President Calvin Coolidge shared his birthday with that of the United States. This coincidence did not lead him to conclude he had been divinely called to fundamentally change the country. He was modest. He was perhaps the last Chief Executive to pay any heed to the 9th and 10th Amendments. He was not known for flights of empty oratory. He considered small government as the intent of the Constitution. His administration was free of scandal, and he dealt with those scandals he inherited from his predecessor quickly and appropriately. Coolidge provided a model of stability and respectability for the American people.
In short, it would be difficult to find a higher degree of contrast with our present administration.
You may find Silent Cal’s speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of interest.
I urge you to read the whole thing in order to appreciate the intellectual rigor an American president could reasonably expect the American people to possess in 1926.
Here are a few excerpts:
…We are obliged to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was not, of course, a movement from the top. Revolutions do not come from that direction. It was not without the support of many of the most respectable people in the Colonies, who were entitled to all the consideration that is given to breeding, education, and possessions. It had the support of another element of great significance and importance to which I shall later refer. But the preponderance of all those who occupied a position which took on the aspect of aristocracy did not approve of the Revolution and held toward it an attitude either of neutrality or open hostility. It was in no sense a rising of the oppressed and downtrodden. It brought no scum to the surface, for the reason that colonial society had developed no scum. The great body of the people were accustomed to privations, but they were free from depravity. If they had poverty, it was not of the hopeless kind that afflicts great cities, but the inspiring kind that marks the spirit of the pioneer. The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.
…Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
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.
In the development of its institutions America can fairly claim that it has remained true to the principles which were declared 150 years ago. In all the essentials we have achieved an equality which was never possessed by any other people. Even in the less important matter of material possessions we have secured a wider and wider distribution of wealth. The rights of the individual are held sacred and protected by constitutional guaranties, which even the Government itself is bound not to violate. If there is any one thing among us that is established beyond question, it is self-government–the right of the people to rule. If there is any failure in respect to any of these principles, it is because there is a failure on the part of individuals to observe them. We hold that the duly authorized expression of the will of the people has a divine sanction. But even in that we come back to the theory of John Wise that “Democracy is Christ’s government.” The ultimate sanction of law rests on the righteous authority of the Almighty.
On an occasion like this a great temptation exists to present evidence of the practical success of our form of democratic republic at home and the ever-broadening acceptance it is securing abroad. Although these things are well known, their frequent consideration is an encouragement and an inspiration. But it is not results and effects so much as sources and causes that I believe it is even more necessary constantly to contemplate. Ours is a government of the people. It represents their will. Its officers may sometimes go astray, but that is not a reason for criticizing the principles of our institutions.
Today, some may regard Coolidge as naive. That he could claim 1926 America “has remained true to the principles which were declared 150 years ago”, will strike modern readers as untenable, for example, on racial grounds.
Coolidge certainly knew many living veterans of the Civil War, that does not mean he could envision the 1964 civil rights act – but he would have appreciated that its passage had been obtained by the blood of 600,000 American dead.
Readers may be interested in the excerpts from his letter “Equality of Rights,” dated 9 August 1924, and published in Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic: Speeches and Addresses (1926):
“My dear Sir: Your letter is received, accompanied by a newspaper clipping which discusses the possibility that a colored man may be the Republican nominee for Congress from one of the New York districts…you say:
‘It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country.’
“….I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it.” [As president, I am] “one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support that Constitution….”
Yours very truly, etc.
1926 America was not utopia. It was not hell. It was the best humankind had been able to achieve at that point.
That that still appears to be the case, despite withering statist efforts to fundamentally transform it, is a testament to the ideas and the ideals of the men who pledged their “lives, liberty and sacred honor” to realize a United States of America.
President Coolidge had something to say about that, too:
In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual concepts. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. These are ideals. They have their source and their roots in religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions [endures], the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.