James Montgomery Beck, who served as a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and Solicitor General in President Warren G. Harding’s administration, described President Calvin Coolidge as an “old-fashioned American.” Beck, a conservative Republican, spoke in remembrance of President Coolidge in August 1934 as the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the early stages of his administration and his New Deal was taking the nation by storm, much to the shock and frustration of Beck and other conservatives.
As a lawyer and constitutional scholar, Beck believed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was antithetical to the principles of the American Founding. Representative Beck argued that the New Deal threated constitutional government and it was in this context that he reminded his listeners about Calvin Coolidge, whom he considered a great defender and custodian of the Constitution and the principles of the American Founding.
In referring to Coolidge, Beck stated that “no one of his age and generation revered more profoundly the Constitution.” In addition, Beck argued that President Calvin Coolidge rejected the progressive notion that the Constitution was obsolete and that it needed to change with the times to meet the needs of a modern society. Progressives argued that the Constitution was a Darwinian document that changes and evolves with society. Coolidge, Beck argued, “did not share the current belief of many academic theorists that its [Constitution] basic principles were outworn.”
Coolidge “believed that the Constitution was the whole law and the prophet of free government, and was not for the passing day but for all time, because its basic principles are eternal verities,” stated Beck. Representative Beck reminded his audience that President Coolidge’s adherence to the Constitution was based on both principle and out of respect for the American Founding. “To him [Coolidge] the oath of office to defend the Constitution was not an idle form,” noted Beck.
President Coolidge’s style of governing was in stark contrast to President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Calvin Coolidge was a conservative, who supported limited government policies, and during his administration he pursued policies that resulted in reducing government spending, paying down the national debt, and lowering tax rates. President Coolidge also vetoed the infamous McNary-Haugen farm bill, which he considered a socialist and unconstitutional measure.
New Dealers often blamed Coolidge and the Republican policies for the Depression and as Beck stated the progressives often viewed Republican policies of the 1920s as obsolete. As Beck stated:
It is the fashion of some of the academic apprentices who now constitute an overgrown Federal bureaucracy, to sneer at the administration of Calvin Coolidge. Let me remind them that if they, in their varied schemes to redistribute wealth, are now able to command the lavish and too often wanton expenditures of billions of dollars, their opportunity thus to scatter billions is partly due to the wise administration of Calvin Coolidge, which in a few short years had not only paid all the expenses of the government out of current receipts but had reduced the national debt…
Beck is referring to the massive levels of spending by New Deal programs, while President Coolidge was fiscally responsible. “They [New Dealers] have imposed intolerable burdens of debt upon the American people which will curse our people for a century to come,” stated Beck.
James M. Beck argued that New Dealers may argue against Coolidge, but his philosophy stayed true to the principles of the American Founding. “Mr. Coolidge’s political philosophy may seem to the theorists of the ‘brain trust’ [Roosevelt Administration] to be simplicity itself, but his political and social philosophy was that of Benjamin Franklin, and it was Franklin’s homely wisdom and spirit of thrift which laid the foundation of the American commonwealth,” stated Beck.
Beck argued that President Coolidge not only shared the principles of the American Founding with Franklin, but also the values of wisdom and thrift. Beck further describes his comparison of Coolidge and Franklin:
Neither Franklin nor Coolidge believed that any nation could squander itself into prosperity. Neither believed that debts which are impossible of payment are good for either a nation or an individual. Neither believed that any government could be devised that would be a fitting substitute for the self-development of the individual. They believed that the American should be a citizen and not a subject and that government was an institution to live under and not to live on.
James M. Beck’s description of Calvin Coolidge as an “old-fashioned” American was fitting because it reflected Coolidge’s political philosophy. Beck’s use of the term “old-fashioned” was not meant to discredit Coolidge, but rather to remind Americans that Coolidge was a great defender of the Constitution — something which was desperately needed in 1934 and still needs today.