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Coolidge, Davis, and the 1924 presidential election

Chronicle Guest View • In the Public Interest

June 30, 2011
By John Hendrickson
Garland S. Tucker, III, who is President and CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, has written The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, a detailed and significant historical analysis of the 1924 presidential election. The 1924 election saw both the Republican and Democratic parties nominate conservative candidates. The Republicans nominated President Calvin Coolidge, while the Democrats nominated a respected lawyer from West Virginia, John W. Davis. The campaign also featured a third party, the Progressive Party, who nominated Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette. The Republicans won the election in a landslide, which continued a period of economic expansion which had started during the administration of President Warren G. Harding, but it was also the “high tide of conservatism” because it was the last time the two major parties would both run conservative candidates for President.

The impact of the 1924 presidential election is not only important for its historical significance, but also for the ramifications it has on the nation today. During the early portion of the 20th century, the political debate was shaped between conservatives and progressives, and this debate continues today.

Coolidge stood against progressivism in fighting to pursue constitutional limited government in his administration through various policies such as tax and spending reductions. The Coolidge record was one of economic expansion, low unemployment, and a return to fiscal responsibility in the federal government. John W. Davis was the last of the Jeffersonian Democrats who believed in a limited government. During the Great Depression, Davis saw his Democratic Party under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt being transformed into the progressive party. Davis, who opposed FDR’s New Deal, helped form the American Liberty League. The American Liberty League led a campaign against the New Deal in favor of property rights and constitutional limited government.

The High Tide of American Conservatism not only tells the story of a unique presidential campaign that featured two major conservatives, but it also illustrates the point that ideas have consequences. The conservative philosophy of Coolidge and Davis was instrumental in shaping future conservative leaders such as President Ronald Reagan. On the other hand Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the Democratic Party into the progressive party. In the aftermath of the New Deal, Democratic administrations pushed for continual progressive reforms, most notably President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the current administration of President Barack Obama.

In his book Tucker notes that “the 1920s and 1980s were periods of economic growth and prosperity, while the 1930s was a period of prolonged deflation and economic stagnation.” The High Tide of Conservatism demonstrates it is the conservative ideas that lead to economic prosperity, and those are the ideas so desperately needed in today’s economy. More importantly, it tells the story of two candidates — Coolidge and Davis — that fought for limited constitutional government, which is the cornerstone of the conservative philosophy. Ideas truly have consequences.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.

John Hendrickson is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.


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