Coolidge Was America’s Most Successful Conservative President
Americans love the 4th of July—and for good reason. Writing to his wife in July 1776, John Adams hailed the Fourth as “the day of deliverance” and predicted that it would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.” He correctly foresaw these annual celebrations “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” On the first anniversary in 1777, the celebrations started, and they have continued ever since.
The year 2015 will be no exception. But as Americans turn their thoughts this year to the blessings of Independence Day, we should add one additional—less well known—blessing to the list. In addition to Independence Day, July 4th is also the birthday of one of our great presidents, the 30th President, Calvin Coolidge.
On July 4, 1872, Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch, a small village in rural Vermont. It was here that he learned the New England puritan virtues that would define his character. Coolidge spoke often of his father’s hard work and his “strong New England trait of great repugnance at seeing anything wasted.” He came to view any kind of waste as “a moral wrong.” Another New England characteristic that young Coolidge absorbed was a total lack of pretense—and a strong aversion to anything, or anyone, pretentious. In his words, “Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth.” Hard work, independent thinking, lack of pretense, sense of duty, perseverance, and scrupulous truthfulness all constituted the essence of Coolidge’s boyhood life in Plymouth Notch and became the trademarks of Coolidge the adult.
After graduating from Amherst College, Coolidge married, settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, and began what became a steady ascent in political life. First, he was elected to a series of local offices, followed by election to the state legislature, Lt. Governor, and finally Governor of Massachusetts. In 1919, as Governor, Coolidge’s successful settlement of the Boston Police Strike catapulted him into national prominence. With these famous words, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere,” Coolidge was suddenly famous. As a result, the Republican convention nominated him for Vice-President, as Warren Harding’s running mate.
When President Harding died unexpectedly in 1923, the picture of Calvin Coolidge taking the oath of office became indelibly stamped on the country’s collective consciousness. Coolidge was vacationing at his father’s farm in Plymouth Notch when word of Harding’s death came late in the night. He took the oath of office from his father, Colonel John Coolidge, a notary, in the small family living room by the light of a kerosene lamp. It is impossible to imagine a more appropriate backdrop for Coolidge’s rise to the presidency. He was the product of rural America—a man without pretense—straightforward, frugal, and honest. This was Americans’ first glimpse of their new president—and they liked what they saw.
The country soon discovered that Coolidge was totally unlike any national politician it had encountered. He seemed consistently to eschew the conventional political necessities of warmth and congeniality; and even more surprisingly, he was truly a man of few words. He was at once both, in William Allen White’s words, a “throwback to the more primitive days of the Republic” and also a highly successful modern politician, who was the first president to use radio, photography, and public relations adroitly. It was remarkable that this physically unimpressive, undramatic, reticent New Englander could have so dominated his era, elicited the affection of the public, and modeled the virtues that gave it substance. For an America that was experiencing postwar disillusionment and a bewildering modern secularism, Coolidge offered faith in a mythic America of honesty, hard work, thrift, and religion. As White concluded, Coolidge was in fact a genius, but this genius was surprisingly—fascinatingly unconventional in every way.
Coolidge proved, in historian Paul Johnson’s words, to be “the most internally consistent and single-minded of presidents.” He oversaw a program of comprehensive tax reform, the reduction of the top marginal income tax rate from 70% to 24%, the removal of most Americans from the income tax rolls completely, the longest period of peacetime expansion and prosperity in U. S. history, and, astoundingly, an absolute reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy. He was arguably America’s most successful conservative president.
On July 4, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge traveled to Philadelphia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He closed with these words: “The Declaration of Independence is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created them.”
We would do well to remember Coolidge’s words this Independence Day.