Executive Restraint: Why Coolidge Still Matters           

By: Christopher Condon, Inside Politics Participant

The year was 1923; wages had been rising and American wealth had escalated to unprecedented levels. All was quiet for Vice President Calvin Coolidge, the no-name mayor turned Governor of Massachusetts turned national figure. His post was a relatively ceremonial one, a nod to the faithfully Republican electorate of New England, no doubt.

Everything changed for the Vice President one midsummer’s night. While visiting family in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the Coolidges were awoken by a firm knock at the front door of their modest stead. In the absence of any electricity or telephones, a messenger had arrived with shocking news: the President was dead.

Warren Gamaliel Harding died on a Tuesday evening after a slight and sudden bout with heart problems. The fight was over for Harding, but for Coolidge, the notoriously timid career politician, the battle was just beginning. In the campaign of 1920, Warren Harding had promised the American people “A Return to Normalcy,” and Coolidge intended to follow through on his predecessor’s oath; a return to peace and prosperity, a return to the characteristics that had brought America to the forefront of the world stage in such a short time.

This journey to former principles mostly revolved around healing the scars of the First World War; for the Coolidge administration, this included the centralization of power that had emerged under Wilsonian Democrats. But after a number of scandals during the Harding administration, many Americans lacked trust in the Republican Party. It seemed unlikely that any Republican candidate would win the 1924 election. However, the results of 1924 showed a shift; Coolidge secured double the amount of popular votes as the next highest candidate, Democrat John Davis of West Virginia.

How did the Coolidge administration overcome such grave doubt in Republican leadership? The answer can be significantly attributed to strong economic expansion and conservative tax policies under Coolidge. From 1924 to 1928, the marginal income tax rate for those making over $100,000 fell from 43% to 25%, and unemployment fell from 8.7% to 4.6% after the depression of 1920. Wages rose, prices fell, and inventions, such as the radio and washing machine, were made available to the general public. The decade of the automobile had begun, and Coolidge had failed to keep Harding’s promise. During his presidency, the 1920’s soon became anything but a “normal” decade; Silent Cal had helped spur the greatest period of economic growth in American history.

On Tuesday August 2, 1927, the President held a press conference: he did not reveal what the topic was. Once the press had arrived, Coolidge handed them each a small strip of paper.  Upon unraveling it, the members of the press were shocked to read, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” The public was just as surprised as the press; most regarded Coolidge as a shoo-in in 1928. Regardless of public expectation, the President stepped down quietly, passively endorsing his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, for the Republican nomination.

Many compared Hoover to Coolidge with his quiet, reserved disposition and regimented management style. His rhetoric throughout his campaign and early presidency were also reminiscent of the Coolidge’s, promising the same style of executive restraint. However, following Black Tuesday and the dawn of the Great Depression, Hoover’s policies became more interventionist. Through programs like the Division of Public Construction, National Wool Marketing Corporation, and The Federal Home Loan Bank, the Hoover administration expanded fiscal expenditures and distanced itself philosophically from the Coolidge era.

Almost any conservative thinker would agree that Coolidge’s theory of limited executive power and limited governmental intervention in the economy was the cornerstone of the prosperity of the 1920’s. Many would, seeing the similarities between the centralization of power under the Wilson administration and the expansion of the use of executive orders seen today, contend that reviving such a system could bring about another “Coolidge Prosperity.” Regardless of one’s opinion on that point, it is worth it for every American to read a bit about Calvin Coolidge, an unrightfully forgotten President, who did much to shape the political philosophy of the Right in today’s political arena.