Several authors have dusted off the all-but-forgotten name of Calvin Coolidge. Both Amity Shlaes and Charles Johnson have recently defended Mr. Coolidge’s presidency and politics, especially in light of our current financial mess, in their respective books Coolidge and Why Coolidge Matters. Both these books examine the life of the revived president and praise him for his fierce defense of fiscally conservative government.
But, if it wasn’t for Thomas Silver’s 1982 historical debut of Preident Coolidge, any trace of his accomplishments might still lie on some neglected shelf. The name Thomas Silver may not ring a bell, but President Reagan knew him and considered his book among his favorites. After serving in Vietnam, Dr. Silver received his doctorate from Claremont Graduate School and served as co-founder and president of the Claremont Institute. He died prematurely of an aggressive brain tumor, but his scholarship has rightly established Coolidge’s place in history.
Prior to Thomas Sliver’s book, Coolidge and the Historians, the prominent scholars painted the 30th president as a curmudgeonly, slow-moving, antique of the past. Silver’s book refutes scholars’ dismissal of Mr. Coolidge. He tactfully unravels the primary historian Arthur Schlesinger’s claim that President Coolidge was nothing more than an “unimpressive” man who accidentally fell into positions of power.
Dr. Silver first tackles the accidentally: Though some have claimed that Calvin Coolidge happened to be governor of a striking state at an opportune moment, Dr. Silver demonstrates that is was his previous education (among other things, he translated Cicero and Dante from the original) and quiet deliberation that enabled him to defeat the 1919 Boston Police Strike with such swiftness. This was no accident, and in fact, reflected years of a developed disposition towards justice, prudence, and resolve. While he did become president through the sudden death of Harding, his actions proved worthy enough for the people to elect him in 1924.
But Mr. Coolidge was more than adequate. He did what no one else wanted to do. He exercised restraint. And, this cool deliberation, Dr. Silver proves in his second point, steered the nation towards prosperity, not depression. While the Progressive intellectuals had gained some ground in public policy, Coolidge would not stand for spending money the government didn’t have. In fact, he became famous for his belief that “it is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” President Coolidge’s tax policy reflects his personal frugality, Dr. Silver outlines. For Calvin Coolidge understood that cutting the tax rate would promote business, but he also implemented fair policies that helped the poor: he proposed that 70 percent of the lost revenues would go to people with incomes under $10,000, and only 2.5 percent to people with incomes over $100,000. Mr. Coolidge’s tax policy did provide relief for the wealthy, who had been taxed at a rate of 50 percent, but it also led to increased wealth for the poor. Additionally, Dr. Silver proves, there is no correlation between the economic collapse in 1929 and Coolidge’s tax policies.
Through his textual analysis of Professor Schlesinger’s The Crisis of the Old Order, Thomas Silver gives a detailed refutation of the historian’s account. His book goes beyond a critique, however, as it reveals the Progressive ideology undergirding Schlesinger’s argument. For, Dr. Silver, observes, Schlesinger attacks Mr. Coolidge not for his action as much as for his inaction, not for his policies as much as his reductions, not for his personality as much as his coolness.
Now, Dr. Silver was a Claremont man, and he wrote the book in a similar tradition. He catalogues quotes from Mr. Schlesinger and numerous other liberal thinkers, and he does so unabashedly, at one point even professing, “As usual, we do not apologize for our extensive quotation.” So, Dr. Silver’s book is a very particular review of President Coolidge. He does not try to write a narrative, and it could be said that he lacks a level of imagination, but he does provide a detailed account of the claims scholars have made and the evidence that these claims are in fact false. Thus, he writes the first work in a line of more recent books that reestablishes his deserved place in history.
At a time when industrialism, progressivism, and big-government had begun to sweep the nation into a new era, President Coolidge’s example should cause people to pause. He instituted good old-fashioned rule of law, frugality, and limited government. He reminded the people of a simple truth: “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” For at least a little longer, Calvin Coolidge protected the people from the soon burgeoning bureaucracy, and though many scholars remember him as the accidental president, Silver paves the way for his rightful place as a president who did what he promised—limited the government and let civil society do the rest. Just as Mr. Coolidge kept his promise to the people, Thomas Silver accomplished what he set out to do. Nothing more; nothing less. There’s much to be said for that.
Brittany Baldwin is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. She has a B.A. in American Studies from Hillsdale College and is the Coordinator of the George Washington Fellowship Program of the Kirby Center at Hillsdale College.