Robert H. Ferrell, 1998
I started this series of articles 7½ years ago, after my tutoring student Saer, cramming for the AP U.S. History test, asked me to tell her the one or two most important things about each president, starting with George Washington and proceeding chronologically. When we got to Warren Harding, I told her about how he campaigned on the theme of a return to "normalcy", and about the scandals in his administration that came to light after his death. Next up was Calvin Coolidge. "Oh yeah!" Saer piped up as soon as I said his name. "He was like, 'Buh buh buh,'" she said, squinting around in confusion with her tongue hanging out. Turns out that was pretty much spot on! This book was dull, and part of the reason is that Ferrell drones on about the dusty minutiae of policy issues in an unfocused way, without using the role played by the Coolidge administration as a lens through which to view those issues. But this is probably because the Coolidge administration rarely played much of a role in anything. Coolidge's philosophy, as he explained to Herbert Hoover, was that "if you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you", and so inaction was almost always the best option. As a result, this book is around two hundred pages of "Here are some things that were going on in the 1920s. Meanwhile, Calvin Coolidge was alive."
Coolidge was born in rural Vermont — not that there is a whole lot of bustling urban Vermont to cause confusion on that score — and moved to the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts in order to attend Amherst College. After graduating, he moved across the river to Northampton — a trip that now entails crossing the Calvin Coolidge Bridge, as I did several times a week when I lived in the area — and apprenticed as a lawyer, soon becoming a politician as well. His career looks like that of an ancient Roman politician doing the cursus honorum, as he shuffled from office to office for a year or two at a time: city councilor, city solicitor, county clerk of courts, state representative, mayor, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor. He was governor of Massachusetts in 1919, the year a wave of chaos swept over the U.S. — Seattle shut down by a general strike in February, dozens of mail bombs sent to politicians in April, eight cities bombed simultaneously by anarchists in June, a huge race riot in Chicago in July, a steel strike in September, and all of this amid an economic recession… oh, and the president was felled by a stroke. It was against this backdrop that the Boston police went on strike, demanding the right to unionize under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor. Commissioner Edwin Curtis fired the striking officers, raising a protest from AFL president Samuel Gompers. Coolidge replied in a public telegram that "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." This message won him acclaim as a law-and-order conservative, even though he had been considered a mild progressive up to that point. When the big wheels in the Republican Party attempted to balance the 1920 ticket by pairing conservative Warren Harding with progressive senator Irvine Lenroot, conservative delegates revolted and installed Coolidge in the VP slot instead.
It is worth noting, especially for those who haven't read the previous installments in this series, that at this point in history the parties did not represent opposite halves of the political spectrum. Both the Republicans and the Democrats had both progressive and conservative wings. What separated the parties was demographics. Coolidge was a Republican because he was a small-town Northerner, and virtually all small-town Northerners were Republicans. The Democrats had two chief constituencies: Southerners — which is to say, white Southerners, who prevented black Southerners from voting — and, in the big cities of the North, non-Anglo immigrants and their descendants. This was not a winning coalition. From 1896 until 1932, the only Democrat to win the presidency was Woodrow Wilson, and he had only won because Theodore Roosevelt's Progressives had broken away from the Republicans, splitting the vote and allowing Wilson to take the White House with less than 42% of the popular vote. For a while, it looked like history might repeat itself in 1924, for the Republican Party split again. When Coolidge had ascended to the presidency upon Harding's death in the late summer of 1923, he had immediately set to work locking up support within a party that had viewed him as a non-entity for 2½ years and had expected him to be a caretaker president, serving out the remainder of Harding's term and then silently vanishing back to New England. One prominent dissenter was Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, one of the Republican Party's fiercest left-wing voices. He revived the Progressive Party and ran as its presidential candidate.
But this time the Democrats were unable to take advantage, because they too were split. The favorite of the Democrats' urban constituency was Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York; the favorite of the Southerners was former treasury secretary William McAdoo, who ran with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Obviously, neither camp was going to cede the prize to the other. Eventually Indiana senator Samuel Ralston emerged as a compromise candidate, only for him to back out at the last moment, on the basis that he was elderly, weighed 300 pounds, and was likely to die soon, which in fact he did. The Democratic nomination therefore went, on the 103rd ballot, to John Davis of West Virginia, whose résumé was full of mid-level political jobs and who was now a corporate lawyer in New York's financial district. But while Davis was literally a mouthpiece for Wall Street by profession, politically he was a moderate on economics; where he leaned hard to the right was on social issues, opposing anti-lynching legislation and voting rights for women, and supporting child labor, the poll tax, rigged "literacy tests" to disenfranchise black people, and "grandfather clauses" to enfranchise illiterate white people. The capstone of his career would be arguing in favor of segregation before the Supreme Court in one of the Brown v. Board cases. Davis was the sort of candidate who seemed virtually guaranteed to win all of the former rebel states plus Oklahoma and nothing else, which is in fact exactly what he won. Coolidge wasn't worried about Davis, nor was he particularly worried about La Follette, who like Ralston was on death's door. His chief concern was that he would lose the Republican nomination to a loudmouth celebrity billionaire who had shot to the top of the (embryonic) opinion polls despite, or perhaps because of, his penchant for racist invective — but Henry Ford soon found campaigning too odious an undertaking for his tastes. He dropped out of the race in favor of Coolidge, and returned to publishing tracts such as The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Coolidge won his own term in a landslide.
Coolidge retained Harding's treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, and wholeheartedly endorsed Mellon's plan to reduce the top marginal tax rate from 73% to 25%: "Of all services which the Congress can render to the country, I have no hesitation in declaring this one to be paramount," he said. Now, it's obvious why Mellon supported tax cuts: he paid more in taxes than anyone in the country other than John Rockefeller and Henry Ford, and stood to reap an enormous windfall when the top rates went down. But why did Coolidge? As it happens, we have reached the point in history when there are video clips to look at; I have no idea whether I will make a practice of including them, but just for the novelty of it, here's Calvin Coolidge explaning his rationale:
"Taxes force everyone to work for a certain part of his time for the government!" Coolidge whines. Well, sure, in the sense that when I buy a loaf of bread, it means that I spent part of my time working for the bakery. Taxes are how we pay for government services. Now, a libertarian might counter that the difference is that I chose to buy that loaf of bread, while taxes are imposed regardless of the extent to which one partakes of the government services they pay for. But what's the alternative? Consider one of the great public works projects of the 1920s: building an extensive network of roads for the automobiles that were rapidly becoming America's dominant mode of transportation. Were we supposed to wait for private companies to build those roads? And, what, charge us at tollbooths every quarter mile? Or perhaps we'd pay monthly subscriptions to one or more of a number of competing companies' road networks — because, y'know, it wouldn't cripple the economy at all if people couldn't get to Cruiseways locations because they only had a Fairlanes account. No — the roads have to be freely available to everyone, and that means that everyone has to pitch in to build and maintain them. And while we could do that co-op style and require that everyone put in a four-hour shift every month bulldozing roadbeds and laying down asphalt, it's more efficient to have everyone pay specialists to do those things via taxation. Another example: while Coolidge was basically an isolationist, he did beef up the navy and he did send troops into Nicaragua, where the U.S. had long been eyeing a second canal through Central America. Now, personally, if I had been around in the 1920s, I wouldn't have approved of that particular use of my tax dollars. But, again, what's the alternative? Would I submit a form requesting a rebate of my share of the expenses paid toward the Nicaragua operation? And then, in the universe where that second canal did get built, would I then have to show my ID every time I tried to buy something, and have it cross-referenced with my file, and pay a surcharge on every item that had been shipped through that canal I hadn't helped pay for? Or do we just say that we have formed a society that allows us to work collectively to accomplish things we couldn't do alone, and that the price of receiving the benefits of belonging to that society is that you do have to chip in and spend a little time "working for the government"?
Coolidge introduces his objection using a couple of rhetorical tricks Republicans have been trotting out for ages. He claims that he wants taxes and government spending slashed so that "the earnings of the people can be kept by the people" — you know, as if the government were made up of lizards or something. One of the nice things about a government of the people, by the people, for the people, is that the earnings of the people are kept by the people, no matter what the tax rates might be. Coolidge's second trick is to bemoan the crippling tax burden of the farmer and the clerk. In the 1920s, $2000 per year was considered a living wage (though 60% of households made less). In 1921, the income tax charged on a $2000 income was $80. In 1926, thanks to the Mellon tax cuts, the tax bill for a $2000 income was zero. Now look at what happens if your annual income is a million dollars (and Mellon's was much more). In 1921, the tax on a million dollars was $663,350. In 1926, it was $241,440. Yes, the median worker's tax bill dropped 100%, but it dropped 100% of a pittance, and that pittance is all he got back — while the millionaire received enough of a rebate to support over two hundred typical households. And someone like Ben Carson would argue that the Mellon tax structure was still unfair, because we all should pay the same percentage of our earnings. But the idea behind progressive taxation is not "fairness" per se, but to minimize suffering. George Harrison famously complained about Britain's 95% tax bracket, but you can take 95% of George Harrison's income beyond the bracket's threshold and it will make no appreciable difference to his lifestyle — maybe he buys only one McLaren F1 instead of half a dozen, but I can't seem to locate a tear to shed for him over that. Meanwhile, take 5% of the income of a Wal-Mart cashier, and maybe she can't afford to get her persistent toothache treated. Her 5% is too high and his 95% too low, because the 5% hurts more. Who has the right to decide that her dental agony is more important than George Harrison's sadness over owning an insufficient number of supercars, a libertarian might demand? And the answer is: we do, as a society. Because money, as I discussed last time, has no meaning outside of social relations, any more than touchdowns have meaning outside of a football game. Money is just an inaccurate scoring system for our collective opinion about who deserves what. And progressive taxation makes it a little bit more accurate.
The result? Per capita GNP growth during Coolidge's term was about 1.8% per year, which isn't terrible but doesn't seem to justify calling this period "the Roaring '20s". Unemployment was low, generally around 4%, but wages were low as well. That meant, at least according to Ferrell's account, that the so-called "Coolidge Prosperity" was marred by underconsumption. One sign of this was the inflation rate, which hovered around zero, sometimes a tiny bit more, but often less. Coolidge pointed to that as a sign that things were great — inflation, by his account, was just another hand reaching into your pocket. But inflation indicates that people are using their money to chase after goods, and a lack of inflation indicates a lack of such money. Most people just weren't getting paid enough to buy stuff! Henry Ford had always paid his workers significantly more than average, mainly to keep them from unionizing, but also as part of his notion of "welfare capitalism": the idea was to pay people enough that they could actually afford the products they were making, thereby creating a market for those products. But by 1927 auto sales had grown sluggish enough that Ford had to follow GM's lead in offering a wider variety of models in an attempt to attract buyers. Low sales led other companies to try to attract customers through clever rhetorical appeals, and the 1920s consequently saw the rise of the advertising industry. Companies also attempted to goose sales by offering merchandise on layaway: the phrase "down payment" first appeared in 1926, and by 1927, 85% of furniture, 80% of record players, and 75% of washing machines were bought on installment plans. Not many people had enough money to buy those things outright.
Even food was not immune to underconsumption. World War I disrupted European agriculture, leading to a spike in crop prices that benefited American farmers — not only did they make more money for the same unit of produce, but they could sell more units thanks to the huge captive market they'd gained across the Atlantic. But the war ended, and prices crashed. For a while, farmers tried to make up the difference in volume — the advent of motorized tractors, replacing beasts of burden, allowed farmers to devote more of their land to cash crops and less to animal feed. But overproduction caused prices to sink still further, because there was a ceiling on domestic demand. Wheat farmers had it particularly bad: during the war Herbert Hoover had led a program to encourage American families to eat more fruits and vegetables and less wheat, so that more of the U.S. wheat crop could be shipped overseas to feed the Allies… and it worked. It worked so well, in fact, that after the war Americans stuck to their new eating habits rather than return to their wheat-heavy prewar diets. The solution proposed by the farm bloc was an idea that went by the snappy title of "McNary-Haugenism": first, a tariff would keep cheap foreign farm products out of the U.S. market, and second, the government would buy up any surplus domestic farm products at the same rate and sell them overseas for whatever price it could get, with any net loss to be made up by the taxpayers. Coolidge vetoed the plan twice, chiding desperate farmers that they would have to rely on "private initiative and individual responsibility" to get out of the fix they were in. Woodrow Wilson had signed a law establishing a Federal Farm Loan Board, and its head asked Coolidge how farmers were supposed to make money in these conditions without support. "Farmers have never made money," Coolidge sniffed.
But thanks to Mellon's scheme to flatten the income tax, the top 1% made plenty of money, pocketing 24% of national income as inequality spiked. And they did what people normally do when they have way more money than they can spend — they took ever-riskier gambles with it. "The decay of credit quality in investments was marked," Ferrell writes, as august investment banks turned to trading in junk bonds. Investment trusts developed derivatives that, in the words of Harvard economics professor John Galbraith, "brought about an almost complete divorce of the volume of corporate securities outstanding from the volume of corporate assets in existence". Another Harvard economics professor, William Ripley, took to the big media outlets of the period — the Atlantic and the New York Times, as well as a new upstart called Time — to warn the public about alarming trends on Wall Street; the operations of labyrinthine networks of holding companies were particularly problematic, he wrote, and represented nothing short of fraud. Coolidge read Ripley's articles. He discussed them with reporters at press conferences. And his take was that it wasn't the government's job to tell people where to put their money. He would do nothing. But he did soon announce that he would not be running for re-election in 1928, sparing him the fate that befell Herbert Hoover when these gambles and swindles crashed Wall Street, and the rest of the economy with it.
I generally base these writeups primarily on one book apiece, so each one tends to reflect its source material. As a result, I find that, like Ferrell, I've talked a fair bit about the 1920s and not very much about Calvin Coolidge himself. So since the aim of these articles is to explore how history was shaped by what these guys were like… what was Calvin Coolidge like, and how was that reflected in the way he carried out his job? People who interacted with Coolidge during his presidency tended to describe him as provincial. For instance, Sen. James Couzens (R-MI) brought to his attention that public sector wages had fallen by 9% between 1914 and 1926, and that postal workers were only making $1500 a year — not enough to raise a family on. Coolidge scoffed that in Northampton you could rent "a first-rate house" for $30 a month. Couzens countered that not everyone lived in Northampton. "I had an uncle in Northampton," Coolidge pressed on. "He sent his children through high school and college and he never made more than $1500 a year in his life." Couzens tried to explain to Coolidge that the price of living in small-town New England a generation earlier did not reflect what all Americans faced in the 1920s, but it was like talking to a wall.
One legacy of the Coolidge administration that lasted for nearly half a century was the virtual end of legal immigration. Around the turn of the century, the source of most immigration to the U.S. had shifted from northern and western Europe to southern and eastern Europe, and nativist congressmen warned their colleagues that pretty soon "when you get up and say 'Mr. Speaker' you will have to speak in Italian". The Ku Klux Klan broadened its platform, becoming more of an anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish organization in many areas than an anti-black one. And after the Russian Revolution, ethnic prejudice went into overdrive, as people began to fear that in every Slavic immigrant beat the heart of a Bolshevik. The result was the Immigration Act of 1924, signed by Coolidge, which limited the maximum number of legal immigrants to 2% of the number of immigrants from that country living in the U.S. in 1890 — that is, before the wave of southern and eastern European immigration. In the first decade of the 20th century, approximately two million Italians moved to the U.S.; the Act established a quota of four thousand per year. Now, Coolidge seems not to have been a bigot himself. In speeches, he frequently commended the service of African-American soldiers in World War I, and while he did little to advance civil rights, he did at least pay lip service to the political if not social equality of the races. But, again, he was provincial, and the prospect of fewer foreigners coming to America troubled him not at all. Once he asked the official doctor of the presidential yacht, Joel Boone, how his daughter was doing in school. Boone proudly told him that she had started reading books in French. Coolidge sneered, "Does she know all the English ones?"
The most famous story about the notoriously dour and taciturn Coolidge is that a woman at a White House dinner walked over to him and chirped that she had made a bet that she could get more than two words out of him, to which he replied, "You lose." Without any vocal or postural cues to go by, it's hard to know how to take this — the story is generally told as an example of delightful wit, but it's also easy to read as quite mean. And Calvin Coolidge seems to have been a mean little man. Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice famously described him as looking like he'd been "weaned on a pickle", and while looks aren't anything to go by, behavior is. In his early career, Coolidge was infamous for not even offering guests a chair — visitors had to stand before his desk and state their business. When he reached the White House, his idea of entertainment was to press all the buzzers in the Oval Office and then slip out the window, so his aides would all rush in and find him gone — I mean, what is the joke here? "Ha ha, I wasted your time and alarmed you for nothing?" "Ha ha, you are at my beck and call and I can treat you like a plaything?" Yeah, hilarious. Then, silent all day, Coolidge would come home and blow up at his wife — she told Boone that he'd never been able to control his temper, and that she was glad to bear the brunt of his verbal explosions because it made it less likely that he would fly off the handle at the office. To be fair, Coolidge had good reason to be in a dark mood during his presidency: shortly after he took office, his son Calvin developed a blister on his toe playing tennis, which led to a staph infection that killed him in under a week. Coolidge went into a deep depression that lasted for years.
And his inaction as president helped to ensure that soon the same would be true of the country.