As president, Coolidge became a regular Isaac Stern of the pocket veto, and used that obscure veto frequently. In total, he vetoed 50 times, a multiple of what Harding had done before him. Coolidge showed that the best government was the one that got out of the way. When he refrained, the economy grew, the Ku Klux Klan faded, and Americans got Model A’s and automobiles.
LOPEZ: How was “a good budget . . . among the noblest monuments of virtue” in the mind of Coolidge?
SHLAES: Coolidge believed that government officials who tell themselves that spending benefits the economy delude themselves and the citizens. Government budgets promote human freedom. “I want the people to work less for the government and more for themselves,” he said. “I want them to have the rewards of their own industry.” The Tax Foundation today celebrates “tax freedom day”; such a day was also a Coolidge concept.
LOPEZ: Can we learn from Coolidge on immigration?
SHLAES: Not so much. He signed the Johnson-Reed Act, albeit with many misgivings in record to the Asian exclusion component. But there is one area where Coolidge’s immigration policy needs a second look. He believed in the individual, not the group. For example, he repeatedly vetoed laws that would have given Native Americans standing to sue in court. But Coolidge also signed a law that made Native Americans U.S. citizens. You can’t look at the first without considering the second. In other words, Coolidge was not ungenerous to minorities.
One reason Coolidge wanted to restrict immigration was that he suspected large new groups of immigrants would become political blocs.
LOPEZ: Coolidge’s vice president “wrecked” inauguration day. What got into him?
SHLAES: Charles Dawes took a power trip. There was a filibuster problem in the Senate, and Dawes chose to lecture the senators. They were furious.
LOPEZ: Where did Coolidge develop his respect for natural law?
SHLAES: Coolidge was born with respect for natural law. One of his clearest statements on it came in 1914, in his inaugural speech as president of the Massachusetts state senate.
Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of laws.
LOPEZ: How were Coolidge’s “ideas and the culture . . . in harmony”? Could you see those conditions existing again?
SHLAES: Yes, I could.
The Progressive experiment was launched by Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge’s fellow Republican, and continued by President Wilson. But then the experiment halted. Or, one should say, was halted by two Republicans, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge stood athwart history, yelling “Stop.” In that he resembled the founder of National Review. Coolidge vetoed the farm subsidy twice, postponing our modern subsidy for agriculture; he vetoed the bonus for soldiers, a forerunner of Social Security; and he vetoed plans for federal entry into the power sector at Muscle Shoals.