“How can they tell?” Dorothy Parker upon being informed that Calvin Coolidge had died.
In 1920 the Republican from Ohio Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was elected on the promise of a “return to normalcy.” After the whirlwind eight years of Woodrow Wilson apparently the nation was ready for his conservative, affable and “make no enemies” campaign. One of the reasons for his smashing electoral victory was his effective use of the new media, radio. Harding was at best a mediocre president who did little but he would sign laws put forth by the Republican controlled Congress and that made his term in office reasonably successful in reversing some of the actions of the Wilson administration.
Harding’s legacy was determined primarily by the people he appointed to positions of trust – the choices were either outstanding or horrible. Harding made some great choices including Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State, Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary and, most importantly, Calvin Coolidge as Vice-President. Coolidge was famous for his actions as Governor of Massachusetts in the Boston police strike and people were ready for someone with a no nonsense approach to problems. On the other side of the equation Harding appointed many of his political cronies to key positions and these people kept the Harding administration scandal filled. His worst appointments were Harry Daugherty, his campaign manager, as Attorney General and Albert Fall as Interior Secretary. The Justice Department was a constant source of scandal and Albert Fall was subsequently sent to prison for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. There was no evidence that Harding was ever personally involved in anything improper but his political cronies, the “Ohio Gang”, made his administration a misery.
Harding assumed office while the nation was in the midst of a postwar economic decline, referred to as the Depression of 1920-21. Harding’s Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, ordered a study that demonstrated as income tax rates were increased, money was driven underground or abroad (USFA note: see “The Laffer Curve” further below) and concluded that lower rates would increase tax revenues. Tax rates were reduced annually in four stages from 1921 to 1925 and revenues to the treasury increased substantially and unemployment also continued to fall. The combined declines in unemployment and inflation were among the sharpest in U.S. history. Wages, profits, and productivity all made substantial gains during the 1920s ushering in the period known as the Roaring Twenties.
On August 2, 1923 Harding died somewhat unexpectedly from a somewhat mysterious heart ailment. His death made his Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the 30th President of the United States. While most of the nuts and bolts legislation revising the Wilson presidency came from Congress, Harding was at least an enthusiastic cheerleader and supporter for the changes and did sign the bills. This mini-reversal of the descent into socialism was continued and supported by his successor.
Coolidge restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of his predecessor’s administration and left office as an extremely popular president. Coolidge, elected in his own right in 1924, gained a reputation as a small-government conservative and a person who embodied the slogan “That government is best which governs least.” Coolidge was also known as a man who said very little in private but very much in public, holding 520 press conferences during his administration (that is about one every four days for you math majors).
Coolidge disdained regulation and proved it by appointing commissioners to the Federal Trade Commission and the Interstate Commerce Commission who did little to restrict the activities of businesses under their jurisdiction. The regulatory state under Coolidge was “thin to the point of invisibility.” While Coolidge supported many measures as Governor of Massachusetts he did not support these measures as President because he correctly realized that these measures were, under the United States Constitution, the function of state and local governments. Due to the reductions in Income Tax passed during the period 1921-1929, the federal debt was substantially reduced. Coolidge opposed the McNary-Haugen farm bill saying that agriculture must stand “on an independent business basis” and declaring it as unsound and likely to cause inflation (people actually worried about inflation once upon a time in America).
1921-1929 was the only time from 1901-2017 that the descent into socialism was somewhat reversed. This was greatly facilitated by the fact that these were the only two presidential terms when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress during this entire eight-year period and there was a Republican President. This situation has never occurred again since that time. If the nation had retained such conservative leadership for eight more years the Great Depression would probably have not occurred and the socialist policies inaugurated by subsequent administrations would have been greatly muted. Alas, it was not to be. A good trivia question is: “Who was the last Conservative President whose party controlled both houses of Congress during his entire term in office?” The answer is Calvin Coolidge.
The Harding/Coolidge era showed what can be done when government reduces taxes, balances the budget, lowers regulations, and generally stops meddling in the private sector. The economy boomed, the deficits disappeared, the national debt was greatly reduced and almost paid off and people enjoyed a level of prosperity not seen in America for many years. The Roaring Twenties were a tribute to Conservative and Constitutional government.
Coolidge was eligible to run for reelection in 1928 but chose not to do so. This would prove to be a decision that would have disastrous effects for America since his successor, Herbert Hoover, proved himself to be what we would call today a RINO (not a Conservative) and acted in ways that caused the stock market crash to turn into a depression. We will talk more about Hoover in the next post and why his decisions proved disastrous for the nation and subsequently for the Republican Party.
A few Coolidge quotes are in order here:
“Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.”
“Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”
“Civilization and profit go hand in hand.”
“If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.”