The ‘High Tide of American Conservatism’ and Where We are Today
Religion & Liberty Online

The ‘High Tide of American Conservatism’ and Where We are Today

Given all the reassessment going on today about conservatism and its popularity and viability for governing, I recommend picking up a copy of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election by Garland Tucker, III.

The author is Chief Executive Officer of Triangle Capital Corporation in Raleigh, N.C. Over the years, I’ve highlighted how Coolidge’s ideas relate to Acton’s thought and mission. And while I’ve read and written a lot about Coolidge, I knew next to nothing about John W. Davis. Davis was a lawyer, ambassador, and Solicitor General of the United States who hailed from West Virginia. He argued 140 cases before the Supreme Court. As the Democratic presidential nominee in 1924, he was also Coolidge’s election opponent.

Davis believed strongly in limited government and economic freedom. He criticized the policies of the New Deal saying, “Whether business is better today than it was yesterday, or will be better or worse tomorrow than it is today, is a poor guide for people who are called upon to decide what sort of government they want to live under both today and tomorrow and for the long days after.”

I reached out to the author to ask him some questions about his book and about the ideas and significance of Coolidge and Davis. Below is the interview:

Why is Calvin Coolidge so important for conservatives to understand today and what are modern conservative leaders missing from the vision he put forward?

Modern conservatives need to understand Calvin Coolidge because he is the only modern president who actually implemented the complete conservative agenda. Coolidge sharply reduced taxes, while also sharply reducing government spending, the national debt, and the regulatory scope of government. At the same time, he earned the approbation of a huge majority of the American electorate. In the face of a severe postwar recession in 1920, the Harding administration began to implement conservative policies, but the major implementation came under Coolidge (and Mellon) in 1923-1928. The result of lower tax rates and reduced government spending was the greatest sustained decade of economic growth in U. S. history.

Coolidge had a very deep understanding of the connection between morality and the economy. Why do you think this was the case and why was it essential in his view?

Coolidge once said, “I favor economy in government not just to save money, but to save people.” He not only believed strongly in the economic efficacy of free markets, individual initiative, and limited government , but he understood these economic principles were undergirded by moral principles. He saw the debilitating dependency created when citizens depend on the government rather than on themselves and their fellow citizens. The Washington Post commented, “Few persons, probably, have considered economy and taxation as moral issues. But Mr. Coolidge so considers them, and his observations give a fresh impression of the intensity of his feeling on this subject. He holds that economy, in connection with tax reduction and tax reform, involves the principle of conservation of national resources. A nation that dissipates its resources falls into moral decay.”

Your book The High Tide of American Conservatism talks about the 1924 presidential race as really the pinnacle of modern American conservatism for good reason. What did you learn most from writing this book?

I learned three important things from writing the book: First, from an historical perspective, 1924 was “the high tide” of American conservatism in that it was the last time a conservative was nominated by both of the major political parties. The results of this watershed election have been lasting. From 1924 till the present, the Democratic Party has been always well to the left of the Republican Party. Post 1924, progressive Republicans began to migrate to the Democratic Party, while conservative Democrats migrated to the GOP.

Secondly, the two candidates, Coolidge and Davis, were exemplary public servants. No hint of scandal ever touched either man. The personal integrity of these two men was never questioned. They conducted what was arguably the most gentlemanly campaign in U. S. presidential history. And, in addition, they were both men of exceptional ability.

Finally, from a political perspective, the policies that were affirmed in this election and implemented in the decade of the 1920s provide a convincing argument for the efficacy of conservatism. There is a sharp contrast between both the government policies and the strength of the economic recoveries following the recessions of 1920 and 1980 as compared with those following the recessions of 1930 and 2008. Conservatism has the weight of history on its side!

Coolidge’s challenger, John W. Davis, is largely forgotten in American political history. What’s his lasting political legacy and why is it important today?

John W. Davis left an historical and a personal legacy. He was the last conservative to capture the nomination of the Democratic Party. Davis was a direct philosophical descendent of Thomas Jefferson. This line of Jeffersonian small government conservatism in the Democratic Party ended with Davis. His personal legacy was one of character, integrity, professional excellence, graciousness, and intellectual brilliance.

I believe Davis’ lasting political legacy was his brilliant advocacy before the Supreme Court in challenging – often successfully- the New Deal legislation of the 1930s and 1940s. Davis argued over 140 cases before the Supreme Court over his long career – more than any American except Daniel Webster. Probably his crowning achievement was successfully arguing the steel seizure case in 1952 at age 79, whereby an overreaching President Truman was forced to abandon his seizure of the American steel industry – confirming the bounds of constitutional restraint.

Coolidge and Davis had a lot of very similar views when it came to the role of government, the economy, and personal character. Who are a few of the people who shaped these two men?

Coolidge and Davis held virtually identical views of the role of government, which they defined in the narrowest of terms. Davis held, “the chief aim of all government is to preserve the freedom of the citizen. His control over his person, his property, his movements, his business, his desires, should be restrained only so far as the public welfare imperatively demands. The world is in more danger of being governed too much than too little.” Similarly, Coolidge offered a very limited role, “The government can help to maintain peace, to promote economy, to leave the people in the possession of their own property, and to maintain the integrity of the courts. It is our theory that the people make the government, not that the government makes the people.”

These two men were both lastingly influenced by their parents and the communities in which they were raised. Coolidge was the quintessential New Englander, a reflection of his parents and his native Vermont. It was once said of Coolidge that he “never wasted any words, any time, or any of the people’s money.” He was a man of few words, but above all a man of his word. Thrift, hard work, and complete lack of pretense were his hallmarks. In addition to the influence of his parents and community, Coolidge’s college, Amherst, also reinforced these New England virtues. Amherst Professor Charles Garman was the greatest philosophical influence on Coolidge.

Similarly, Davis was very much a product of his parents, community, region and college. His father was a leading West Virginia lawyer and devotee of Jeffersonian principles. His mother inculcated in young Davis a life – long love of learning. At his college, Washington & Lee, he was greatly influenced by conservative law professors, John Randolph Tucker and Charles Graves. It was from these sources that Davis’s integrity, character, and innate graciousness were formed and nurtured.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.