think Coolidge’s views are timely even today and that the 1920s seem very remote to Americans living in 2013.

My more substantive complaint with her book is that she looks at what she perceives as the libertarian fruits of his political policies without really looking seriously at the political philosophy that underlay them. There’s no mention of his Whiggish understanding of history and no real insight into Coolidge the man. It seems as if she has read the New Deal historians who claimed Coolidge did nothing, and put a libertarian gloss on it. Whereas they condemn Coolidge for “doing nothing,” Amity praises Coolidge for “doing nothing,” comparing him, one time, to a windsurfer.

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.

Other times, Amity’s book is silent on key issues. There’s nary a mention of the Immigration Act of 1924 or the tariff. I believe that authors, particularly biographers, have to offer a compelling defense of the thought of their subjects, even when they personally disagree.

All that said, I’m in favor of there being as much competition as possible on Coolidge and a general free market. It’s good for consumers and I appreciate the sort of work that Amity does even if I don’t always agree with its conclusions.

You portray Coolidge as a progressive of a unique sort, not in the Teddy Roosevelt model, but another way. How?

Coolidge’s central insight is the continuing importance of the Declaration of Independence in our politics. This was a conscious appeal to the more Lincolnian understanding of American life: “that all men are created equal,” which he considered a final proposition from which there could be no progress because that was, as he put, the culmination of man coming into his own.

Coolidge saw the Declaration as both a product of the Enlightenment as well as a religious document. He reasoned from Garman that as we have a common God in God the Father, so we are brothers and therefore only republican government is possible.

And so, he was against any form of supremacism — be it government unions, which he considered a conflict of interest, or racism and eugenics, which he considered denial of the self-evident truth that all are created equal.

For him, the more republican we make our politics, the better. He believed in equality before the law above all else.

Or, put another way: that progress need not be progressive. Aristotle, for example, thought that the human sciences evolved but that the nature of man would remain forever fixed. That is not something that today’s progressives have fully embraced if they have even understood it.

As Coolidge put it, no political party can succeed if it isn’t at some level progressive. The question is what is our vision of progress. I would contend that we should embrace Coolidge’s view of the Declaration’s promise of natural equality and republican self-government.