Thursday, July 04, 2013

'America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge' Revisited

Three years ago today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an opinion piece I wrote and headlined it "America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge."

Somehow that entire day's newspaper failed to be preserved on the Times-Dispatch web site. (Try it: you'll get a 404.)

A few paragraphs of the article made their way into a blog post later that day, but the whole thing has been unavailable (except in print, or perhaps on microfilm) since July 4, 2010.

I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit "America Could Use a Good Dose of Calvin Coolidge" today, given the Coolidge revival that I reference in a piece I published on early this morning.

In that piece, based upon an interview with the Heritage Foundation's director of American studies, Matthew Spalding, I note that a number of scholars have lately begun focusing their research and writing on the man from Plymouth Notch, Vermont:

Several books on Coolidge have been published recently, including Amity Shlaes' best-selling biography, Coolidge; Charles C. Johnson's Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America's Most Underrated President; the National Notary Association's similarly titled Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together; and Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography, by David Pietrusza.
If anything, the mood of the country in 2013 makes the headline even more relevant now than it was in 2010.

So here is my Times-Dispatch op-ed piece on Calvin Coolidge, now accessible through a Google search.

Most Americans know that two of our country’s Founders – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – died within hours of each other on the Fourth of July in 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence.

Fewer might be aware that, five years later, the fifth President, James Monroe, also passed away on the same date.

Fewer still know that Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President, was born on the Fourth of July in 1872.

The much underrated Coolidge is a unique American success story. First elected to public office as a member of the city council of Northhampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge climbed the ladder of government service to clerk of courts, state representative, mayor, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, vice president, and President of the United States. No other president, before or since, has had such an extensive and varied career in elective office.

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 reestablish 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.”

“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.

Addressing the American Bar Association in 1922, Coolidge remarked:

“So long as the National Government confined itself to providing those fundamentals of liberty, order, and justice for which it was primarily established, its course was reasonably clear and plain. No large amount of revenue was required. No great swarms of public employees were necessary. There was little clash of special interests or different sections, and what there was of this nature consisted not of petty details but of broad principles... What the government undertook to do it could perform with a fair degree of accuracy and precision.”

Then came the big “but”, as Coolidge lamented the growing size and scope of government in the previous two decades:

“But this has all been changed by embarking on a policy of a general exercise of police powers, by the public control of much private enterprise and private conduct, and of furnishing a public supply for much private need.”

After 88 years, these words could have been written yesterday.

Perhaps being “born on the Fourth of July” imbued Coolidge with a predilection to take the Founders at their word when they said they were creating a republican government of limited and specified powers. Perhaps his views simply reflected his sober, thrifty New England upbringing. Perhaps he was just unusually intelligent.

Whatever the case, we could use a solid dose of “Silent Cal” in the 21st century.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Richard Sincere is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise and The Politics of Sentiment. He blogs about politics and culture at
For further reference, check out my report on Amity Shlaes' lecture at the Heritage Foundation in February; my audio interview with her at CPAC; and my Virginia Politics on Demand post on Coolidge and civility.

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So You Think You Know the Declaration of Independence?

Try this quiz, courtesy of the Heartland Institute:

It's harder than it looks. I only scored 110.
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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Glorious Second of July

Writing from Philadelphia to his wife Abigail in Massachusetts on the third day of July, 1776, John Adams, a member of the Continental Congress, said:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
What's that he wrote? That "the Second Day of July" will be celebrated "as the great anniversary Festival"? Didn't he mean the "Fourth Day of July"?

Original resolution for American independence from July 2, 1776
True enough, the "succeeding Generations" that Adams foresaw have, since 1777, celebrated Independence Day as July 4th, which was the day that the Declaration of Independence (drafted by Charlottesville lawyer Thomas Jefferson) was approved by Congress. (It was not signed, contra the famous Trumbull painting and the Peter Stone-Sherman Edwards musical 1776, until August 2, almost as an afterthought.)

Adams's enthusiasm stemmed from the 12-0-1 vote (New York abstaining, "courteously") on July 2nd, approving a resolution proposed by another Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, which stated:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
The first sentence is echoed in the Declaration of Independence, which made the case for why Lee's resolution should have been passed in the first place. The second sentence was realized after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, which proved to the French government that allying with the American rebels might pay off politically. The third sentence was brought to life by the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, drafted that same year but not ratified until 1781 (and superseded, seven years later, by the U.S. Constitution).

Adams understood the act of independence to have been performed on July 2, 1776. The rest was merely decoration.

And still, our "Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations" will occur on the Fourth of July (unless you're in Crozet, where festivities are scheduled for Saturday, July the 6th).

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