A couple of weeks ago, near Presidents Day, a couple of cronies and I were sharing a libation in a local tavern and, at one point in our conversation, we began to discuss who we believed to be the country's top 10 presidents. My friends put forward the usual names: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. But I had just finished reading Amity Schlae's fine biography and I threw out the name of Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge?! My friends were shocked. "You mean old 'Silent Cal'?" they joked. "Didn't he cause the Great Depression?"
After correcting them that the Great Depression began after his tenure, I explained that Coolidge, whose considerable accomplishments have been generally ignored by history, deserved closer scrutiny.
Well, let's you and I rectify the oversight and take a closer look at Coolidge, the man and his presidency.
John Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch, Vt., on Independence Day, July 4, 1872.
Although the Coolidge Family was comfortable, life in Plymouth Notch was not easy. Ostensibly a farming community, the land was rocky and farming was difficult. Many attribute Coolidge's famed frugality to this hardscrabble experience.
Coolidge attended Amherst College and upon graduation moved to Northampton, Mass., where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1897.
In 1905, Coolidge met and married Grace Anna Goodhue. They had two sons.
Coolidge's family had a history of part-time politics and young Cal, attracted to its possibilities, began his lifetime involvement with the predominant party in New England, at the time, the Republican Party.
From the beginning the voters liked him and his reputation of never making a promise that he didn't attempt to keep.
Coolidge moved rapidly up the political ladder from City Council to clerk of courts, Massachusetts House of Representatives, state senator and lieutenant governor, becoming governor in 1918 at 46 years of age.
It was as governor that he burst onto the national stage, when, although sympathetic to their demands, he quelled a Boston police strike in 1919, announcing that, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime." (This found an echo in 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired those air traffic controllers who had illegally struck for higher wages.)
In 1920, Warren G. Harding won election as president with Coolidge as his running mate. When Harding died suddenly on Aug. 2, 1923, Coolidge assumed the presidency, being sworn in by his notary father at his family home in Plymouth. When asked how he felt assuming the presidency, Coolidge, always a man of few words stated simply, "I believe I can swing it."
Most historians don't think much of Coolidge, ranking him as "below average."
The man deserves better.
Instead of tinkering with the economy or obstructing emerging industries with additional regulations - as his Progressive presidential predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had done and his successor, Franklin Roosevelt would do again, Coolidge kept his hands off, famously saying, "The chief business of the American people is business, producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world."
America had emerged from World War I as a world power, but with massive debt and a severe depression. Unemployment was 11.7 percent in 1921 and the national debt had ballooned from $1.5 billion to $24 billion.
Something had to be done.
Between 1923 and 1928, Coolidge's first and last year as president, he accomplished feats which today would seem impossible. Believing that frugality was the answer, Coolidge instituted policies to deal with this economic malaise first holding federal spending firmly in check - at $3.3 billion.
Coolidge was convinced that additional federal employees didn't automatically result in greater productivity. He was once asked how many people worked in the White House. He replied, "About half."
He therefore effectively capped federal hiring which, during his tenure, only rose from 537,000 to 561,000. Most of that increase, however, was in the Postal Service, which was trying to keep up with the country's burgeoning population.
Coolidge slashed tax rates, believing, as he stated in his 1924 State of the Union address, "I am convinced that large incomes of the country will actually yield more revenue to the government ... if the basis of taxation were scientifically revised downward." (The first employment of the "trickle down" strategy.) By the time he left office, the top marginal tax rate had been reduced from 73 percent to 24 percent. Unimaginable today.
Coolidge's assessment was correct and the increased revenues pouring in, permitted an astounding reduction of the national debt by nearly a third, from $24 billion to $16.9 billion. (Imagine a similar reduction of our present debt of $17 trillion.)
Under Coolidge, the nation's yearly budget contained a surplus and unemployment dropped to as low as 3 percent. Amazing accomplishments!
Coolidge died in 1933. When told of his death, the New Yorker columnist and wit, Dorothy Parker, quipped, "How can they tell!"
Historian Richard Norton Smith says that presidents who are rated as outstanding tend to be those who are larger than life and supply great drama. The famously quiet Coolidge certainly wasn't a dramatic figure. To the contrary, he may have been the humblest man ever to occupy the Executive Office.
But contrary to his reputation for lacking humor, he certainly could wield a sharp wit. Once at a dinner party, a woman seated next to Coolidge told him that she had a bet with a friend that she could get Coolidge to say more than two words. Coolidge looked at her, paused, and with a twinkle in his eye, replied, "You lose."
Guest columnist Bonenberger is an attorney who lives and practices in Wheeling.