Calvin Coolidge and William McKinley: Pairing Presidents XI

Calvin Coolidge and William McKinley:

Americans have lived with the two-party system for so long that many seem to think either God or the Constitution handed down the current system. Not so. Nor is it the case that Democrats were always more liberal and Republicans more conservative. Abe Lincoln was the first Republican president and, prior to Franklin Roosevelt, the GOP was generally far more progressive than the Democrats, the party of Southern white racism. The moral of the lesson is that party priorities shift.

This column looks at the two presidents who did the most to move the Republican Party to its current pro-business, anti-labor, self-reliance, and small government stance: William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge.

How they are similar:

Both believed fervently in the private sector, disliked regulation, and were advocates of laissez-faire theories that postulate that government should not interfere in economic matters. In essence, each was to the right of Adam Smith in their views of how capitalism should function. Coolidge was more extreme in his conservative views, but McKinley can be seen as his precursor.

McKinley won the 1896 presidential race over William Jennings Bryan, a campaign that took place against the backdrop of the Populist challenge. The Populists briefly appeared poised to upset the two-party apple cart by becoming a legitimate threat to Republicans and Democrats alike, but especially the latter given that both drew their greatest strength from farm states in the Midwest and South. In 1892, Populist James Weaver secured 22 electoral votes on a platform built upon social democratic ideals, a call for induced inflation via the minting of silver coinage, and the nationalization of railroads and banks. If the idea of purposeful inflation sounds odd, consider that farmers borrow money each spring and pay it back (or not) from the sale of commodities. Ideally (for farmers), commodity prices rise and interest rates fall, making loans easier to retire. The Populists even had a plan for storing commodities to ensure prices wouldn't tumble too low.

The Populists so unsettled the Democrats that they toyed with liberalization. In the end, the golden-tongued Bryan and the Dems took over the "safe" parts of the Populist program (free silver, mild business regulation) and jettisoned its socialist ideas. McKinley went further—or perhaps one should say that his campaign manager, Cleveland investor/businessman Mark Hanna did so–not until Dick Cheney's influence on George H. W. Bush has an advisor exercised such Svengali-like influence on a candidate. McKinley ran as an unabashed gold standard supporter, a plan that worked brilliantly in siphoning urban voters from the Populists and Democrats by arguing that free silver would make the cost of the workers' bread rise! McKinley affirmed the gold standard when he beat Bryan again in 1900. As president, McKinley was decidedly pro-business. His one Supreme Court nominee, Joseph McKenna, was a railroad investor. In most ways, the GOP shifted right under McKinley. He even saw to it that Hanna was appointed to the U.S. Senate. (U.S. Senators were not chosen by direct election until 1913. Ironically, the call for direct elections was a Populist precept.)

Coolidge is known for the adage, "America's business is business." That pretty much sums up how he worked closely with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (of the banking family empire) to evolve policies ancestral to supply-side economics. Revenue Acts slashed taxes in 1924, 1926, and 1928; soon, a mere 2% of Americans paid income taxes at all. This was fine by both men, who argued that high taxes were disincentives for investors and encouraged the government to overspend. Coolidge despised regulation and was loath to use the Interstate Commerce Commission or the Federal Trade Commission for any reason. He was also anti-labor unions, a sentiment he first showed as Massachusetts governor when he smashed the 1919 Boston police strike. Many of the worst abuses to unions occurred under his presidency and union strength plummeted to lows approximate to 2016 levels (around 11%). His SCOTUS nominee, Harlan Fiske Stone, was extremely conservative.

Neither president did much to advance African American civil rights. McKinley, as heir to Lincoln, expressed mild support for black Americans, but did nothing. He often cited Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous 1896 SCOTUS decision that gave "separate but equal" a constitutional stamp, as his reason for inaction, but he probably had little real interest in civil rights and his presidency signaled the GOP's willingness to abandon its commitment to racial justice. He was an ardent imperialist who annexed Hawaii and spoke despairingly of non-white natives.

Coolidge signed into law a 1924 immigration bill that capped overall numbers and set quotas for how many immigrants could enter the US that was based on their nationality. It was designed to curtail immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. Coolidge favored a bill to make lynching a federal crime, but did little to advance it and it failed in Congress. He claimed to be pro-civil rights, but this was little more than a rhetorical stand. The one glaring exception is that Coolidge was in office when Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924. He held a romantic fondness for Natives. Oddly, he also felt affection for Japan and regretted restrictions placed upon Japanese immigrants.

How they were different:

McKinley was an imperialist and Coolidge tended toward isolationism. McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War. As noted, he also annexed Hawaii (largely at the behest of sugar barons), and demanded an Open Door policy in China to assure US economic interests there. As a post-World War One president, Coolidge steered clear from as many international alliances as he could. It's inaccurate to call him a radical isolationist, but he wasn't about to press for US entry into the League of Nations. He removed US troops from the Dominican Republic, but left them in place in Nicaragua and Haiti. He did, however, approve the idealistic Kellogg-Briand Treaty, which outlawed war and is now viewed as one of the most naïve agreements of diplomatic history. The aggressive McKinley would not have considered such a treaty.

McKinley was a protectionist, ideals in keeping with what the business community wanted in his time, but passé by Coolidge's. Coolidge infamously tried to get Europeans to pay back their war debts under the guise of international monetary agreements. ("They hired the money, didn't they? Let 'em pay it back.") McKinley would have been savvy enough to recognize Europeans were in no position to do so.

Coolidge surprisingly considered farm subsidies to deal with the depression that broke out in agriculture by the mid-1920s. This was, however, probably more the brainchild of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. When Congress shot down the plan, Coolidge never again mentioned it and Wallace started down a path that led him to democratic socialism. McKinley, of course, wanted to isolate the farm constituency and would not have countenanced such a plan in the first place.

McKinley was affable and Coolidge was a prig. The latter was known as "Silent Cal" for his laconic and brusk ways. He also hated movies and was generally a humorless man. You would have definitely picked McKinley as a beer partner.

McKinley was an honest person, but the jury's out on Coolidge. He left in place nearly all of the tainted Cabinet of his predecessor, Warren G. Harding—except for several still under active investigation for the Teapot Dome scandal.

McKinley left behind a more worthy successor: Theodore Roosevelt. That wasn't the plan—TR came to power when an anarchist assassinated McKinley. He was shot on September 9, 1901 and died of infection from un-removed bullet fragments five days later. McKinley's life could have been saved by new technology unveiled at the very Buffalo world's fair at which he was shot: the x-ray machine. His doctors deemed the machine "unsafe." In further irony, Roosevelt had only been VP for six months; McKinley's first VP, Garret Hobart, died in 1899 and TR was chosen in 1900 mostly to shore up the Eastern urban vote.

Coolidge did not leave behind such a worthy person. He declined to run for reelection in 1928 and his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover—whom Coolidge disliked–succeeded him.


McKinley, rather incredibly, is currently ranked #19. This is way too high for an imperialist gold hound. Coolidge–Ronald Reagan's favorite president, for the record–is ranked near the bottom at #30. That sounds close to being correct. I wouldn't look for either man's name to be associated with a humanitarian event, or to grace future US currency–unless the gold standard comes back!

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