The Coolidge Model
During the fireworks and barbeques of the recent 4th of July celebrations, a small minority of Americans took time to celebrate another birthday -- that of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge's legacy, regrettably unknown or forgotten by most, is a paradigm of conservatism that can serve as a valuable guidepost amid today's political tumult. In an age dominated by rhetorical flash and personal charm, principle and genuine character drift into lesser considerations. But they defined Coolidge, both as a statesman and, more importantly, as a person.
When one thinks of modern conservatism, essential tenets of governance come to mind: low taxes, low regulation, federalism. Coolidge certainly shared this worldview. He once famously quipped: "Four-fifths of our troubles would disappear, if we would only sit down and keep still." Coolidge revered and supported the light touch of the state. As Governor of Massachusetts, he described his role as "to walk humbly and discharge my obligations." As president, Coolidge reflected that "[p]erhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business."
And these ideas had results. The economic measures enacted by President Harding and, later, President Coolidge turned around the depression of 1920-1921 and ushered in the roaring twenties. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was cut, the national debt decreased by almost half, and standards of living, from literacy to wealth, increased across the board. From a 20% high in 1921, unemployment under Coolidge came down to an average of 3.3% a year. American prosperity stemmed directly from Coolidge's belief in free enterprise: "Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort."
The example of Coolidge's record extends beyond fiscal matters, particularly regarding his commitment to the rule of law and belief in states' rights. As governor, Coolidge (who opposed prohibition) vetoed a popular law allowing the sale of certain alcoholic beverages, citing the necessary respect and adherence to 18th Amendment of the Constitution -- despite personal convictions and countervailing reason. Furthermore, as president, Coolidge was commander-in-chief during the Great Misssissippi Flood of 1927. When faced with a dilemma similar to Katrina, Coolidge saw the federal government's job as ancillary, assisting the state and private charity, but not overburdening the effort with the complications of federal intervention.
The policies and results of Coolidge are a secondary to the larger point of his legacy. Conservatism today, due to the major points of Republican rhetoric, is understood solely as a theory on the proper role of the state. The points mentioned before (low taxes, low regulation, federalism) have grounding, though, beyond empirics. These are means to a greater end -- the understanding and preservation of organic, natural society.
Conservatism is lost, currently, as a political philosophy. The fundamental values of men like Burke are unaddressed, leaving them undefended in the marketplace of ideas. We look to the Founding Fathers as axiomatic truths, but fail to explain why. The constancy of human nature, the fallibility of man, the role of tradition in guiding social structures -- the very ideas that lead to our founding -- seem irrelevant or unimportant to our politicians.
Take the question: is there progress in history? It is a near-certainty that almost all politicians, on both sides of the aisle, would answer, "Of course!" We are wealthier, smarter, and healthier than we were one hundred years ago -- it's a no-brainer, right? Here, though, lies the problem in a style of governance divorced from its underlying philosophy. Democrats and Republicans, while advocating for different methods, use the same metric of material well-being (a legacy of the enlightenment). This is not the conservative answer, cognizant of a larger purpose. Coolidge explained:
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
The Coolidge Model is one of principle and practice. His record as a leader is undoubtedly admirable and worthy of emulation. However, today, Coolidge's conservatism of character is far more valuable, for it is lost and forgotten. As our society is bogged down in economic turmoil and worldly danger, conservatives cannot engage in the reactionary rhetoric of "what should we do?!" when they fail to re-examine why they are here. True leadership will not come from a seasoned economist, but from those who first tackle this necessary question. Here lies the true gift of Coolidge's legacy and the lessons he passed down.
This is a long, gradual process, but our national identity requires a re-evaluation of purpose. Perhaps the first move, as Coolidge said, is a simple step towards humility: "It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man."
Harry Graver is a Sophomore at Yale University.