"There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president," wrote John Quincy Adams, who lived nearly 19 years beyond the conclusion of his single presidential term in 1829. Calvin Coolidge, who began his briefer but happier post-presidential career exactly a century after Adams, is a clear exception to Adams's rule.
Coolidge died at the age of 60 in January 1933. Eight of the 43 Americans who have been president died in office, four by assassination and four of natural causes. Of the remaining 35, Coolidge is one of only seven to die so soon after his successor's inauguration as to have passed more days as a president than an ex-president. (The others are George Washington, James Monroe, James Polk, Chester Arthur, Woodrow Wilson, and Lyndon Johnson.)
Coolidge aspired to be known as "a former President who tried to mind his own business." After six long years in office—during which his father and a 16-year-old son had died—he wanted to go home. "It is a wholesome thing for [a former president] to return to the people," he wrote. "I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."
"When I left Washington it was because I believed my work in the government service was done," he explained in his autobiography. "I have been unwilling, therefore, in these early days of my retirement to give interviews, make speeches, or write extensively about them because I wished to avoid being an officious intermeddler." He wanted only to "engage in some dignified employment."
Newspapers speculated that he could be president of a petroleum or insurance company. Told by the head of the Amherst Alumni Society that his name was in the running to head his alma mater, Coolidge declined: "Easier to control Congress than a college faculty." Some even wondered if Coolidge might run for president again. One supporter implored him to consider it because, "It would be the end of this horrible depression." Coolidge replied, "It would be the beginning of mine."
The cerebral ex-president preferred writing his memoirs to politicking. "He began his writing in January 1929 and finished this autobiography in less than three and a half months," explained his editor at Cosmopolitan, which serialized the book. It was published later that year and did well commercially and, to my mind, rates as the finest book by an ex-president of the 20th century.
In addition to writing for other popular magazines, Coolidge fielded offers to write a newspaper column, finally agreeing to write "Calvin Coolidge Says" for the McClure syndicate. The reality was that "Silent Cal" had always had a good deal to say. As president he gave more than 500 press conferences, for example, and would go on to publish more than 300 columns between June 1930 and June 1931. With his popular op-eds, the former president managed a philosophic government-in-exile from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. (The columns were collected into a book in 1972 on the 150th anniversary of his birth; but Calvin Coolidge Says is, alas, out of print.)
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Composed at a critical time in American history, these works yield important lessons for understanding the Depression and Coolidge's political thought, lessons that still resonate today. Though past former presidents had written occasionally on legal or political matters, Coolidge became "a sort of daily oracle," as the New York Times put it. "No other ex-President ever did anything quite like this." Time found his appeal irresistible: "Mr. Coolidge's great advantage...is that there are millions of people who are happy to resume relations with him. They like him. They understand his language. They approve of his mind and are happy to go on with him."
Coolidge offered his readers little "happy talk," however. Instead, he took a somber view of mankind's nature and circumstances. In December 1930 he wrote, "This universe into which we are born, with all its weaknesses and imperfections, yet with all its strength and progress, is the only one in which we can live, and we may as well make the best of it." In another column, he warned that Americans were too quick to blame others for the government's problems, and "need more faith in ourselves.... Our country, our people, our civil and religious institutions may not be perfect, but they are what we have made them."
His unsentimental assessment of human nature led to a politics of cautious sobriety. Coolidge rejected the progressive idea that men could be endlessly improved and ultimately perfected by government. "No informed student of human affairs ever expected that democracy would be a sovereign remedy for all the ills with which mortals are beset," he wrote. If there were problems with self-government, the remedy—or the blame—would be found with the people. "We make our own government. If we fail it is our own fault."
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As for the depression then roiling the country, Coolidge averred, "In the short era that culminated in 1929, the economic world became convinced that there was a short way to riches and power through expansion, inflation and speculation. A season of great avarice and extravagance brought the inevitable reaction of loss and suffering." Unfortunately, "experience is a hard school, but some learn from no other."
The remedy, however, was not government largesse because "[t]he appropriation of public money always is perfectly lovely until some one is asked to pay the bill." On this, he was adamant: "Those who seek to improve our economic position by spending more tax money are going in the wrong direction." In February 1931, he wrote, "One of the most astounding spectacles is the complacency with which people permit themselves to be plundered by extravagant governmental expenditure under the pretense of taxing the rich to help the poor." The economy would self-correct if government made business conditions more predictable, as Coolidge urged repeatedly. "Business can stand anything better than uncertainty."
He had reluctantly campaigned for the Republican nominee in the 1928 campaign, his former commerce secretary Herbert Hoover. Now he opposed his successor's policies, privately complaining that "[f]or six years that man [gave] me unsolicited advice—all of it bad." A decade earlier, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then assistant secretary to the Navy, called Hoover "a wonder," adding "I wish we could make him President [on the Democratic ticket]. There couldn't be a better one." Coolidge privately referred to Hoover as "Wonder Boy."
Alas, the debate within the GOP was poorly articulated in the press and seems to have been restrained by party discipline. However much Coolidge disliked Hoover he would never have taken the fight public. Yet his implicit criticisms of his fellow Republican and of Franklin Roosevelt's incipient New Deal policies have much to teach conservatives today.
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Writing years before Friedrich Hayek's books appeared, Coolidge made clear that the knowledge dispersed throughout society always dwarfs that which even capable and conscientious government planners can bring to bear on the organization of a large, complex economy. Far better, then, to rely on the human desire "to improve, produce and progress" than to entrust our economic future to "any official bureau." No such agency, he pointed out, could have anticipated that automobiles and aircraft—exotic toys at the start of the 20th century—would become industries employing millions by 1930. "Neither the state nor the Federal governments can supply the information and wisdom necessary to direct the business activity of the nation.... Edison and Ford are not government creations."
Coolidge also anticipated the modern conservative argument that government interventions in the economy will be undone by rent-seeking. The new federal control of an old power plant in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, demonstrated the "utter hopelessness" of such public endeavors. "Rivalry among power, industrial, and agricultural interests has prevented any decisive action," Coolidge explained. "Nearly all concerned apparently have wanted to get some special advantage out of the government. That will always be the case with any business with which the government is involved or any property the government owns."
The more government devoted itself to work it shouldn't do, Coolidge warned, the more it diminished its ability to perform its indispensable tasks and preserve a healthy relationship with the nation's citizens. "Our institutions are never in so much danger from those who are openly trying to destroy them as from the misguided actions of those who think they are saving society," he wrote. Criticizing both political parties for "proposing to cure human illness which no government can cure," Coolidge warned that a "revolution is taking place which will leave the people dependent upon the government, and place the government where it must decide questions that are far better left to the people to decide for themselves."
Coolidge conceded that "temporary help for the needy may have been justified," while warning against "the theory that the bread [people] earn should be eaten by others" and the "delusion that the people can rely on the government alone to furnish salvation." In our "system of individual freedom and self-government," he maintained, "each individual is entitled to the rewards of his own foresight and industry and is charged with his own support." Hence, "The only way to change this system is to restrict the freedom of the individual, let some one else govern him, give the rewards of his industry to others and make him support others. That system is slavery."
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Political questions are ultimately questions of national and individual character. Our government is representative in more than one sense, reflecting both the vices and virtues of the American people. Coolidge believed that "good citizens cannot have a bad government." The opposite, however, is also true: bad citizens cannot have a good government. Elections "act as a tonic for the body politic," he wrote, and Americans must protect against "unthinking people, some vicious, and others organized for selfish exploitation of the public through governmental agencies. All of these elements vote in full force."
The "Calvin Coolidge Says" columns are remarkably consonant with the spirit of the 21st-century Tea Party movement. Both emphasize that power, political energy, and republican legitimacy flow from the bottom up and not the top down. Coolidge's hope that we would return to a more local, more responsible government rested on the hope that the people would reassert their rights and demonstrate "that this is their country and their government." This thought logically completes Lincoln's—that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people could only perish if the people neglected their own indispensable role in constitutional government.