Editor’s Note: Thomas B. Silver (1947-2001) was president of the Claremont Institute and the publisher of the Claremont Review of Books. The following is excerpted from his book, Coolidge and the Historians (1982).
Perhaps the most memorable historical sketch of Calvin Coolidge is to be found in The Crisis of the Old Order, the first volume in Professor Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt. Coolidge is interesting to Professor Schlesinger, we believe, less in himself than as a symbol of American conservatism more generally. Schlesinger understands 20th-century American conservatism as rigid ideological opposition to the moderate and pragmatic tradition of liberal reform in America….
Moreover, the conservative ideology reflects the mentality of a class, the possessing class in America. Schlesinger deplores the acquisitive character of American conservatism and its tendency to promote the interests of businessmen and the rich at the expense of the common good. These two themes-the curse of ideology and the curse of acquisitiveness-are vividly personified in The Crisis of the Old Order in the characterizations of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, the spokesmen for an idea whose time had gone. In Schlesinger’s view, Hoover was a tragic figure in American conservatism and Coolidge a comic one. Hoover was, or became, an ideologue, who did not sufficiently understand that all ideas must be scrutinized regularly to see whether they have outlived their usefulness….
This was the trauma and the tragedy of Herbert Hoover, a man of high ideals, flawed by his self-righteousness and cast down by events. The tragic figure of Hoover contrasts with the comic figure of Calvin Coolidge, the smugly self-righteous little man of low ideals. Coolidge transformed the dollar into the Almighty Dollar and worshipped unceasingly at its altar.
His speeches offered his social philosophy in dry pellets of aphorism. “The chief business of the American people,” he said, “is business.” But, for Coolidge, business was more than business; it was a religion; and to it he committed all the passion of his arid nature…. (Schlesinger, Crisis of the Old Order, p. 57)
“The chief business of the American people is business.” What more needs be said?
Getting a Word in Edgewise
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said is that this aphorism, much ridiculed and much maligned, is the precise truth. America is a commercial republic. Now, just as fifty years ago, the principal activity of the American people is business. That is not to say—and Coolidge never said—that business is the highest activity in America, or that it is pursued for its own sake, or that it will automatically secure for us the good life. Coolidge seems to be Coolidge the Philistine only because…Schlesinger will not let him get a word in edgewise.
After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of the people will always find these are moving impulses of our life…. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of our existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. [Silver’s italics.] (Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic, pp. 187-188)
Coolidge’s attitude toward money-making and wealth is the commonsensical one, namely, that wealth is justified only as a means to higher ends. Without wealth you will not have hospitals, schools, and museums. William Allen White [a critical Coolidge biographer whom Schlesinger follows] would have us believe that Coolidge thought justice “in some occult way” would be “secreted” from the activity of the peddler and the captain of industry. This is false. Coolidge’s clear position was that wealth cannot be accumulated or preserved, in the long run, outside of a framework provided by liberal culture and the more mundane virtues, e.g, “the homely fundamental virtue,” of economy. Culture and virtue produce wealth, wealth does not produce them. Wealth is merely a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of progress. But wealth does provide, in its turn, the leisure and the wherewithal to pursue, for instance, a liberal education, which is among the noblest ends of man….
Things of the Spirit Come First
Far from exalting the ideals of the captain of industry, Coolidge again and again lamented that America was “falling away from this ideal” of a liberal education.
Great captains of industry who have aroused the wonder of the world by their financial success would not have been captains at all had it not been for the generations of liberal culture in the past and the existence all about them of a society permeated, inspired, and led by the liberal culture of the present. If it were possible to strike out that factor from present existence, he would find all the value of his great possessions diminish to the vanishing point, and he himself would be but a barbarian among barbarians. (Coolidge, America’s Need for Education, p. 35)
The blessings of a free republic, including the promotion of literature and the arts,
are not to be inquired of for gain or profit, though without them all gain and all profit would pass away. They will not be found in the teachings devoted exclusively to commercialism, though without them commerce would not exist. These are the higher things of life. Their teaching has come to us from the classics. If they are to be maintained they will find their support in the institutions of the liberal arts. When we are drawing away from them we are drawing away from the path of security and progress. (Ibid.)
Will the progress of mankind be “secreted” from the activity of the peddler? The following is the peroration of Coolidge’s speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:
We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our national prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence they had for the things that are holy. (Coolidge, Foundations, p. 454)
These are passages that have not found their way into the history books….
The Incarnation of Ideology
Throughout his career Professor Schlesinger has inveighed against the intrusion of ideology into the political consciousness. Ideology, he contends, is unfaithful to the richness and diversity of the political phenomena. But what is Mr. Schlesinger himself if not the incarnation of ideology? American conservatism, he tells us again and again, is typically animated by selfish, short-sighted, anti-social greed. American history is the continuing struggle between the plutocrats—the forces of darkness—and the people.
To the non-ideologue it is unclear at first how Calvin Coolidge would fit into such a cramped interpretation. Whatever the ultimate merits of his political opinions and policies, Coolidge was a decent and dignified man, as learned as any president since, intensely patriotic, and possessed of a profoundly democratic soul. The people elected him to office every time save one that he presented himself for their judgment. The people elected him president by an enormous majority.
But if the man does not readily fit into a cast-iron interpretation of American history, he certainly will after Procrustes is through with him. A bit of chopping, a bit of stretching, and Coolidge appears as a mean little philistine, a high priest of the golden calf, a willing tool of the plutocracy, a whirling dervish of business, a bleak fanatic, arid, smug, self-centered and self-satisfied, irascible and nasty.
Such is the craftsmanship of the prize-winning historian.