Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. HarperCollins, 2013.
Amity Shlaes is a conservative. And she appears to be a fairly well-connected conservative: How many Acknowledgements have you read that thank a recent President (in this case, George W. Bush), saying that this former President was excited about the author’s project? She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, which would probably set off some John Bircher radars (conspiracy! conspiracy!)!
I first heard of Amity Shlaes when I was at a bookstore and saw one of her books, The Forgotten Man, which is about the Great Depression. I read the inside jacket of the book, and it intrigued me. Later, I saw her on ABC This Week and learned that she had written a biography of Calvin Coolidge. I wanted to read that book because I have had somewhat of an interest in Coolidge: he was a quiet man, like me, and some have also maintained that he was more progressive in his political worldview than many might think. I had read another biography of Coolidge a while back—-I believe it was Robert Sobel’s Coolidge: An American Enigma. Sobel’s book had useful information, particularly his defense of Coolidge against the charge that his policies led to the Great Depression. Overall, however, I had difficulties getting into Sobel’s book (though I did finish it), and so I was open to reading how another author told the story of Calvin Coolidge.
Shlaes’ book has plenty of anecdotes. We learn about Coolidge’s close relationship with his father, his struggle to fit in when he went to Amherst College, his personal generosity to people, and yet his extreme thrift, which led to clashes with others. We see that Coolidge was a quiet man, and it was often up to his warm, extroverted wife to smooth over his awkward social encounters. We read of Coolidge’s attempts to move on after his son, Calvin, Jr., had died, and how Coolidge blamed himself because Calvin, Jr. got the fatal infection while playing tennis, and Coolidge figured that none of this would have happened had he not been President, since Calvin, Jr. would then not have used the Presidential tennis courts. Coolidge also appears respectable, in comparison with modern politicians: Coolidge preferred not to attack his political opponents in campaigns, believing that his positions on the issues and his record could stand on their own merits.
Some of the anecdotes I found rather endearing. As President, Coolidge made his son, Calvin, Jr., work in the tobacco fields. One of Calvin, Jr.’s acquaintances found that to be unusual. “If my father was President, I would not work in a tobacco field,” the acquaintance said to Calvin, Jr. Calvin, Jr. replied, “If your father were my father, you would.” In another story, a down-on-his-luck thief is trying to rob Coolidge, unaware that he is robbing the President of the United States! Coolidge talked the guy out of robbing him and loaned him money.
Coolidge as a Massachusetts politician was rather progressive, for he supported women’s suffrage and the minimum wage. Ordinarily, he tried to accommodate labor unions when there was a dispute. Yet, there were conservative aspects of Coolidge’s thought, even during his early political career. Coolidge tended to believe that regulations hindered business. Whereas Theodore Roosevelt read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and decided that the government had to do something about the meat business (due to unsanitary conditions surrounding the meat’s production), Coolidge figured that consumers were the ones who should be responsible for what they bought. Coolidge was also reluctant to support new laws—-he seemed to be temperamentally conservative! Eventually, as Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge would place himself on the map of national politics by firing policemen who were striking, even though he could have just put them in jail and allowed them to return to their jobs once they got out. Coolidge won respect on account of this bold move, and it may even have marked a turning point in his approach to unions, as he came to view them rather negatively. My impression is that Shlaes attributes Coolidge’s earlier progressivism to the tendency of many politicians at that time to show off how progressive they were, to out-progressive each other, if you will. As Coolidge was developing his own political beliefs, however, they were turning out to be conservative.
Shlaes discusses Coolidge’s policies, especially the controversial ones. Coolidge was against increasing the government bonus for veterans, disliking the cost and believing that it was the responsibility of the states (and Shlaes points out that nineteen states increased their bonus for veterans). In Shlaes’ telling, Coolidge was still beloved by veterans, even after telling a group of them that they had served their country and should remember that rather than trying to receive money from the government! Although Coolidge had a farming background and even owned a farm, he opposed increasing farm subsidies; not only did he dislike how they increased prices, but he even questioned whether so many farms were necessary: people were moving to the cities, after all! He grew up in a state that had floods, yet, as President, he did not believe that the national government should play a significant role in the aftermath of natural disasters; he thought this was a state concern. While he supported offering some relief, and his Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, was quite instrumental in raising money for that, Coolidge drew the line when it came to the reconstruction of damaged areas.
Coolidge’s tax cuts are a significant topic in Shlaes’ book, for Shlaes may be presenting them as a model for good public policy. After the tax cuts, there was growth in federal revenue, and that was used to pay off federal debts. The economy was also good under Coolidge, and unemployment was low. As I read the book, there appeared to me to be some variation in the tax policies that Coolidge and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, supported. A constant throughout their proposals was that they supported lowering the income tax rate for the upper economic classes, believing that would trickle down. Their proposals varied, however, when it came to what taxes they believed should go up: one of their proposals was to increase the corporate tax rate and the tax on dividends, for example, but later they advocated a lower corporate tax rate. (And Mellon as President Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary would actually endorse higher taxes, to keep up with government spending!)
Also of interest were Coolidge’s stances on immigration, tariffs, and international relations. On immigration, Coolidge has been criticized for signing a bill that restricted or prohibited certain people-groups from coming to the U.S. Shlaes does not discuss this issue in depth, but she does note that Coolidge opposed restricting Japanese immigration, fearing this would antagonize Japan. Coolidge compromised on this to get his tax cuts passed, but he would look at increasing Japanese antagonism towards the U.S. and conclude that he was right in his apprehension. On tariffs, Shlaes depicts Coolidge as saddled with Republican protectionism, as if he were carrying a burden that he did not want to carry. Critics were saying that Coolidge should support lower tariffs because that meant lower prices—-the same motive for Coolidge’s opposition to increasing farm subsidies. Moreover, Coolidge supported lowering some tariffs. On international relations, Coolidge supported and helped to bring about an international peace treaty.
Shlaes’ biography of Coolidge is informative, albeit dry. On Coolidge’s policies, there were times when I believed that Shlaes’ explored the “other side”—-as when she briefly mentioned the conditions that led policemen to strike, or referred to other options that Governor Coolidge could have pursued besides firing them—-but I wish that she had discussed criticisms of Coolidge’s economic policies. Moreover, there is the question of whether Coolidge’s policies would work today. Andrew Mellon believed that the upper economic classes would pay their workers more if they got a tax cut, and maybe that happened in the 1920’s, when production was on the rise, Henry Ford was paying his employees a good wage, and there was not as much global competition. But can we assume that we would see the same results of such a policy today, when wages stagnate, and corporate profit is not necessarily tied with what is good for workers?
Still, Shlaes’ biography is a must-read for those wanting to learn more about Coolidge, and I am looking forward to reading her book, The Forgotten Man, which is on my nightstand!