His Presidency Advanced the Rule of Law, Judicial Independence, Civil Rights
With another peaceful transfer of power under the American constitutional system, it is a fitting time to recall one of the most humble yet dramatic inaugurations and the remarkable administration it commenced: the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, a presidency committed to the rule of law.
It was the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, a time of unbounded change and energy. American achievement was limited only by the imagination. Towering buildings, bridges, dams, and monuments rose. There were breathtaking deeds in science and technology, daring feats of exploration, creative explosions in art, architecture, music, literature, fashion and film, and a golden era of sport. From frivolous fads to flappers, from dance to art deco, so much was so very different.
For the first time, more Americans lived in urban than in rural settings, while unprecedented numbers of women took part in education, the workplace and public affairs. The American people enjoyed mass mobility with the automobile, mass communication with the radio, and mass marketing made possible by both. And mass prosperity was fueling it all. More people lived better than ever before, and the ranks of the middle class swelled and exerted newfound buying power. Modern American culture was born!
In this whirlwind, the law and the legal system struggled to keep pace with a changing and rambunctious society. The courts confronted adjustment of the law to meet modern needs: burgeoning administrative regulations; contentious labor litigation; a stunning increase in automobile accidents and the immense litigation they produce; and mounting prosecutions occasioned by a crime wave spurred by Prohibition. Meeting this challenge were innovative federal jurists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Learned Hand, Benjamin Cardozo, Harlan Fiske Stone, William Howard Taft and Edward Terry Sanford of Tennessee. In Tennessee’s state judiciary there was the immense influence of Chief Justice Grafton Green.
In such a time of excitement, experimentation and excess, it may seem strange, indeed, that Americans turned so enthusiastically to the leadership of the quiet, frugal Calvin Coolidge of New England. But with change came uncertainty and nervousness, conflict with the lifestyles of the past and an unfamiliar present. Many sensed an increasing disrespect of tradition, religion, law and other societal norms, as corrupt politicians, gangsters and Klansmen flouted legal restraints. Calvin Coolidge, who had fortuitously been born on the 4th of July, became the calming counterbalance and the comforting link to a simpler past and its values. Yet there was much more to his triumph than timing and image, for image was the foundation upon which real substance was built.
Coolidge and the Homestead Inaugural
The manner in which Vice President Coolidge became president on Aug. 3, 1923, upon the unexpected death of President Warren Harding, gave an aura of humility and traditional values in sharp contrast with his predecessor’s tawdry administration and its soon-to-be revealed corruptions. By the light of a kerosene lamp, Coolidge’s father, in his capacity as a notary public, administered the presidential oath at the Coolidge family farmhouse at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, at 2:47 a.m. Following the modest ceremony, President Coolidge returned to his bedroom, prayed a while on his knees and went back to bed as the 30th president of the United States. When he arose later that morning, he visited his mother’s grave and then headed for Washington.
|The first oath of office was administered by Coolidge’s father in the family farmhouse at Plymouth Notch.|
This dramatically simple event captivated the country and helped create a groundswell of support for the new chief executive as he forged an administration and deftly confronted the unprecedented scandals of Harding’s “Ohio Gang.” Between assuming the presidency and the 1924 Republican National Convention less than a year later, he purged the discredited Harding clique (including the firing of the attorney general), ensured prosecution of the wrongdoers, disassociated his party from the scandals, and took complete control of the party machinery. The GOP gladly surrendered to the dominance of the “Puritan in Babylon,” for he had been all that stood between it and political oblivion. Chief Justice Taft jubilantly exclaimed, “He is keenly as good a politician as Lincoln.”
President Coolidge’s accessibility and use of the press — through frequent press conferences, colorful photo opportunities and regular radio speeches — in an odd way made “Silent Cal” the first “Media President.” Not only had the harm of the Harding scandals been contained, but he also swiftly managed his policies, pronouncements and public persona so as to become the personification of integrity. In his silence, he seemed to hover above petty politics, and, the less he said, the more potent were the few words he spoke. And despite his somber, sedate image, he actually worked “long hours” each day and lived by his observation that “[w]e need more of the office desk and less of the show window in politics.”
Coolidge and Judicial Independence
Even opposition leaders such as Democratic Presidential nominee John W. Davis and Franklin Roosevelt begrudgingly praised him. As Roosevelt confessed, “To rise superior to Coolidge will be a hard thing.” In contrast to Davis, Coolidge did little campaigning, partly because of the certainty of his election and the death of his youngest son at age 16 from blood poisoning resulting from a blister on his toe formed while playing tennis on the White House lawn. Coolidge wrote, “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.” Yet by the summer of 1924, “the Quiet President” could survey the political landscape and behold no threats to his Republican hegemony. The same was not true for Chief Justice Taft.
Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette won the Progressive Party presidential nomination and commenced an energetic albeit hopeless campaign. Although attacking administration labor and farm polices and calling for the nationalization of the railroads, La Follette’s most radical proposals concerned the federal judiciary. Angered over injunctions against strikers and Supreme Court decisions declaring pro-labor laws unconstitutional, La Follette called for the election of federal judges, the preclusion of lower courts from declaring federal statutes unconstitutional, and the empowering of Congress to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court.
The president determined that responding to La Follette was necessary, and defending the sanctity of the courts comported with Coolidge’s favorite topic of public discourse: the rule of law. He also had growing concerns about a general lack of respect for the law, and more specifically, the rise of organized criminal activity profiting from Prohibition and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the South and Mid-West.
|Wisconsin Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follett attacked the federal judiciary.|
In one of his very few campaign addresses, the president unveiled in Baltimore the central theme of his campaign: defense of the law and courts. Coolidge declared that an independent judiciary headed by a Supreme Court is one of “the greatest contributions which America made to the science of government … with the sole purpose of protecting the freedom of the individual, of guaranteeing his earnings, his home, his life.” He further explained why judicial power should never be “transferred in whole or in part” to Congress because of its acquiescence to “popular demand” and “partisan advantage.”
In a subsequent speech, the president alleged that La Follette’s scheme “would be a device more nearly calculated to take away the rights of the people and leave them subject to all the influences that might be exerted on the Congress by the power and wealth of vested interests on one day and the passing whim of popular passions on another day.” Coolidge did not always agree with the justices but reasoned that “[i]t is not necessary to prove that the Supreme Court never made a mistake; but, if the power is to be taken away from them, it is necessary to prove that those who are to exercise it would be likely to make fewer mistakes.” In response, editorial pages and political cartoonists portrayed Coolidge as the guardian of the Constitution.
Coolidge and the Rule of Law
There was more than political advantage motivating Coolidge. He was first and foremost a lawyer. Following attainment of his undergraduate degree at Amherst in 1895, Coolidge learned what he termed “the highest of the professions” in the locally prominent law firm of Hammond and Field of Northampton, Mass. He “read law” by day and prepared legal documents at night. Admitted to the bar in 1897 after less than two years of law office study, Coolidge developed a “sincere love” for the profession: “I was devoted to the law, its reasonableness appealed to my mind as the best method of securing justice between man and man. I fully expected to become the kind of country lawyer I saw about me, spending my life in the profession, with perhaps a final place on the bench.”
In keeping with his expectations, Coolidge entered politics only to further the development of his law practice. Among his earliest political posts were city solicitor and clerk of courts. Even though he held more public offices than any other president and never lost an election, for the rest of his life he would proudly look back on his appointment as court clerk by the Hampshire County judges as recognition of his legal ability. Coolidge remained with the firm for seven months before opening his own office, where he practiced for 21 years until becoming governor in 1919. As a lawyer and politician, he skillfully used his formidable writing talents, with his crisp style, to further his causes. He would be the last president not to use a speechwriter, and many have determined that he was among the best writers to occupy the White House, perhaps equaled only by Lincoln.
|Calvin Coolidge Jr. died in the White House at the age of 16.|
Coolidge also had a scholarly and even philosophical bent. Throughout his life, he championed a well-developed philosophy of law. He said, “The process of civilization consists of the discovery by men of the laws of the universe, and of living in harmony with those laws. The most important of them to men are the laws of their own nature.” He believed the American people had realized the best methods for the discovery of laws, or universal truths, within their state and federal constitutions and their systems of checks and balances, providing predictability and finality to the law, both features attractive to the conservative Coolidge.
As historian Paul Johnson observed, “He thought the essence of the republic was not so much democracy itself as the rule of law and the prime function of government was to uphold and enforce it.” As Coolidge himself said, “But in resisting all attacks upon our liberty, you will always remember that the sole guarantee of liberty is obedience to law under the forms of ordered government.” Or, as stated in his 1925 inaugural address, “In a republic the first rule for the guidance of the citizen is obedience to law.” He thought that this is what separated America from the “forces of darkness.”
As governor, his strong stance during the 1919 Boston police strike, and his mobilization of the state guard to restore calm, demonstrated his dedication to law and order. During the height of the turmoil, his famed telegram to AFL leader Samuel Gompers declaring, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime,” gave Coolidge national prominence, and he easily won re-election to the governorship based on his firm defense of the rule of law. Moreover, the delegates at the 1920 Republican National Convention bolted from the party bosses and nominated Coolidge for the vice presidency. (He campaigned for the GOP ticket in Tennessee and his party carried the state, making Tennessee the first state to break from the Democrats’ “Solid South.”)
|Gov. Coolidge during the Boston police strike of 1919.|
As president, Coolidge’s commitment to enforce the law led him to vigorously enforce Prohibition as the law of the land despite his doubts about its wisdom. He also did not hesitate to issue a secret order directing the IRS to target Chicago gangster Al Capone. It was this command, not so much the exploits of the FBI’s “Untouchables,” that proved to be the ultimate downfall of the gangster kingpin.
Coolidge’s commitment to the law and order did not preclude compassion. He released the remaining World War I era Sedition Act violators convicted during the Wilson administration. In foreign affairs, Coolidge signed the idealistic Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war as an instrument of national policy, sent 5,000 troops to Nicaragua to keep the peace, and went against many in the GOP and Congress in supporting United States membership in the new World Court.
Coolidge and Civil Rights
Although often unnoticed, Coolidge’s devotion to the rule of law included his commitment to civil and economic rights. He was an early and ardent supporter of women’s right to vote, participation in government and equal treatment in the workplace. As governor, he established cutting-edge programs to aid mothers and children. After entering the White House he repeatedly called for a constitutional amendment forbidding child labor. As president, he signed into law an act granting citizenship to all Native Americans. And biographer Robert Sobel noted, “Few presidents were as outspoken on the need to protect the civil rights of black Americans as Calvin Coolidge.” In 1924, President Coolidge said:
Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race and color. I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I purpose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race.
Coolidge was always prepared to embrace controversy over race. In 1915, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s praise for the motion picture, he publically denounced the racist, pro-Klan film “The Birth of the Nation.” As vice president he had warned, “We need to learn and exemplify the principles of toleration. We are a nation of many races and of many beliefs.”
During the 1924 campaign, President Coolidge spoke at Howard University. In criticism of the Ku Klux Klan, he denounced “the propaganda of prejudice and hatred” and praised the contributions of African Americans in the First World War. As in his first message to Congress in 1923, he included language in his party’s platform calling for robust federal anti-lynching laws so that “the full influence of the federal government may be wielded to exterminate the hideous crime.” He told Congress: “Numbered among our population are some 12,000,000 colored people. Under our Constitution their rights are just as sacred as those of any other citizen. It is both a public and a private duty to protect those rights.”
Coolidge’s proposal would be blocked in Congress by Southern Democrats, but it was a precursor to later federal efforts to secure the civil rights of blacks in the South. The GOP platform also reflected his desire that a federal commission be constituted to investigate the “social and economic conditions” of black Americans and promote “mutual understanding and confidence.”
|President Coolidge congratulates Mississippi|
River hero Tom Lee, who saved the lives
of 32 passengers of the sinking steamboat
M. E. Norman at Memphis on May 28, 1925.
Coolidge vigorously defended black Republicans’ right to run for public office, provided substantial patronage to black political leaders in the South (particularly in Memphis), and repeatedly sought federal funding of medical school scholarships for black students, believing that the development of black professionals and small businesses was essential to lifting black communities.
“[M]uch troubled by insistent discrimination” against black Justice Department employees, President Coolidge called their treatment “a terrible thing” and ordered the attorney general at a cabinet meeting “to find a way to give them an even chance.” Coolidge summed up his view: “We all live in the same world. We are bound to a common destiny through a common brotherhood.”
Although these stands may have been “politically imprudent” considering the times, the president never hesitated in his commitment to civil rights and used the 1924 campaign to advance this cause. He put commitment behind his words, “One with the law is a majority.” African-American scholar Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore and current president of Baltimore University, has said that Coolidge is “one of this country’s early civil rights pioneers.”
On Election Day, voters opted to follow the advice of the campaign slogan and “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” The size of the president’s landslide astounded even his most devoted supporters. He would also be the last incumbent Republican occupant of the White House to win a majority of the black vote. The NAACP’s W. E. B. DuBois rejoiced in his victory. The Supreme Court soon handed Coolidge another triumph. After the president litigated all the way to the Supreme Court, he won recognition of his constitutional authority to pardon federal criminal contempt of court convictions as an executive check on the power of the judiciary.
Coolidge and the Courts
After the inaugural, Coolidge turned to giving further proof to his pronouncements of the belief in the rule of law. He successfully persuaded Congress to enact the “Judges’ Bill” of 1925. Along with other major reforms making the federal judicial system more efficient and fair, this landmark measure granted the Supreme Court broad discretion concerning the cases granted review. Justices freed from routine appeals could now focus on important constitutional and federal questions.
Furthermore, reforms helped to open the federal courts to those previously excluded. In the future, when the politically disadvantaged failed to achieve their agendas in Congress and state legislatures, such as securing civil rights and liberties, they would increasingly turn to the federal courts because of procedural reforms achieved by Coolidge.
Further reflecting his concern for the fair administration of justice, Coolidge gave extraordinary scrutiny to the evaluation of judicial nominees. Showing the importance he placed on the subject, he was very secretive, not even discussing potential selections with his advisors, but would carefully consider sentiments of bar and community leaders in the jurisdiction of the vacancy. On a number of occasions Coolidge resisted political pressure to appoint a senator’s favorite to a judicial post. One historian noted, “Few presidents have set for themselves higher standards for appointees or acted more independent of solicitors.” It was concluded that “Coolidge seldom played politics, but tried honestly to select the best available candidate. A careful study of his appointments will show that he was seldom influenced by partisan motives, party man though he was.”
As early as his famous “Have Faith in Massachusetts” speech of 1914, given on his election as president of the Massachusetts Senate, Coolidge proclaimed the value of courts free of politics, saying:
Courts are established, not to determine the popularity of a cause, but to adjudicate and enforce rights. No litigant should be required to submit his case to the hazard and expense of a political campaign. No judge should be required to seek or receive political rewards. The courts of Massachusetts are known and honored whenever men love justice. Let their glory suffer no diminution at our hands.
|The wildly popular First Lady, Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879-1957). President Coolidge said, “For almost|
a quarter of a century she has borne
with my infirmities, and I?have rejoiced
in her graces.”
Even though most of his appointees were Republican and judicial conservatives, legal merit overrode political influence and ideological purity. As Coolidge said, “The public service would be improved if all vacancies were filled by simply appointing the best ability and character that can be found. That is what is done in private business.” By contrast, President Franklin Roosevelt used district court judgeships to reward local politicians. Ironically, New Deal agency lawyers confessed that they preferred Coolidge’s to FDR’s judges, for although politically conservative, they were usually better lawyers and thus “more willing to accept a reasoned argument and enforce the law.”
Coolidge’s judges included legal giants Thomas W. Swan (formerly dean of Yale Law School), John J. Parker, and Learned and Augustus Hand. But Coolidge’s most notable judicial appointment was that of his acclaimed Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone to the Supreme Court of the United States, his only Supreme Court appointment. Demonstrating the bi-partisan acclaim for Stone, President Roosevelt subsequently elevated Stone to the chief justiceship.
Coolidge and His Legacy
Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, considered offering Coolidge a future vacancy on the Supreme Court. If offered, it would have been declined. Coolidge was weary and wanted to return to his rented Northampton duplex, as first made public in 1927 by his one-sentence press release: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.” Thus he left office with his popularity intact and with the knowledge he could have had another term if wanted. On his last day in the White House, he told Justice Stone, “It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.” So, after stopping enactment of a presidential pension, he quietly took his leave. He said, “We draw our presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again.”
As the Great Depression dragged on and Republican fortunes fell in the 1930s, the former president’s popularity never diminished. Suffering Americans longed for a return to the days of “the Coolidge prosperity,” a prosperity many believed resulted from Coolidge’s hands-off economic policies, spending and tax cuts (Coolidge eliminated the income tax for most Americans) and corresponding balanced budgets. There was even talk of drafting him for the 1932 Republican nomination, as if retrieving its symbol could revive an era, but as he wrote, “I know my work is done.”
|Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946).|
As the Great Depression deepened, Coolidge’s customary optimism waned and he sadly remarked: “In other periods of depression, it has always been possible to see some things which were solid and upon which you could base hope, but as I look about me I see nothing to give ground for hope — nothing of man.” His wife discovered him dead of a heart attack at his Northampton home at the age of 60 in January 1933. He was buried beside his son on a quiet hillside at Plymouth Notch.
Democrat Al Smith concluded that Coolidge’s “greatest task was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached its lowest ebb in our history, and to afford, in a time of extravagance and waste, a shining example of the simple and homely virtues which came down to him from his New England ancestors. These are no small achievements, and history will not forget them.”
However, the passage of time and the prejudice of historians have often concealed President Coolidge’s legacy. Historians typically demand the backdrop of momentous events — wars and revolutions — as prerequisite for attaching greatness, and Coolidge’s administration, a respite of peace and plenty, fell between the crises of world war and depression. But, perhaps, there are days when healing is of superior virtue than reform, and restoration and respectability more beneficial than revolution. Perhaps giving a nation tranquility and trust in the wake of war, corruption and change is greatness. In any event, the record of Calvin Coolidge’s presidency, grounded on devotion to the rule of law, offers wisdom worth reclaiming.
- Russell Fowler, “A Stickler for the Rule of Law” in Why Coolidge Matters 64 (2010).
- George Grant, The Patriot’s Handbook 363 (2009).
- Russell Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge: Country Lawyer” in Norman Gross, ed., America’s Lawyer-Presidents 245 (2004); Elliott Roosevelt and James Brough, The Roosevelts of Hyde Park: An Untold Story 211 (1973).
- Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge 190 (1929).
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “Ordered Liberty and World Peace,” given at the dedication of a monument to Lafayette, Baltimore, MD, Sept. 6, 1924. In Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic 93-94 (1926).
- Id. at 97.
- Calvin Coolidge, The Mind of the President 75-76 (C. Bascom Slemp ed. 1926).
- Calvin Coolidge quoted in Charles E. Whittaker, “Some Reminiscences on Many Years in Law” in The Supreme Court and Its Justices 180 (Jesse H. Choper ed. 1987).
- Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge at 84.
- Id. at 83.
- Id. at 79.
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “The Supports of Civilization,” given at the Amherst College Alumni Dinner, N.Y. City, Nov. 27, 1920. In Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom 3 (1924).
- Russell Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge and the Supreme Court,” in Journal of Supreme Court History, Vol. 25, No. 3, 272 (2000).
- Paul Johnson, A History of the American People 713 (1997).
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “The Title of American,” given at the Convention of the American Legion, Kansas City. Oct. 31, 1921, in Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom 93 (1924).
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “Inaugural Address,” Washington, D.C., Mar. 4, 1925.
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “Authority and Religious Liberty,” given at the Holy Name Society, Washington, D.C., Sept. 21, 1924. In Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic 110 (1926).
- Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge: Country Lawyer” at 244.
- Russell Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge” in James Ciment, ed., Encyclopedia of the Jazz Age 147 (2008).
- Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma 249-250 (1998).
- Calvin Coolidge, Letter to Sgt. Charles F. Gardner, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, N.Y. (August 9, 1923).
- Calvin Coolidge, address, “The Price of Freedom,” given before the Evanston Sunday Afternoon Club, Evanston, Ill., Jan. 21, 1923, in Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom 243 (1924).
- Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma at 283.
- Kirk H. Porter, et al., eds., National Party Platforms 265 (1973).
- Calvin Coolidge, First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union (Dec. 6, 1923).
- Porter at 265.
- Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma at 282-83.
- John G. Sargent, “Championing the Negro.” Real Calvin Coolidge 1992: 29.
- Fowler, “A Stickler for the Rule of Law” at 66.
- Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma at 249.
- Fowler, “A Stickler for the Rule of Law” at 67.
- Kurt Schmoke, The Little Known History of Coolidge and Civil Rights, 1 Coolidge Quarterly, 2016, at 1.
- Ex parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87 (1925).
- Claude M. Fuess, Calvin Coolidge 366 (1940).
- Coolidge, address, “Have Faith in Massachusetts” at 4-5.
- Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge at 227.
- Charles Rembar, The Law of the Land 254 (1980).
- Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge: Country Lawyer” at 250.
- Alpheus T. Mason, Harlan Fiske Stone 263 (1956).
- Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge at 242.
- Thomas B. Silver, Coolidge and the Historians 111 (1982).
- Fowler, “A Stickler for the Rule of Law” at 70.
- Edward C. Lathem, ed., Meet Calvin Coolidge 214 (1960).
- Fowler, “Calvin Coolidge: Country Lawyer” at 251.
RUSSELL FOWLER is director of litigation and advocacy at Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and since 1999 has been adjunct professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He served as the law clerk to Chancellor C. Neal Small in Memphis and earned his law degree at the University of Memphis in 1987. Fowler has many publications on law and legal history, including many in this Journal, includiing the regular column “History’s Verdict.”