Silent Cal: A Genuine Conservative

Author- Kenny Zeng

Calvin Coolidge or simply Silent Cal served as the thirtieth president of the United States. He served from August 3rd of 1923 to March the 4th of 1929. Born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont in 1872, he is the only president in American history to be born on July 4th. At the same time, he also presided during the decade of the Roaring Twenties, in which the American economy experienced enormous economic growth. Inventions such as the radio and the washing machine emerged at this time, which helped to ease the lives of Americans. At the same time, Coolidge tends to be one of those prominent leaders which Americans tend to forget. Unfortunately, historians tend to forget the significant role that Silent Cal and his administration played that contributed to ushering the boom. More precisely, historians tend to look up to former presidents who accomplished more in their tenure, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  At the same time, progressive historians, in particular, tend to place the blame on Coolidge for the economic calamity that would result in the 1930s. Specifically, when historians attempt to rank presidents, Silent Cal does not seem to make the top ten list as one of the greatest presidents in American history. However, this article shall explore and argue how particular policies of the Coolidge administration, helped to represent the embodiment that conservatives and libertarians conform to today. Furthermore, this article shall demonstrate why Coolidge should be considered one of the best conservative presidents in American history.

During the United States presidential election of 1920, the American people elected Warren G. Harding, who served from 1921-1923 as the twenty-ninth president. During his presidency, which lasted from 1921-1923, Harding’s victory signaled to the American people that an era of conservatism has arrived at the nation. Specifically, Harding stated in the Republican National Convention in 1920, “We must stabilize and strive for normalcy, else the inevitable reaction will bring its train of sufferings, disappointments and reversals.”[1] At the same time, once Harding assumed office in 1921, the nation experienced a depression, which lasted from 1920-21. More precisely, economists like Milton Friedman argued that the monetary policy set by the Wilson administration sparked this temporary depression. The Wilson administration created the Federal Reserve in 1913, which consisted of a private central banking system that controlled the supply of money in the economy.  However, once Harding assumed office, he applied libertarian principles to attack this crisis. Simply put, he strongly advocated that the federal government should not intervene in the economy. Harding firmly believed in a limited government, where the government should not resolve economic malaise, as in contrast to future presidents, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the Harding presidency continued after the mini- depression, he continued to govern the nation with these sets of principles. Unfortunately, on August 2nd, of 1923, Harding suffered from cardiac problems after his recent trip to the West and Alaska and died. Following Harding’s death, Coolidge’s father, who served as a justice of the peace in Vermont, swore his son in, over the family bible and he assumed the office of the presidency.

Once Calvin Coolidge assumed the office of the president, he had a set of conservative principles that he sought to implement, especially taxes. Coolidge wanted to finish the agenda that Harding laid out for the nation. When Harding and Coolidge won the presidential election of 1920, the lame duck Wilson raised the top marginal tax rate to 70%.[2] However, President Harding urged the Congress to lower the marginal tax rates from 73% in the year 1920 to 56% in 1923.[3] At the same time, Coolidge also urged the Congress to reduce the marginal tax rate further than Harding. He lowered it to 25%, which is even lower than Ronald Reagan, who cut the tax rate to 28%.[4] Conservatives often credited Reagan for actually reducing the marginal tax rate to 28%. At the same time, they tend to ignore Coolidge’s accomplishments. Working closely with Coolidge, his Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who served from March 9, 1921 – to February 12, 1932, persuaded Coolidge to cut taxes and spending. As Coolidge stated to the Congress

To the Congress of the United States:

It had been my earnest hope that a 25 per cent reduction in taxes to be paid for the current year might be provided by law before the 15th of March current. The taxpayers, the business interests, agriculture, industry, finance; in fact all the elements that go to make up the economic welfare of the people of America would be greatly benefited by such action. It would remove an element of uncertainty from the current financial year at once, which would be a strong stimulant to business, with its resultant benefit to the wage earner and the agriculture of our country. It is impossible to see that any harm could accrue from this action, and there is every prospect of resulting benefits which would be very great. It would be a positive step in the right direction, which is much needed at this time to justify the confidence of the people that the Government is intent solely on the promotion of the public welfare, without regard to any collateral objects.[5]

 

Therefore, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1926, which lowered the marginal income tax to 25%. As a result, Mellon has argued successfully that the government received more revenue after the tax cuts than the previous fiscal years.[6] At the same time, Coolidge and Mellon’s conservative fiscal policy also helped to inspire the Reagan administration 56 years later to follow in the footsteps of Coolidge. Coolidge argued that once the government lowered the marginal income tax rates for all Americans, the government would be able to acquire more revenue. At the same time, in order to achieve a surplus for the nation, the federal government would have to curtail government spending as well drastically.

Furthermore, another conservative principle that Coolidge implemented included curtailing government spending. Following the First World War, the national debt shot up to $27 billion dollars.[7] However, once Coolidge assumed the office of the presidency, he outlined his vision for cutting government spending massively. As Coolidge stated in his Address to the Congress,

We have met this evening to take counsel together for the purpose of securing greater efficiency in government by the application of the principles of constructive economy, in order that there may be a reduction of the burden of taxation now borne by the American people. The object sought is not merely a cutting down of public expenditures. That is only the means. he indirect beneficiaries are all the rest of the American people, who must and do make an indirect contribution to the payment of the enormous sum of more than $10,000,000 every day in the year which goes out from the National Treasury. This is nothing more or less than a restriction upon the freedom of the people.[8]

 

As Amity Shlaes argued, once Coolidge left office, the federal government and the debt shrunk to pre- First World War levels.[9]  He cut various departments, specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs by 24%.  Also, Coolidge continued to curtail massive spending for infrastructure, in particular to highways. In the year 1924, the federal government spent $92 million dollars on roads, and they only spent $80 million by 1929, which is a 13% cut. [10] Therefore, as one can deduce here, Coolidge here strongly argued and implemented successfully that the government cannot spend the money of taxpayers more efficient than the individual themselves. Rather, the economy would continue to grow and prosper if the government would refrain from squandering the money recklessly from taxpayers. Coolidge’s policies set the foundation for conservative politics.

Furthermore, another conservative principle that Coolidge adhered in his presidency included curtailing the growth of federal government. More precisely, during the Roaring Twenties, Progressives, in particular, advocated that the federal government should grow the state. For example, Progressives argued that the federal government should provide pensions to World War I veterans. However, at the same time, Coolidge’s perseverance to limit the growth of government set a precedent for conservative politicians to follow.  Coolidge stated to the Senate,

To the Senate:

I am returning herewith Senate bill 5, “An act granting pensions and increase of pensions to certain soldiers and sailors of the Civil and Mexican Wars, and to certain widows, former widows, minor children, and helpless children of said soldiers and sailors, and to widows of the War of 1812, and to certain Indian war veterans and widows, and to certain Spanish. For the next fiscal year the effect of this act will be to take an additional $58,000,000 of the moneys paid by the taxpayers of the nation and add it to the pension checks of the veterans of the wars from 1812 to 1902 and their widows and dependents. This is the effect for the first year; but the burden upon the taxpayers will continue for many years to come. No conditions exist which justify the imposition of this additional burden upon the taxpayers of the nation.[11]

In other words, Coolidge also successfully resisted the demands from the Progressives, where they primarily argued that the growth of the government would improve the lives of its citizens. However, as Coolidge demonstrated as president, the government cannot spend the money of taxpayers better than individual Americans themselves. The American government tends to misallocate the revenues that they obtain from taxes. Therefore, as one can conclude here, Coolidge’s resilience to resist the Progressives’ demand helped to grow the economy and limit the government during his presidency.

 

In conclusion, contrary to the Progressives’ thinking, Coolidge’s administration has demonstrated successfully that the nation can still prosper. More precisely, even if the government adhered to a laissez-faire doctrine, where the government limited its role and followed policies that favored the free market, the economy can still thrive while at the same time preserving liberty. Although Coolidge encountered critics in his presidency, his will and tenacity to follow the conservative doctrine should symbolize to all conservatives that his policies helped to make the nation prosper. In other words, rather than following the tradition of the neoconservatives like Reagan, or those who want to expand the power of the state; genuine conservatives like Rand Paul of Kentucky, Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky should emulate Coolidge’s doctrine. Conservatives ideally advocate for a form of a limited government and argue that individuals should be free to make their own decisions, rather than the Washington bureaucrats running their lives for them.

[1] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=76198

[2] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 222.

[3] https://fee.org/articles/the-strange-presidency-of-warren-g-harding/

[4] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge, 6.

[5] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=126445

[6] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge, 264.

[7] Ibid., 3.

[8] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=406

[9] Amity Shlaes, Coolidge, 6.

[10] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/calvin-coolidge-transformed-the-economy-can-we-2013-11-08

[11] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=126463

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