Our nation’s economic condition is causing some Americans to call for a new type of leadership to guide us through changes to facilitate a recovery. This brings to mind the 30th U.S. president, John Calvin Coolidge Jr., who found the country’s economy in rough straits when he took office.
Coolidge was born the son of a Vermont storekeeper. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts and became a lawyer in that state. After working his way up the state’s Republican political ladder, he became governor. His decisive action to combat lawlessness during the Boston police strike in 1919 gained him national attention, and in 1920, he was elected vice president.
In August 1923, while on a visit with his wife to his family’s home in Vermont, Coolidge was notified that President Warren G. Harding had died suddenly while on a trip to San Francisco. Coolidge took the oath of office at 2:47 a.m.; his father, a justice of peace and notary public, did the honors by the light of a kerosene lamp while Coolidge placed his hand on the family Bible.
The new president faced the difficult task of restoring the dignity and prestige of the presidency after it had reached low ebb. In addition to accusations about Harding’s own immoral conduct, scandals, government extravagance and waste were well-known features of his administration.
The economic conditions of the country at the end of World War I were remarkably comparable to today’s. Following the end of the war in 1919, the federal debt was 10 times greater than before the war. The income tax rate was higher than 70 percent. Prices had risen, and returning veterans could not find jobs.
With the national debt soaring out of control, Coolidge knew that he needed to become a budget cutter. The plain-speaking president fired a shot across the bow of his would-be critics by saying, “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”
Coolidge was elected for a full term in 1924. During his occupancy of the White House, through March of 1929, he was credited with these accomplishments:
• Top marginal income tax rates were lowered from 73 percent to 24 percent.
• By the end of his term, 98 percent of the population paid no income tax at all.
• The federal budget was reduced by 35 percent.
• Per capita income increased more than 30 percent.
• Unemployment averaged 3.3 percent.
• The Gross National Product grew at the fastest compound rate of any eight-year period in U.S. history.
In his inaugural address of 1925, President Coolidge summed up a core belief: “The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager.”
The America of today would welcome more elected officials with the convictions and courage of a Calvin Coolidge.