February 19 2013
Some presidents more than others are worthy of recognition on Presidents’ Day.
President Nixon established the day as a federal holiday in 1968 to honor all past US presidents, but it is doubtful his face ever adorns a Presidents’ Day sales advertisement. Likewise, no one is celebrating the character of Andrew Johnson or the achievements of Jimmy Carter.
Of the nation’s 43 past presidents, Washington, whose birthday was celebrated as a federal holiday until 1971, Lincoln, Jefferson, Reagan, and a few others rightly take the lion share of accolades. There are, however, lesser known presidents that deserve the limelight especially in this era of explosive national debt, stagnate economic growth, high unemployment, and rising taxes.
Namely, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who served between 1885-1889 and again in 1893-1897, and Calvin Coolidge, a Republican who served from 1923-1929 deserve attention.
Known for his opposition to special interests and corruption, Cleveland took on the notorious Tammany Hall political machine while he was governor of New York. As president, Cleveland was known for his honesty and respect for the office and the Constitution. When Congress passed a bill to provide $10,000 of federal aid to Texas farmers, Cleveland vetoed the bill because he found:
no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution...The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune...Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the… conduct which strengthen the bond of a common brotherhood.
Indeed, after the veto, the public raised ten times the amount in the bill for the aid of farmers showing the power of brotherly generosity that continues today and makes America the most charitable country in the world. Cleveland predicated that, “Once the coffers of the general government are opened to the public, there will be no shutting them again.” These portentous words ring true today. Half of all Americans receive government benefits and the nation is $16 trillion in debt.
Some 25 years after Cleveland’s second term, Calvin Coolidge entered the White House after the untimely death of President Warren Harding. Like Cleveland, Coolidge respected the Constitution. He believed that “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” Coolidge spoke up for the rights of African Americans. Responding to a racist letter, he wrote, “Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support that Constitution…” Coolidge also signed the Indian Citizenship Act to grant full U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans.
Coolidge reduced federal spending and cut taxes because “Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.” He abhorred government debt. Above all, Coolidge respected the American people and their ability to create a prosperous, thriving country where both great ships and small boats rise with the tide. “Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong,” he once said. Indeed, the Coolidge era was one of exceptional economic growth.
Coolidge is often overshadowed by his successor Herbert Hoover. Hoover, an engineer and self-professed progressive, denounced Coolidge’s hands-off approach. Hoover increased government spending, raised taxes, and signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff which is considered by some economists to be a significant contributor to the Great Depression. Ironically, the man who would replace him in the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt, criticized Hoover for his progressive policies only to continue them once in office. In the dark days of the Great Depression, the American people would look back to the prosperous Roaring Twenties with nostalgia for better times.
Likewise it is easy to look back with nostalgia for the economic growth of the Bush era when taxes were cut and the Clinton era with its welfare reform and balanced budget. As we put Presidents’ Day 2013 behind us, Americans would benefit from looking farther back to two other Democrat and Republican presidents who put the American people and their Constitution first.