Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929. 247 pages.

Calvin Coolidge grew up in Plymouth, an old fashioned, rural town in Vermont. The town was mostly Republican. Coolidge's father was a justice of the peace and held several other government posts that led to his collecting taxes. Coolidge writes (p. 26):

"As I went about with my father when he collected taxes, I knew that when taxes were laid some one had to work to earn the money to pay them. I saw that a public debt was a burden on all the people in a community, and while it was necessary to meet the needs of a disaster it cost much in interest and ought to be retired as soon as possible."

While at Amherst College, he favored Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland in 1892. Cleveland was the Mugwumps' candidate and more committed to limited government than was Harrison. Harrison was a mainstream Republican. However, Coolidge was an advocate of the gold standard early in life. While he was studying for the bar exam in 1896:

"When I was home that summer I took part in a small neighborhood debate in which I supported the gold standard. The study I put on this subject well repaid me. Of course, Northhampton went handsomely for McKinley."

In 1909 Coolidge was elected Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts (p. 101):

"Our city had always been fairly well governed and had no great problems. Taxes had been increasing. I was able to reduce them some and pay part of the debt, so that I left the net obligations chargeable to taxes at about $100,000. The salaries of teachers were increased."

Coolidge writes that early in his tenure in the Massachusetts state senate (p. 102):

"I...secured the appointment of a commission that resulted in the passage of a mother's aid or maternity bill...and I was made chairman of a recess committee to secure better transportation for rural communities in the wester part of the Commonwealth.

(p. 103) "...the Boston Democrats came to be my friends and were a great help to me in later times...

"...My committee reported a bill transforming the Railroad Commission into a Public Service Commission, with a provision intending to define and limit the borrowing powers of railroads which we passed after a long struggle and debate...The bill came out for our trolley roads in Western Massachusetts and was adopted..."

He goes on to suggest that he differed from the more radical Progressives in tone (p. 106-8):

"It appeared to me in January 1914 that a spirit of radicalism prevailed which unless checked was likely to prove very destructive. It had been encouraged by the opposition and by a large faction of my own party...It consisted of the claim in general that in some way the government was to be blamed because everybody was not prosperous, because it was necessary to work for a living, and because our written constitutions, the legislatures and the courts protected the rights of private owners especially in relation to large aggregations of property...The previous session had been overwhelmed with a record number of bills introduced, many of them in an attempt to help the employee by impairing the property of the employer. Though anxious to improve the condition of our wage earners, I believed this doctrine would soon destroy business and deprive them of a livelihood. What was needed was a restoration of confidence in our institutions and in each other, on whcih economic progress might rest...In taking the chair as President of the Senate I therefore made a short address, which I had carefully fully prepared, appealing to the conservative spirit of the people. I argued that the government could not relieve us from toil, that large concerns are necessary for progress in which capital and labor all have a common interest, and I defended representative government and the integrity of the courts."

When the state Republican Committee chose him as chairman (p. 109-110):

"I drew a conservative platform, pitched in the same key, pointing out the great mass of legislation our party had placed on the statute books for the benefit of the wage earners and the welfare of the people, but declaring for the strict and unimpaired maintenance of our present social, economic and political institutions."

As President of the Massachusetts Senate (p. 110):

"I wanted to cut down the volume of legislation. In this progress was made. The Blue Book of acts and Resolves for 1913 had 1,763 pages...for 1915 only 1,230, which was a very wholesome reduction of more than thirty percent. People were coming to see that they must depend on themselves rather than on legislation for success."

While Coolidge had many conservative impulses he also had many progressive ideas. He mentions that in his inaugural speech as governor of Massachusetts in January 1919 (p., 125):

"I dwelt on the need of promoting the public health, education, and the opportunity for employment at fair wages in accordance with the right of the people to be well born, well reared, well educated, well employed and well paid. I also stressed the necessity of keeping government expenses as well as possible... "

Thus, Coolidge adapted the language of progressivism to a somewhat self-contradictory model whereby he would give the people progressive government while not spending for it.

Coolidge helped stop a police strike in Boston which received national attention. He reinstated Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis (who had been supplanted by the Mayor). Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL attacked Coolidge for removing union policemen, but Coolidge refused. He said (p. 134):

"There is no right to strike against the public safety by any body, any time, any where."

As governor, Coolidge signed a law limiting the work week for women and minors to 48 hours. He vetoed a bill permitting the sale of beer (during Prohibition).

The police strike brought Coolidge national attention and he won the nomination to vice president.

His instincts were conservative based on his basic rural New England education (p. 153):

"I contended that the only sure method of relieving this distress was for the country to follow the advice of Benjamin Franklin and begin to work and save. Our productive capacity is sufficient to maintain us all in a state of prosperity if we give sufficient attention to thrift and industry."

He adds (p. 182):

"Wealth comes from industry and from the hard experience of human toil. To dissipate it in waste and extravagance is disloyalty to humanity. This is by no means a doctrine of parsimony. Both men and nations should live in accordance with their means and devote their substance not only to productive industry but to the creation of the various forms of beauty and the pursuit of culture which give adornments to the art of life.

"When I became President it was perfectly apparent that the key by which the way could be opened to national progress was constructive economy. Only by the use of that policy could the high rates of taxation, which were retarding our development and prosperity, be diminished and the enormous burden of our public debt be reduced."

Despite his small government conservatism, he was no libertarian. He notes that as vice-president (p. 180):

"I had seen a large amount of government business. Peace had been made with the Central Powers, the tariff revised, the budget system adopted, taxation reduced, large payments made on the national debt, the Veterans' Bureau organized, important farm legislation passed, public expenditures greatly decreased..."

Coolidge remarks on Jefferson (p. 214):

"(A)ny one who had as many ideas as Jefferson was bound to find that some of them would not work. But this does not detract from the wisdom of his faith in the people and his constant insistence that they be left to manage their own affairs. His opposition to bureaucracy will bear careful analysis, and the country could stand a great deal more of its application. The trouble with us is that we talk about Jefferson but do not follow him. In his theory that the people should manage their government, and not be managed by it, he was everlastingly right."

On political parties Coolidge supports the two-party system (p. 230):

"The last twenty years have witnessed a decline in party spirit and a distinct weakening in party loyalty. While an independnet attitude on the part of the citizen is not without a certain public advantage, yet is is necessary under our form of government to have political parties. Unless some one is a partisan, no one can be an independent. The Congress is organized entirely in accordance with party policy. The arties appeal to the voters in behalf of their platforms. The people make their choice on those issues. Unless those who are elected on the same party platform associate themselves together to carry out its provisions, the election becomes a mockery...It is the business of the President as party leader to do the best he can to see that the declared party platform purposes are translated into legislative and administrative action."

Was Calvin Coolidge a conservative? I think on balance the answer is "yes", unlike his Republican predecessors Roosevelt and Taft and his Republican successor Hoover. But Coolidge's conservatism was an accidental one. It resulted from his mainstream American upbringing. The conservatives of the 1910's did not see the need to educate the public about conservative ideas in the way that the Progressives saw the need to educate the public about Progressivism. There was no unified movement, only the broader cultural inheritance. Coolidge was an un-selfconscious conservative and in that he was a weak conservative. The reason is that Progressivism was a conscious, organized movement with intellectual underpinnings and self conscious vigor. In order to present a real conservative response, Coolidge would have had to have perceived the need for a parallel kind of organiztion that could proactively reinvent American culture along conservative lines, not just respond to the initiatives of the Progressives and cut taxes when they went a little too far. This was not a robust conservatism because it did not replenish the roots of American culture and economy. Rather, it was a tepid reaction to the Progressives, who never gave up. This weak response characterizes the Republican Party even now. The unwillingness to undo the Democratic progressive program reflects a tepidness and failure of inventiveness. Conservatism is not acceptance of the Democratic initiatives. But this is all the Republicans have had to offer since Coolidge.

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