Photo source: Library of Congress

In the 20th century, President Calvin Coolidge represents the best example of American conservatism. Whether in his political philosophy or temperament, Calvin Coolidge can serve as a guide for today’s conservatives. Conservatives during the 1920s placed the American Founding and the Constitution as their philosophical center as a “veritable cult of Constitution worship flourished.” As President, Coolidge was a champion of adhering to constitutional limited government. He believed that economic policy was moral. Coolidge often referred to economy in government, which meant a balanced budget, reducing spending, tax rates that were low and reasonable, and paying down the national debt. President Coolidge would be horrified if he could hear the numerous arguments that a $28 trillion national debt does not matter, and the federal government can just continue to spend without consequences. 

The conservatism of Calvin Coolidge goes further than just limited government, spending reductions, and lower tax rates. Americanism or nationalism was another cornerstone of Coolidge’s political philosophy. “We do not need to import any foreign economic ideas or any foreign government. We had better stick to the American brand of government, the American brand of equality, and the American brand of wages. America had better stay American,” stated Coolidge.

Conservative nationalism not only includes “key elements such as the rule of law, individual liberty, constitutionalism, and a limited form of government,” but also the preservation of American sovereignty, controlling and assimilating immigration, and protecting the national economy through tariffs. The Americanism of the 1920s represented placing the interests of Americans first, which was the campaign slogan of Senator Warren G. Harding in the 1920 presidential election. 

The conservative nationalism of the 1920s is somewhat reflective of the presidential election of 2016 and President Donald J. Trump. “From this this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” stated President Trump in his first inaugural Address. President Trump shocked the political establishment with his America First campaign victory. In his campaign and in his Inaugural Address, President Trump’s theme of America First echoed the Republican Party of the 1920s. 

“Yet, in leading Republicans away from globalism to economic nationalism, Trump is not writing a new gospel. He is leading a lost party away from a modernist heresy back to the Old-Time Religion,” wrote columnist Patrick J. Buchanan.

Peter Beinart, in The Atlantic, wrote that President Trump is “taking his party back to the 1920s.” Charles Kesler, a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute, wrote that “Mr. Trump’s policies suggest that what he calls his ‘common sense’ conservatism harks back to the principles and agenda of the old Republican Party, which reached its peak before the New Deal.” Kesler described some of these principles:

In those days, the party stood for protective tariffs, immigration tied to assimilation (or what Theodore Roosevelt called Americanization), judges prepared to strike down state and sometimes federal laws encroaching on constitutional limitations, tax cuts, internal improvements (infrastructure spending, in today’s parlance) and a firm but restrained foreign policy tailored to the defense of the national interest.

These are the principles that shaped the Republican Party during the 1920s. This is not to say that the Republican Party had unified agreement on all policy issues. The Republican Party had different factions, including a progressive faction.  Nevertheless, the 1920s are often unfortunately characterized as a decade dominated by isolationism, nativism, and reckless fiscal policies that led to the Great Depression. 

The Republican victory in the election of 1920 was a contrast to the progressivism and foreign policy idealism and internationalism of President Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson’s League of Nations was a contentious issue of debate, and although some Republicans supported the league with some reservations, the foreign policy of President Warren G. Harding and later President Calvin Coolidge focused on “preserving American independence.”  “While we desire always to cooperate and to help, we are equally determined to be independent and free,” stated President Calvin Coolidge.

The Republican foreign policy of the 1920s was far from isolationist. Although the United States did not join the League of Nations, President Warren G. Harding and later President Calvin Coolidge led efforts at disarmament with the Washington Naval Conference. To stabilize German war debts and European finance in the aftermath of the Great War, President Coolidge organized the Dawes Plan. 

In keeping with tradition of the Monroe Doctrine and protecting American interests in the Western Hemisphere the Republican administrations of the 1920s took an active involvement in Latin America. Perhaps the most idealistic of President Coolidge’s foreign policy was signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a treaty negotiated by Secretary of State Frank Kellogg that had the objective of outlawing war as an instrument of national policy. 

President Coolidge did not oppose internationalism, as an example he supported the World Court, but he was more interested in preserving American independence and sovereignty. “We have been unwilling to surrender our independence. We have refused to ratify the covenant of the League of Nations,” argued Coolidge.  This also meant that Coolidge did not see America’s role as a crusader for democracy. “Ultimately nations, like individuals, cannot depend upon each other but must depend upon themselves. Each one must work out its own salvation,” noted Coolidge.

As Coolidge further explained:

I want to see America set the example to the world both in our domestic and foreign relations of magnanimity. We cannot make over the people of Europe. We must help them as they are if we are to help them at all. I believe that we should help, not at the sacrifice of our in dependence, not for the support of imperialism, but to restore to those great peoples a peaceful civilization. In that course lies the best guarantee of freedom.

The foreign policy nationalism of Coolidge also applied to economic and trade policy. The Republican Party with its roots from Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Henry Clay’s Whig Party, supported economic nationalism. This tradition is referred to as the American System of economics, which called for a national economic policy.  The American System consisted of support for manufacturing, national banking, internal improvements, and the tariff. “For the Republican Party, the American System became an article of faith, from its mid-19th century origins until the mid-20th century,” wrote historian Alfred E. Eckes.

A major part of the national economic policy was trade protectionism. The Republican Party was the political party of trade protectionism and placing America first.  President Warren G. Harding’s victory returned the Republican protectionist policies with the enactment of the Fordney-McCumber tariff.  “In essence, from 1860 to 1932 Republicans preached and practiced a nationalistic trade policy that was intended to develop the American market and advance the commercial interests of domestic producers and workers,” wrote Eckes.

Coolidge believed that the protective tariff not only benefited the national economy, but also protected American workers. As Coolidge stated:

The greatest asset of our whole economic system is its effect upon commerce, agriculture, industry, the wage earner, and the farmer, and practically all our producers and distributors, is our incomparable home market. It has always been a fundamental principle of the Republican Party that this market should be reserved in the first instance for the consumption of our domestic products…Our only defense against the cheap production, low wages and low standard of living which exist abroad, and our only method of maintaining our own standards, is through a protective tariff. We need protection as a national policy, to be applied wherever it is required.

During his presidency Coolidge also “moved carefully but firmly to create a protectionist majority on the Tariff Commission.”  During the presidential campaign of 1924, Coolidge campaigned on the theme the “Full Dinner Pail,” a campaign slogan used previously by President William McKinley. The “Full Dinner Pail” represented economic prosperity, high wages, and a sound economy, all by prospering America first.

In his acceptance speech of the Republican presidential nomination, Coolidge credited the protective tariff for creating economic prosperity. Coolidge stated:

By means of the protective tariff we have saved American agriculture, labor and industry from the menace of having their great home market destroyed through the dumping upon it of a flood of foreign products. Under this wise policy we saw an economic revival, and our people as a whole, in marked distinction from sufferers from the financial distress and depression of other lands, have come into an era of prosperity and plenty. As a source of revenue, the tariff surpassed all expectations in producing an annual return of the unprecedented sum of about $550,000,000. A fiscal policy which places a large and much-needed revenue in the public treasury, while stimulating business to a condition of abounding prosperity, defends itself against any criticism. Its merits are demonstrated by its results. We have protected our own inhabitants from the economic disaster of an invasion of too many foreign people or too much foreign merchandise.

“The Fordney-McCumber Tariff gave Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge the revenue to offset the slashing of Wilson’s income taxes, igniting that most dynamic of decades — the Roaring ’20s,” wrote Buchanan.

Finally, Coolidge applied his conservative nationalism to immigration. Republicans, including President Theodore Roosevelt, stressed Americanism and assimilation of immigrants. Coolidge supported this policy, as he stated:

New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration. It would be well to make such immigration of a selective nature with some inspection at the source and based either on a prior census or upon the record of naturalization. Either method would insure the admission of those with the largest capacity and best intention of becoming citizens.

In 1924, President Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act into law, which restricted immigration. Coolidge supported the measure with some reservations, but restricting immigration was viewed to be in the national interest. As Coolidge argued:

Restricted immigration is not an offensive but a purely defensive action. It is not adopted in criticism of others in the slightest degree, but solely for the purpose of protecting ourselves. We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.

Coolidge gave credit to both the protective tariff and restricting immigration for not only economic growth, but also protecting wages:

One of these is the protective tariff, which enables our people to live according to a better standard and receive a better rate of compensation than any people, any time, anywhere on earth, ever enjoyed. This saves the American market for the products of the American workmen. The other is a policy of more recent origin and seeks to shield our wage earners from the disastrous competition of a great influx of foreign peoples. This has been done by the restrictive immigration law. This saves the American job for the American workmen… We must maintain our own economic position; we must defend our own national integrity.

President Calvin Coolidge’s conservative nationalism can be seen in both his foreign and domestic policies. Coolidge, just as the other Republican presidents of the 1920s, believed in American exceptionalism, yet understood that America prospered most when American interests were placed first. The political philosophy of Calvin Coolidge is far from obsolete, in fact in 2021, we need to learn from it more than ever. In a post-President Trump era both Republicans and conservatives can learn from the principles and philosophy of President Coolidge and apply them to our present policy problems. 

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