Book Review: Why Coolidge Matters


About halfway through Charles C. Johnson’s book “Why Coolidge Matters”, in the context of political opponents bashing Coolidge as “not a man to start a corporation” (by businessman and future president Herbert Hoover) and that he could “no more run this big machine at Washington than could a paralytic” (Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota) this paragraph appears:

“At root, these criticisms resulted from what has proved to be a listing misunderstanding of what the president must be - a view that still predominates in Americans’ conception of the office. We are often told that we need a president who will ‘run America like a business,’ or that we need outsiders who can “shake up Washington” or overturn the “system.” These slogans dangerously misrepresent the president’s proper role, which is not to treat citizens are shareholders or customers or subjects, but as members of a republic, partners in self-government. The CEO is beholden to shareholders; the president is first among equals. This insight requires that the president direct Americans’ attention toward a common good and a public morality. It means the the first duty of the president or any statesman is to teach his fellow citizens.””

This paragraph was strikingly similar to some of the rhetoric that came up with the most recent presidential election. Supporters of our current president Donald Trump believed that Trump’s business background was a positive, and that running the country like a business was what the country needed at this time. Charles C. Johnson, the author of Why Coolidge Matters offers a counter-thought to the notion that American government should be run as a business based on Coolidge’s beliefs. I don’t believe Johnson’s writing is directly aimed at a Trump presidency as the book was published in May of 2013, but its potency is even grander today.

Coolidge, in his autobiography, goes on to say:

“when I felt qualified to serve, I was well aware that there were many others who were better qualified. It would be my providence to get the benefit of their opinion and advice. It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he not is a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in his republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”

Coolidge also had a practical reason - he believed great or high-profile men often had great adversaries, and that they tend to distract from accomplishing presidential agendas. Coolidge’s perspective is relevant today, as a “celebrity president” currently sits in the White House. The above paragraph likely resonates with those who disapprove of President Trump and believe that his ego may obstruct reasonable diplomacy & domestic governance, and that he is reluctant to take advice from advisors.

Overview

Johnson’s book starts with the premise that Coolidge is a forgotten president - one with a negative reputation based on inaction and ineffectiveness. In turn, Johnson argues that this reputation is given unfairly, and that Coolidge’s philosophy of government in the wake of a world war is one that is still highly relevant today. Coolidge dealt with the growing tide of socialism and in turn, labor strikes that includes both a police force strike in Boston (as a Governor) and coal strikes in Pennsylvania (as a President). The book is a persuasive perspective on Coolidge’s impact as a president and his lasting philosophies.

The most foundational aspect of Coolidge’s belief started with the same simple premise that the Declaration of Independence did - all men are created equal. In fact, Coolidge attributes almost all of this ideological thoughts and beliefs to the Declaration. As his belief that all men are created equal is self-evident, he believed in suffrage & opposed racial prejudice in every aspect. He stated that God had “not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character” - these truths bound all Americans’ together in a common brotherhood. He believed that without equality under law, classes form and democracy erodes. He states:

“Here lies the path to national preservation, and there is not other. Education, the progress of science, commercial prosperity, yes, and peace, all these and their accompanying blessings are worthy and commendable objects of attainment. But these are not the end, whether these come or no; the end lines in action - action in accord with the eternal principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Education

He was aware that the founding documents of America were not perfect, as “mankind is finite” and “processes of government are subject to the same limitations,” which stood in stark contrast to the belief of the era’s Progressives and their promises of perfection. He believed that this was a strength of America and its Constitution - it evolved “not by the total overthrow of institutions,” but by “preserving that which was good”. As Johnson writes: “It was imperfect, as all other governing documents before it, but he saw this as something to expect and correct.” Coolidge knew that America had imperfections, like all other states, and that slow advancement was the proper way to proceed and improve.

Coolidge was also a strong believer in education - he believed it was the statesman’s duty to teach. In the context of the growing pressure of socialism, Coolidge concluded that education was the proper way to dispel its tendencies; he stated “Education is to teach men not what to think but how to think. Government will take on new activities, but it is not more to control the people, the people are to control the government.” He was a strong believer in teaching the classics, such as history, literature, etc. - “It is far from enough to teach our citizens a vocation” - and felt that liberal education had fallen by the wayside to research-oriented universities. As Johnson described Coolidge’s beliefs:

“Rome fell because it abandoned its own ideals and became ‘a prey, first to itself and then to the barbarians.’ The same fate could befall America if it neglected its own ideals. Coolidge therefore sought to shore up education to save the American republic from the Roman republic’s fate.”

Philosophy of Government

The nickname “Silent Cal” originated from Coolidge’s preference for brevity. That preference shined through in his activity as a politician. From Coolidge himself:

“When I first went to the Legislature I was a very young man. I suppose those who voted for me considered me a Radical or a Liberal. I had only been a member of the Legislature a few months when I made up my mind that Massachusetts at any rate was legislating faster than it could administer and that the sane thing was to call a halt for the time being.”

Coolidge believed that a government could not legislate its way out of a problem. Further, he felt that legislation often had ill unintended consequences which once in effect would be much harder to remove. He summed up his belief in a letter to his father, who was about to become a Vermont state senator: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones…See that the bills you recommend from your committee are so worded that they will do just what they intend and not a great deal more that is undesirable. Most bills can’t stand that test.” He hated change for the sake of change, and was alarmed that the state of Massachusetts was legislating bills at a rate in which it could not enforce them. In his entrance to office as governor, he attempted to curb the the rate at which bills were becoming law, and actively discourage an activist approach to the office. His tendency was to deliberate & move without haste: “Expediency as a working principle is bound to fail.” As president, his position was that the executive government was there to enforce law, not to toil in the legislative process. He disdained excessive bureaucratic power, and sought to maximize government efficiency and minimize its excess by squashing committees and removing departments that weren’t critical to the governments ability to execute.

Review

If you’re a casual observer of history as I am, this is a good read. It really picks up about a third of the way in, and thoroughly exposes Coolidge’s thoughts on government, education, religion & work. The author gives a conservative spin on most of the discussion, and of course is attempting to convince the read that Coolidge was actually an effective president and remarkable role model for future leaders. I came away believing that as well - Coolidge was sound in his principles & is quite distinct present day politicians. I wasn’t able to cover all the notes I had taken while reading this book, but Coolidge was also a keen believer in the value of hard work, showed tact in some of his dealings as president, and came at an uncertain time in America’s history after the “Great War.” He dealt with tragedy in assuming the office as a Vice President when the sitting president Warren G. Harding was killed while in office, and also dealt with the death of his teenage son while in office. I agree with Johnson that Coolidge should be given a larger, more positive role in the history of the presidential office and would not be surprised if a Coolidge renaissance occurs in the near future.