Coolidge: An American Enigma — Robert Sobel

Coolidge managed to escape from the Harding administration with his reputation unscathed and, after serving half a term following Harding’s death, won reelection predominantly on the back of the country’s strong economic performance.

Coolidge had a reputation for being quiet, and his philosophy regarding presidential power was largely that of a caretaker, allowing events to take their course if things appeared to be flowing smoothly. And in the 1920s, the picture was highly positive. The markets were growing exponentially, and an era of unprecedented wealth for many was being ushered in. Sobel somewhat convincingly argues that rather than subscribing to the laissez-faire school of thought, Coolidge was instead of the view that economic legislation was to be determined by the states, and that this form of conservative thinking dominated much of his (in)action as president.

Where Coolidge shone was in his progressive attitude towards minority rights. Under his administration, American Indians acquired greater rights of citizenship and he was outspoken about the need for greater movement towards the equality of black Americans. He spoke out against lynchings, although had to rein such pronouncements in once they started to provoke ire from Southern politicians.

Sobel’s biography is a well-researched but dull appraisal of Coolidge’s legacy. He reaches favourable conclusions about the man and his presidency that appear justified. Ultimately though, I struggle to get excited about Coolidge: he comes across as an average president at a time where an average president did little harm. Maybe one could have hoped for a president willing to introduce more market controls, but in that time there was little concern over the state of the markets in mainstream thought, and such a president would have been an oddity. A well-researched but dull biography feels appropriate.

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