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September 30th, 2019

Ranking the Presidents: Calvin Coolidge

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), how would you grade Calvin Coolidge, based on the performance of his duties as President? You can go to this link to vote. He was called "Silent Cal" for the fact that when he was a man of few words. A famous story (perhaps even a true one) is told about a woman who was seated next to Calvin Coolidge at a dinner, who said to him, "I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." He replied, "You lose." When Coolidge died, the famed wit Dorothy Parker remarked, "How can they tell?" Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society. He was one asked why he continued to attend so many fancy D.C. dinner parties. He replied, "Got to eat somewhere." Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, described the 30th President of the United States with these words: "He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle." Coolidge's silence was calculated. As president, he wrote, "The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately." He once told Ethel Barrymore, "I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them." Some historians suggest that Coolidge's image was created deliberately as a campaign tactic. Others believe his withdrawn and quiet manner was natural, particularly after the tragic death of his son in 1924.

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But there was more to Calvin Coolidge than just his sullen and withdrawn disposition. John Calvin Coolidge Jr. was born in Vermont, the son of a local farmer and storekeeper who was also the Justice of the Peace, and who administered the oath of office to his son, when President Warren Harding died. Coolidge was born on the 4th of July. After graduating from Amherst College, he practiced law in Northampton, Massachusetts. From there he worked his way up the ladder of Massachusetts state politics, service as mayor of his city, representing his community in both houses of the state legislature and eventually becoming governor of the state. His strong principled response to the Boston Police Strike of 1919 cast him into the national spotlight and gave him a reputation as a man of decisive action. He didn't have the outgoing personality to be considered as a strong presidential candidate, but he was a perfect choice for he number two spot on the ticket, alongside the ebullient Warren G. Harding. In the election of 1920 Coolidge was elected vice president of the United States. He became President upon the sudden unexpected death of Warren G. Harding in August of 1923. After completing Harding's term, Coolidge was elected to the Presidency in 1924. He gained a reputation as a small government conservative and also as a man of few words with a dry sense of humor.

Coolidge is credited with restoring public confidence in the White House after the scandals of his predecessor's administration, and left office with considerable popularity. His modest New England roots gave him a connection with the common man and with the middle class. He is credited with cutting government waste, and for reducing the deficit while also cutting taxes. He signed the Indian Citizenship Act and unsuccessfully pressed for passage of a federal anti-lynching law. He has been criticized for his response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, seeing flood relief as a state issue rather than a federal one. He refused to visit the region because he believed it would serve no other purpose than political grandstanding. He was also an opponent of farm subsidies. Coolidge presided over a health economy and a time of rapid economic growth. In an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he told his audience: "The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."

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Scholars have ranked Coolidge in the lower half of those presidents in most assessments. He is praised by conservatives, some libertarians and other advocates of small government and laissez-faire economics. He is also praised for his record on civil rights. Coolidge was generally popular during his presidency, but the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 damaged his reputation, as many linked the economic troubles to Coolidge's hands-off economic policies. Coolidge's reputation in foreign policy also suffered in the 1930s. Many viewed the Dawes Plan as a failure. (This was a 1924 plan proposed by a committee chaired by Vice-President Charles Dawes intended to resolve the World War I reparations that Germany had to pay). Coolidge's critics argued that this and other policies had done little to prevent the rise of international hostilities that were building in Europe.

Coolidge's reputation enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and other conservatives looked to the Coolidge administration as a model of laissez-faire policy. Reagan's "Laffer Curve" tax policy was modeled off of what Coolidge had done.

Many historians praise Coolidge for avoiding major scandals and for reducing the national debt. But they also criticize Coolidge's inactivity in foreign policy and his failure to respond to rising stock market speculation. Polls of historians and political scientists have generally ranked Coolidge as a below-average president. A 2018 poll of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Coolidge as the 28th best president. A 2017 C-Span poll of historians ranked Coolidge as the 27th best president.

Coolidge's biographer David Greenberg assess his subject's legacy in these terms: "Scholarly opinion looks upon the Coolidge presidency with skepticism, ranking him relatively low among American chief executives in terms of his administration's positive impact and legacy. Despite his personal integrity, he offered no sweeping vision or program of action that the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had led the public to associate with presidential greatness."

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In 2013 however, historian and Coolidge biographer Amity Schlaes offered a more favorable assessment of the 30th President as she tried to unravel the enigma known as Silent Cal. She wrote:

Perhaps the deepest reason for Coolidge's recent obscurity is that the thirtieth president spoke a different economic language from ours. He did not say "money supply"; he said "credit." He did not say "the federal government"; he said "the national government." He did not say "private sector"; he said "commerce." He did not say "savings"; he said "thrift" or "economy." Indeed, he especially cherished the word "economy" because it came from the Greek for "household." To Coolidge the national household resembled the family household, and to her displeasure he monitored the White House housekeeper with the same vigilance that he monitored the departments of the federal government. Our modern economic lexicon and the theories behind it cannot capture Coolidge's achievements or those of his predecessor, Warren Harding.

It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government; so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today. As early at the 1930s, Coolidge's reputation and way of thinking began their decline. Collectives and not individuals became fashionable. Sensing such shifts, Coolidge at the end of his life spoke anxiously about the "importance of the obvious." Perseverance, property rights, contracts, civility to one's opponents, silence, smaller government, trust, certainty, restraint, respect for faith, federalism, economy and thrift: these Coolidge ideals intrigue us today as well. After all, many citizens today do feel cursed by debt, their own or their government's. Knowing the details of his life may well help Americans now turn a curse to a blessing or, at the very least, find the heart to continue their own persevering.

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