My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth President of the United States. My selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was served up Coolidge by Amity Shlaes.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
There are several different ways to write a Presidential biography, I’m discovering. One of the popular ways is to write a biography attempting to reform the image of the subject or highlight positives about the subject that others have purportedly understated. Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge is definitely in this category and style of Presidential bio. But she goes well beyond simply trying to show Coolidge was a better President than he is consistently ranked (in the lowest third). She also tries to argue overall for the superiority of his economic policy and continually praises it, with strong hints throughout that it would be the best policy to this day.
Shlaes’s portrait is, moreover, quite personable. She presents us an image of Coolidge, who has come down in history as a kind of standoffish, almost prudish figure. But Shlaes notes his convictions as remaining steady and guiding principles throughout his life. These principles were ingrained in him from childhood. His family was notoriously thrifty, and his father was careful with every penny he spent. This led them to a pride in their own work ethic and the way it spurred on the family’s livelihood. This work ethic was clearly absorbed by Coolidge as the way to live and succeed in life. That would play out going forward at every level of government in which Coolidge participated.
Perhaps the most notable political action of Coolidge’s life was his participation in smashing the efforts by police in Boston to organize a union and strike while he was Governor of Massachusetts. Initially, he tried to apply his conservative principle of letting local leaders deal with the crisis. However, as the mayor of Boston called up National Guard and fired the Police Comissioner, Coolidge stepped in. He reinstated the Police Commissioner and supported the firing of all the striking police immediately. When he received a telegram saying that the Police Commissioner essentially helped cause disorder by refusing to grant rights to the officers who were striking, Coolidge issued a public statement that was received with joy by conservatives across the country. He wrote that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time…” and decisively condemned any action by the striking police. This was during the First Red Scare as Russia and other countries were experiencing revolutionary movements by workers. Because of widespread fear of the communist revolution, any action against laborers of virtually any kind was celebrated by many, and Coolidge’s action propelled him into the national conversation on conservativism. Coolidge’s deliberate action here can be seen as emblematic of his career. While favoring local rule, he ultimately saw his own decision-making as taking precedent in nearly every instance. He would speak to and favor policies that made smaller government in many ways, but when smaller government or local decisions went against what he preferred, he’d take nearly every action at his disposal to overturn those decisions and take things into hand for policies and decisions he favored.
As President, a position he inherited after Warren Harding’s sudden death, Coolidge continued this kind of conservativism. After settling some of the lingering scandals from Harding’s Presidency, he proceeded to cut taxes–including lowering marginal taxes on the wealthiest income brackets by more than 10%. Shlaes celebrates this policy in particular, crediting it with helping to forestall depression of the economy and helping balance out the government budget. Of course, after Coolidge’s Presidency the economy faltered and plummeted. Economic change often takes years to see the long term impact, and while it would be unfair to charge Coolidge’s tax (and other) economic policy with the Great Depression. But to lionize his policy, as Shlaes seems to, as ushering in some brief moment of economic equality and wealth for all is itself a fantasy.
Indeed, the taxation plan of Coolidge celebrated by Shlaes as helping pay down the national debt led to a massive increase in state and local government spending to make up for the lack of federal support. Shlaes pointing out that the federal government collected far more taxes on Coolidges policy of lowering taxes on all does little to highlight the country’s prosperity during that time–apparently Shlaes’s goal. Instead, it shows that the wealthiest people in the United States–those who were paying the most taxes–ended up becoming far, far wealthier during this time. Thus, the wealthiest tiers were able to make up and exceed all those making under $100,000 a year (in the 1920s!) due to the massive increase of their own wealth. Economics is notorious for relying on correlation, and I’m not an expert (I only took a few undergraduate classes in economics), but it seems to this reader that Shlaes selectively presented only the data which portrayed Coolidge’s policies in the best light. It’s one thing to say that the federal government brought in more money despite cutting taxes. That data point on its own could lead to any number of assumptions, and based on the framing in this book, the assumption one could be forgiven for making would be that it was made up due to overall flourishing of the economy. It’s another to note that that increase was made up entirely by the wealthiest in the country. Together, these points do not equal equity, but rather increasing economic inequality, something that would loom large in the coming decade.
Shlaes also seems to suggest Coolidge’s policies somehow could have prevented or put off the Depression, when it seems that his laissez-faire approach as the crisis ramped up actually contributed to ushering the Depression in. No single factor could be pinned down as a single cause of the Depression. However, Coolidge’s policy of letting the market run rampant helped increase a financial bubble that would burst, and Hoover, his successor, would largely be blamed.
If it seems I’ve focused quite a bit on economics, that’s because it is clear Coolidge himself was highly focused on questions of business in the United States. Whether it was his work on tax reform, his fight over farm subsidies (which he opposed, arguing farms should modernize to increase profitability), or his work on flood relief (aka, not doing much), Coolidge was interested in those things which interested him. The spendthrift days of his childhood made him a spendthrift President. Though he gave lip service to civil rights, he did little to back it up. He did call for making lynching a federal crime–something Congress didn’t pass. He also signed the Indian Citizenship Act, though citizenship had already been granted to a large percentage of Native Americans. On foreign policy, even outside of Shlaes’s biography, I found little on Coolidge’s interactions internationally.
Coolidge is as much an apology as it is a biography of a President. It deftly defends its subject, but it reads as an overstatement. Time and again, looking more deeply into the topics raised economically, Coolidge didn’t quite succeed to the extent that he is praised for in the biography. Intentionally or not, it seems Shlaes fails to fully delve into the economic issues at hand during the Coolidge adminstration–or the longer-term impacts they may have had. Under Coolidge, the wealthy got wealthier, and the status queue was the priority.
Calvin Coolidge (30th President – Original Ranking #26)- Coolidge was faced with financial crises and labor crises as a leader, and responded in basically conservative fashion. He would favor local legislation and rule, and if he felt that it took deeper intervention, would essentially try to restore the status queue at any cost. Of course, when push came to shove, he favored his own intervention in any issue with which he found disagreement on lower authorities. Ultimately, his everyman kind of approach to government can be seen as overshadowed by his actions showing he truly preferred a kind of elitism in which his own decisions took precedent over any local leadership. Moreover, Coolidge as President was so hyper-focused on the economy that it is hard to evaluate him outside of that. His cut taxes policy made the wealthy wealthier, as the evidence suggests. But the long term impacts of his economic policy may have contributed to the Great Depression. He gave lip service to civil rights but brought about little change, and his foreign policy contributions were negligible. He wasn’t an awful President, but whatever impact he has was negated swiftly after his Presidency as the Depression wiped out the economy.
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