When Vice President Calvin Coolidge learned of President Harding's death in 1923, he was with his family in rural Vermont. Despite the fact that it was late at night, a small crowd of reporters, surrounded the farm house. Coolidge's father, a justice of the peace, dutifully grabbed a Bible and administered the oath of office to his son by candlelight. With that, Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.
Most Americans don't know much about the man known as "Silent Cal", and that would probably be OK with the former President. Coolidge was a man of very few words who never sought the spotlight. Known for his short speeches and dry wit, I doubt the humble Coolidge would succeed, or have an interest in, modern day politics. Grandstanding, stump speeches, and rallies were not his style. However, in his time, Coolidge appeared to be just the kind of president Americans wanted. He was hands-off, fiscally conservative, and in the background. In short, Coolidge allowed the Roaring 20s, to roar. That's probably why he is so far down on this list.
It is for his policy of low taxes, free enterprise, and quasi-isolationism that Coolidge is remembered. That being said, when you're goal is to get the government to do as little as possible, there is very little to be remembered for. Coolidge lowered taxes multiple times during his 6 years in office. By the end, less than 5% of Americans actually paid taxes. Coolidge's proposals were known as "scientific taxation" which is basically the idea behind supply-side economics; low taxes on the wealthiest Americans will lead to more spending, jobs, and ultimately more revenue. To his credit, Coolidge understood that if taxes were lowered, spending needed to be cut. By doing so, he was able to pay off a sizable portion of the federal debt. However, this inactive government that is praised by many conservatives also turned a blind eye to the suffering of thousands. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927 it caused destruction and suffering on a scale rarely seen in American history. When Congress began to craft legislation to aid in the recovery, Coolidge resisted. In his mind, such social welfare would be inappropriate. No doubt, he sympathized with those who had lost their homes, and perhaps even loved ones, but bad things happen and they shouldn't look to the government for help. Although he did sign an aid bill passed by Congress, it was not without a heavy dose of regret.
More noteworthy was Coolidge's veto of an agricultural bill designed to help the nation's farmers. The Great Depression, in many ways started years earlier for farmers. A devastating combination of over production (thanks to mechanization) and plummeting prices (thanks to a decrease in demand) caused terrible economic hardship for farmers throughout the 1920s. On two occasions, Coolidge vetoed the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill. The bill would have provided subsides to farmers, bought up excess crops, and attempted to sell them overseas if possible. The hope was the agricultural prices would recover, farmers could make a profit, and food would be on grocery shelves across the nation. To Coolidge though, this was an improper use of tax payer dollars. The bill died twice on the executive's desk and farmers continued to suffer. By the end of the decade, so would everyone else.
Calvin Coolidge was a man for his time. The American people wanted an inactive government and his administration gave them one. The American people wanted to retreat from the world stage. Coolidge did his part to make that a reality by signing strong immigration restrictions and endorsing the infamous Kellog-Briand pact which "outlawed war." If the job of a president is to give the people what they want, I suppose Coolidge did a good job. Unfortunately, the booming economy at home and the peace abroad was built upon a house of cards waiting to fall. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know what happened soon after Coolidge left office. The house of cards collapsed.
Throughout the country the seeds of the Depression were being sown. Zero regulation of the stock market led to speculation, buying stock on margin, and inflated prices. The gap between the rich and the poor was growing each year leaving far too many Americans with far too little purchasing power to keep the economy afloat. Zero regulations on banks meant that banks could make incredibly unwise loans to costumers unable to pay them back. Nor were banks required to keep deposit reserves, meaning a run on a bank could kill even a healthy financial institution. Americans were buying new consumer goods like radios and cars, but they were doing so using credit. The average American's household consumer debt was far higher than previous generations. An unstable international finance system gave the illusion of success, but really was propping up failing economies throughout Europe. The suffering of millions in Europe was leading to an increase in nationalism, imperialism, and fascism, while the feckless League of Nations (which the US did not join) sat ideally by doing nothing. Shortly after Coolidge left office all of these problems manifested themselves.
The former President does not deserve blame for the crisis that happened during after his administration, Rather, the overwhelming opinion of most politicians, business leaders, and every day Americans helped to, unknowingly, create fertile ground for economic disaster. It is only through the benefit of hindsight and the lens of history, that we now see the underlying problems during the 1920s. I don't blame Coolidge, or his advisers, for not recognizing them, but the fact remains that they existed during his silent watch.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
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