History has generally not been kind to former President Calvin Coolidge, although a new book aims to change that by focusing on his staunch promotion of the free enterprise system and his success in taming the federal deficit and budget.
In an interview with Newsmax TV, Amity Shlaes, author of the new book Coolidge, said the president who some historians have blamed for laying the groundwork for the Great Depression actually was quite adept at budget and monetary policy issues.
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“Today, we’re thinking about the sequester. The most remarkable thing about Calvin Coolidge is that he served for 67 months and when he left office, the budget was lower than he came in,” Shlaes said. “In real terms – in nominal terms with vanilla on top – he cut the budget year over year.”
She attributes his budgetary success to his family’s background as New England farmers, which she said emphasized caution, hard work, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“There wasn’t a lot of money where Coolidge grew up. His grandmother wove, she delivered babies, and was a midwife. His father did everything in the town to keep the family going, including collecting taxes,” Shlaes said. “Imagine someone from New England where all his life, he’s seen money short. He was used to budgeting and saw virtue in it.”
Shales said the book contains many stories that illustrate Coolidge’s ability to make tough decisions under difficult circumstances, something she said he inherited from his father.
“He often said the Coolidges believe in work,” she said.
As Massachusetts governor, Coolidge was tasked with resolving a strike by Boston policemen who believed they were underpaid and objected to their working conditions.
Yet Coolidge stood his ground, which led to riots in the streets. Following those riots, Coolidge became one of the first public officials to fire public workers for illegally striking, saying “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” Shlaes calls that action “a brutal decision that mattered.”
“It was a signal to public sector unions. It wasn’t because he was mean or that it was easy for him to fire his friends. He just thought it was wrong and he must stop them,” Shlaes said.
Shlaes said a lot of credit for Coolidge’s successes lies with his wife, Grace. Many credit her with transforming him from an extreme introvert to a leader and for helping him overcome the death of their son, Calvin Jr.
“She referred to their marriage as a double harness. It’s not a phrase that they use now proudly, but she was proud of it because she helped Calvin to pull their marriage and his career forward."
After Coolidge left office, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt both embarked on a large expansion in government programs, essentially reversing Coolidge’s philosophy.
Shlaes said that expansion illustrates that even then there was a strong progressive movement that believed government had a large role to play in everyday life.
“The progressive party wanted to nationalize power (generation) and the railroads in the ‘20s. Coolidge was, if you imagine the flood of the progressive movement, like a man who put his finger in the dike,” she said. “Therefore, the ‘20s were enormously successful with low taxes, no deficits, and enormous growth”
Eventually, Coolidge couldn’t stem the tide of those who favored government expansion, which Shlaes said served as an illustration of how little one man alone can do.
“I see him as postponing the inevitable movement for big government that didn’t work particularly well economically and I show in the subsequent book The Forgotten Man,” she said. “Coolidge is the parallel to the forgotten man. He’s the forgotten president.”
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