Montana—Cool for Coolidge!
By Lawrence Reed
One hundred years ago—on August 2, 1923—President Warren G. Harding died suddenly while on a trip to America’s West (which included a stop in Butte, by the way). A few hours later, while vacationing at his family’s farm in Plymouth, Vermont, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President by his father, a local justice-of-the-peace. The oath was administered by the light of a kerosene lamp at 2:47 a.m. Moments later, Coolidge went back to bed.
When he ran for a term of his own just 15 months later in 1924, he won in a landslide. He carried every state outside of the solid South except for Wisconsin, which gave its electoral votes to the Progressive Party candidate, Robert LaFollette.
Montana went for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, swung decisively to the Republican Warren Harding in 1920 and remained in the GOP column in 1924, but only by a plurality. Coolidge won 42.5 percent of the vote; LaFollette took 37.9 percent and the Democrat no one remembers, John Cox, finished a distant third at 19.4 percent.
Did Montanans make the right choice by giving Coolidge their votes in 1924? You bet they did. He proved to be one of our very best. He was the last president to leave the federal government smaller than when he first entered the White House. During his five-year tenure, he not only cut spending, but the national debt as well. The budget was balanced every year, tax rates were slashed in half, and America was at peace.
The uninformed claim that since the Great Depression followed Coolidge’s presidency by a year, his policies must have caused it. But association is not causation. The Federal Reserve caused the Depression by inflating the economy into a bubble with easy money and low interest rates, then bursting it by jacking rates up to sky-high levels. Ring a bell?
America’s 30th president is often referred to as “Silent Cal” but that’s in one sense a misnomer. Though he was typically taciturn at social events (dinners, receptions and the like), he still holds the record for presidential news conferences. He held an annual average of 73 during his 5-1/2 years in office. Whenever he spoke or wrote, he wasted no words; he said what he meant and meant what he said. It was joked at the time that “he was silent in five languages.”
History teaches endless lessons whether people want to learn them or not. Its pages instruct us painfully that the two greatest dangers from government are mission creep and creeps on a mission. The last thing you would ever hear from the lips of Calvin Coolidge were arrogant pretensions to knowledge or grand plans to “fundamentally transform” America. He was smart enough to know what his job was—to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” not to ignore it, shred it or rewrite it. Some of Montana’s judges would do well to follow suit.
Coolidge’s appreciation of history and human nature tempered any illusions about government power he ever had. In a political leader, that’s a superlative quality, and a humbling one. It is often swept aside by lesser politicians (the creeps on a mission) who let the moment go to their heads. Our 30th president understood that if government can do something for you, it is only because it can do something to you, that it can get bigger only if you and I get smaller.
His common sense characterized what he stopped or stymied as much as what he signed or supported. “It is much more important to kill a bad bill than to pass a good one,” he once opined. Don’t you wish we had a president today who could honestly echo these words from Coolidge’s 1925 Inaugural Address?:
I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant.
Lawrence W. Reed writes a monthly column for the Frontier Institute in Helena, on whose board he serves. He is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education and blogs at www.lawrencewreed.com.