Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Fourth of July Tribute to Calvin Coolidge

One might think, based on the lyrics of his famous song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” that songwriter-impresario George M. Cohan was “born on the Fourth of July.” While Cohan’s song is not precisely autobiographical (he was actually born on July 3rd), plenty of other Americans can claim Independence Day as their birthdate.

In fact, Jeopardy could use “Born on the Fourth of July” as a category whose “answers” were well-known American entertainers, writers, artists, business leaders, and politicians for 12 straight episodes and still have a few names left over.

Famous Americans born on July 4th include Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter and other novels), whiskey distiller Hiram Walker (whose products are no doubt enjoyed on the holiday), songwriter Stephen Foster (“Old Folks at Home,” “Camptown Races,” “I Dream of Jeannie”), sibling advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, playwright Neil Simon, and actor-senator George Murphy, to name just a few.

Today's edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch features an opinion piece I wrote about another American who was born on the Fourth of July -- Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States.

Coolidge is severely underrated by historians and others.  A Siena College survey of 238 historians, presidential scholars, and political scientists that was released on July 1 gave Coolidge an "overall" ranking of just 29th out of 43 presidents.  (Another underrated president whom I admire, Grover Cleveland, rounded out the top 20.  Perhaps he had a higher ranking because he was a Democrat, not a Republican like Coolidge.)

Headlined "America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge," my Times-Dispatch article notes:
In his 2008 book, The Cult of the Presidency, the Cato Institute's Gene Healy wrote that Coolidge is remembered "mostly for his reticence and for fiscal policies that combined Yankee parsimony with generous tax cuts."

That "Yankee parsimony" is on display in a short film that is thought to be the first time a U.S. president appeared in a "talkie" -- a movie with sound.

In this four-minute clip (viewable on YouTube), Coolidge says that he wants to "cut down public expense. I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very severe and distinct curtailment of our liberty."

Here is that filmed speech, well-preserved after more than eight decades:
In his book on the presidency, Healy also notes about Coolidge:
Less well known is Coolidge’s admirable record on civil liberties. Coolidge ordered the release of [Woodrow] Wilson’s remaining political prisoners, and his attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, put an end to political surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, abolishing the FBI’s General Intelligence Division.
Coolidge was a student of American history and politics. He valued the Constitution and expected others to value it, and pay it heed, too. As I point out in today's Times-Dispatch:
"Liberty" is a theme that appears again and again in Coolidge's speeches and essays. In 1924, Coolidge published a volume of his writings, called The Price of Freedom. For a man known as "Silent Cal," Coolidge was unexpectedly loquacious and sage.

In his short (437-word) inaugural address as vice president, Coolidge, referring to the responsibilities of the United States Senate, said that body's "greatest function of all, too little mentioned and too little understood . . . is the preservation of liberty. Not merely the rights of the majority, they little need protection, but the rights of the minority, from whatever source they may be assailed."

Coolidge took his oath of office seriously. He believed that, under the Constitution, the authority and reach of the federal government were severely limited and that the rights of the people were expansive. And he ran a tight ship: The entire White House staff under Coolidge consisted of fewer than 40 people; the Obama White House has more than 60 working in the press office alone.

Coolidge tried to reverse the accumulation of power that presidents began in the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. While he had some, temporary, success, we know that our most recent presidents have discarded any sense of modesty and use the White House not as a bully pulpit, but a hammer to get their favored legislation passed by Congress and, if Congress does not cooperate, they expand power through executive orders.

The nation would be a better place if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama read a biography or two about Calvin Coolidge and consulted Coolidge's own essays and speeches on occasion.

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J.R.Hoeft said...

Enjoyed the post, Rick. Thanks for taking the time to remind us all about a president who believed in liberty and the true meaning behind the Constitution - the limitation of government.

Mark S said...

It's been a while, but I've been meaning to respond to your article. In my opinion, Calvin Coolidge was the greatest 20th century president, because of the significant effect he had on American culture.
Look at what took place during his administration: the development of trans-Atlantic flight; the innovation of sound in motion pictures; the expansion of spectator sports into a major industry.
Today, over 80 years later, millions of people still attend movies and sporting events and travel by airplane.
They also still read Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and engage in financial speculation, as they did during Coolidge's time.

Rick Sincere said...

Thanks for the encouraging words!

Anonymous said...

thanks for an excellent post on an excellent but underrated president! check out my own "mostly Coolidge" blog sometime,