I very much enjoyed Amity Shlaes' previous book
Great Depression. This one, a biography of our 30th President, not
quite as much, but that's OK.
Coolidge's life (1872-1933) is set against the background of a
dynamic period of American history, of course. Growing up in
remote Plymouth Notch, Vermont, he attended Amherst College, and settled down
in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he became a lawyer and got
started in local Republican politics. He held a variety of elected
posts in Massachusetts, eventually becoming Governor. His handling
of a police strike proved immensely popular, and he got the Vice
Presidential spot on the 1920 GOP ticket with Harding. And then became
President when scandal-ridden Harding died a couple years later.
Elected in his own right in 1924, he chose not to run in 1928, giving
way to technocratic
Herbie Hoover, who presided over the beginning of the Depression.
Coolidge passed away from a sudden heart attack, just a few weeks after
FDR came into office in 1933.
Ms. Shlaes lays things out in strict chronological order. This can be a
little jarring at times, juxtaposing (for example) a discussion of
farm subsidies with a discussion of how Coolidge's wife got on with
then-President Harding's wife (not well), then a description of
"incoherent and hostile" articles Coolidge wrote for
a women's magazine,… I know: life is like that, things jump wildly
from one thing to another. Still, I would have appreciated
a smoother flow.
Coolidge started out as a "progressive" Republican in the Teddy
Roosevelt mold, but gradually became the penny-pinching fan of limited
government we libertarians hold dear. His efforts to cut spending while
cutting tax rates, extracting the US from the fiscal disaster
of World War I, were remarkable then and now.
A few random notes:
Coolidge's Veep, Charles G. Dawes, was a pretty colorful guy. He
(apparently) badly damaged the Coolidge Administration's relationship with the
Senate by giving a needlessly fractious inauguration speech in 1925.
Shlaes notes that Dawes was also "a gifted musician and had composed a
tune, "Melody in A Major," that would later be heard in a popular song.
I was disappointed that Ms. Shlaes didn't name it: "It's All in the Game".
not implausibly, that that could be the "most enduring vice-presidential
legacy of all.")
Floods. Lots of floods back then. No wonder dams were so popular.
I was somewhat surprised by the pro-war fever that preceded WWI.
Example: in 1916, the Amherst College student newspaper advocated that
the school form "its own battalion" in preparation for conflict,
something that other colleges had already done. That sort
of thing happening today is unimaginable. Given the immense human
and fiscal cost of the war and its dismal results leading to
even worse carnage a couple decades later: it's just another item
on the list of "when America got it wrong".