A rediscovery is under way in regard to the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Amity Shlaes, who is the Director of the 4 Percent Growth Project at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and a noted economic historian, has recently published Coolidge, a full-scale biography of President Calvin Coolidge.
One of the main elements to Coolidge is the issue of debt and the economy, which was a major issue in the 1920s just as it is today. Today the nation is confronted with a dangerously high level of debt, slow economic growth, high taxation, and high unemployment. These were similar issues that confronted both President Harding and President Coolidge. In 1921, President Harding inherited a severe economic depression, which consisted of high unemployment, slow economic growth, a national debt, and high levels of taxation. The Harding administration called for restraint in regard to domestic policy, which was the direct opposite of the progressive philosophy. The Harding economic program consisted of cutting government spending, lowering tax rates, and paying down the national debt. The Harding administration began the successful policy of debt, tax, and spending reductions, which Coolidge continued after Harding's death in 1923.
"Like Warren Harding, Coolidge understood the value of predictability in government: that a predictable tax policy and predictable policy toward debt were the basis for strong commerce," wrote Shlaes. Coolidge was not just an advocate for economy in government, but his political philosophy was rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The Coolidge administration's commitment to limited government was a success. Under Coolidge federal spending was lowered, tax rates were slashed, unemployment remained low, and the economy roared creating the "Coolidge Prosperity" of the 1920s.
In Coolidge, Shlaes also argues that "the extent of the Coolidge achievement is not known." Coolidge, just as with Harding, is often neglected by historians because of his policies, and many scholars charge the Republican Presidents of the 1920s with negligence in causing the Great Depression. This thesis is especially popular with the pro-New Deal historians who champion the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fellow activist Presidents. Nevertheless, Shlaes makes a serious case for Coolidge in regard to presidential greatness. "Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist President, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts," wrote Shlaes. As she argues, "Coolidge is our great refrainer."
It is debated whether or not Coolidge-style solutions can be applied to today's problems, but policymakers would be well served to follow the Coolidge example. Whether the issue is cutting government spending, tax reduction, trade, or immigration - all issues front and center today - President Coolidge provides a blueprint to solve these difficult problems. By writing Coolidge, Amity Shlaes is changing the historiography of both the 1920s and presidential history, and she is reminding conservatives of not only a forgotten hero, but the need to rediscover traditional conservative principles.
John Hendrickson is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.