Thanks to a remarkable essay by a remarkable historian, the story of Calvin Coolidge is just now getting some attention and appreciation. Known as Silent Cal , historians have largely ignored him because he wasn’t a progressive and therefore irrelevant to their history. Amity Shlaes is working to correct that. She is the author of the highly regarded best-seller The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and her latest one, Coolidge, from which her essay is drawn.
He was so scrupulous when it came to government spending that he enraged the progressives of the day:
The Coolidge [administration’s] budget was fundamentally different from our modern budgets in that military costs, veterans’ funding, and the national debt made up more than half of outlays. But the pressure to expand programs was as strong as it is today. Coolidge’s budget vigilance was so steadfast that it lent itself to caricature; some artists depicted the thirtieth president as a Victorian throwback. The doyenne of the Washington social scene, Alice Roosevelt Longworth [Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter], repeated a line until it became famous: Coolidge looked as though he had been weaned on a pickle. A contemporary paper, the London Sunday Chronicle, even published a parody of A Christmas Carol with Coolidge in the part of Scrooge.
But his budget austerity begat prosperity. Among the first things he did was to reduce the income tax rate:
Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically.
Here’s one of the most remarkable things about Coolidge that most people don’t know: under his administration the federal government actually shrank:
In World War I, government policy had been so dramatic that it was like a great pendulum, swinging wildly back and forth and intimidating those in its path. Coolidge reached out his hand and stilled the pendulum. Or, to put his achievement more simply, Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce. When, in 1929, the thirtieth president climbed onto a train at Union Station to head back home to Massachusetts after his 67 months in office, the federal government was smaller than when he had become president in 1923.
That’s a history that most don’t know or have forgotten or have ignored as irrelevant. But it’s nice to know that shrinking the government is possible after all, thanks to Coolidge and the efforts of Shlaes to bring it to light.