John Derbyshire On Amity Shlaes On Calvin Coolidge: Why So Little Mention Of The 1924 Immigration Act?

Perhaps as a reaction to the morbidly obese statism of early 21st-century U.S. federal governments, there is a modest upswell of interest in Calvin Coolidge, who of all presidents in the previous century was the most dogged and unwavering in pursuit of lower federal expenditures and debt.

Last week saw the publication of Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge, which I have just been reading. Next month comes Charles C. Johnson’s Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President, which I have not yet seen. The main subject of this column will be Ms. Shlaes’ book. (Full disclosure: I am the author of a novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream.)

Coolidge was Warren Harding’s Vice President. He succeeded to the presidency on Harding’s sudden death in August, 1923. Coolidge and his wife were vacationing at the time in the remote Vermont farming hamlet where he had been raised. The thirtieth president was sworn in by his father, a notary public, in Coolidge, Sr.’s living-room, by the light of a kerosene lamp—electricity had not yet reached the village.

Coolidge served out Harding’s term, then easily won a term of his own in a three-way contest elegantly described by Garland Tucker in his book The High Tide of American Conservatism. But, although successful and popular, Coolidge declined to run for a second full term in 1928, for reasons that remain opaque in spite of his having given over eight pages of his autobiography to “explaining” them.

Amity Shlaes’ book concentrates on Coolidge’s budgetary and fiscal policies, which were very astute, and delivered great prosperity and social peace. This all built on foundations laid by Harding, who had created a Budget Bureau (now the OMB) and settled the budget process in the form we still use today, more or less, via the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

The first Director of the Budget Bureau was Charles G. Dawes, later Coolidge’s Vice President. Dawes—if you are conservative, prepare to swoon—created a Federal Liquidation Board: “an entity whose entire purpose [Ms. Shlaes tells us] was to shutter government and military offices.”

Be still, my heart!

Coolidge continued these policies of federal reduction to such a point that his success generated problems of its own. Just as the trick of being a medieval monarch was to leave behind a healthy heir, but not more than one, so the trick of federal budget management is to generate a surplus that is not too big. Ms. Shlaes, writing about the beginning of Coolidge’s presidency: “Voters wanted the federal government to spend, and lawmakers were ready to help.”

Some things don’t change.

Shlaes writes all this up decently, and an author is of course entitled to choose her own approach and make her own emphases. Followers of VDARE.com, however, will naturally want to know: what has she to say about Coolidge’s attitude to the epochal Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at reducing immigrant numbers and preserving the nation’s ethnic balance?

Answer: Not much. In aggregate, a little over one page in 461 pages of narrative.

Given the momentous demographic consequences of the Act, of which more in a moment, this must be regarded as unforgivably dismissive.

I suppose you could argue: since Coolidge played no part in initiating, promoting, or moving the Act; since he had only been President for a few weeks when the 68th Congress began debating the Act (at that point of course merely a bill); since the Act generated little controversy at the time outside special-interest factions (the House voted for it 306-58, the Senate 69-9); and since Coolidge’s few remarks on immigration, for example in his 1923 State of the Union address, were blandly consensual—which is to say, favorable (in that enlightened era) to patriotic immigration reform—no lengthy discussion of the topic is appropriate in a Coolidge biography.

Maybe. But what would qualify as “lengthy”? Let’s compare Ms. Shlaes’ aggregate page-and-a-quarter with coverage by Coolidge’s other biographers.

Coolidge’s own account of his life and career  is, as usual, perfectly unhelpful. His book is in fact a strong contender for the title Least Revealing Autobiography Ever Written. [Read it online at Archive.org.] Some serious observers have expressed the belief that the whole thing is one of Coolidge’s dry, subtle jokes, written with the intention to discover the absolute minimum it is possible to say in 245 pages. Had I been Marketing Manager for the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation in 1929, I would have sold the Autobiography with the promise of a $1,000 prize for anyone who could prove he had stayed awake while reading it:

It is a very old saying that you never can tell what you can do until you try. The more I see of life the more I am convinced of the wisdom of that observation... (p. 171)

Claude M. Fuess’s 1939 biography Calvin Coolidge, The Man from Vermont, which is every Coolidgean’s favorite for its literate, sympathetic, and historically well-informed portrait of the man, does not mention the Immigration Act at all. (“Fuess” is pronounced to rhyme with “peace.” He was George H.W. Bush’s headmaster at Andover.) Even when discussing allied topics—labor leader Samuel Gompers, for example, who was of course a keen supporter of the 1924 Act—Fuess has nothing to say on immigration.

Donald McCoy’s Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President  (1967) gives the most thorough coverage of the Act: five full pages out of 422. But four of those five concern the knotty but minor issue of Japanese exclusion.

Japanese immigration had been vexing the West Coast in the early 1900s. It was defused at last by Theodore Roosevelt with a “gentlemen’s agreement” under which the Japanese authorities would no longer issue passports to U.S.-bound emigrants, in return for U.S. acceptance of Japanese already settled here.

Coolidge thought this executive-to-executive agreement dealt adequately with Japanese immigration, and that the specific exclusion clause in the 1924 Act was not only unnecessary, but would be taken as an insult by the “face”-conscious Japanese.

And it was: in fact, the Japanese over-reacted, thereby stirring up Senatorial resentment in counter-reaction, and Coolidge lost his fight to have the exclusion clause modified.

Unwilling to veto the Act, to which he was otherwise sympathetic, Coolidge signed it on May 26, 1924, attaching a statement that he thought the Japanese exclusion clause “unnecessary and deplorable at this time.”

It’s a bit of a stretch to argue, as McCoy does, that the 1924 Act’s exclusion clause contributed to the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s. But the executive-legislative tussle over the clause was, if not a political hurricane, at least a gale, and should certainly be covered in a Coolidge biography.

The late Bob Sobel, in his 1998 book Coolidge: An American Enigma echoes McCoy:

Relations with the Japanese deteriorated. It was another step on the road to war.

For goodness sake! It’s bad enough that Cal gets blamed (absurdly in my opinion, and Ms. Shlaes seems to agree) for the Great Depression. Do we have to pin Pearl Harbor on him, too?

David Greenberg, writing the Coolidge volume for Times Books’ “American Presidents” series (my review here), goes even further. After 2½ pages of mildly tendentious coverage of the Immigration Act (“a nativist movement had arisen”; the Act’s “barely disguised racism”; etc.), Greenberg emits this [square brackets all mine]:

[Coolidge] signed the bill, Japanese exclusion and all, on May 26. As a result, only a tiny number of immigrants would enter the United States over the next four decades, profoundly affecting the demographic and political character of the nation. [!] After the Holocaust of the 1930s and ’40s, the bill would come to be seen [by whom?] as a betrayal of the nation’s promise [made when? to whom?] of an open door—one that, along with its other unfortunate effects [such as?], helped consign millions of European Jews to death. Not until a major new immigration law was passed in 1965 would America’s doors open again.

The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust…I suppose we should be grateful that so far nobody has blamed Coolidge for the Death of Vaudeville.

Amity Shlaes covers the issue of the Japanese exclusion clause very briskly, in three non-contiguous sentences. She tells us that Coolidge conceded on it in order to concentrate his strength behind Andrew Mellon’s tax plan.

I think this is plausible. (And I note, with another flutter of the heart, that in April, the month before Coolidge signed the Immigration Act, the Treasury planned a Tax Reduction Week to publicize Mellon’s proposals. When will the republic again celebrate a Tax Reduction Week? Perhaps around the same time we see another Federal Liquidation Board.)

For VDARE.com readers who want to know more about the Japanese exclusion clause, the best coverage known to me is in Chapter Seven of Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique.[Archive.org text] MacDonald has an argument to make, which you may agree or disagree with, but he has at least actually read the Congressional Record for the relevant dates, and deftly fillets later smug propaganda about “racism” and “supremacy” as important driving forces behind the exclusion clause:

Several restrictionists explicitly denounced the theory of Nordic superiority, including [long list of congresscritters]. Indeed, it is noteworthy that there are indications in the congressional debate that representatives from the far West were concerned about the competence and competitive threat presented by Japanese immigrants, and their rhetoric suggests they viewed the Japanese as racially equal or superior, not inferior. For example, Senator Jones stated, “We admit that [the Japanese] are as able as we are, that they are as progressive as we are, that they are as honest as we are, and that they are equal in all that goes to make a great people and nation” . . . and Representative Lea noted their ability to supplant “their American competitor.”

The Japanese issue aside, Ms. Shlaes has almost nothing to say about the Immigration Act. In the little she does say, while at least sparing us overt Greenbergian piffle about “nativism,” she none the less manages to offer a glimpse of open-borders ankle:

Senator William Dillingham . . . had fought hard to restrict immigration in the past and plotted yet more immigration law now.

“Plotted”? That’s a fine word for a polemic, but out of place in a political biography. Dillingham—a Vermonter, like Coolidge—was no backstairs political plotter, but a heavyweight statesman and long-dedicated immigration patriot, who had chaired the 1907-10 United States Immigration Commission and supervised production of its massively-detailed 41-volume report.

Like Moses, he saw the Promised Land, but was not permitted to enter therein: He died in July 1923, a few months before Coolidge signed the Immigration Act.  

Again:

Coolidge was willing to go along with restrictionists. “I am convinced that our present economic and social conditions warrant a limitation of those to be admitted,” he wrote. But he was not hostile to immigrants already in the United States.

Why should anyone think he was? Because we should assume, in the infantile schoolyard mentality of our wretched time, that immigration restrictionism is a species of “Hate”?

I repeat: Ms. Shlaes is entitled to her own approach and emphases, and her coverage of the 1924 Act is around the median for the other five biographies I have mentioned. Other than signing the Act and lobbying for some deference to Japanese sensitivities, Coolidge had very little to do with it.

The lapses of logic and sense I have noted in Coolidge are anyway plucked straight from the loathsome Zeitgeist, with perhaps some additional motivation from the abrasions the author suffered nineteen years ago when she crashed the boundaries of America’s peculiar racial decorum.

Coolidge is not a bad read. Still, David Greenberg made the key point, though not in the way he intended.

The 1924 Immigration Act did indeed profoundly affect the demographic and political character of the nation, by creating—with some later assistance from Presidents F. D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower—a forty-year immigration moratorium in which was forged the strongest, happiest, most prosperous, and most culturally vibrant nation the world has ever seen.

The President who signed that Act did much else that was good. But historians of a century or two from now, if there are any, will place that signing, not fiscal fiddling and budgetary bafflegab, at the top when they list Calvin Coolidge’s accomplishments.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

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