Coolidge: An American Enigma / the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge

By Keating, Raymond J. | Freeman, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Coolidge: An American Enigma / the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge


Keating, Raymond J., Freeman


Coolidge: An American Enigma by Robert Sobel

Regnery Publishing 1998 462 pages $34.95

The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge by Robert Ferrell

University Press of Kansas 1998 272 pages $29.95

Few U.S. presidents have suffered more at the hands of statist historians than Calvin Coolidge. The reason for the nearly unanimous scorn directed at the 30th president was Coolidge's generally limited government philosophy, which he quietly brandished while in the White House.

Those historians love to criticize Coolidge because he presided over peace and prosperity and had no interest in federal programs to "manage" the economy and "solve" social problems. Recently, for example, Nathan Miller, author of Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents, ranked Coolidge among the worst not for anything he did, but because he supposedly did "nothing." (See the review in The Freeman, March 1999.) That's the ultimate source of the discontent regarding Coolidge-he actually accomplished much, but not the government activism desired by so-called liberal observers.

During the Coolidge administration federal expenditures fell from $5.06 billion in 1921 (under President Warren Harding) to $3.12 billion in 1929. Along the way, Coolidge stopped various government boondoggles, most prominently the McNary-Haugen bill, which would have had the federal government buy up farm surpluses to sell abroad and hike prices domestically. The federal debt fell by 30 percent between 1921 and 1929.

At the same time, tax rates were slashed. The top personal income tax rate dropped from 73 percent to 25 percent, and the capital gains tax from 73 percent to 12.5 percent. Coolidge got Congress to eliminate the recently imposed gift tax and to reduce the estate tax. The corporate income tax was also cut.

The consequences of these policies were positive. Real annual economic growth averaged 6.2 percent from 1922 to 1929 and consumer prices fell.

Coolidge's record was not perfect. He favored high tariffs and supported limitations on immigration, although he fought unsuccessfully against an anti-Japanese provision in the Immigration Act of 1924. Initially he opposed federal relief for the Mississippi flood of 1927, but eventually relented under massive congressional pressure. Coolidge downsized the relief plan, but it set an expensive precedent.

Taken as a whole, however, Coolidge's record was admirable, and these two new books take major steps toward a far more just historical assessment.

Robert Ferrell's effort is the more workmanlike of the two. He has a formidable grasp of the period and the key events of the time. Many of his interpretations, however, suggest a strong faith in government action. For example, Ferrell declares that "something had to be done" regarding farmers' woes during the 1920s-the implication being that government had to do something.

Nonetheless, he manages to restrain such leanings and provides sound historical reporting on Coolidge, his career, and his administration. Of note, Ferrell observes about Coolidge's stint as governor of Massachusetts: "Crowning his accomplishments as governor was consolidation of the commonwealth's 118' separate government departments into 18, a courageous thing to do, for many people lost lucrative posts. …

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