Today marks the 85th anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s one and only inaugural address. Silent Cal had been president since 1923, assuming the office when Warren Harding died. But he won the job in his own right during the 1924 election, and his March 4 inauguration gave him a chance lay out his big argument for small government.
In his inaugural address — the first to be broadcast nationally on radio — Coolidge made some of the most famous (or perhaps notorious) statements of his political career. For instance, he offered a ringing indictment of excess taxation. “The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny,” he declared.
Strong stuff, that. In fact, the vehemence of Silent Cal’s rhetoric brings to mind some of the intemperate talk we hear from modern day Tea Partiers. Legalized larceny? Sounds a lot like tyranny to me.
But Coolidge was not, by nature or philosophy, an intemperate man. Nor was he an anti-government zealot — he was committed, for instance, to big government notions of law and order. He also displayed, especially while governor of Massachusetts, a certain amount of sympathy for progressive causes, including women’s rights and organized labor. (His crushing of the 1919 Boston Police Strike notwithstanding).
But taxes brought out some of Coolidge’s most impassioned rhetoric. He believed deeply, for instance, that property rights were crucial to political liberty. “Under this republic,” he declared, “the rewards of industry belong to those who earn them. The only constitutional tax is the tax which ministers to public necessity. The property of the country belongs to the people of the country. Their title is absolute.”
Coolidge urged lawmakers to move ahead with sweeping tax reduction. The nation had effectively demanded it, he argued, by giving Republicans control of both Congress and the White House. As the GOP moved ahead with its well-established program of economy, the party had a moral responsibility to put tax cuts front and center.
The time is arriving when we can have further tax reduction, when, unless we wish to hamper the people in their right to earn a living, we must have tax reform. The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor. This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful. The verdict of the country has been given on this question. That verdict stands. We shall do well to heed it.