This 4th of July will mark 147 years since the birth of Calvin Coolidge. The reputation of our nation’s 30th president has undergone a quiet revolution in the past few decades: once described as the “puritan” in the “Babylon” of the 1920s, Coolidge has recently emerged as a favorite president among many conservatives.
His popularity today owes a good deal to Amity Shlaes, whose 2013 biography of Coolidge seemed almost singlehandedly to resurrect his reputation. But Coolidge has been the subject of several other recent works, in addition to several very good existing studies of his life and career.
Despite all of Coolidge’s good press, the reputation of “Silent Cal” has been subjected to distorted characterizations and sometimes outright falsehoods. Some are merely casual errors, such as the assertion in George Will’s newest book that Coolidge translated Dante as a wedding present for his wife (the evidence indicates merely that Coolidge was reading Dante around the time of his marriage), while others are more damaging to Coolidge’s reputation. A common college history textbook, for example, asserts that Coolidge stated that “wealth is the chief end of man” (which he never said).
In light of such ongoing confusion about Coolidge and in honor of his birthday, this article addresses four of the biggest myths about his life, ideas, and presidency.
1. Coolidge Was Silent? Only When He Wanted to Be
The myth of Coolidge as a nearly mute politician emerged during his lifetime. While Coolidge was likely an introvert by personality, his reputation as a say-nothing president couldn’t be more off.
The truth is that Coolidge cultivated the habit of silence in the presence of strangers. He explained his reason for intentional silence in his autobiography. Coolidge’s political mentor, Murray Crane, confirmed for him what he already suspected: maintaining a prudent silence “avoids creating a situation where one would otherwise not exist.” Why stir up trouble through a stray remark, or go needlessly on the record on a contentious subject?
In truth, Coolidge was a politician and knew that he must keep himself and his ideas before the public. He did this as he did all things, dutifully and well. His published record indicates the frequency with which he spoke: three published volumes of speeches cover the height of his career (1914-1926), with many unpublished speeches before and after those years. He wrote regularly for magazines, and he spent much of his time post-presidency in writing. He wrote his “Autobiography” in 1929, wrote a daily newspaper column from 1930-1931, and wrote on various political topics on into the final months of his life.
Moreover, during his time in the White House, Coolidge gave twice-weekly press conferences. To uphold his reputation for silence, he insisted that the reporters attribute his remarks to a “White House spokesman,” not the president himself, but the published abridgment of his conferences indicates just how frequently he spoke.
2. Coolidge Never Said: ‘They Hired the Money, Didn’t They’
Another Coolidge myth is the idea that he was unrelenting in his demands that allied nations from World War I repay their war debts. This depiction has given rise to the popularity of a quotation ascribed to President Coolidge: “They hired the money, didn’t they?”
The reality is that Coolidge almost certainly never said this. Claude Fuess, Coolidge’s most thorough biographer and archivist who processed most of the Coolidge papers, looked into the matter and could not find any source for the remark. Other researchers could find no evidence of it either. The best evidence for it comes from Coolidge’s wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, who admitted that it sounded like something her husband might have said, even though she did not remember hearing Calvin say it.
More importantly, Coolidge’s philosophy of foreign relations was far friendlier to European debtor nations that the popular myth implies. As Robert Ferrell showed in his study of Coolidge’s presidency, the Coolidge administration repeatedly cooperated with European nations to reduce their interest payments and to extend the period of repayment.
3. The Laissez-Faire President? Not Exactly
Coolidge is often represented as the laissez-faire president of the twentieth century. From history textbooks to the popular articles, Coolidge is vilified (and sometimes praised) for taking government out of the business of economic regulation.
While Coolidge obviously worked to reduce the size and scope of the federal government in the 1920s, it is simply a myth to say that Coolidge was a laissez-faire president. To the contrary, Coolidge believed in the duty of government to be active in promoting the national welfare—if constrained with proper limits.
He believed in markets, human initiative, and local control over business, but he was not blind to the important place of government in establishing the conditions of a healthy business environment. The government could establish regular rules and order—a firm rule of law—and provide a greater sense of certainty for titles and contracts in the business world.
Coolidge understood that the 1919 riots in Boston, while he was governor of Massachusetts, were bad for business. His support for law and order in that event made him nationally famous. Moreover, Coolidge believed in the duty of the federal government to break apart the great trusts or monopolies that nationally dominated particular industries, and he praised President Theodore Roosevelt for his role in doing just that.
Above that, Coolidge believed that the federal government had a duty to act for the health of the national economy. He was a lifelong defender of protective tariffs, and he was well-read on the debate between protectionists and free-traders. Aware that the theoretical challenges of free-market economics challenged his position, he justified his position on the tariff by appealing to experience: “Its merits are justified by its results.”
In a letter to a friend who sent him a four-volume set of the economist William Graham Sumner’s writings, Coolidge evaluated Sumner’s case and summarized his own view: “My observation of protection is that it has been successful in practice, however unsound it may be in theory. That must mean that the theories have not taken account of all the facts.”
Furthermore, Coolidge never criticized the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Reserve, both creations of President Woodrow Wilson. To the contrary, the Coolidge administration supported adding to the regulatory framework as necessary—signing the Air Commerce Act in 1926 and supporting the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927. These are not the actions of a laissez-faire politician.
4. Was Coolidge a Servant of Big Business? No
President Coolidge is also sometimes depicted as a tool of big business. His tax-reduction policy is presented as serving the interests of large corporations while he neglected the interests of the poor and working-class Americans. This could not be further from the truth.
Coolidge himself explained that he believed in tax cuts because they helped the poor. He said in his inaugural address that “The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and in all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which everyone will have a better chance to be successful.”
He had stated earlier that “I am not disturbed about the effect on a few thousand people with large incomes because they have to pay high surtaxes. They can take care of themselves, whatever happens, as the rich always can. What concerns me is the indirect effect of high surtaxes on all the rest of the people. Let us always remember the poor.”
Even though left-leaning historians frequently criticize Republican policies of the 1920s for driving the unequal distribution of wealth, the record of the Republican administrations of the 1920s on job creation, average wage growth, and increasing material prosperity is too clear to ignore. Tom Silver documented these gains almost 40 years ago, and his even-handed conclusion was that “in the twenties the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting richer, but the poor were getting richer at a slower rate.”
Meanwhile, average price levels fell throughout the decade while the real wage gained at an average of 2.1 percent annually. In addition, the revised tax codes of the 1920s shifted the burden of taxation onto the wealthiest Americans—due to the repeated tax cuts of 1921, 1924, 1926, and 1928, only 2 percent of American workers paid any income tax in 1929. One scholar documents that the total number of taxpayers decreased by more than one million, while 0.3 percent of Americans paid 94 percent of the nation’s income taxes. In word and deed, Coolidge proved himself a friend of the American worker.
As with any president, misunderstandings, myths, and bad history will continue to surround President Coolidge. Some anecdotes are simply too delightful to forget, even if they aren’t true. Some myths feed into partisan prejudices—such as the myth that Republican policies in the 1920s caused the Great Depression—and will live on no matter how many times they are disproven.
But Coolidge was an honest man and a responsible politician, and we owe it to his memory to get his record right.