July 1, 2011
America's birthday is also that of Calvin Coolidge, the only president 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 joining presidential candidate Warren G. Harding's quest to return the country to "normalcy." He took the presidential oath early on the morning of Aug. 3, 1923, following Harding's death. Under Coolidge, normalcy would mean a return to the principles of America's Founding.
Coolidge saw the Founders and their principles as simultaneously conservative and revolutionary. Conservative insofar as many of their ideas were expressed earlier in Western political philosophy and the religious writings of the American colonists. Revolutionary insofar as they established a nation based on principles of individual rights, liberty, equality and self-government.
Coolidge understood that the Founders did not invent the principles contained within the Declaration of Independence, for "great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced." But the Founders were the first to make these principles - equality, liberty, and consent of the governed - the foundation of a nation.
The Declaration of Independence, moreover, did not emerge from a revolution of "the oppressed and downtrodden," Coolidge wrote, "It brought no scum to the surface." Nor was this a document to benefit the landed elite. Rather, the Declaration of Independence was a document for a self-governing people.
And the equality it guaranteed was truly for all. Coolidge's strict adherence to the principles of the American Founding, in fact, led him to end segregation in federal employment, a practice instituted by "progressive" icon Woodrow Wilson.
He rejected the arguments of his contemporaries who "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 (the Founders') conclusions for something more modern."
Coolidge responded that there could be no progress by moving away from the Declaration of Independence. There was finality to the document: "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."
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let us not only remember the principles of America. Let us also commemorate the birthday of the man who so eloquently articulated and defended America's enduring principles - and its noble heritage of freedom.
Julia Shaw is the research associate and program manager for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy News Wire service