One hundred years ago, during the wee hours of August 3, 1923, notary public John Coolidge administered the presidential oath of office to his eldest son, Calvin, in the kerosene-lit parlor of the family farmhouse in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. I visited this home and the broader Coolidge Historic Site in 2018, and my experience there and subsequent reading led me to discern that I am, like the University of Chicago Law School’s Richard Epstein, “certainly a Calvin Coolidge fan.” In fact, Coolidge is the model president.
He was born on Independence Day 1872 into modest circumstances: a tiny town where he was expected to, as I discovered during my visit, participate in the labors of the family farm. Going on to Amherst College, the Massachusetts bar, and the governorship of the Bay State, Coolidge won the vice presidency in 1920 on a ticket headed by Warren G. Harding.
In two short years, the Harding–Coolidge administration slashed tax rates with the Revenue Act of 1921, eliminated seven percent of the nominal national debt via a dramatic reduction in government spending, and freed Eugene Debs, a socialist committed to prison under Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act for opposing the First World War.
Upon Harding’s death in San Francisco on the evening of August 2, 1923, the Harding–Coolidge administration gave way to that of Coolidge alone. He purified a Cabinet that was engulfed in corruption while concurrently lobbying for the 1924 and 1926 Revenue Acts. In combination, those two statutes reduced the top combined tax rate from 58% to 25%, compared to 73% when Harding took office in 1921.
The permanent reduction of onerous taxes makes avoidance less appealing and stimulates economic growth. Thus, total individual tax receipts ballooned by 70% from 1924 to 1928; and, throughout the 1920s, the share of income taxes paid by earners of over $100,000 a year doubled. Meanwhile, Coolidge held spending constant, allowing him to eliminate nearly a quarter of the national debt and leave it fully 29% smaller than it was when Harding took office.
Coolidge was not afraid of measured confrontation. He vetoed pensions for some veterans and their dependents, arguing that “the advantage of a class cannot be greater than the welfare of the Nation.” Decrying “bureaucratic tyranny,” Coolidge also vetoed schemes to boost crop prices with government purchases. “Fiat prices match the folly of fiat money,” he explained in a May 1928 veto message.
And, far from being a reactionary, Coolidge advanced some socially liberal policies. Even as he approved strict caps on foreign immigration, he championed the rights of African-Americans and signed a law granting citizenship to American Indians.
Undergirding Coolidge’s presidential service was his general commitment to the core conservative values of liberty, human dignity, private enterprise, and state sovereignty, as well as his deep and abiding conviction that religion and private virtues are the health of the American nation. However, the characteristic that makes Coolidge the paragon of presidential leadership is not his ideology, but his humility.
Humble in birth and upbringing, Coolidge did not bask in public adulation or ensconce himself upon a throne at the center of American life. This is apparent in his speeches and writings, wherein he highlights his principles, the U.S. Founding, and the American people—not himself. It is also apparent in his unexpected decision not to run for reelection in 1928, of which he wrote, “We draw our Presidents from the people. . . . I wish to be one of them again.” Yet, nothing illustrates the humility of Coolidge’s personal conduct quite like his incredibly simple gravestone.
Coolidge’s reticence is the first reason he is the model president. He waged his political battles on the solid ground of ideas instead of the flimsy morass of personality politics, which groups people into cults that fan the flames of national destruction. After all, disputes about policy can be resolved with facts and evidence, but subjective evaluations of individuals are practically irreconcilable.
Evincing similar humility in his model of governance, Coolidge restrained himself to the constitutionally enumerated powers of the presidency. This is exactly what the Constitution demands of the chief executive. The Founders did not create for the United States an elective monarchy or dictatorship. Instead, they designed a presidency with a circumscribed set of powers—to veto legislation, command forces raised and regulated by Congress, appoint inferior officers, and the like—that allow the chief executive to fulfill his oath of office: to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
Similarly, Coolidge’s humility made him immune to the idea that Washington, D.C. should try solving all of the world’s problems. He said, for instance, that “[i]t does not follow that because some thing ought to be done the National Government ought to do it.” This mentality is perfectly aligned with the Constitution, under which “the powers delegated to the federal government are few and defined” (to quote James Madison). Coolidge did not violate his oath, as other presidents have, by promoting congressional enactments that strike at the heart of our fundamental charter.
A president’s highest duty is to fulfill his oath of office, as to do otherwise would violate rudimentary ethics and the teachings of the major faith traditions. Therefore, the fact that Coolidge’s humility allowed him to keep the promises he made on August 3, 1923, is the second reason he is the model president.
Forsaking Coolidge’s humility in presidential conduct, his immediate successors responded to a ripple in the economic landscape with massive government spending, regulations, and exorbitant government exactions. That arrogant approach led to a quarter of America being unemployed by 1933.
To quote UChicago’s Epstein once again, “Three Cheers for Calvin Coolidge.”
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker. Of note, the author derived essential inspiration for this essay from David M. Shribman’s “What America Can Still Learn From Calvin Coolidge.”
Declan Hurley is the Chicago Thinker’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. A rising fourth year at the University of Chicago who is studying Economics and History, Declan is also a small-business owner, the editor of FDL Review, and an active participant in the politics of his home state, North Carolina. He loves to partake in the battle over ideas; and, in his free time, he likes to run, read, and review public-opinion polling.