Fighting Bob vs. Silent Cal: The Conservative Tradition from La Follette to Taft and BeyondJeff Taylor - 04/03/09
From Modern Age 50:4 (Fall 2008).
Soon after becoming president in 1981, Ronald Reagan surprised the press by removing the hallowed portrait of Harry Truman from the wall of the White House Cabinet Room and replacing it with one of Calvin Coolidge. The Great Communicator’s speaking skills and personal charisma far outstripped the attributes of Silent Cal, but he shared with his presidential predecessor a reputation for being a very conservative Republican coupled with a laid-back executive style. Coolidge’s conservatism was cited by Reagan as a role model for his own administration. But the alleged line of descent from Coolidge to Reagan is doubtful in several ways.
From where did the Reagan Revolution and its contemporary conservative heirs spring? Analyses from scholars, pundits, and activists alike usually begin somewhere in the 1940s. Emphasis is placed on opposition to the bureaucratic regimentation of the New and Fair Deals and on the anti-communism that provided the grassroots backbone supporting the Cold War. For the most part, it is a post-World War II survey that assumes a philosophical jump from Edmund Burke to Robert Taft. But what happened in between? One might ask what was going on during the first four decades of the twentieth century. It would be profitable to discover how Cold War conservatism related to earlier American political movements and ideological conflicts within the Republican Party.
Conservatism did not simply spring forth from the wit of William F. Buckley Jr. or the dossiers of Joe McCarthy or the scholarly works of Russell Kirk. While Barry Goldwater was a political forerunner to Reagan in the 1960s, Reagan also had conservative predecessors as far back as 1920. If we examine their ideas, in several important ways, Calvin Coolidge was less an antecedent to Ronald Reagan than were Robert La Follette and Robert Taft. The link to Taft can be discerned with ease. The influence of the La Follette tradition on Reagan’s conservatism is more surprising.
The fact that Reagan had Coolidge’s picture on the wall instead of La Follette’s is just a sign that Reagan did not scratch below the surface of the “conservative” label attached to Coolidge. Unfortunately, Reagan was not deeply familiar with the history of ideas or movements—even his own. The McKinley-Root-Coolidge tradition was conservatism of a very different sort from the modern conservatism of Taft and Goldwater. The McKinley-Coolidge tradition was one that went back through Daniel Webster and Henry Clay to Alexander Hamilton. In contrast, the Taft-Goldwater tradition was quite Jeffersonian.
Labels can be deceiving. The conservative, standpat, reactionary, Old Guard Republicans of the 1890s and 1920s became the liberal, progressive, modern, Middle Way Republicans of the 1940s and 1970s. The labels changed—in fact they did a 180 degree turn—but the ideas stayed constant: big government and monopoly capitalism at home; empire and military bellicosity abroad. And the seat of this sort of Republicanism stayed the same: the metropolitan centers of the East Coast.
The personification of the Eastern Establishment in La Follette’s day was Elihu Root. Root was a prominent Wall Street attorney who became McKinley’s Secretary of War, TR’s Secretary of State, a Republican senator from New York, and a presidential contender in 1916. The “foxy Mr. Root” was recognized as a leading conservative by the populist Republican senator Hiram Johnson of California in the 1910s and was recognized as a conservative by historian Richard Leopold in the 1950s. These observers were using “conservative” in its pre-1936, Hamiltonian sense, not in its post-1936, Taftian sense. Root’s role as a founder and honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, and as one who pushed for the League of Nations, the World Court, and other forms of empire and entangling internationalism should make that clear. The conservatives in La Follette’s day were not advocates of laissez-faire economics, despite what they may have said. They did not want a wall of separation between government and business. Yes, they loved capitalism. No, they did not love free enterprise. Government and business were to be partners. Regulation was eventually accepted at the federal level because it could be coopted by the biggest corporations to drive out smaller competitors and to lend them a helping hand courtesy of the taxpayers. Historian Gabriel Kolko details the institutionalization of the big business-big government alliance in The Triumph of Conservatism. He is using the c-word in its original Hobbesian and Hamiltonian sense. Calvin Coolidge practiced state capitalism, which was arguably a mild (non-dictatorial) form of fascism, not laissez-faire.
In terms of foreign policy, Coolidge was an internationalist. This is not surprising given his dependence on the international banking firm of J.P. Morgan & Co. Coolidge was a protégé of Morgan partner Dwight Morrow. Following the lead of Morrow, Coolidge was willing to accept the League without any reservations. Welcoming Woodrow Wilson back to American soil upon the occasion of the president’s return from Versailles, Governor Coolidge told a Boston crowd, “We welcome him as the representative of a great people, as a great statesman, as one to whom we have entrusted our destinies, and one whom we are sure we will support in the future in the working out of that destiny.” President Coolidge desired to join the World Court. La Follette’s senatorial ally, Hiram Johnson, who campaigned on the slogan “America First” when running for president in 1920, challenged Coolidge for the nomination in 1924. Johnson was a true ancestor of the Taft-Goldwater movement, and echoes of his campaigns could be heard from Pat Buchanan in the 1990s.
The link between La Follette-Johnson and Taft-Goldwater can be discerned when thinking of the transitional figures in the late ’30s/early ’40s when internationalists and the mainstream press were confusing people by adopting the then-popular “liberal” and “progressive” labels. Consider the fact that new “conservatives” attorney Amos Pinchot, publisher Frank Gannett, publisher Robert McCormick, businessman Robert Wood, socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and Congressman Hamilton Fish all came out of the Bull Moose-La Follette-Borah tradition of liberal Jeffersonianism within the party. They represented the Republican side of the Committee to Uphold the Constitution and the America First Committee. Most supported Taft or MacArthur for president during the 1940–1952 period. Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune favored Hiram Johnson over Hoover in 1932 and Robert Taft over Eisenhower in 1952.