Ronald Reagan admired him a lot. In fact, when Reagan was looking over his new house—the White House—shortly after his inaugural in 1981, he entered into the Cabinet Room.
On the wall were portraits of Truman, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The White House curator commented at the time, “If you don’t like Mr. Truman, you can move Mr. Truman out.” Even though Reagan, a former Democrat, had voted for Truman back in 1948, he made his decision: Truman’s portrait was removed and one of Calvin Coolidge was dusted off and put in its place.
Nowadays, in all the “right” circles [to be found primarily among the academic elite], the person of Coolidge is a source of amusement, if not outright derision. Why, he was a do-nothing president, someone who didn’t use the power of the office as he should have. Probably his most grievous sin, in their view, was the way he put the brakes on destiny: he was a foe of the progressive movement that was intended to reshape American government and culture.
Coolidge, whose administration spanned a good part of the 1920s, was a throwback to an earlier time. He was not a Woodrow Wilson; rather, he believed in the vision of the Founding Fathers and their concept of limited government. He remained true to the principles of self-government and the sanctity of private property. The rule of law was paramount in his political philosophy. No one was above the law, a belief that, if followed, would keep the people safe from the power of an overextended government.
During the 1920s, the continent of Europe experimented with socialism. What might larger government be able to accomplish? What vistas await us once we unleash the full power of government intervention? Coolidge stood opposed to this false vision of the future.
Historians also like to make fun of his approach to speechmaking. Coolidge preferred to say as little as possible. As he once noted, he never got in trouble for things he didn’t say. Yet when he did speak, he made some very significant pronouncements. His words conveyed key ideas for American success. Meditate on this paragraph, for instance:
In a free republic a great government is the product of a great people. They will look to themselves rather than government for success. The destiny, the greatness of America lies around the hearthstone. If thrift and industry are taught there, and the example of self-sacrifice oft appears, if honor abide there, and high ideals, if there the building of fortune be subordinate to the building of character, America will live in security, rejoicing in an abundant prosperity and good government at home and in peace, respect, and confidence abroad. If these virtues be absent there is no power that can supply these blessings. Look well then to the hearthstone, therein all hope for America lies.
Notice Coolidge’s stress on what he called the “hearthstone,” which is a designation for the family. He saw the family as the cornerstone of society, the place where character should be developed. Note also his subordination of financial fortune to the building of character. Fortune may come, but only if character comes first: thrift, industry, and honor—qualities in short supply at the moment.
America was prosperous during the Coolidge years. The Great Depression was just around the corner, but it didn’t occur as a result of Coolidge’s policies of tax cuts and economic liberty. The Depression was more a result of misdirection from the Federal Reserve [low cash reserves in banks; easy credit]; its continuation throughout the 1930s was due to government actions of the New Deal.
If there’s one thing most historians can agree on with Coolidge, it’s that he easily would have won reelection in 1928 had he chosen to run again. Yet he voluntarily stood down. Why? What prompted that decision? He tells us what led him to do so in his autobiography.
It is difficult for men in high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers. They are constantly, and for the most part sincerely, assured of their greatness. They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exultation which sooner or later impairs their judgment. They are in grave danger of becoming careless and arrogant.
Coolidge saw the problems associated with elected office. He knew that men often developed what might be called the “swelled-head syndrome.” He wanted nothing to do with that. If for no other reason, Coolidge should be honored for his willingness to set aside power and maintain his good character. Where are the politicians willing to do that today?