Coolidge Book CoverAlice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, once remarked that our thirtieth president, Calvin Coolidge, looked like he had been weaned on a pickle—and a sour one at that. Coolidge is one of those presidents we think we know, but we don’t. We know anecdotes about the man, like Alice’s comment on his dour expressions or the story about a lady betting “Silent Cal,” as he was often called, she could get him get him to say more than two words at a dinner party. Coolidge’s reply: “You lose.”

But Amity Shlaes squeezed more than two words out of the mute president. In her outstanding biography, Coolidge, Shlaes was able to write more than 500 well documented pages. Ronald Reagan’s political hero, Coolidge, until the election of Reagan, was the last true conservative to occupy the White House. A man who believed in individual liberty and federalism, Coolidge did battle with the Progressives of his day—Woodrow Wilson, Henry Cabot Lodge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in the hands of Shlaes, these battles reveal a man of tremendous political skill and courage. It’s easy to see why Reagan made Coolidge the patron saint of his political philosophy. Coolidge championed what his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon called “scientific taxation.” It was the precursor of what was known as the “trickle down theory” during Reagan’s administration. Coolidge fundamentally believed money was property, and that higher taxes was a form of legalized confiscation of other people’s property. He also believed that a small government was one less likely to get into mischief—mischief that was easy to get into if it had more money to spend—therefore he favored lower taxes.

Conservatives today would be wise if they spent some time studying Coolidge’s life and political philosophy. Not simply to be reminded of (or reinforced in) the central tenants of conservatism, but as a warning against hubris, which infects conservatives as well as liberals. Coolidge was barely out of the White House when Hoover (a Republican, mind you) began reversing Coolidge’s conservative policies. In the world of politics, even at it’s highest levels, policy is never carved into stone—unless the citizens wish it so. Within one or two elections cycles what was the law of the land could be amended or outlawed altogether. Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal followed the Harding/Coolidge commitment to conservative normalcy; Bill Clinton’s triangulation followed Reagan’s Morning in America.

Conservatives can (and should) learn from Coolidge—to fight against the diminishment of liberty by slaying the dragon of every growing government. But conservatives must also realize that big government and progressive ideology is like the Hydra of old—cut off one head and seven others may grow in its place. Coolidge teaches that too. And Amity Shlaes has delivered the lesson with precision and passion.

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