By David Bozeman – Fourth of July marks a great time to remember Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, who was born on Independence Day in 1872. Thanks, in part, to the Tea Party and other Americans of similar sentiments, Silent Cal, considered mediocre by most historians, is enjoying somewhat of a comeback, with his adherence to such old-fashioned virtues as hard work, self-reliance, limited government and living within your means.
However, “The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election” by Garland S. Tucker (2010) recalls one of those rare contests (at least from the 20th Century on) where both major candidates could lay claim to the mantle of small-government conservatism.
Coolidge, of course, was running for his first full term, having assumed the presidency upon Warren Harding’s death in 1923. The Democrat, John W. Davis of West Virginia, despite being the author or supporter of numerous anti-trust acts, including the establishment of the Department of Labor, is today considered one of his party’s last great conservatives. Admittedly, despite being a vocal opponent of the KKK, he was a staunch segregationist and, unlike Coolidge, he opposed women’s suffrage.
Davis and Coolidge, both gentlemanly country lawyers of humble backgrounds, carried solid, ethical reputations throughout their public lives, and neither harbored great ambitions, only seeking high office at the behest of supporters and constituents. Both believed in states’ rights, that federal power should intrude little into personal affairs, and minimal taxation. In fact, according to John Derbyshire of ‘National Review,’ Davis once remarked that “to tax one person, class or section to provide revenue for another is… robbery.”
What we wouldn’t give to hear that from a Republican today.
Coolidge, of course, won handily, with the nation enjoying peace and prosperity, and Davis could only attack the administration for favoritism and incompetence. There was no gaping philosophical chasm dividing the two men. Coolidge did not publicly campaign, though, granted, he was still despondent over the death of his sixteen year-old son Calvin, Jr. But how novel that, maybe for once, candidates could run on character and conviction over persona, magnetism and thirty-second sound bites.
And that is the American ideal, that we as a people secure our liberty from the whims and pretenses of public passion, that no citizen’s individual autonomy should rest on whether candidate X possesses greater charm or charisma than candidate Y.
Campaign ’24, considered boring at the time, typifies what an election should be: which of two gentlemen patriots, for all practical purposes, is best suited for the job? Solemn selection over today’s breathless pronouncements that every pending vote is a tipping point, a referendum on American as we know it. Sadly, that is much the case for 2012.
In 1932, of course, Franklin Roosevelt would change the Democratic Party forever. Davis, who would later oppose some of the New Deal’s interventions, supported Roosevelt and wrote that “any nation that continues to spend more than it receives is headed for inevitable disaster… If the Democratic Party is successful it will balance the budget.”
Fast-forward 88 years and conservatives would settle for the least liberal Republican. While the reasons for our political and ideological shifts are complex and varied, Americans still crave leadership and could conceivably embrace the quaint, steady, less transparent, less oratorical, by-example styles of Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis.
Ideally, the Democratic Party would not have turned hard leftward under FDR, Johnson, McGovern, Carter and Obama, and the oft-repeated lament “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties” would be true, but in the best possible way.
David Bozeman, former Libertarian Party Chairman, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.