Imagine a country in which strikes by public-sector unions occupied the public square; where, after nearly a decade of military adventurism, foreign policy wandered aimlessly as America disentangled itself from wars abroad and a potential civil war on its southern border; where racial and ethnic groups jostled for political influence; where a war on illicit substances led to violence in its cities; where technology was dramatically changing how mankind communicated and moved about???and where the educated harbored increasing contempt for the philosophic underpinnings of our republic.
You might say that such a world looks a lot like our own???except that it doesn???t. The 1920s were a period of ???general prosperity that was historically unique in its experience or that of any other society,??? in the words of historian Paul Johnson. They were, as their popular name would suggest, ???roaring,??? with unemployment at the lowest???and economic growth at the highest???ever recorded. Cars and radios rolled off the assembly lines as industrial titans made unheard-of fortunes. We know their names still: Edison, Ford, Firestone, and Disney. More and more people of modest means could afford the conveniences of modern life as real per capita income rose from $522 to $716 during the Coolidge years. This prosperity, as we know in hindsight, did not last, but what prosperity does? It was real enough for those who experienced it.
President Calvin Coolidge knew this well, telling reporters at one of his many press conferences: ???If you can base the economic conditions of the people on their appearance, the way they are dressed, the general appearance of prosperity, I should say it was very good??? I noticed most of the ladies had on silk dresses and I thought I saw a rather general display of silk stockings.??? Prosperity, in other words, wasn???t something to turn away from, but to embrace???so long as it was on a sure foundation and designed to truly benefit the people. For, as Coolidge also warned, there ???is no surer road to destruction than prosperity without character.???
It was far more important, Coolidge knew, to recognize where prosperity comes from than to set about chasing it for its own sake. ???Prosperity is only an instrument to be used,??? he is reported to have said, ???not a deity to be worshipped.??? Whether or not he uttered these exact words, they reflect his deep beliefs. Having learned such lessons, Coolidge had much to teach, and he did so frequently. In Fredericksburg, Virginia, he told those assembled:
It is sometimes assumed that Americans care only for material things, that they are bent only on that kind of success which can be cashed into dollars and cents. That is a very narrow and unintelligent opinion. We have been successful beyond others in great commercial and industrial enterprises because we have been a people of vision. Our prosperity has resulted not only by disregarding but by maintaining high ideals. Material resources do not, and cannot, stand alone; they are the product of spiritual resources. It is because America, as a nation, has held fast to the higher things of life, because it has had a faith in mankind which it has dared to put to the test of self-government, because it has believed greatly in honor and righteousness, that a great material prosperity has been added unto it.
This is not the Coolidge of popular memory, who, if the persisting legend is true, was too friendly with business and couldn???t see economic questions objectively. The cartoonish portrayal remains lodged in the popular imagination in part because ???Silent Cal??? wasn???t so much silent as he was silenced. Other scholars have wrestled with why he was silenced without delving deeply into what he had to say. I am much more interested in exploring what he has to say for his time???and perhaps for our time and all time???than in pursuing detailed arguments with his generations of detractors. Coolidge did, after all, publish three collections of speeches, an autobiography, hundreds of letters, and a syndicated post-presidential column, all of which he wrote himself. He also took great pride in his speeches, showing them off in the library that had helped produce them.
Coolidge???the last president to pay down the national debt???has important lessons for politics in our day, too. Government???s scope has expanded beyond Coolidge???s worst nightmare. The federalist impulse that undergirded his approach, which would urge leaving much power to the states, is often ignored today. But a new resistance to government???s growth has emerged from the very sorts of people who raised Coolidge in his rustic Vermont town. The people have awoken in the form of the Tea Party, whose adherents wish to restore America???s Constitution. These patriots draw a link from the founding generation to our day in hopes that constitutional governance has not faded from this earth. Often literally cloaked in the garb of that founding era, they muster all their passion and petition their government to do as each of us must in our own life: live within our means.
Charles C. Johnson is is author of the new book, Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America???s Most Underrated President.