Silent Cal: The Declaration’s Great Defender
Julia Shaw /
America’s birthday is also that of Calvin Coolidge, the only President to be born on the Fourth of July.
This is altogether fitting, as the man remembered as “Silent Cal” is one of the most eloquent voices for the great and enduring principles expressed in our Declaration of Independence.
There are many half-truths about Coolidge. Despite his nickname, Coolidge was far from silent in his biweekly press conferences and—years before FDR’s fireside chats—regular radio addresses to the American people. Far from a quiet simpleton, he was an experienced public servant.
Coolidge served in Massachusetts as a city councilman, city solicitor, mayor, state senator, lieutenant governor, and governor before running for Vice President in 1920, joining Warren G. Harding’s quest to return the country to “normalcy.” He took the presidential oath early on the morning of August 3, 1923, following Harding’s death. Under Coolidge, normalcy meant a return to the principles of America’s Founding.
Historians remember Calvin Coolidge as saying the “chief business of the American people is business,” a quote that’s frequently taken out of context. For example, “the observation was apt if not profound,” historian Henry Steele Commanger wrote. “Never before, not even in the McKinley era, had American society been so materialistic.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., went further: “For Coolidge, business was more than business; it was a religion; and to it he committed all the passion of his arid nature,” Schlesinger wrote, “as he worshipped business, so he detested government. Economy was his self-confessed obsession.”
But the historians get Coolidge all wrong.
Coolidge did not mean that Americans consider wealth to be the highest accomplishment. “The accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence,” he argued. “And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today.”
While Americans were “profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world,” their highest aim was not material success. Americans, he said, “make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.” Americans were also concerned about character: “industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.”
Coolidge encouraged Americans to “cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which [our Founders] showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.”
By this, Coolidge meant a dedication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which was “the product of the spiritual insight of the people.”
Coolidge understood that the Founders did not invent the principles contained within the Declaration of Independence. “Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence.”
Coolidge argued that the principles of equality, liberty, and consent were related. If there were no natural rulers, then all men were free to govern themselves. Since no rights can “be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed.”
Coolidge adhered to these principles consistently: It was Coolidge, for instance, who ended the practice of segregation in federal employment, a practice instituted by Progressive icon Woodrow Wilson.
Coolidge understood that these principles were final. “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.” The country couldn’t progress by moving away from the Declaration.
As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, let us not only remember the principles of America but also commemorate the birthday of the man who so eloquently articulated and defended America’s enduring principles and our noble heritage of freedom.