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English: Calvin Coolidge.English: Calvin Coolidge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the city council to the statehouse, from the mayor’s office to the governor’s office, Coolidge’s career was a frenzy of realized ambition. But he was not always the tax-cutter and small-government champion of conservative lore. Originally a mild supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism, and an advocate of Republican unity at all costs, Coolidge often made it a priority to hold the middle ground. He didn’t hesitate to support his party, even if it meant more public spending. “There should be no parsimony in the care of our unfortunates,” he declared in 1916.

But as he progressed from office to office, Coolidge began to see firsthand the destructive power of overzealous regulation and legislation, careless public budgeting, and stifling taxation, both on businesses and individuals. In time, he fought off demands to build new city halls, consolidated 100 state government departments, and, most famously, as Massachusetts governor, dismissed over 1,100 striking Boston policemen in 1919. The decision, which Shlaes examines in an absorbing chapter, was difficult: the picketing police had legitimate grievances, but waves of violence and looting forced Coolidge’s hand. The incident launched his national star.

His strong hand during the strike, along with the promotional push of Frank Stearns, the Massachusetts department store owner who supported his career from its early years, landed him a spot on the 1920 presidential ticket with Warren G. Harding. The duo pledged to return the nation to “normalcy”—a phrase Shlaes rescues from historical ridicule and translates as a promise to restore the order lost, and peel back the excessive layers of government accumulated, during the Great War.