Calvin Coolidge: The Great Refrainer Shows the Way
“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”
In honoring the centennial of Calvin Coolidge, sworn in as our first modern conservative president on August 3, 1923, we can benefit from reflecting on his achievements in overcoming national challenges that were remarkably similar to those of today.
Liberal historians predictably dismiss Coolidge as a “do-nothing” president who was out of step with the country; they mock his taciturn style and disdain his restraint in exercising governmental power. But for main-street conservatives, Coolidge’s understated leadership and highly principled conservatism provide a wellspring of examples for future presidents.
Start with Coolidge’s mild-mannered and unassuming personality. The small-town values that guided the thirtieth president during his six years in the White House set a classic standard of good taste and restraint. It holds up refreshingly well against our contemporary age of political bombast, exaggeration, and overstatement.
His personal modesty, however, did not keep Coolidge out of touch with his times. Despite the distractions of the decadent Jazz Age of flappers, speakeasy bars, and roaring self-indulgence, the unassuming Coolidge remained a highly effective communicator, constantly getting his conservative message out to the public and winning decisively the 1924 presidential election. Coolidge held more press conferences than any president ever and through his agreeable personality brought over many journalists to his small-government cause—although the curmudgeon H. L. Mencken, who probably would have dished any occupant of the White House, remained a skeptic.
Coolidge was also modern in his day, on the cutting-edge of the latest technology. Speaking to the American public in some fifty radio broadcasts, it was Silent Cal, not FDR, who actually pioneered presidential talks across the airwaves. Yet, even while being a force in public discourse, Coolidge demonstrated how great presidents can navigate the ship of state without constantly making themselves the center of national attention.
But more important than Coolidge’s modest personal style was his common-sense policy conservatism. Conservatives too often overlook Coolidge’s impressive record, but thanks to the good work of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and historians like Amity Shlaes, that neglect is changing. The current generation is learning how our thirtieth president, with his unflinching commitment to conservative values, successfully resisted powerful political and social forces that would have taken America in the wrong direction.
Consider two major national issues of today: the federal financial morass and our out-of-control immigration policy. Coolidge also faced these issues and turned them into political victories.
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. Like no other president, Coolidge understood that following the Constitution and serving the national interest is, above all, the constant struggle to defend against rent-seeking and self-serving political forces who seek to commandeer government agencies and expand federal power. That is why the Great Refrainer would have dismissed out of hand demagogic folly about building great societies or marching off to romantic rendezvouses with destiny.
Coolidge was the arch-foe of Washington adventurism, pork-barrel politics, and federal aggrandizement. How he would have called out grandstanding politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama, unsurprised when they departed the national stage leaving the country with nothing but billions in new red ink and an entrenched Washington bureaucracy. A student of American history, Coolidge did recognize our genuinely great presidential achievers, commissioning the Mount Rushmore sculptures, but he predictably waved off any talk of monuments to himself.
Today, appalled at the arrogance of Washington’s dirigiste ruling class, which sits atop $150 trillion in federal liabilities and an unchecked administrative Deep State, we esteem Coolidge’s wisdom, indeed brilliance, in keeping at bay those political actors of his day who constantly sought to mount white horses, blow bugles, and ride towards the windmills.
Coolidge handily defeated the LaFollette Progressive Republicans, whose know-it-all liberal agenda called for fixing all society’s ills on Washington’s tab. Coolidge also rejected Teddy Roosevelt’s brand of imperialism and big military budgets. He chose instead to lead a restrained foreign policy built on America First principles, wisely resisting the re-launching of previous GOP global ambitions.
Coolidge, like all modern Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, successfully pushed significant tax cuts through Congress; but unlike all other GOP chief executives, Coolidge ensured his tax cuts were matched with actual federal spending reductions, including in defense. What a delight it would have been to hear Coolidge’s stinging rebuke to Dick Cheney’s observation that “deficits don’t matter.”
The Coolidge administration did more than cut federal spending; it also reduced the size of the federal bureaucracy. Unimaginable today when everybody expects Uncle Sam to foot the bill, President Coolidge blocked federal farm subsidies, opposed veteran bonuses, and repeatedly said no to defense contractors who wanted to build more warships. We can only imagine Silent Cal’s retort to today’s Republican war hawks who argue that bigger Pentagon budgets bring more effective national defense.
Coolidge led the way in implementing an immigration slow-down after decades of massive inflows of more than 20 million migrants. He also put in place our modern system of border security based on requiring foreigners to qualify for visas abroad, while also setting up the U.S. Border Patrol to defend our frontiers. These security tools served the country reasonably well until the open-border radicals of the Biden administration arrived and began, unlawfully, to dismantle them.
An unprejudiced and tolerant man, Coolidge harbored no ill will towards any ethnic groups and was outspoken in defending the rights of black Americans. But like most of his countrymen in the early 1920s, Coolidge understood that too many migrants were arriving in the United States unaware of or even hostile to American political traditions and values.
Indeed, recently arrived foreigners had dominated the ranks of aggressive radicals, anarchists, and Bolsheviks, who essentially sought to violently overthrow the U.S. political and social order. Through widespread bombings and attacks on public officials, they brought about the 1919–20 Red Scare and gave Americans good reasons to question full-throttle immigration.
Modern liberal historians, of course, condemn the widely held public views from 1920s America as “nativism” (or worse), but the conservative Coolidge saw a legitimate and normal human reaction in the response. The president joined with ordinary Americans in seeking to preserve the best in local communities, protect labor markets, and defend national values. Coolidge explained:
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.
The president signed the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, curtailing the large waves of migrants and enacting a reasonable immigration pause. 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.
Today, the 1924 act is criticized because, in drastically cutting the waves of migrants, it also put in place a nationality quota system, limiting immigration based on the ethnic heritage of Americans who then populated the country. That system was heavily weighted to Europe, practically ignoring Americans of African and Asian heritage. Coolidge regretted much of this and spoke out against the act’s Japanese exclusion, specifically urging it not to be included in the law, but Congress remained unmoved.
The debate about national origin, however, should not obscure that Coolidge’s larger policy objective—imposing an immigration time-out—was entirely valid for his era and offers a good roadmap for our national moment. Today, after decades of accepting massive numbers of migrants, the United States is past overdue for a pause that allows the country a chance to assimilate the tens of millions of new arrivals.
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Despite the divisive drum-beating of our modern culture-warrior Marxists, the need for a pause has nothing to do with race, creed, or religion—concepts that are not at the core of being a 21st-century American. The real issue is ensuring full Americanization of these newcomers, providing space and time for the current 45 million foreign-born permanent residents and newly minted citizens to connect more deeply with our national values, which include constitutionally limited government, free enterprise, and the English language.
If Coolidge were here today and saw the Biden administration’s reckless open-border policies that mock rule of law and indirectly provide Mexican criminal cartels billions in profits, the Great Refrainer would not hesitate in endorsing an immediate immigration pause. Coolidge would also remind us that imposing such a time-out is just as authentically American as is taking in migrants.
Calvin Coolidge’s impressive public record reminds us that to master the future we must relearn the past.