In the United States today, the presidency of Calvin Coolidge has all but faded from living memory. Millions of Americans likely have never even heard of him, and in the eyes of millions more who have heard of him he has a poor reputation due to the revisionism that passes for history that is currently taught in high schools and colleges. Author Amity Shlaes set the record straight concerning the Great Depression in The Forgotten Man, and she restores the reputation of our thirtieth president in this splendid, well-researched new biography, "Coolidge."
The future president was born in 1872 into a solid family in Vermont, and Shlaes discusses the traits such as thrift and perseverance that young Calvin internalized while growing up in New England in the late nineteenth century. Coolidge's tenacity paid off during his time at Amherst College in Massachusetts, as he bounced back from adversity to succeed and go on to become a lawyer.
Coolidge eventually entered politics and began climbing the GOP ladder in the Bay State--it is far from certain that someone as introverted as Coolidge could ever succeed in politics today to the degree that Coolidge did, but in his day he was a great vote-getter, and at election time he usually outpolled other Republicans who were on the same ticket with him.
Shlaes notes that Coolidge became more conservative during his early years in public service and that he came to realize that in many situations inaction represents strength, not weakness. As governor, Coolidge displayed his strength and resolve in breaking the Boston police strike of 1919, a feat that brought him national renown and led to his appearance as vice-presidential nominee on Warren Harding's ticket in 1920.
The country was not faring well in the years after World War I--much liberty was lost in America as a consequence of the war, social unrest and inflation were rampant, and a severe economic downturn plagued the country in 1920 and 1921. Once in office, Harding and Coolidge enacted pro-growth policies--they knew that rapid economic growth can cure a host of social ills, and their actions helped the economy mend rapidly and allowed the Roaring Twenties to get underway.
Coolidge became president in August 1923 after Harding's death and was committed to cut taxes and the budget further. Shlaes describes the tough fight that Coolidge and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had to wage to get the tax and budget cuts passed--then as now, there were those in Congress who wanted to use the revenue increases that resulted from the tax cuts for more government programs instead of returning the money its rightful owner, the forgotten American taxpayer.
President Coolidge thought that no president should have more than two full terms and did not run for reelection in 1928. He saw the economic downturn coming and was concerned how Herbert Hoover, his likely successor, would handle it. Coolidge and Hoover are often spoken of as philosophical twins, but that was absolutely not the case, and Shlaes even includes a couple of non-political anecdotes that describe the differences between the two.
The crash did come in 1929, and the interventionists Hoover and FDR spent years and years and years enacting policies that did nothing but lengthen the Depression. Shlaes explains why Coolidge was not responsible for the Great Depression and cites statistics that show that Coolidge's free-market approach solved the equally precipitous 1920-21 crash quickly and led to sustained economic growth: by the end of the Coolidge presidency, the number of those out of work declined by two-thirds, industrial production was through the roof, and the revenue thrown off by the tax rate cuts paid off a third of the national debt.
There is a stark difference between presidential administrations that see economic crises as problems to be solved and administrations that cynically see them as opportunities to grow government, that "you never let a serious crisis go to waste." Shlaes's timely biography recalls a great president whose example reminds us that the application of thrift, sound tax policy, and steely inaction can vanquish economic downturns quickly and provide economic growth, opportunity, and a rising standard of living for all Americans.