Tuesday, December 27, 2011

History’s Frigid View of Coolidge (Part I)

History classes pass over the presidency of Calvin Coolidge by saying he accomplished nothing, but was hugely responsible for the Great Depression. In fact, my history teacher told our class he was a “no good drunk”. I have never found any documentation that Coolidge drank let alone abused alcohol. So how is it that the man who presided over arguably the most prosperous time in American history (Roaring 20s) accomplished nothing? And why do historians place most of the blame of Great Depression on Coolidge? Two words – Laissez-Faire. Since Coolidge believed in a small government and had a “hands off” approach of the federal government’s role in society, he must have accomplished nothing and therefore, did nothing to prevent the Great Depression. This is a very weak argument at best.

In fact, this could not be further from the truth. Coolidge became president after Warren Harding died in office in 1923. Coolidge quickly made it a point to clean up the corruption and scandals that riddled the Harding presidency. Coolidge worked hard over his 6 year presidency to reduce taxes and cut federal government spending. In 1927, only the top 2% of the wealthiest Americans paid income taxes. That meant 98% of all Americans paid no income taxes! This coupled with extremely low unemployment and no inflation led to prosperous times. American citizens had more money than ever before. Interestingly, despite cutting taxes and cutting federal spending the Coolidge economic approach still increased federal revenues. The 20s were also a time that saw more and more technology introduced into society. The radio, automobile, and electric appliances made people’s lives easier and therefore, they had more spare time. Coolidge pushed for civil rights legislation, but it derailed by Southern Democrats. He removed the influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the federal government. Coolidge was ahead of his time in terms of civil rights for not only African-Americans, but for Native Americans and women.

Although he was extremely popular, Coolidge decided not to run for reelection in 1928. He said he would be setting a bad precedent by serving more than 8 years (if he won, he would have served as President more than 10 years). This exemplifies why Coolidge was a great president. He was a modest man with a small ego. He was not gung ho on pushing his ideology and did not worry about his legacy and how history would judge him. Coolidge simply was not consumed with power like all other presidents.

Instead, Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election. Hoover, like Coolidge was a Republican, but this can be very misleading. Hoover was a progressive no different than Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). In fact, Wilson and FDR wanted Hoover to run for president in 1920 as a Democrat. Hoover served in Coolidge’s administration as his Secretary of Commerce. Coolidge stated that he was most advised by Hoover, but he did not agree with any of the pro labor policies he proposed. Hoover believed that a technical solution existed to all social and economic problems, thus he was a believer in government intervention – not laissez-faire. Hoover, like Wilson and FDR, was the antithesis of Coolidge. Most historians do not agree that Hoover’s political ideology was similar to that of Wilson and FDR. But since a small number of historians have linked Hoover in the same category as FDR and Wilson, it is for this reason; progressive historians blame Coolidge for the Great Depression. After all, if they blamed Hoover, they would be admitting that FDR and Wilson policies are also flawed.

My Book: Is America Dying? (Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble)

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