Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Cal and Response

State of the Union: Coolidge points to a presidency that could reunite the tearing wings of the GOP. 
White House Official Portrait, Calvin Coolidge (WikiMedia Commons)

At 2:47 a.m. on August 3, 1923, a century ago yesterday, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president of the United States. As Phillip Linderman demonstrated in an encomium of the man marking the occasion here at TAC, Coolidge brought a combination of humble dignity and principled decisiveness to the office of the presidency. That combo makes him a perfect example for bridging the divide within today’s Republican party. 

Coolidge’s  quiet commitment to a smaller government—and impressive record, “During his six years in the White House, he reduced the national debt by about a third, cut federal spending, and balanced the budget each year of his administration, a record unmatched by any president since.”— appeals to establishment conservatives who do not yet see that what they approve as shrinking the administrative state and fear as executive overreach go hand in hand. 


His record and rhetoric on immigration, meanwhile, makes the primary “New Right” concern of American identity and exceptionalism more palatable to a conservative intelligentsia that is more afraid of being called a racist at a cocktail party than of the dishonor of selling their patrimony. As he put it: 

Restricted immigration is not an offensive but purely a defensive action. It is not adopted in criticism of others in the slightest degree, but solely for the purpose of protecting ourselves. We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.

Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924, pausing the overwhelming waves of arrivals transforming the country. As Linderman writes, “At the time of the 1924 act, almost 14 percent of the country’s population was foreign-born, which is very similar to the percentage in the America of the 2020s.” An immigration time-out is precisely what we need today, especially if we plan to avoid a world war and its accompanying national mobilization. Perhaps greater familiarity with Cooldige and his legacy will help convince those too distracted by how Donald Trump makes them feel when he calls for building a wall to consider the needs of the nation. 

Coolidge became president because Warren Harding died unexpectedly. He did win the 1924 election on his own terms, however, and despite his now proverbial silence was noted for his direct communication with the press and electorate. It is difficult, then, to say whether a like man stands in the wings of our national stage, or whether such a man could be elected today, in the televisual and digital age, rather than the days of radio. One hopes, but against hope.