With the recent “Great Recession” and focus on government stimulus spending and increases taxation from the current Obama administration, there has been a good deal of attention given to Amity Shlaes’ recent book The Forgotten Man (a reference to those taxed to pay for big government progams such as the New Deal). However, perhaps the most forgotten man of that era is the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), or “Silent Cal” as he was known.
Coolidge was and served from 1923-1929, during the “Roaring ’20s,” a time of great social upheaval (not unlike today), but also of rapidly growing prosperity (much unlike today). Keep in mind that he was president in the time just after World War I, when the country took on massive debt (by the standard of the time) in prosecuting the war, and caring for the soldiers and their families (about $3 Billion had been spent on that effort by 1925, according to an address to the American Legion). Considering the crushing debt that we are currently facing, it might be wise to ask how Coolidge was able to usher in an era of prosperity under the shadow of debt?
The answer is fairly simple: cut taxes, cut them some more, then cut them again. Oh yeah, and reduce expenditures (cut spending) and limit regulation of the markets too. He viewed taxation with caution, and thought that taxes should be lower, and fewer people should have to pay them:
One of the rights which the freeman has always guarded with most jealous care is that of enjoying the rewards of his own industry. Realizing that the power to tax is the power to destroy and that the power to take a certain amount of property or of income is only another way of saying that for a certain proportion of his time a citizen must work for the Government, the authority to impose a tax on the people has been most carefully guarded. Our own Constitution requires that revenue bills should originate in the House, because that body is supposed to be more representative of the people. These precautions have been taken because of the full realization that any oppression laid upon the people by excessive taxation, any disregard of their right to hold and enjoy the property which they have rightfully acquired, would be fatal to freedom. A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. It condemns the citizen to servitude.
Meeting of the Business Organization of the Government
Memorial Continental Hall | June 30, 1924
He continued this program that was started under Warren G. Harding (while Coolidge was VP), and focused in retiring some of the debt amassed from WWI. Under his administration, Congress passed the Revenue Acts of 1924, 1926, and 1928, all of which lowered taxes. Concurrently, he kept federal spending low to help reduce the debt. By 1927, only the top 2% of taxpayers paid any federal income tax, and a quarter of the federal debt was able to be paid off. In fact, by 1929, the federal budget was actually smaller than it was in 1924 – while the federal budget remained small, local and state budgets grew. In fact, Coolidge was worried that the budget surplusses ($500 Million in 1924 alone) would eventually lead to the temptation of bigger government, so effective were his policies.
At the heart of these policies is the conservative philosophy of smaller federal government in favor of “local self-government”. As Coolidge explains:
“The functions which whatever the charity of the nation may require. The functions which the Congress are to discharge are not those of local government but of national government. The greatest solicitude should be exercised to prevent any encroachment upon the rights of the states or their various political subdivisions. Local self-government is one of our most precious possessions. It is the greatest contributing factor to the stability, strength, liberty, and progress of the nation. It ought not to be infringed by assault or undermined by purchase. It ought not to be abdicate its power through weakness or resign its authority through favor. It does not at all follow that because abuses exist it is the concern of the federal Government to attempt their reform.
“Society is in much more danger from encumbering the national Government beyond its wisdom to comprehend, or its ability to administer, than from leaving the local communities to bear their own burdens and remedy their own evils. Our local habit and custom is so strong, our variety of race and creed is so great, the federal is so tenuous, that the area within which it can function successfully is very limited. The wiser policy is to leave the localities, so far as we can, possessed of their own sources of revenue and charged with their own obligations.”
Third Annual Message to Congress, pp. 9514-9515 [Emphasis mine]
Sometimes I just marvel at the almost prescient wisdom of some of our conservative forbears. Like Reagan after him, Coolidge understood the dangers of an ever-increasing federal government and the dangers to the liberty of the citizens that it represented:
“Our country was conceived in the theory of local self-government. It has been dedicated by long practice to that wise and benificent policy. It is the foundation principle of our system of liberty. It makes the largest promise to the freedom and development of the individual. Its preservation is worth all the effort and all the sacrifice that it may cost.
“It cannot be denied that the present tendency is not in harmony with this spirit. The individual, instead of working out his own salvation and securing his own freedom by establishing his own economic and moral independence by his own industry and his own self-mastery, tends to throw himself on some vague influence which he denominates society and to hold that in some way responsible for the sufficiency of his support and the morality of his actions. The local political units likewise look to the States, the States look to the Nation, and nations are beginning to look to some vague organization, some nebulous concourse of humanity, to pay their bills and tell them what to do. This is not local self-government. It is not America. It is not the method which has made this country what it is. We cannot maintain the western standard of civilization on that theory. If it is supported at all, it will have to be supported on the principle of individual responsibility.”
Address at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1925
It seems that the same progressive compulsion to shirk personal responsibilty and to rely on the federal government to legitimize and subsidize one’s choices was present (arguably to a much lesser extent than today) was present even in Coolidge’s era. However, he was able to demonstrate that the opposite, a small federal government, is what creates prosperity and preserves freedom. Perhaps that’s why Reagan had a portrait of Coolidge hung in the cabinet room after he was inaugurated.
*As an aside, I began this post with a reference to Amity Schlae’s book about the Great Depression, I doubt it’s a coincidence the her subsequent effort, Coolidge, is about Silent Cal.
- Calvin Coolidge: Bigger Government Isn’t Better (heritage.org)
- Will: Calvin Coolidge, commander in brief (columbian.com)
- Calvin Coolidge, Dr. Benjamin Carson, and Us (realclearpolitics.com)