A review of Coolidge and the Historians, by Thomas B. Silver
"If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." These opening words of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech might be taken as a wise admonition for Americans at all times. But what does it mean to know where we are? In the 1858 speech, Lincoln went on to argue that it meant to know that the various policies being followed by the government rested upon a design to make slavery secure by perverting those principles of self-government which stood in opposition to it. The designers intended that Americans would be convinced that the sacred right of self-government means "that if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object." To know where we are is to see whether our policies are strengthening or perverting the principles of self-government.
For the past decade and more our politics has been characterized by hesitancy and confusion over "where we are, and whither we are tending." By all accounts, contemporary American politics was decisively formed by the coming of the New Deal. Political scientists have identified the 1932 election as the most recent of the few "critical elections" in American history-an election which brought about a significant shift in our understanding of the role of government, inaugurated the dominance of the Democratic party, and determined the shape of electoral conflict for decades to come. Both political parties have looked back to the New Deal and have taken it to be their tasks to either endorse, qualify, or oppose its tendencies.
Yet in the last decade or so the political forces unleashed and disciplined by the New Deal have reached their end, or at least fallen upon hard times. The Democrats last nominated an unqualified New Dealer for President in 1968, and that led to rifts within the party and a Republican victory. Confidence that such New Deal prescriptions as Keynesian economics and the welfare state are satisfactory remedies for our current domestic illnesses is almost nonexistent in either Democratic or Republican Parties. Yet, despite efforts within both parties, it cannot be said that some new view has come to dominate our politics. The voters rejected the alternative implicit in the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972, and, although they chose Ronald Reagan in 1980, they seemed to draw back in 1982. The voters' hesitations only mirrored those within the Republican Party itself. Nothing is more characteristic of the contemporary Republican Party in power than lack of confidence in its own ability to govern. This not only betrays a party unused to governing, as often noted, but more importantly a party unsure of the lightness of its principles and hesitant to condemn those of its opponent. Perhaps it is time for both parties to look to their deeper roots.
While both political parties until recently have taken their cues from the New Deal, the older roots of the parties are usually neglected. Both parties tend to view their pre-New Deal history only through the lenses provided by the 1930s. The Democrats may honor Jackson or Wilson, but as precursors of the New Deal. Despite the fact that the Republicans have been the more "conservative" party, they are more cut off from their roots than the Democrats. While the New Deal has its "precursors," the opposition or accommodation to the New Deal has no "precursors" (not Hamilton, not Jefferson, not Lincoln, and certainly not Harding, Coolidge, or Hoover). The possible pre-New Deal heroes of the Republican Party have been either discredited by the New Deal or appropriated by it. Present-day Republicans more often turn to Edmund Burke than to any pre-New Deal American statesman.
In our circumstances, to know where we are requires that we better understand the choice made in 1932 and the path it has laid out for us. Only then may we be able to set aside its lenses for more adequate ones.
We turn naturally to the historians of the 1920s and '30s to help us understand the change which then took place. Thomas Silver's book shows, however, that the leading historians of the period can give us little help. They are part of the problem, not its solution. Focusing on the predominant historical accounts of Calvin Coolidge and his presidency, Silver shows that partisanship for the New Deal has prevailed over objective scholarship. In the service of this partisanship, historians have relied on biased witnesses, misquoted statements, yanked words out of context, caricatured complex positions, reported only one side of controversies, and misused evidence. Indeed, there is scarcely one sin of the historian's craft that is not characteristic of the predominant scholarship of Coolidge and the 1920s.
Silver's critique is devastating, and nowhere more so than in his critique of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s portrayal of Coolidge in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Crisis of the Old Order.There is not one sentence in Schlesinger's account which can be left standing without qualification after Silver's assault. Schlesinger's story is revealed to be a pure invention of the historical imagination. If this judgment of an acclaimed and talented historian seems harsh, let me illustrate Silver's thorough devastation with an example.
In describing Coolidge's social philosophy, Schlesinger argues that Coolidge believed that the only justification of the federal government was to serve business. To substantiate this argument, Schlesinger relies upon a single quotation from Coolidge: "The law that builds up the people is the law that builds up industry." Although Schlesinger does not identify the source of this cryptic quotation, Silver has tracked it down to a speech delivered in 1916. There is nothing in the speech about the federal government serving business. The "law" in the quotation refers not to the laws of government as Schlesinger's use of the quotation implies, but to economic and social law. Coolidge is making the unexceptional point that the prosperity of people and industry are bound up together. The only reference in the speech to the federal government is a defense of the antitrust laws made after Coolidge deplores the fact that prosperity led men "to think that prosperity was the chief end of man and grew arrogant in the use of its power." Said Coolidge of the antitrust laws:
They are sound in theory. The assemblages of wealth are broken up because they were assembled for an unlawful purpose. It is the purpose that is condemned. You men who represent our industries can see that there is the same right to dispense unlawful assembling of wealth or power that there is to disperse a mob that has met to lynch or riot.
Silver justly concludes:
Professor Schlesinger . . . has dug up an obscure sentence from Coolidge, has refused to tell his readers where he got it, has used it to prove something that it does not prove either by itself or in its original context, and has ignored an explicit assertion by Coolidge, not that the federal government exists only to serve business, but that the government exists in part to regulate, to check, and to discipline business. (p. 24)
Were this an isolated example, one might say that the great man nodded. But Silver shows that this example is typical of Schlesinger's scholarship on Coolidge. Contrary to Schlesinger, Silver shows that Coolidge did not detest government, did not believe its chief task was to serve business, and did not believe that government should always strive to make itself as small as possible.
Most historians view the 1920s as a time of triumph for unrestrained capitalism. The presidency itself, the story goes, became the captive and spokesman for big business, to the detriment of agriculture, small business, labor, and every other sector of American life. The cooperation of business and government power resulted in an unbridled pursuit of wealth which eventually proved capitalism's undoing. In failing to foster the economic well-being of the mass of Americans, governmental policy neglected the need for greater consumption as production increased, leading to the collapse of the Great Depression. This failure was not only one of economic policy, it was also a failure of character and idealism. The period was mirrored in the character of its chief spokesmen, such as Coolidge, in whom the restraints of an older virtue or the compassion of Wilsonian idealism had collapsed before the unrestrained passion for wealth. The old order got what it deserved at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt.
This recounting, Silver shows clearly in the case of Coolidge, cannot stand. Silver focuses on three major episodes of Coolidge's career, comparing the account of historians with the original sources. The first is Coolidge's handling of the Boston police strike of 1919. This episode catapulted him to the vice presidency and, upon the death of Harding, to the presidency. Although Coolidge's conduct was much lauded at the time, later historians have generally argued that Coolidge had not displayed the courage, foresight, and principled action his original supporters thought, but that by a stroke of luck he had received credit due to others or to fortunate circumstances. Silver walks through the days of the police strike and shows that Coolidge's actions might be taken as the very model for statesmen who find themselves in such crisis circumstances. He shows us a Coolidge who clearly understood the principles at stake in the struggle and who never deviated from these principles in spite of the fact that he himself thought his course might prove his political undoing. Yet he also acted with consummate prudence, not only in resolving the immediate threatening situation in Boston, but by crystalizing for the nation as a whole the issues involved in a complex and confusing situation. Silver shows that it is largely because the historians have not appreciated this latter task that they fail to see the true skill and courage reflected in Coolidge's actions. In many respects Silver's account of the police strike is the best part of his book, for it reveals not only the errors of others but a subtle and attentive appreciation of the statesman's task and the circumstances with which he must deal.
The other two episodes examined by Silver are critical for the charge that Coolidge was but the representative of business interests: the fight over the McNary-Haugen farm relief legislation and the Mellon-Coolidge tax cuts. The first is used by many historians to show that although Coolidge was willing to use the power of government to protect business, he was not willing to do the same for agriculture and was indifferent to the plight of the farmers. Although Silver does not believe that all of Coolidge's economic policies were sound, Silver does show that Coolidge was willing to give the same kinds of aid to both business and agriculture. He opposed McNary-Haugen not out of a doctrinaire belief in laissez-faire economics, but because it was economically unsound (as the same historians concede) and because the legislation granted a kind of aid Coolidge thought dangerous to American economic and political principles (as the historians tacitly concede by being unwilling to apply its principles to business).
The Mellon-Coolidge tax cuts were much like the across-the-board cuts under Kennedy in the early 1960s or Reagan in the 1980s, with the difference that they were cuts of emergency wartime rates. Historians have attacked them on the grounds that they benefited the few rich at the expense of the rest of the population and that they contributed to the speculation and maldistribution of wealth which caused the Great Depression. Silver defends the cuts by showing that aid to the rich was neither the intention nor the effect of the tax cuts. The vast bulk of the cuts, in fact, went to middle and lower-income groups. One of the intentions in making the cuts across the board was to raise more money from the wealthy by making tax shelters less attractive and business activity more so, and that was exactly their effect. Silver also shows that the gap between rich and poor did not widen during the 1920s, and that the view that the depression was caused by underconsumption and too much speculation and investment is untenable.
Coolidge and the Historians is not itself a book which provides the reexamination of the change of 1932 we need, but it does clear the path for such a book. In clearing the ground of the predominant misconceptions-in showing that they are, indeed, misconceptions-Silver opens anew the questions about the period that need to be raised if a more adequate account of the New Deal revolution is to be given. Silver does not clear Coolidge of all the criticisms which might be lodged against him; rather, he shows that the issues between Coolidge and Roosevelt-and especially the relationship between economic institutions and policy and free government-are not fully understood and are yet to be satisfactorily resolved. He shows that the struggle culminating in 1932 was not a B-grade Western action between good and bad guys but a profound conflict, whose understanding might help both Democrats and Republicans to find more secure roots, for Coolidge is not the dead end of selfish acquisition, but a statesman who points us back to Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence, of whose principles he once said that "No advance, no progress can be beyond these propositions."