Silent Cal’s 6 Simple Rules for a Confused President Obama

Coolidge's Inaugural Address, March 24, 1925

President Coolidge’s Inaugural Address, March 4, 1925

In his new book, Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President, Charles C. Johnson claims that ‘Silent Cal’ wasn’t so much silent as he was silenced. But today, thirty years since Tom Silver’s underrated book about America’s underrated thirtieth president, Coolidge and the Historians, that is changing. In addition to Johnson’s book, we also have Amity Shlaes’s new biography, Coolidge, a prequel of sorts to her bestseller, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Undoubtedly, there is growing interest in Coolidge that, although somewhat delayed, is especially timely for the present. Here are six lessons for President Obama from the not-so-silent Cal Coolidge.

1. “Don’t hurry to legislate.”

For Obama, more legislation is often the answer to our problems, whether it’s gun control, health care reform, or the economy. Obama’s roughshod push for the economic stimulus and various government bailouts reflected that same abiding faith in the healing power of legislation.

Coolidge, in a speech called Have Faith in Massachusetts, expressed a different idea: “Don’t hurry to legislate.” There are natural limitations to what human law can accomplish, and we should not delude ourselves with false expectations. “There is danger of disappointment and disaster,” Coolidge said, unless we understand and appreciate what law can and cannot do. What legislation cannot do, and should not attempt to do, is provide “some short cut to perfection.” As we saw recently during the gun control debate, “When legislation fails, those who look upon it as a sovereign remedy simply cry out for more legislation.”

Invoking the American founders, Coolidge often argued that law “loses its sanctity and authority” when it is “changed and changeable on slight provocation.” In other words, in order to inculcate respect and reverence for the rule of law, reform should be a difficult and arduous task, requiring much time and extensive deliberation. “It is much more important,” Coolidge said, “to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” because there is no immediate remedy and complete solution in any act of Congress. “There is no magic in government,” he cautioned.

2. Don’t promise much.

If the public mind rests in the belief that there can be no limit to what the law can accomplish, there will also be no limit to what our elected officials will promise. This is well demonstrated by Obama’s grand claim that his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

“The country,” Coolidge said, “cannot be run on the promise of what it will do for the people.” “[A] sound and wise statesmanship,” he explained, “will undoubtedly find itself displaced by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little.” In that case, “The deliberate, sound judgment of the country is likely to find it has been superseded by a popular whim.” Coolidge here offers a warning against the very type of president that Obama proved to be.

Moreover, the habit of promising much, he says, precludes the possibility of sound and wise statesmanship. Americans are often fond of asking if there could ever be another Washington or Lincoln in the White House. If Coolidge were here today, he might say our expectations are too high for another Washington or Lincoln to satisfy.

3. Economize.

More than any other issue, Obama could use a good lesson from ‘Silent Cal’ Coolidge on the issue of economy. As Amity Shlaes astutely notes, Coolidge “did not say ‘savings’; he said ‘thrift’ or ‘economy.’ Indeed, he especially cherished the word ‘economy’ because it came from the Greek for ‘household.’ To Coolidge the national household resembled the family household.” In other words, Coolidge used old words with their old meanings, and economy meant living within your means. In his Autobiography, Coolidge wrote, “There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.”

Coolidge, the last president to pay down the national debt, would be aghast at the nation’s current sixteen trillion dollar debt and record deficits. While the Coolidge era enjoyed unprecedented prosperity—low unemployment, high wages, and low cost of living—the economic picture in the age of Obama continues to look bleak. The style of household management Coolidge brought to the national government saved money, yes, but he always saw the larger point – his purpose was “to save people,” not dollars. A strong economy could satisfy the American people in a way new legislation and empty political promises never could. For that reason, Coolidge said, “After order and liberty, economy is one of the highest essentials of a free government.”

Coolidge hat4. “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

Obama’s tired, repeated claim that the wealthy need to pay their fair share and give just a little more hasn’t gone away, even after his recent tax hikes. Obama argues that his policies give everyone “a fair shot,” only if they’re willing to “work hard” and “play by the rules.” He will not build up the weak unless they’re willing, in other words. But Obama has never spoken a word against pulling down the strong, whether they’re willing or not.

Coolidge was one of the first presidents to deal with the income tax after the sixteenth amendment was ratified in 1913. Under Coolidge, the surtax was lowered across the board, while the minimum income subject to that tax was raised to $10,000 in 1924 – equal to more than $130,000 today! By 1927 most Americans paid no federal income tax. As a result, revenues increased, the debt was reduced, and the standard of living was higher than at any point in American history.

Some politicians, Coolidge warned, “advocate a complete change…toward property rights” and propose “extended government control and regulation and a radical change in the theory of taxation. The fundamental purpose [is] more equal distribution of the results of industry.” But no other country, Coolidge informs us, ever approached America in general and public prosperity, not because we “spread the wealth around,” as Obama calls it, but because here we have learned “the fact that if production be encouraged and increased, then distribution fairly well takes care of itself.”

5. The Meaning of Progress.

Obama claims to be a progressive. Coolidge supported several early progressive measures, such as the direct election of US senators, women’s suffrage, and child labor laws. But Coolidge, unlike Obama, was no progressive. Coolidge supported progress, but progress properly understood. For him, progress did not necessitate the abandonment or transformation of our founding principles, as Obama claimed in his second inaugural address when he said our “solemn duty and awesome joy” is to “answer the call of history” and make “ourselves anew,” i.e. “fundamentally transform” the nation, as he has so often promised. Rather, Coolidge argued, “No people can look forward who do not look backward. The strongest guarantee of the future is the past.”

Coolidge was not looking to return to the days of “horses and bayonets,” as Obama has joked. “We review the past,” he said, “not in order that we may return to it but that we may find in what direction, straight and clear, it points into the future.” Several of Coolidge’s speeches read like short history lessons, tracing the path of civilization from the Greeks and the Romans, to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, to Washington and Lincoln. To Coolidge, the history of western civilization culminated in the American founding.

Coolidge cautions that some designing and impatient leaders would have us depart from that path, seeking to “turn from a certainty, tested by time, approved by experience, to some vague experiment.” “[I]t is not a change that is needed” in our founding principles, he said, “so much as there is need of living in accordance with them.” To do that, “We must search out and think the thoughts of those who established our institutions.” We must understand the founders as they understood themselves, in other words.

In dedication to the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the only president who shared a birthday with the nation shared the true meaning of progress:

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may well discard their conclusions for something more modern…[But] no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward…Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

6. Humility.

In his Autobiography, Coolidge wrote, “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.” Coolidge had the prudence to wait until after leaving the presidency to write the story of his life. This represented the common sense of the common man from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Obama, in contrast, published two autobiographies even before entering the presidency.

Not-so-silent Cal Coolidge, the last president to write his own speeches, still speaks in his own voice today. Obama should listen, and try silence for once.

Jason Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the University of Dallas.

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Comments

  1. john trainor says

    Unfortunately today more credence and weight are given to speeches, mere rhetoric, usually bombastic and with little relation to performance or the accurate relation to policy. But a sizable portion of todays public seems not to notice. Appearance rules.

    • Gary L. Beatty says

      This is a well written article and should be shared with whom ever would take the time to see what a president really looks like not what we have now. As to whether Obama would indeed take the advice it is doubtful, unfortunately we as a country tried to prove that we were in fact not racial in our ability to elect a person regardless of race, this was our first mistake our second was to elect a man not just once but twice to the office of president that was truly unprepared for the job. Obama was the great experiment that failed.

  2. Robert Arnold says

    With Coolidge always remember three words (hyphenated): Billy Mitchell Court-Martial.
    Old Cal was a near luddite when it came to military aviation and as a result, held back the advance of Army flying for years leaving the US way behind as the late 1930s drew us closer to war. So just because he was cheap and not a “doer” does not make him a Reagan with a celluloid collar.

    • Anonymous says

      I am a fan of Billy Mitchell and can safely say Coolidge had didly squat to do with Mitchell’s court marshall. Mitchell had long antagonized his superiors and publicly berated and embarassed them. Calvin Coolidge didn’t demand his court marshall and may well have worked to end it.

    • says

      Since Coolidge’s presidency ended in 1929 and was followed by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, which initially cut military spending to pay for social programs, it’s hard to see how you can pin the military unpreparedness of 1939 on Silent Cal.

      But aside from that, it’s not clear that U.S. aviation was actually far behind in the 1930s. The B-17 was first put into production in 1936 and was a very advanced design for its time. U.S. fighters of the period were unimpressive, but that had far more to do with the “bomber cult” that dominated the thinking of U.S. airmen than any neglect of advancements in aviation.

      • says

        Well, Mr Arnold had to offer some way to trash a great man so he chose weak evidence ,which shows he is not much of a scholar but a typical rabble rouser. Sad Really.

  3. christopher hubbard says

    all very good points. if pres. obama, or any good progressive for that matter were to take just one of them seriously, let alone all 6 and in good faith give it the “old college try” he wouldn’t be a progressive. it’s even more than a political orientation or outlook or philosophy with the likes of him, it’s their very own identity. you are asking them to rethink not so much their beliefs and values but themselves. that’s too painful a task so we’ll have to soldier on. keep your helmet on and your weapon ready. the battle has not ceased.

  4. P. Aaron says

    Very fine short history lesson thanks. Today’s ‘progressives’ are simply anti-American. Reminding us only of the country’s human failings in an attempt to use that fractious historical legacy to wreck all that’s great about America.

  5. dwdude says

    unfortunately our dear leader is the antithesis of these criteria and is never going to put them into practice

  6. F says

    Thanks for this look at a different time. Worth remembering.

    I had to smile at the comment that Obama had written two autobiographies before entering the WH. Actually, he had two hagiographies ghost-written about him to burnish his image. I have no doubt we’ll hear a lot from him after he leaves the WH, but I wonder if we’ll be treated to another autobiography?

  7. PubliusII says

    BHO and the liberal/progressive/leftist gang despise Coolidge and all he stood for. This list is the very antithesis of how they think government should behave. For them, nothing lies beyond the proper reach of government.

    To see this in action, next time you encounter a liberal, ask him or her what the state’s natural limit is — how far can it go legitimately? Where do they say, “OK, we’re done. Thus far and no farther.” If you get any intelligible answer at all, it will amount to “No limit.” (Except perhaps the bedroom.)

    Next, ask a liberal why he or she confides no trust whatever in the state in regard to matters of speech and religion — and yet has no problem giving the state an absolute monopoly on deadly force. Don’t expect a coherent answer.

    Liberals are (as someone put it recently) “playpen radicals.” So long as they can screw around in their playpen with absolute social freedom — and free contraceptives — they will happily accept the beneficent guardianship of the Nanny State. Once you understand that for them, life is free of all personal responsibilities, you’ll be a long way toward understanding the Perfect Society they wish to build.

    And they’ll take away all your political liberties to achieve it.

  8. says

    Good article, but I take exception with the characterization of “direct election of Senators” as progress. The 17th Amendment eliminated representation of the signatories of the Constitution (i.e. the States), and instead turned the body that was designed to be a restraint on federal power into just another bunch of vote-grubbing, glad-handing, at-large representative for a party (i.e. the people) who already had representation.

    • PubliusII says

      Agreed. The 17th amendment is the biggest stake put through the heart of the Constitution. And the 16th (income tax) provides the fuel for the ruinous growth of the federal government.

    • says

      The 17th Amendment was Progressive, i.e. “Big P”, part of a general political movement arising during the latter portion of the 19th century and still bedeviling us today. I share your disdain for the Amendment as a practical matter, but it was considered to be progress at the time it was enacted. When one turns up a wrong road, you don’t know that you’re not making progress until you realize you’re on the wrong road. And from the perspective of those who have embraced the 17th since, it is progress to have a (theoretically) more democratic form of governance.

  9. says

    In musing over the six principles presented above, I find myself persuaded that the sixth (humility) is the foundation of the other five — that without humility the preceding five principles become unstable before the egos of men who fancy themselves fit to rule.

    A humble man will not exalt himself over his sworn duties. He won’t imagine that he can make $1 into $2 by fiat. He’ll refrain from making promises he can’t keep. He won’t imagine himself superior to the forces history has shown to govern the world. And he won’t demand the power of making free with what others have earned.

    An arrogant man, full of himself and his “mission,” would find Coolidge’s principles wholly uncongenial. He’d reject them with no more than an instant’s consideration. And that’s the sort of man who currently sits in the Oval Office.

  10. says

    Yes, Calvin Coolidge wrote his own speeches but there have been several presidents after him who did, too. His nickname was “Silent Cal” yet, thanks to the radio, more people heard his voice than the combined voices of all previous presidents. Coolidge was the last president who never drove a car or flew in an airplane and the last to travel on horseback to deliver a major address. That, at the dedication of work-about-to-begin on Rushmore Mountain in 1927. In that address – we find the only instance where Cal is advocating the expenditure of tax dollars on something nonessential.
    We value our presidents based on the number of people killed in their administrations. Coolidge was a dismal failure in this department and he had opportunities a greater man might have seized. We could have had a wonderful war with Mexico but Cal just wouldn’t go there. He sent his Amherst College classmate Dwight Morrow down with a one-sentence directive: “Keep us out of war.” You can become president by promising to keep us out of war but it is a promise best forgotten if you wish to be a Great President”. It is hard to believe this man was born on the 4th of July!

  11. richard40 says

    Glad to see this article on the wisdom of silent Cal. Thanks to leftist historical revisionism his excellent record, and even better governing philosophy, has been mostly ignored, while a really terrible president, Woodrow Wilson, has been lionized.

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