On Greatness

Much ridicule has been heaped upon the 1920s, the Coolidge Era in particular, for its utter lack of “great events” and “great men.” Those who claim such have a confused and backward sense of “greatness.” There were no costly wars, no dramatic upheavals of society, no expansive programs sent down from Washington for how we ought to improve ourselves. The country went about its business only marginally sensing government’s existence, let alone a need for its presence. The President did not insert himself into the daily affairs of Americans not only because it was unnecessary but also because he respected his role under the Constitution. His obligation, as Amity Shlaes has noted, was to restrain harmful measures, to check the abuses of executive and legislative power not to champion revolutionary agendas of his own (“The Forgotten Man,” p.18). He did so not from some overriding sense of his own importance but from a sober commitment to duty, for he also once declared, “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions” (Autobiography, p. 173).Yet, his restraint, judgment and political wisdom make him a great man even now. “His ability to appraise men quickly on the first interview seemed uncanny” was an observation noticed by more than one of those with whom he would serve (Hubert Work, “Why He Did Not ‘Choose to Run,’ “ The Real Calvin Coolidge vol. 1.  Plymouth: CCMF, 1983,  p.27). He exercised it in the appointment and support of like-minded men of integrity and ability throughout his tenure. He listened to the suggestions of others but he kept his own counsel. In fact, his sound judgment and cool headedness helped avert more than one potential disaster, any one of which could have defined the decade. He did not engage in micro-managing the Departments as some Presidents do. To do so would not only undermine the confidence the people should have in their leaders but would trespass on the work belonging to others. If a person was not up to the job, as he told his Labor Secretary James Davis, he would have to find someone else who was. It was simply not his place to know all the details and get involved in the minutiae of the various departments. Coolidge understood his function was to delegate (and thus disburse, not consolidate) authority. Considering the record of collaboration with men like Mellon and Hughes, he deployed it with great success. Scandal could have overwhelmed the new Administration but it did not. When the demand for resignations by Denby and Daughtery were loudest, the President held immovably to the right course, which was fairness even to those suspected of wrongdoing until the process of law demanded action. He was not swayed by the mob mentality since it placed emotional satisfaction above true justice.

The great men who worked under him were not all of his choosing but he knew their worth and placed them where their talents could be best applied for the good of the country. Andrew Mellon is one of those stellar teammates with whom Coolidge had a unique affinity. But less is said about others like the “great statesman” (as Coolidge considered him, The Autobiography p. 118) Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes’ good sense was evident to him from the night Coolidge succeeded Harding through Hughes’ faithful service even after leaving the limelight of the State Department. The Secretary’s character and experience alleviated many a conflict that could have erupted into violence and discord from Japan to Latin America to Soviet Russia.

Attorney General John G. Sargent was another exemplar of what it means to have capably and quietly carried out what needs to be done without fanfare or need for applause. Sargent’s decency, sense of equity and life training formed the basis of what made him among the best qualified AGs ever to serve. Yet he is unjustly anonymous today. Other men, like Dwight Morrow and Henry Stimson, diffused volatile situations in Mexico and Nicaragua and the Philippines. These “unsung” great men are forgotten today not because of some failure to do enough but because the standard for greatness itself is not properly understood. Ultimately, it is a failing of education. As we live under an increasingly expanding Executive Branch, we would do well to recall the assessment of President Coolidge on the matter, “We have had too much government action, with attendant publicity, proposing to cure human illness which no government can cure and too much public opposition when there was nothing to oppose. The people want from both parties an effective and quiet conduct of public affairs” (November 11, 1930). The same quiet competence from men and women at all levels of public service is what is in order today.

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