Calvin Coolidge: The Best President You Don't Know

Americans today place enormous pressure on presidents to do “something" when there is a national crisis. But our 30th president Calvin Coolidge did “nothing” ...other than shrink the government. The result? America's economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Renowned historian Amity Shlaes thinks there is.

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That's what Americans demand of their presidents these days. A real president, Democrat or Republican, knows how to use "the office." A real president makes things happen. Or so the conventional wisdom.

But, actually, there is another model. A president can succeed through inaction, by doing as little as possible. One such president was Calvin Coolidge, who took office upon Warren Harding's sudden death. From the time Coolidge became president in 1923 to the time he left in 1929, Coolidge served a philosophy that was simple and powerful: don't do.

Coolidge was our great refrainer.

The leadership style matched the personal style. Coolidge did not waste words. Hence his nickname, Silent Cal.

For these quiet ways, the thirtieth president absorbed much abuse. A Washington socialite, Alice Longworth, said that Coolidge looked like he had been weaned on a pickle.

Coolidge indeed cut a sharp contrast to Alice's father, Theodore Roosevelt, who had served a decade and a half earlier. And what a contrast Coolidge provides with another Roosevelt, Franklin, who came just a few years later.

Born on July 4th, 1872 in rural Vermont, Coolidge embodied the simple virtues of his forebears. He was hard-working, sober, and cautious. He was also fearless. A life-long civil servant, he worked his way up from city councilman to governor of Massachusetts. He made his political reputation by facing down the Boston police department when it went on strike in 1919. “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” Coolidge told strikers. Then, the Coolidge administration fired them all and built a new department from scratch. This made him a national hero—a politician with a backbone.

The refrainer brought that backbone into the White House and got the kind of results men of action long for.

Especially economic results. Low unemployment, often well below five percent. Low taxes. Higher wages. Fewer strikes. New technology for the masses—a model A, or a bell phone, or an RCA radio.

And most remarkable of all, a shrinking federal budget. If you remember just one fact about Coolidge's presidency, let it be this: Coolidge left the federal budget lower than he found it.

How did Coolidge do it? First, he resisted taking unnecessary action himself. Second, he imposed the same discipline on Congress. That wasn't easy. 

In the early 1920s, the Progressive movement was on the march. Just as now, Progressives always wanted to do something.

Progressive plans included more aid for agriculture, encouraging unions, increasing taxes, and nationalizing important industries, such as railroads and utilities.

Coolidge blocked the Progressives, and thereby blocked their expansion of government. 

He vetoed farm subsidies twice, even though he personally came from farming country.

Coolidge was sympathetic to farmers, but helping them wasn't the government's function.

Coolidge made especially good use of the pocket veto, the ability of the president to veto a bill by simply not returning it to congress. "It is much more important to kill a bad bill," he said, "than to pass a good one."

The legislation Coolidge did endorse was designed to meet the same minimalist end: restrain the government. Together with his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, Coolidge lowered the top tax rate to 25%. Their goal was to shrink the public sector, so that the private sector could expand. And the policy worked.

The country liked Coolidge's thrift. In the 1924 election, the progressives won 17% of the vote. But Coolidge won with more votes than the Democrats and Progressives combined. So everyone, including his own Republican Party, thought Coolidge would surely run a second time in 1928. But he declined. Like George Washington, he thought the country needed a change in leaders.

Yes, it's possible to criticize Coolidge. As much as he tried to avoid it, Coolidge in the end signed bills he would have preferred not to. And, the president showed a penchant for protectionism, rarely a sound economic policy. Some suggest that Coolidge was responsible for the stock market crash and the decade-long depression that followed after he left office.

But that’s a fallacy. The depression stretched so long not because of too little action from Calvin Coolidge, but because of too much action by his successors.

It is ironic that a man of such personal modesty presided over the era known as the Roaring Twenties.

But that was the paradox: Coolidge was a scrooge who begat plenty.

Perhaps, the day has come for a new politician to follow the great refrainer's rule. Where others do, don't. And if you have to do, do less.

I'm Amity Shlaes, author of Coolidge and chairman of the Coolidge Foundation, for Prager University.

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