Wouldn’t it be great if an American president cut taxes, reduced the federal budget, ran a surplus every year, and paid down the national debt? Well, America has already had such a president. His name was Calvin Coolidge and, in under six years, he accomplished these things and more. Remember the Roaring Twenties?
President Coolidge is the most underrated American president. From 1923-1929, Coolidge accomplished so much by making the federal government do less–a deceptively difficult undertaking. Coolidge was a minimalist. The federal government, he believed, should be limited, thrifty, and frugal. He had one goal: fiscal stability through tax reform and rigorous budgeting.
When Coolidge assumed the presidency after the sudden death of President Warren Harding in 1923, the national debt was over $22 billion. By the end of Coolidge’s term, it was under $17 billion–the greatest percentage reduction since the Civil War. How? Coolidge and his budget bureau convened every week to discuss potential savings. With persistence and grit, Coolidge led his administration to rein in federal spending, reduce government waste, and pay down the national debt.
Next came tax reduction. When Coolidge entered the White House, the top individual income tax rate was 40 percent. At the end of his term, after the passage of the Revenue Acts of 1924 and 1926, the top rate was 25 percent. Coolidge and his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, believed the short-term strain lower taxes would have on revenues would be exceeded by the long-term benefits tax reductions generate. This was what Secretary Mellon called “scientific taxation,” incorporating similar principles to the modern Laffer Curve.
Despite having lowered individual tax rates across the board, the federal government streamlined taxation and was receiving more tax revenue from lower rates than it had with higher rates. It’s amazing what markets can do.
While modern presidential candidates campaign on vast legislative platforms with dozens of new proposals and programs, Coolidge believed legislating was reserved for legislators. The Constitution vests all legislative powers in Congress; however, this delegation did not mean Congress should legislate solely for the sake of legislating or a veneer of productivity. “Don’t hurry to legislate,” Coolidge cautioned, “Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.” Coolidge had an acute understanding of the founders’ Constitutional framework and the human condition.
The individual, Coolidge understood, was fundamental. He believed that, “when the individual fails, whether it be from a despotism or the dead level of a socialistic state, all has failed.” The sacredness of the individual informed his view that, “government should not assume for the people the inevitable burdens of existence.” Particularly relevant now, Coolidge stated that, “Unsound economic conditions are not conducive to sound legislation.” If only his successors, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, shared his views, then the Great Depression wouldn’t have been as prolonged.
If all this is true, why do so few know of his record?
Coolidge’s economic record is routinely maligned, misinterpreted, and cast aside by Keynesian academics and fans of government involvement as ‘the reason for the Great Depression,’ when it’s actually nothing but inconvenient proof that less government means more freedom and prosperity. Despite his judicious handling and appointment of a bipartisan investigation, the Teapot Dome scandal from Harding’s Cabinet frequently casts a shadow over Coolidge’s luminescent success. Moreover, Coolidge is between the magnetism of the World Wars and two of the most acclaimed, progressive U.S. presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. Schools teach students about Wilson and Roosevelt as if they are the only presidents between 1913 and 1945. But the early twentieth century was more than war, progressivism, and the New Deal. Students of all ages have much to learn from the humble New Englander. (Start with Coolidge by Amity Shales)
President Coolidge doesn’t get enough credit. With the assistance of key administration members like Treasury Secretary Mellon and budget bureau director, General Lord, the conditions were set for the most prosperous decade in American history. The Coolidge administration’s fiscal record is unmatched. Americans were earning and keeping more as the federal government spent less, taxed less, and reduced the national debt. He understood and believed in federalism, having been Governor of Massachusetts. Calvin Coolidge was a humble, diligent, conservative president. He was a student of history, a scholar of the Constitution, and, first and foremost, a citizen.
Coolidge was wholeheartedly a president of, by, and for the people. He restored order to the federal balance sheets, the Executive Branch, and a disillusioned post-World War I America. Coolidge’s presidency proves an imperative lesson: as government shrinks, everything else can grow. America needs Coolidge in ‘24.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.