Monday, April 10, 2017

Why Coolidge Matters by Charles C. Johnson

Ever since reading Amity Shlaes The Forgotten Man, which gave a few insights into Calvin Coolidge, I have been interested in this forgotten president. So when a book comes out about him, I'm interested. Judging by the title, Why Coolidge Matters by Charles C. Johnson, this book would seem to fit what I was looking for. 

Johnson begins right away stating why he feels a book like this is important. "For too long, we have neglected our history. But delving into the details of the past can help us better connect the dots between the politics of today and the essential ideals of yesteryear. Seeing more clearly what we have lost may help us return to America's founding principles. A few among us remember the Coolidge presidency and -- notwithstanding the long assault on its record -- look to it for inspiration." (p. XXII) Yep. Johnson adds, "It is my contention that Coolidge is ignored (in some cases even hated) not because he was ineffective as an executive, but because he was spectacularly effective at helping the common man while defeating attempts to socialize America." (p. 4)

Calvin recognized that the best way to "spread the wealth" was a vibrant economy, spearheaded by successful businesses. Only by allowing people to the "right of a reward to thrift and industry" could inequality be addressed. (p. 8) Coolidge believed that rewards should go to those who contributed to an enterprise. In addition, Coolidge saw the threat to the American way of life poised by Socialism. With the Russian Revolution in the very near past, that America might embrace its tenets was a very real possibility. In an era of great upheaval, Coolidge eschewed a grand legislative program. "His skepticism about new laws was rooted in his conviction that the purpose of politics was not to achieve certain ends, but to defend rights and protect the public safety." (p. 16) He feared a too large government and the unintended consequences he felt were sure to happen when the government sought to control too much. The one area, however, that he wanted to government to work to do a better job was education. He knew that a well-educated citizenry was vital to the health of the Republic. 

Coolidge gained national prominence when he put down a police strike in Massachusetts. He felt the police were neglecting their duty to the people. Their mob-like actions usurped the authority of a duly elected government. This he believed was the definition of tyranny. 
Coolidge received a classical education. Therefore he learned the value of the whole soul. Work was necessary and uplifting, providing much needed dignity, but it could not be a person's total focus. People had rights and responsibilities to and within society. He believed that faith was necessary to a free people. He pointed to the Declaration of Independence as the perfect example of the faith needed by the American people. Without a belief in a Creator, the rights we enjoy are ephemeral at best. "Religion, classical education, and a love of country all strengthened Coolidge's resolve against the excesses of Progressivism, which, Coolidge feared, would become predatory if it were not checked. The Progressives' intention to minister to souls all to often resulted, he saw, in a byzantine, indifferent bureaucracy that mastered the people it aimed to serve." (p. 51)

Coolidge saw a real danger in the progress of science and the lack of a classical education to keep that progress from resulting in unmitigated horror. "When classical ideals have first priority, war might more easily be avoided. When they are ignored, men can become machine-like in their capacity for killing. In so arguing, Coolidge broke with the Progressives, who held that progress in modern science inevitably meant progress in political science and thus in overall quality of life. This argument of the Progressives undergirded their belief that man was perfectible, a notion that Coolidge rejected out of hand...'We have no right to expect as our portion something substantially different from human experience in the past. The constitution of the universe doesn't change. Human nature remains constant.' It follows from this assertion that the study of the classics, which speak to that human nature and have existed down throughout the ages, teach important lessons to mankind. For Coolidge, men come to the study of the classics because they 'realize that the only road to freedom lies through a knowledge of the truth.' "(p. 58)

One professor at Amherst, Charles Garman, made a tremendous impact on young Calvin. In a beautiful recollection of his time with him, Coolidge states, "His course was a demonstration of the existence of a personal God, of our power to know Him, of the Divine immanence, and of the complete dependence of all the universe on Him as the Creator and Father 'in whom we live and move and have our being.' Every reaction in the universe is a manifestation of His presence. Man was revealed as His son, and nature as the hem of his garment, while through a common Fatherhood we are all embraced in a common brotherhood... The conclusions which followed from this position were logical and inescapable. It sets man off in a separate kingdom from all the other creatures in the universe, and makes him a true son of God and a partaker of the Divine nature. This is the warrant for his freedom and the demonstration of his equality. It does not assume all are equal in degree but [that] all are equal in kind. On that precept rests a foundation for democracy that cannot be shaken." (p. 67)

This faith led him to revere the Founding Fathers, attributing a measure of their greatness to the Great Awakening. Coolidge had a great respect for the Founding documents and saw his job as one who would keep the flame. In order to do this, America had to keep its commitment to Christianity, since he saw religion and God as the source of our liberties. His training under Garman had convinced him of this vital link. 

"America's moral mission in the world, Coolidge thought, would never be divorced from the font of her spiritual power, the Declaration. When this religious origin is seriously considered, it is only 'natural that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence should open with a reference to Nature's God and should close in the final paragraphs with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world and an assertion of a firm reliance on Divine Providence.' It is only natural because man is, at base, a spiritual creature who wants to live in harmony with God's laws." (p. 103)

Coolidge feared that America was losing her moral bearings. "It was increasingly clear to Coolidge that America's colleges, founded on religious truths, had started to go awry. Progressivism, with its ceaseless indictments and diminution of fundamental principles, had been a phenomenon of the universities and was starting to have a corrosive effect on the nation's civic life." (p. 112) Coolidge did his best to check this pernicious tendency. 
"President Coolidge's capacious understanding of the powers of teh presidency saved him from being a mere time-server when, on August 3, 1923, he ascended to the office upon the death of President Harding. Portrait painter Charles Hopkinson had asked Coolidge what his first thought was when he learned that Harding had died. 'I thought I could swing it,' he replied." (p. 113) Coolidge had a tremendous respect for the role of the President as the Founders had envisioned it. Some compared him to George Washington in his devotion to integrity and duty. A lifetime of sticking to his principles had prepared him to step into a role few ever attain.

He believed one of his first duties was to teach the American people what America was really about. He was a scholar of the Founders and after the Wilson presidency, Americans needed to be reminded of the role that government and the President were to play. Coolidge did not enter the presidency with a specific agenda. He believed the President's role was to execute laws crafted by the representatives of the people. He would not, however, shun the use of the veto pen to guide policy. He believed in the concept of a "unitary executive." He knew the bureaucracy threatened to encroach upon the presidential powers and he used every means at his disposal to ensure the bureaucrats acted according to his priorities.Coolidge constantly referred the people back to the Founders and the documents they read and produced. He believed that they had founded a system of balanced powers and that each branch should work effectively within their own sphere. He was determined that the Presidency, under his control, would protect its power, but not overstep its boundaries. 

As a nation founded on the concept of natural rights, Coolidge believed that America had no place for prejudice, and rather, had a calling to preach her republican ideals to the world. Coolidge saw that a shared sacrifice and common identity would unite the diverse groups within America. At a time of virulent racism - the Klan was on the rise - Coolidge eschewed the racist philosophies of many presidents before him. In fact, he believed racist beliefs were hostile towards the Union. 
"As racial enmity increased with the rise of the Klan, Coolidge highlighted 'the negro' -- his plight and his progress -- in every one of his Sate of the Union addresses. In 1923, he reminded Congress that blacks' right are 'just as sacred as those of any other citizen' and encouraged Congress to 'exercise all its powers of prevention and punishment against the hideous crime of lynching' and to 'formulate a better policy [of racial reconciliation] for mutual understanding and confidence.' " (p. 171)

When it came to other minority groups and those that did not enjoy the full rights of citizens, Coolidge worked hard to bring them into the American fold. He wanted Indians to be educated in the ways of Americans, he defended the Japanese against vicious attacks, he bragged about how many Catholics and Irish voted for him, and he declared his desire for women to have the right to vote. His overriding philosophy concerning immigrants and other minorities was their ability to understand and live up to American ideals. He worked as hard as he could within the political realities available to him to create more Americans. He worried that a too loose immigration policy would dilute those essential characteristics and sometimes he is faulted for his caution. However, for Coolidge, it was not race or gender that cared about, it was the American way of life. Any race, any gender that could promote those values was welcome as far as he was concerned. 

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Coolidge came to power at the height of Progressivism. As such, he was fighting a constant battle with them to preserve America's heritage. He and Harding had ascended right on the heels of Wilson's presidency, which sought to relegate America's founding documents to the dustbin as ancient relics. Coolidge had his work cut out for him. After the passage of the 17th Amendment and the direct election of Senators, he had to fight a Senate increasingly abusing its responsibility to sign off on treaties as an excuse to meddle in foreign affairs. While they approved the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war, Coolidge used his authority to build up the navy as a deterrent, knowing the pact was useless.

Johnson has great respect for Calvin Coolidge as President. He concludes with, "Coolidge was great because he was modest, moderate, and thoroughly republican in an immodest time... Disliking ambitious solutions to problems and opposed to complicated, unconstitutional machinery, he always reduced a problem to common sense. In doing so, he discharged his constitutional duties faithfully. If he was a dull figure in comparison with some presidents, it is because the events of his day did not demand the more obvious kind of greatness -- of which he was fully capable." (p. 233) 

It is more than a bit ironic that Coolidge did not get to prove his greatness in a large way because he was able to keep America on an even keel and economically prosperous. The problems that confounded the nation after him, the stock market crash of 1929 and the following depression, would have undoubtedly given him the opportunity. However, I believe he would have navigated those crises so successfully that even then, he would have been denied his due. It's also ironic that the president who presided over and arguably lengthened Great Depression gets more credit than the man whose calm rationality and adherence to constitutionality earned him the moniker "Silent Cal." He was actually quite vociferous and has much to teach us today.

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