Patterico's Pontifications


The Calvin Coolidge Century

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:07 am

[guest post by JVW]

One hundred years ago today, August 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco from a heart attack exacerbated by a bout with pneumonia. Three thousand miles away, at his family home in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, John Calvin Coolidge Jr. suddenly became the Thirtieth President of the United States. A call with the news was placed to Bridgewater, a town roughly eight miles away (the Coolidge residence not being equipped with electricity or phone service in 1923), and a messenger was dispatched to deliver the sad tidings. Vice-President Coolidge and his wife Grace had already retired for the evening, so the message was given to his father who relayed it to the new President. As I related in my Independence Day salute to the man, Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration as President was befitting of the humble, private, small-“r” republican Chief Executive he would be: his notary public father administering the Oath of Office while the new President solemnly laid his left hand on the family Bible and agreed to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Thus began five and one-half years of some of the finest Oval Office leadership our nation has ever experienced.

I don’t want to bore you with details of President Coolidge’s magnificent stewardship: the biography of him written by the inestimable Amity Shlaes does a far better job than I possibly could. If you want to hear it straight from the man himself, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge is back in print thanks to the efforts of the Coolidge Society. And if you are interested in a somewhat sympathetic narrative from a left-leaning academic and journalist you can check out David Greenberg’s volume which was part of Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s series on The American Presidents.

What I want to do on this auspicious anniversary is hearken back to the words of the man himself, an underrated writer and orator, and see if they don’t still resonate today.

On Over-Legislating
In his younger days, Calvin Coolidge had been tolerant of the progressive Republicanism of Theodore Roosevelt, but by the time he became the Speaker of the Massachusetts House in 1914, he had soured on the idea that legislation could solve every problem. Here he is in his inaugural address as House Speaker, perhaps his most famous oration, making the case for humility in government:

Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of laws. The latest, most modern, and nearest perfect system that statesmanship has devised is representative government. Its weakness is the weakness of us imperfect human beings who administer it. Its strength is that even such administration secures to the people more blessings than any other system ever produced. No nation has discarded it and retained liberty. Representative government must be preserved.

[. . .]

The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act or resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil. It can provide no substitute for the rewards of service. It can, of course, care for the defective and recognize distinguished merit. The normal must care for themselves. Self-government means self-support.

[. . .]

Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a stand-patter, but don’t be a stand-patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don’t hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation.

On Faith
President Coolidge reflects on the importance of religious belief in an address from the White House broadcast via telephone to a group of Boy Scouts about to set sail for an international scouting meeting in Denmark. This address took place on July 25, 1924, two weeks after the Coolidges had tragically lost their own son, Calvin Jr., at age sixteen from sepsis:

Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man reaches his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is part of an unending plan.

On the Declaration of Independence
In Philadelphia celebrating the sesquicentennial of the signing of of the Declaration of Independence, President Coolidge delivered stirring words about our nation’s founding documents which I only wish a modern leader could emulate:

It is not so much then for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound. Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken. Whatever perils appear, whatever dangers threaten, the Nation remains secure in the knowledge that the ultimate application of the law of the land will provide an adequate defense and protection.

[. . .]

We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. [. . .]

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

On “Americanism”
Speaking to the American Legion in Omaha in 1924 and reflecting upon the aftermath of the Great War, President Coolidge makes clear that your family heritage doesn’t define how American you are:

We must not, in times of peace, permit ourselves to lose any part from this structure of patriotic unity. I make no plea for leniency toward those who are criminal or vicious, are open enemies of society and are not prepared to accept the true standards of our citizenship. By tolerance I do not mean indifference to evil. I mean respect for different kinds of good. Whether one traces his Americanisms back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of to-day is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.

On George Washington
One of my five most favorite Presidents showed reverence for my favorite President while addressing the Amherst College Alumni Dinner in March 1918:

They [the thirteen colonies] fought and won a revolutionary war [. . .] but the glory of military power fades before the picture of the victorious general, retiring his commission to the representatives of the people who would have made him king, and retiring after two terms from the Presidency which he could have held for life [. . .]

On Woodrow Wilson
Reflecting on a predecessor who could not have been less ideologically attuned with him, President Coolidge issues a Presidential proclamation on the death of Wilson, February 3, 1924, and takes the art of damming with feint praise to new heights:

He was moved by an earnest desire to promote the best interests of the country as he conceived them.

On Barack Obama
In his autobiography, Mr. Coolidge suggests that Chief Executives need to get a grip:

It is a great advantage to the President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.

On Donald Trump
In a 1997 book titled First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends, authors Roy Rowan and Brooke Janis attribute the following to President Coolidge:

Any man who does not like dogs and [does not] want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.

On Joe Biden
As quoted by his Secretary of War, Dwight F. Davis, the famously taciturn President peered one hundred years into the future and had this advice for his successor:

You know, Mr. Secretary, I have found in the course of a long public life that the things I did not say never hurt me.

On Taxes
Pretty much every Democrat — you paying attention Comrade Sanders and Sen. Fauxcahontas? — needs to commit to memory what President Coolidge told a group of labor leaders in a meeting to commemorate Labor Day 1924:

No matter what anyone may say about making the rich and the corporations pay the taxes, in the end they come out of the people who toil.

On Fetishizing Higher Education
Writing in his post-Presidential newspaper column some ninety-two years ago, Mr. Coolidge questioned the wisdom of mindless credentialing by the college cartel:

If we would stop thinking that a bachelor of arts must be a white-collar man and let him be any kind of man he is adapted to be, the danger of spoiling a good craftsman to make a poor professional man would vanish.

On the Future
Conservatives are often accused by progressives of fetishizing the past. Here, Vice-President Coolidge sets the record straight in a 1923 address as to why it is vital to understand the past in order to ensure a successful future:

We review the past not in order that we may return to it but that we find in what direction, straight and clear, it points to the future.

On Honesty in Public Office
The day before he was elected Governor of Massachusetts in November 1918, Mr. Coolidge shared this wisdom in a newspaper advertisement:

My conception of public duty is to face each problem as though my entire record in life were to be judged by the way I handled it — to keep always in touch with the folks back home –to be firm for my honesty of opinion, but to recognize every man’s right to an honest difference of opinion.

On Presidential Legacies
At the end of his Administration, in an off-the-record news conference with reporters conducted on March 1, 1929, outgoing President Coolidge had this to say about how he might be remembered to history:

Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.

On Dying Young, part 1
Victoria Moor Coolidge, Calvin Coolidge’s mother, died at age 39 from reasons thought to be injuries from a years earlier buggy accident which had slowly turned her into an invalid, from tuberculosis, or perhaps from a combination of the two. In his autobiography, her son lovingly remembers her:

Whatever was grand and beautiful in form and color attracted her. It seemed as though the rich green tints of the foliage and the blossoms of the flowers came for her in the springtime, and in the autumn it was for her that the mountain sides were struck with crimson and with gold.

When she knew that her end was near she called us children to her bedside, where we knelt down to receive her final parting blessing. In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday. I was twelve years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.

On Dying Young, part 2
As mentioned earlier, Calvin and Grace Coolidge’s son died suddenly from sepsis in July 1924. In his final year in the White House, Mr. Coolidge met a man who had lost his own young son from polio around the same time that Cal Jr. had died. In an inscription to the man’s copy of the 1920 campaign book, Have Faith in Massachusetts, the President wrote an eloquent and moving tribute to both boys:

To Edward K. Hall, in recollection of his son and my son who have the privilege, by the grace of God, to be boys through all eternity.

I’ve gone on too long already, so let me end here with an earnest plea to my fellow citizens to find and cultivate men and women of wit, wisdom, integrity, humility, and decency like Calvin Coolidge. It would certainly be superior the motley crew that we continue to settle for these days.


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