In a public Ph.D. dis­ser­tation defense on Thursday, Thomas Tacoma argued that Calvin Coolidge was more sup­portive of pro­gressive policies than most assume. Thomas Tacoma | Courtesy

Despite Calvin Coolidge’s rep­u­tation for opposing pro­gressive policy, he was actually sym­pa­thetic to it, Thomas Tacoma argued at his public lecture last Thursday.

Tacoma is Hillsdale College’s first student to earn a Ph.D. in the Van Andel program, who also grad­uated from the college.

In his dis­ser­tation, which was the first in the graduate program to receive honors, Tacoma argued Coolidge was “far more mod­erate of a Repub­lican than most studies rec­ognize.”

Tacoma said Coolidge’s political thought “turned out to be more broad, and more pro­gressive” than Tacoma had expected, espe­cially since Coolidge’s political actions are known for opposing pro­gres­sives.

Tacoma said the writers who shaped Coolidge’s image were either pro­gressive his­to­rians who “depicted him as a vil­lainous embod­iment of laissez-faire,” Repub­lican sup­porters who “cel­e­brated him as ‘Mr. Small Gov­ernment,’” or admirers who “rep­re­sented him as the direct heir of Abraham Lincoln and the founding fathers. ”

Tacoma’s dis­ser­tation chal­lenges each of these views of Coolidge.

Tacoma claimed that “a more careful study of Coolidge’s political thought — one that relies more on his political ideas than what critics thought about him — reveals him both as a reformer with pro­gressive sym­pa­thies, and a respon­sible statesman.”

Tacoma’s initial aim was to write about a figure or group of figures who rep­re­sented con­sti­tu­tion­alism in the pro­gressive era.

“To some degree, I did retain that goal,” Tacoma said. “However, in my search for a suitable figure or group, I instead landed on Coolidge. My own focus shifted from con­sti­tu­tion­alism nar­rowly con­ceived to Coolidge’s political thought broadly under­stood.”

Tacoma’s forty-minute pre­sen­tation dis­played the devel­opment of Coolidge’s political phi­losophy, or what he called “Coolidge’s phi­losophy of civ­i­lization.”

“Civ­i­lization for Coolidge meant order under the law of reason,” Tacoma said. “Coolidge believed religion and edu­cation pro­vided the moral and mental dis­ci­pline that improved the indi­vidual members of society and guided the political com­munity away from danger.”

Moreover, Tacoma remarked that the cor­ner­stone of Coolidge’s political thought was his optimism about human nature.

“In the face of growing employment, poverty, and misery, Coolidge held onto his con­viction that the people were sound morally and spir­i­tually, and that there was good reason to hope for better things in the future,” Tacoma said

According to Tacoma, Coolidge was thought of as a Repub­lican pro­gressive in his era.

“He had an inter­esting tension in his ideas about fed­er­alism,” Tacoma said. “He didn’t want the federal gov­ernment to take on any new projects, but at the same time, he was open to the gov­ernment having a bureau of edu­cation, or taking on problems of radio com­mission.”

Tacoma claimed that Coolidge “was taught to think of human soci­eties in terms of civ­i­lization and the ethics of service, but he pro­vides a dif­ferent lens to look at these problems. His phi­losophy of civ­i­lization helps us to make sense of his inter­pre­tation of the American founding, of con­sti­tu­tional gov­ernment in his own day, of his eco­nomic thought, and his views on foreign policy.”

Ronald Pestritto, Tacoma’s adviser and pro­fessor of pol­itics, said the dis­ser­tation was superb because Tacoma’s research was thorough and his evi­dence was sound.

“Tom was willing to go where the evi­dence took him regardless of his professor’s views and his own incli­na­tions on these ques­tions,” he said. “That is what makes this a model dis­ser­tation.”

Freshman Eliana Kernodle remarked that she had been inter­ested in Coolidge for a while, but nothing she had studied had revealed Coolidge as Tacoma had in his dis­ser­tation.

“I thought this was very inter­esting because it offered a nuanced view of his pol­itics that I had not caught in the biog­raphy on Coolidge I read,” Kernodle said. “I learned that there was a lot more to him than the staunch con­ser­v­ative that biog­ra­phers often portray him to be.”

Adam Car­rington, a member of the dis­ser­tation com­mittee and assistant pro­fessor of pol­itics, said Tacoma “had it well-planned out and did a very good job of exe­cuting it.”

“It is probably one of the best dis­ser­ta­tions we will work on, and that is why it was the first to receive honors,” Car­rington said.