Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Some Historical Advice for Senate Republicans

With the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) comes the end of a colorful, controversial, and consequential three decades on the bench. Shockingly, in an election year with a divisive President and recently swept in Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, we find ourselves confronting something "unprecedented" in American history--a lame-duck President making a Supreme Court appointment with a Senate that may very well refuse to even act on the nomination. (Digression: unprecedented things in American history happen all the time, in every realm of society--they are not newsworthy simply for their novelty!) Quickly, the political chattersphere kicked into gear about who would be at fault for this allegedly never before seen example of political hackery and dysfunction.

And yet, the history of the Republic contains at least two far more acrimonious examples of Congressional hatred for an unpopular and divisive President that resulted in delay and "hijinks" for Supreme Court appointments. And I would like to suggest that Senate Republicans follow one of these examples to avoid media bottlenecks over the next year that are likely to play right into the President's hands if he's clever enough (and he certainly is).

As for the really nasty example that Republicans cannot follow even if they wanted to (their majorities aren't big enough), one need only look at the Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Aside from being impeached by the House of Representatives and nearly removed from office by the Senate, Johnson's tenure in office between 1865-1869 is also notable for the fact that the Congress of the United States deliberately went out of its way to reduce the size of the Supreme Court from nine to seven justices so that President Johnson could not appoint anyone. His one nominee, Henry Stanbery, met no action in the Senate because there was no longer a seat in existence for him to take. It should be noted, by the way, that the Senate has done this--take no action at all during a session on a nominee--nine times (there have been 160 nominations, so that is 5.6% of the time).

One more historical delay before getting to the example Senate Republicans may wish to emulate. The last nominees actually made during an election year, Lyndon Johnson's 1968 appointments of Abe Fortas as Chief Justice and Homer Thornberry as Associate Justice were both withdrawn by the President in the face of congressional opposition (Democrats held a 60+ seat Senate majority throughout the session), which does not bode well for election year appointments. This is not due to any real constitutional, or even informal, arrangements, but simply the politics of election years when most of Congress is out of town and jittery about decisions that may have dire consequences in November. Reagan's appointment of Anthony Kennedy, it should be noted, occurred in 1987 and was wrapped up in the first two months of 1988. Reagan, unlike Johnson, was incredibly popular and his Vice-President was about to be swept into office later in the year--different political realities produce different outcomes, who knew!

Finally, the precedent that Senate Republicans should follow. In 1841, after one of the most contested and exciting elections in American history, and barely a month into his Presidency, William Henry Harrison died. His Vice-President, John Tyler (Too), assumed the post with the full backing of the Whig Party that had just elected both men to the top of the Executive Branch. Sadly, for the Whigs, Tyler's Whiggism was of the anti-Andrew Jackson's use of executive power variety and not the Henry Clay "American System" variety. This meant that once the Whigs passed the legislation the voters just sent them to Congress to pass, their Whig President vetoed those laws. Very quickly, Tyler was read out of the Whig Party. An aristocratic Virginian anti-Jacksonian, he found no home with the Democrats either. He was a despised President with no party at all--a rarity in American politics, that only Andrew Johnson resembles in any way.

Now, what does this mean for the Supreme Court? Well, during Tyler's rather miserable time in the Executive Mansion, two Associate Justices died--Smith Thompson (December 1843) and Henry Baldwin (April 1844). Tyler proceeded over the course of 1844--an election year--to submit five different nominees for the two vacancies in nine separate nominations. The Senate was narrowly controlled by the Whigs. First was John Spencer in January 1844, whom the Senate rejected three weeks after his nomination. Next was Reuben Walworth, whom the President withdrew in June after three and half months before the Senate. Then it was Edward King, who found himself postponed. John Spencer and Reuben Walworth were renominated and withdrawn again on the same day in June. In December, after a new President was elected (James K. Polk, Democrat), Tyler renominated King and Walworth, both of whom were withdrawn in February 1845 (Presidents were still sworn in on March 4 in those days) in the face of continued Senate opposition. Then, miraculously, Tyler submitted Samuel Nelson on February 4, 1845 who won unanimous consent from the Senate ten days later. Tyler's final nominee, John Read on February 7, 1845, met no action in the Senate and no vote. Baldwin's seat was not filled until Polk successfully nominated Robert Grier, who was confirmed in August 1846 (more than two years after Baldwin's death!) Why did Nelson make it through? He was an old jurist from New York with a good reputation who avoided the partisan strife of the Second Party System and whose only political service occurred during the good feeling Monroe administration. Which is to say, Nelson was someone everyone respected and could live with--no one held it against him that Tyler had nominated him.

So what lesson do Senate Republicans draw from all this? Obviously, President Obama is not a man without a political party and he has considerably more resources and talent than John Tyler ever did. But, what 1844 proves is that an antagonistic Senate can easily keep Supreme Court seats open simply by considering and rejecting nominees from a President the majority doesn't much care for. There are several useful lessons here for Senate Republicans in 2016:

1) Do not be afraid to reject nominees until you get one you like--the President is more desirous of living on through SCOTUS than you are!
2) Do not be afraid to reject nominees more than once--when he keeps reappointing rejects, he will look as silly as he says you are every time you repeal Obamacare
3) Do not stall on a nominee unless there is only a week or two left in Obama's term and/or the election is already over--the last thing you need is some sympathetic looking character constantly before the nation as they wait for consideration and are ignored (the American people can live with watching someone lose, but not with their being unable to have a shot--also, the media of 1844 hated John Tyler, whereas the media of 2016 is likely to disdain Senate Republicans)

Of course, if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the election in November (and Democrats retake the Senate), those Obama appointees might start to look good compared to what is about to come. In which case, hopefully there is a modern day Samuel Nelson waiting for action in the Senate!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Getting Lincoln Right

The Objective Standard has published a long, but important, article of mine on Lincoln's essential virtue and importance and the gross and shameful libel he has suffered at the hands of many so-called Libertarians and classical liberals in the last 20-30 years.

Follow this link to read and/or purchase the article or entire issue in which it appears. http://www.theobjectivestandard.com/issues/2014-summer/getting-lincoln-right/

-- A republican

Thursday, April 10, 2014

To Brandeis University

What has happened in the last several days concerning your sudden withdrawal of an honorary degree for a defender of the liberal arts, of the Enlightenment, of reason, of Western Civilization and the rights of man and woman--based on the hurt feelings of the votaries of mysticism and statism who never lift one finger to replace a Middle East dictator but with a Shariah toting madman--has been sad to watch. Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents all that is heroic and could be in the world--a woman of independent mind who held her family and culture and childhood religion to the lights of truth and justice. What you have done is embolden the forces of darkness and relativism. You have made it harder for people to speak out against violence and intimidation and you have done so in the heart of an institution that should care about freedom of speech and human dignity more than most.

I am very disappointed and saddened.


Dr. Alexander V. Marriott
Assistant Professor of History
Wiley College

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Guest Submission: The Problem with Today's Digital Freedom Fighters


Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and an endless list of digital vigilantes have come to dominate the news as of late. They profess to be righting wrong by violating laws—laws which should not exist in a free and just society. Manning released video of American helicopters killing Iraqi civilians and Snowden revealed what many Americans have long feared – that the United States government was capable of and is spying on the American people. These two men have quickly become heroes to some and villains to others. Without question the United States has entered into a precarious era of balancing the government need to protect its citizens while maintaining secrets from foreign and domestic threats. The problem is that security policy should be set through the democratic process and not by high-minded vigilantes who would destroy the nation’s defense capabilities while trying to allegedly protect individual liberty.


Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning violated oaths and agreements made with the people of the United States by releasing secret information. They state that not to do so would have been an abdication of a greater responsibility they had to their fellow citizens and “humanity.” Both believe they had witnessed something illicit and unjust and took it upon themselves to correct this wrong by revealing documents considered classified, as they were sensitive to the National Security of the American people. These are the facts of the case for which there is no dispute. The question that needs to be asked is this: does an individual American have a right to violate laws meant to protect national security in the name of what they personally consider to be, national security?

 
While the stories of Snowden and Manning do indicate a government whose obsession with maintaining its own secrecy while denying privacy to others, there is a troubling pattern emerging--that of technologically adept altruists who feel it is their duty to reveal what they believe to be government and private malfeasance. Snowden states that he leaked the documents because the “public needs to decide whether these programs are right or wrong.”[1]

 
Snowden is correct that the extent of the spying on American citizens was “unknown,” but the suggestion that there was no oversight is incorrect. Information on all of these programs was readily available to inquisitive members of Congress, federal courts, and the Executive branch. Furthermore, American citizens have had 12 years since the implementation of the Patriot Act to elect individuals to Congress and the presidency to restrict the government’s broad powers – knowing for the most part what they were. Except for Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, most of the Post 9-11 officials have been lukewarm on civil liberties. The only person who comes out of this scandal looking like a “liar,” who has hidden an aspect of his policy beliefs from the American people is President Obama – but what else is new?


While President Obama campaigned on the promise of ending surveillance programs, he has since decided it was valuable in whatever he calls “the war on terror.” (I think it is now called: “Our On-Going Gentlemanly Row on Terror”) The revelation that President Obama, like the president before him, oversees a branch of government that has the ability to spy on every single American should have come as a shock to no one. This should only come as a lesson to Democrats that their president is just as lousy at guarding against excesses as the Republicans. While it has been entertaining to see President Obama’s hypocrisy brought to light and to watch Congressmen and Senators act like Captain Renault of Casablanca, (“I am shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here!”) nothing has or will come of this save embarrassing the United States and exposing an expensive and formerly secret weapon. The result will be, just as every Liberty loving American fears, a spying mechanism that is countered by our enemies (As indicated by this recent story from Wired magazine) and whose only remaining target is the everyday citizen. All Edward Snowden has done is to waste a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars and instigate the NSA to make the program more robust and more secret at great expense.  

 
It is fair to say that Snowden’s actions have faint similarities with those of whistle-blowers, who generally are protected from prosecution for bringing illegal dealings to the proper authorities. This is not what Snowden did. Instead of bringing what he believed to be a severe violation of both the separation of powers and the rights of American citizens to the attention of a Congressman, an attorney, or court’s officer, he released American intelligence secrets to the foreign press. He also took more information on intelligence operations with him to Hong Kong and then Russia, continuing to discharge more secret information on the way that was not directly pertinent to the privacy of American citizens and pertained directly to foreign surveillance methods used on the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians. The first action may be considered an attempt on the part of a conscientious citizen to roll back the national security state and protect individual liberties, but the subsequent releases qualify as blatant espionage.

 
The same goes for Bradley Manning who admittedly released embarrassing State Department secret cables--many of which he did not even bother to read--because he resented how the United States government treated gays like himself. Manning’s petty act of revenge was both a violation of his sworn oath as a United States service member and another blatant act of espionage against the United States. That he stole and published random classified information to the “World” and not to any particular country does not make his action any different than any other spy working for a foreign nation.[2]

 
Is Edward Snowden really concerned with the “liberties” of individuals while aiding foreign governments like China who steal from American companies and wage a cyber war against the United States? Perhaps he believes the Russian government, that imprisons domestic protestors and murders foreign dissidents, has secrets worth protecting? This all smacks of a person with a misguided savior complex who believes that the path to reform is embarrassing the United States on the world stage and hoping for revolution. The reasoning and arguments put forth by both of these men are incredibly similar to those of the lone Anarchist who assassinated William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz believed that McKinley had violated American principles in his war on the revolutionaries in the Philippines and represented an expansion of imperialism. He shot McKinley believing that murdering a “tyrant” would encourage an Anarchist uprising. Czolgosz never bothered to contemplate the idea that in a democratic country revolutions are not waged with bullets, but with ballots.

 
What Czolgosz, Manning and Snowden all seem to have forgotten is that the United States relies on elections, courts, and checks and balances to right the wayward ship. Every one of these individuals could have voted, participated in, and advocated during one of many elections if they wanted pro-privacy, anti-war candidates. This would have allowed them to maintain the oaths and agreements they made to protect the United States and its secrets. Being part of the intelligence structure, they would have had the knowledge base to know where the real pitfalls and incursions were and pursued legislative and democratic methods to achieve the goal of resolving them. Instead they aspired to be treated like martyrs of the hypocritical “Great Satan,” by our enemies, all the while fixing nothing.

 
While I believe that Snowden and Manning are criminals who unapologetically violated their oaths - and Manning’s court martial happens to agree with me – that does not mean that I discount the need for government whistleblower reform. President Obama has been waging a war on leakers, so long as said leaks do not make him look good like those that revealed foiled Al’Queada plots in Yemen. His ability to wield the bureaucratic and access nightmare that is classified materials to hide his own failings (See: Benghazi) and to use laws associated with classified materials to punish legitimate criticisms of his policy failings presents a real threat to the separation of powers, national security, and the liberties of individual Americans.

 
Do I want government spying on American citizens to end? Of course I do. The excesses of the Patriot Act were apparent to most Americans the day someone finally sat down to read it. What is the value of knowing what books people are reading? After 9-11 that only book that seemed pertinent to that particular attack was the Qur’Ran. The only person who might benefit from producing a report of books American citizens are buying is the guy who sells the government its paper. If there is a source of corruption, I always assume it is that guy.

 
Should we being having this discussion? Definitely. Should Edward Snowden get a pass because the public agrees with his outrage? Of course not. We are a nation of laws. If you disagree with said laws you still have some options denied to most of the rest of humanity: work to change them, emigrate, or revolt.  

 
Should there be legislation to protect government whistleblowers that reveal troubling Top Secret information to Congressmen and Senators so they can make informed decisions? Yes. But should Snowden and Manning be treated like heroes for releasing sensitive information for the “sake of the world?” No. Should they be prosecuted for violating the trust given to them by the American people? Yes. Will we continue to see more people like Snowden and Manning who feel alienated by a political system where elections steer policy and not vigilantism? Definitely. 

 
The current battle for electronic privacy is an important fight, if not the most important, being waged by the State and those who seek to limit its power. The United States government, has long made a habit of listening in on conversations, telegraphs, phone calls, and Internet messages of its citizens. The extent to which this should be permitted in a republic that guarantees a reasonable right to privacy is a delicate balance between elected officials, law enforcement, voters, and the courts. It is not an area that should be settled by megalomaniacal altruists who play God with computer code and think it entitles them to play God with America’s national security and justice systems.

 
-- Daniel P. Roberts

[1] Barbara Starr, Man Behind NSA Leaks says he did it to safe guard privacy, liberty, last modified June 23, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/10/politics/edward-snowden-profile
[2] Ali Mohsin, Bradley Manning justifies his actions by a desire to spark a debate, February 28, 2013, http://www.dailypressdot.com/bradley-manning-justifies-his-actions-by-the-desire-to-spark-a-debate/758357/.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Stay Cool with Coolidge? The Real Legacy of "Silent Cal"

A Review of Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013)

Presidential biography season is well under way. The last several years have seen several new studies of George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. These and other Presidents have long been the recipients of copious attentions from biographers, but not all Presidents are so fortunate. Some, like Chester A. Arthur and William Henry Harrison, scarcely ever receive any book-long treatment at all. Most Presidents see a new biography every decade or so. And so, one of this year’s most talked about and, quite possibly, best-selling biographies, is now before us—Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, a prequel/follow-up to her blockbuster reconsideration of the Great Depression and New Deal, The Forgotten Man (2008).[1]

 

Whenever any writer—historian or not—decides to write a long examination of the life of a man as famous as Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the thirtieth President of the United States, and a man about whom numerous studies and biographies have already been written—including Robert Sobel’s Coolidge: An American Enigma (1998), Robert H. Ferrell’s The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), and David Greenberg’s Calvin Coolidge (2006)—they must justify or explain what new needs to be said. Why now? Why Coolidge? Coolidge, of course, wrote his own discursive account of his life and work while leaving the Presidency—The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929)—and his life and Presidency became the subjects of writers and biographers of all stripes as soon as his main achievements, economy in government and the booming economy, were blown to bits by his immediate successors. One such account appeared in 1938, from the Kansas newspaperman William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge. According to White, studying Coolidge was the fodder of a historical sleuth: “My hypothesis is this: That in the strange, turbulent years that brought an era to a close a man lived in the White House and led the American people who was a perfect throwback to the more primitive days of the Republic, a survival of a spiritual race that has almost passed from the earth. The reaction of this obviously limited but honest, shrewd, sentimental, resolute American primitive to those gorgeous and sophisticated times—his White House years—furnished material for a study of American life as reflected in American business and American politics, which I hope may be worth the perusal of readers who would understand their country in one fine, far day of its pomp and glory.”[2] Coolidge has remained an interesting part of American culture—playing the same role for most Americans’ conception of the 1920s that Eisenhower plays for the 1950s—that of the paternal quiet old man, trusted by most, liked by more, but not extremely well known.

 

Coolidge, despite the perception of being remembered by few, has never been long out of the spotlight. The New Dealers came to power—and stayed in power—largely on a strident critique of the 1920s and early 1930s—the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover years. The synthetic works of John Kenneth Galbraith are nothing if not a formalized and intellectual trashing of notions of “throwbacks” like Coolidge. An affluent society like the one Coolidge presided over had to be willing to “do more” not less, said the New Dealers. When Ronald Reagan seemingly dusted Coolidge off the floor of forgotten history, he was actually scooping him from a partially covered grave of remembered and much battered villains.

 

According to Amity Shlaes (syndicated columnist for Bloomberg View and winner of the Hayek and Bastiat Prizes for journalism—as well as a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), a new biography of the Vermont born and raised Amherst graduate who became Governor of Massachusetts, national prominence from ending the first major attempt of an urban police force to strike, and then the Vice-Presidency and Presidency is warranted because of what we might learn of the possibilities for our own problems.

It is hard for modern students of economics to know what to make of a government that treated economic weakness by raising interest rates 300 basis points, cutting tax rates, and halving the federal government, so much at odds is that prescription with the antidotes to recession our own experts tend to recommend. It is harder still for modern economists to concede that that recipe, the policy recipe for the early 1920s advocated by Coolidge and Harding, yielded growth on a scale to which we can aspire today.[3]

Certainly, on the face of it, a man who directed—or helped direct—the reduction of the national debt from $28 billion to $17.65 billion (a 37% decrease that if replicated at this exact moment would bring the national debt of the United States from $16.74 trillion to $10.55 trillion) seems to have answers for today’s problems.[4] But the curious thing about Shlaes’ biography of “Silent Cal” is that there are virtually no answers. This is, I believe, not her fault, but rather is related to issues which she only peripherally examines but fundamental to explaining the very real oddity that White identified—that the same nation which elected Harding and Coolidge also elected Franklin Roosevelt to office more times than his three predecessors put together.

 

Part of the problem arises from a methodological issue prevalent among many modern biographers—David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and a great many other of the most able practitioners—a blurred chronological focus on nearly everything. Biographers, unless they purposely set out to write an intellectual biography or a “life and times” of their subjects, often try to give a Herodotean survey of all the facets of the men and women they examine. This means that often as much attention is paid to private personal incidents and relationships as are given to large public episodes and events. Only a brave soul will make the difficult editorial decisions in a one volume biography to pass over or minimize the truly less important events and incidents of a life and withstand the waves of criticism that will arrive from editors and reviewers. Also lost are the grand meta-historical issues related to the biography of a man—such as his philosophy and political thought, that require chronology to be sacrificed for the sake of thematic continuity and examination. These issues are not unique to Shlaes’ account of Calvin Coolidge by any means, but they are certainly not solved and make the answers she hopes her account can provide elusive, if not entirely absent.

 

A couple of examples from Coolidge’s life and times will illustrate why a purely chronological account of his life is insufficient for getting at anything resembling useful answers in today’s political climate—and also leaves any uninformed reader with surprisingly little understanding of what was going on in the 1920s (or 1910s and 1930s). Take just the language of political description: conservative, liberal, Progressive, Republican, Democrat, etc. The Republican Party, and Coolidge himself, were the primary incubators of late nineteenth-century Progressivism particularly under such party standard bearers as Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, James G. Blaine, Thomas Reed, and Theodore Roosevelt. It was not until Southern populism and Midwestern agrarianism under the likes of William Jennings Bryan offered the Democratic Party an avenue to outflank the GOP for the Progressive vote between 1896 and 1912. We see this in Shlaes’ writing, for instance in a passage on Coolidge’s self-conscious marshaling of his achievements as Governor of Massachusetts: “Many Republicans believed that for a politician to survive he must remain progressive. ... He asked his assistant, Henry Long, to compile a list of progressive legislation he had signed. The laws ranged from a plan regulating weekly pay for injured employees in case of partial incapacity to minimum wages for scrubwomen.”[5] How do we square this with later comments such as: “Then came another thought that was uniquely Coolidge: “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” He was, like McCall, beginning to see the extent of the damage that bad legislation could do;” or, “But when it came to the substance, Coolidge was ambivalent; he still considered himself a progressive. That spring he voted for women’s suffrage, the state income tax, a minimum wage for female workers, and salary increases for teachers, thereby preempting territory before Democrats or other new candidates might get to it;” or, “Price controls didn’t work now, either. In addition to respect for the reign of law, the law of markets. “Isn’t it a strange thing,” he asked Barton, “that in every period of social unrest men have the notion that they can pass a law and suspend the operations of economic law?””[6] The most Shlaes can muster for us as far as relates to Coolidge himself is an evolving attitude on economic regulation that was a cornerstone of early twentieth century Progressivism—and its modern analogue.

 

This evolution, we are told, is generally away from the regulatory state of Franklin Roosevelt and even Herbert Hoover, but then we have to deal with serious problems in that interpretation. One, not covered (or only very quickly) by Shlaes, is President Coolidge’s ease with regulating new technologies—airplanes, cars, and radio. Another is President Coolidge’s firm embrace of protectionism. This was not from lack of inquiry about the results of tariffs—in fact Shlaes keeps some of the leading thinkers of the period perpetually in the background of her narrative, as shown in this passage: “Coolidge rated (William Graham) Sumner “on the whole sound.” But Coolidge was not ready to sign on to Sumner’s philosophy: “I do not think that human existence is quite so much on the basis of dollars and cents as he puts it. ... He nowhere enunciates the principle of service.””[7] Shlaes, while offering an explanation for Coolidge’s adherence to protectionism rooted in his New England experience, is unsympathetic to his conclusions. But how did Coolidge and Republicans square protectionism—which Shlaes correctly points out hurt the farmers of the Midwest and drove increasing numbers of them into the arms of free-trading Democrats—with such notions of government as: “The most important thing now was to free the individual, for, as Coolidge said, “It is our theory that the people own the government, not that the government should own the people.””[8] The people own the government to partition trade advantages among regions of the country?

 

How about Coolidge’s signing of one of the worst legislative landmarks of the 1920s, the Immigration Act of 1924 (that excluded “undesirable” Japanese and Chinese immigrants entirely from legally moving into the republic and essentially ended most Eastern and Southern European immigration): “Coolidge was willing to go along with restrictionists. “I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted,” he wrote. But he was not hostile to immigrants already in the United States. And he was especially concerned at the widely supported Japanese exclusion provision that many congressmen hope to make law.”[9] Her take on this is that Coolidge was log-rolling in order to get his Republican majorities in House and Senate to go along with tax cuts and economizing in government—but lost is an explanation for why a disconnect existed between Coolidge and his majorities on that point in the first place. Why did Coolidge allegedly have to trade his signature on bills he might otherwise have vetoed—this is Shlaes’ implication, but only for the diplomatic danger of angering the Japanese, which is exactly what occurred—in order to secure passage of tax cuts and economizing in the wake of a war prosecuted and managed by Democrats? No clear or obvious answer emerges.

 

We might be further confused from the seeming bifurcation of the Republican Party in spite of the argument proffered from Shlaes of Coolidge’s immense popularity and of his policies. For instance, while Hoover swept into the Presidency promising to continue the Coolidge policies, it is clear from Shlaes’ recounting that many Republicans—including Hoover—had major disagreements with Coolidge, as we can see from this passage that makes obvious that Franklin Roosevelt’s activities were neither unpredictable nor even unique to his partisan identity: “Many Republicans, including [William] Borah, were plotting to move the party to the left; Borah had allowed he might back George Norris, who sought federal ownership of hydropower.”[10] Hoover, whom Shlaes argues Coolidge did not like—despite keeping him in his Cabinet and deploying him to advantage during natural disasters—was not adverse to these “elastic” notions of government power and intervention. That Robert La Follette (1855-1925) bolted the Republican Party in 1924 to run as the Progressive Party’s candidate against Coolidge did not necessitate a divorce between the GOP and Progressivism—which is why La Follette completely failed to replicate the split Theodore Roosevelt caused in the election of 1912.

 

What is truly interesting about Coolidge and the period of American politics that he inhabited and represented, the roaring twenties and Prohibition—it is nearly unaccountable how little discussion there is in this biography about Prohibition, the enforcement of which fell mostly heavily on Calvin Coolidge and that greatly expanded the pernicious tentacles of Federal power to every corner of the nation through the enforcement carried out by Federal agents largely under the authority of J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was its transitional nature. The great “flip” in the roles of the political parties was occurring and maturing during this very period—though the truly interesting part of the tale was on the Democratic side and we get very little of that here. Coolidge, while a “throwback” in some regards, was mostly a “throwback” to what the Democratic Party used to be under the auspices of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Grover Cleveland—and even there only in part. Coolidge’s record of cutting the Federal Budget, the debt, and the size of the Government workforce (there is a difference between that and restraining its power and scope, which Coolidge achieved very little towards) was and is admirable, but as Shlaes makes clear—as she must—this was ephemeral. Hoover blasted these achievements into bits immediately and Franklin Roosevelt so obliterated any trace of them that observers had to wonder how the same country had elected Coolidge and Roosevelt only eight years apart.

 

So what are the answers? How do we now take anything of value from the story of Calvin Coolidge and cutting the budget and debt—other than simply knowing it was once done? What did Coolidge cut and why? What did he see as government’s proper role and why? How did he square either of those answers with his own actions in office which sometimes tended toward greater liberalism and sometimes towards the greater statism on the horizon? Did he renounce the Progressive wing of his party or any of its standard-bearers? How did he square Theodore Roosevelt’s notions of government activism with his own? Or is the better question: Did he have to do so? The greatest reason why we cannot cut our humongous budget deficit (one of the book’s funnier passages relates to Coolidge’s angry frustration with the advent of a $37 million deficit at the end of his term) let alone reduce our mind-boggling national debt, relates to the widespread acceptance of a notion of government interventionism that Coolidge did, indeed, have issues with.[11] But does his story offer us an antidote to that acceptance—based in notions of “service” that Coolidge may have agreed with in large part? Did he ever articulate a full-throated case against economic interventionism? Or a defense of limited government—why it was necessary and what it was meant to do? So far as anyone can tell from Shlaes’ book, the answer is no—and that is the correct answer. Why, then, write a straight biography of such a person if the goal is offer some path to future prosperity and economic growth? The heavy lifting of the changes necessary to preserve liberty and fiscal sanity has to be done with ammunition a bit more potent than simply pointing to a brief transitional period in American political history—after a war and major military build-up (the disconcerting thing here is that Shlaes could have written a similar account of Harry Truman’s Presidency in more ways than just that point)—where the budget and national debt were reduced. Coolidge running for President today would lose because he would react in horror to the post-World War II welfare state consensus, the precise reason why Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey all lost the elections of 1936, 1940, 1944, and 1948. Only when General Eisenhower moved the party progressively and firmly into the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s “bold experimentation” did the Republican Party re-emerge. Even the great Coolidge booster, Reagan, was a Roosevelt man in the 1930s.

 

Americans are all New Dealers now. Coolidge’s encomium to Vermont recounted in the book during his visit to the State of his birth after a natural disaster is hardly understandable now: “I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all I love her because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who almost impoverished themselves for a love of others. If ever the spirit of liberty should vanish from the rest of the Union, it could be restored by the generous store held by the people in this brave little state of Vermont.”[12] If we are waiting for liberty’s defense to emanate from the state of Bernie Sanders, Pat Leahy, and Howard Dean we are in serious trouble. Coolidge, of course, did not live to see or offer an alternative to the New Deal—but he saw it coming and offered nothing to stop it except Herbert Hoover, whose rise could not have happened without Coolidge’s patronage and withdrawal from office.

 

That Coolidge was an interesting figure with laudable ideas, goals, and achievements is undeniable—and Shlaes’ biography reminds us all of that and informs those new to him of it—but that has always been the case while never promoting any of his ideas in contemporary policy debates. While the American people continue to demand their cake after the eating, on the dime of whatever despised minority getting the short-end of the stick, the good that Coolidge did will continue not to live after him. That disposition and attitude has to be countered by an antipode that did not exist in Coolidge’s day and one that Coolidge may very well have disagreed with—a bold defense of liberty, economic and personal. A defense of liberty and capitalism as the only moral system in the world—a system based on defending individual rights from the initiation of force as the reason, the only reason, for government to exist. Only as such ideas begin winning the debate for the consciences of the American people, can the role of government contract and, with it, our never-ending budget deficits and unfathomable sea of national debt.


-- A republican


[1] Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008); Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).
[2] William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge (The Macmillan Company, 1938; Easton Press reprint, 1986), v-vi.
[3] Shlaes, Coolidge, 12.
[4] Ibid, 349, 419.
[5] Ibid, 177.
[6] Ibid, 110, 114, 191.
[7] Ibid, 192.
[8] Ibid, 318.
[9] Ibid, 268.
[10] Ibid, 395-396.
[11] Ibid, 428.
[12] Ibid, 430.