The Republican National Convention of 1924 nominated Calvin
Coolidge as its candidate for a full four-year term as President.
You'll recall that Coolidge had assumed the presidency following
the death of Warren Harding.
As one who has covered and commented on several political
conventions, that 1924 convention in Cleveland did not yield many
It is generally remembered as the most uninteresting convention
in Republican history. Delegates didn't bother showing up at many
of the sessions. The most popular drink was a
keep-cool-with-Coolidge highball, composed of raw eggs and fruit
juice. Will Rogers suggested that the city of Cleveland "open up
the churches to liven things up a bit."
But this is a reminder that politics, in the end, is not about
drama but about principle, not about charisma but about character.
I doubt Republicans will get a nominee out of San Diego with so
many wise and principled things to say about the deficit, about tax
cuts, and about welfare dependence as they had in 1924. And I very
much doubt he will beat this opponent by a landslide of 54 percent
to 28 percent.
A CERTAIN STYLE
I have always had a particular respect for the 30th President,
not entirely explained by the ties of family.
Calvin Coolidge had a certain style and attitude toward public
service. He seemed immune to the pretensions of politics. When
asked his goals as Governor of Massachusetts, he explained, "to
walk humbly and discharge my obligations." It is hard to imagine a
better definition of public service. When one woman admirer asked
if the burdens of the presidency were more than a man could endure,
Coolidge replied, "Oh, I don't know. There are only so many hours
in the day, and one can do the best he can in the time he's got.
When I was mayor of Northampton I was pretty busy most of the time,
and I don't seem to be much busier here." There is something
profoundly refreshing about a leader with that kind of perspective
on life and politics. When Coolidge left the presidency he told
reporters, "Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my
administration has been minding my own business."
I have always admired Coolidge's political courage. He came to
national prominence, of course, by breaking the 1919 police strike.
Some people don't understand that this was controversial even in
his own party. When he was about to sign the order calling out the
National Guard, some colleagues warned him that it might destroy
the Republican Party in Massachusetts and end his political career.
Governor Coolidge took the pen and said quietly, "Perhaps you are
right," then signed the document. No grandstanding. Just quiet
Coolidge also showed real humanity beneath his inflexible
exterior. I've always been moved by the story of how Coolidge, in
the summer of 1924, crawled on his hands and knees to catch a
rabbit to show his dying son. He later said, "When he was suffering
he begged me to help him. I could not." In that tragedy, he
provided a model of dignified grief.
And Coolidge, of course, was always a source of great stories.
Everyone has his favorites. Once a man, riding with Coolidge
through Vermont, commented, "See how closely they have shaved those
sheep?" "At least on this side," said the President.
At another point, a rude, combative man came up to Coolidge and
said, "I didn't vote for you." The President immediately replied:
In some ways, I think that Calvin Coolidge misled people into
thinking he was less thoughtful and astute than he actually was. He
never set out to impress -- a quality of character almost unique in
politics. He would have liked the praise of one country shopkeeper,
"That young chap Coolidge certainly has more stuff on the shelves
and outs less in the show-window than any fellow I've ever
You would think that a President with this kind of character and
personality would be widely respected and fondly remembered. In
fact, in his own time, he was one of the most popular men ever to
occupy the White House.
But the attempts to malign Coolidge -- the historical slander --
began early. H. L. Menken called him "petty and dull." Franklin
Roosevelt never tired of attacking the "Coolidge Prosperity," as
though it were false and empty.
The history books quickly took up the cause. Historian Henry
Steele Commanger wrote:
The idealism of the Wilson era was in the past; the
Rooseveltian passion for humanitarian reform was in the future. The
decade of the twenties was dull, bourgeois and ruthless. "The
business of America is business," said President Coolidge
succinctly, and the observation was apt if not profound...never
before, not even in the McKinley era, had American society been so
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in The Crisis of the
Old Order, "But, for Coolidge, business was more than business;
it was a religion; and to it he committed all the passion of his
arid nature...as he worshipped business, so he detested government.
Economy was his self-confessed obsession."
None of this venom can be explained by the real-world results of
the Coolidge Administration. The federal budget shrank. The
national debt was cut almost in half. Unemployment stood at 3.6
percent. Consumer prices rose at just 0.4 percent. During his term,
there was a remarkable 17.5 percent increase in the nation's
wealth. Total education spending in the United States rose
fourfold. In the 1920s, illiteracy fell nearly in half. This was a
golden age, by any standard.
There must be some other reason that Coolidge is controversial.
He has not been forgotten -- like Chester Arthur or Millard
Fillmore -- he has been actively vilified by certain historians. In
my view, this is not because he was "dull" or "arid," but because
his ideas were important -- and even threatening to some. He is
attacked precisely because he is a figure who speaks beyond his
Calvin Coolidge, known for his reticence, was actually the most
articulate conservative who ever served as President. He was, as
British historian Paul Johnson comments, "internally consistent and
single-minded." If his views are right, much of modern political
thinking -- from FDR to Bill Clinton -- is profoundly wrong. This
is why he continues to be relevant.
Coolidge was sometimes criticized for stating and restating the
obvious. It was he who said, "When a great many people are unable
to find work, unemployment results." Actually Calvin Coolidge was
in a constant search for foundational principles -- the bedrock
convictions that explain everything else. His points were not
simply obvious, they were fundamental. Johnson concludes, "No
public man carried into modern times more comprehensively the
founding principles of Americanism: hard work, frugality, freedom
of conscience, freedom from government, respect for serious
"They criticize me," Coolidge said, "for harping on the obvious.
Perhaps someday I'll write On the Importance of the Obvious.
If all the folks in the United States would do the few simple
things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would
take care of themselves."
Our nation is constantly in search of new ideas and new
solutions. It is desperate for answers and obsessed with
innovation. But Coolidge's message was very different. He urged his
fellow citizens to examine the basics of their beliefs. He called
their attention to the proven principles of our political
tradition. This is the reason his views, opinions, and advice seem
so current. Those who set out to be "new" and "modern" are quickly
outdated. Those who call attention to the permanent things are
The 1990s would be wise to listen to this voice for the 1920s,
speaking about principles that never age.
- Coolidge talked honestly about the nature of wealth and of
He told the Massachusetts Senate in 1914, "Government cannot
relieve from toil. The normal must take care of themselves.
Self-government means self-support.... Ultimately property rights
and personal rights are the same thing.... History reveals no
civilized people among whom there was not a highly educated class
and large aggregations of wealth. Large profits mean large
The goal of public policy, in Coolidge's view, was not to
redistribute wealth, but to create it. "After all," he said, "there
is but a fixed quantity of wealth in this country at any fixed
time. The only way that we can all secure more of it is to create
Coolidge also saw that there is a tie between wealth, individual
character, and social progress. "Wealth is the product of industry,
ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the
accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the
increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the
encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion
of liberty, the widening of culture."
- Coolidge spoke to a society struggling under the weight of
"I favor the policy of economy," he said, "not because I wish to
save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of
this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the
government. Every dollar we carelessly waste means that their life
will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently
save means that their life will be so much the more abundant.
Economy is idealism in its most practical form."
- President Coolidge was opposed to the easy, false promise
that we can pay for larger government by taxing "the rich" -- the
temptation of class warfare we still see today.
The fallacy of the claim that the costs of government
are borne by the rich cannot be too often exposed. No system has
been devised, I do not think any system could be devised, under
which any person living in this country could escape being affected
by the cost of our government. It has a direct effect both upon the
rate and the purchasing power of wages. It is felt in the price of
those prime necessities of existence, food, clothing, fuel and
shelter...the continuing costs of public administration can be met
in only one way -- by the work of the people. The higher they
become, the more the people must work for the government. The less
they are, the more the people can work for themselves.
In some ways, President Coolidge was a supply-sider before his
time. He understood that high tax rates do not always mean higher
tax revenues. Taxes can constrict economic activity, leaving less
profit and income to tax. "The method of raising revenue," he
ought not to impede the transition of business; it
ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates,
because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for
the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We cannot
finance the country, we cannot improve social conditions, through
any system of injustice, even if we attempt to influence it upon
the rich.... The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and
in all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have
already secured success but to create conditions under which every
one will have a better chance to be successful.
That is sound, practical, principled advice for any time. In his
own time, it was dramatically effective. The Revenue Act of 1926 --
engineered along with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon -- was a
stunning success. In 1922, the effective tax rate on the wealthy
was 50 percent, who paid a total of $77 million into the Treasury.
By 1927, Coolidge had cut their tax rate to 20 percent -- but the
same group paid $230 million in taxes. Meanwhile, the total tax
burden on people making less than $10,000 fell from $130 million in
1923 to less than $20 million in 1929.
- Calvin Coolidge talked with eloquence about human nature and
limits on social engineering.
He believed it was impossible to change the world suddenly
because it was impossible to suddenly change human behavior. In his
inaugural address, he said, "We must realize that human nature is
about the most constant thing in the universe and that the
essentials of human relationship do not change. We must frequently
take our bearings from these fixed stars of our political firmament
if we expect to hold a true course."
- And Calvin Coolidge was also convinced that the ultimate
strength of a government, an economy and a society depends on moral
and religious values.
In no way was Coolidge a materialist. In the same speech in
which he famously said, "The chief business of the American people
is business," Coolidge also argued, "The accumulation of wealth
cannot be justified as the chief end of existence." Elsewhere he
noted, "Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because
they create wealth, but because they create character."
No society, he believed, can be prosperous or successful in the
absence of moral conviction. In essence, the common good requires
that goodness be common. "Mere intelligence," he said, "is not
enough. Enlightenment must be accompanied by that moral power which
is the product of home and religion. Real education and true
welfare for the people rest inevitably on this foundation, which
the government can approve and command, but which the people
themselves must create."
Coolidge was committed to religious freedom, stating that the
"fundamental precept of liberty is toleration." But he also noted,
"The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on
the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support
them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically
universal in our country."
American society is just now learning how difficult that task
CONSISTENT WORLD VIEW
These ideas represent more than a practical political approach.
They are a coherent, consistent view of the world, rooted in a
philosophy about God, man, and government. This is something rare
in an American President -- something we see only in figures like
Jefferson and Lincoln.
I think it can be argued that the two seminal, symbolic figures
in America during the early twentieth century were Calvin Coolidge
and Franklin Roosevelt. They represented visions larger than their
own lives -- fundamentally different directions for our national
Roosevelt spoke of the need for "bold, persistent
experimentation." He established a tradition of liberal tinkering
with American society that reaches through history to our current
administration. A health care plan that attempted to nationalize
one-seventh of the U.S. economy is a clear descendant of this
Calvin Coolidge is the polar opposite. His philosophy of
government and of life is summarized in an extraordinary speech,
given in 1926 at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of
Independence. It may be the finest, richest speech given by an
American President in this century. "Under a system of popular
government," he said,
there will always be those who will seek for political
preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of
this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not
well-informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can
attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is
far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical
What we need instead, Coolidge contended, is a "better knowledge
of the foundations of government in general." Once again, he was
talking about foundations -- always the basics.
Those foundations, in the history of our country, were not
material, but spiritual. Our nation's founders "were a people who
came under the influence of a great spiritual development and
acquired a great moral power."
"No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the
Declaration of Independence," he said.
It is the product of the spiritual insight of the
people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation
of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our
Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first.
Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming
though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.
If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed
to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We
must not sink into pagan materialism. We must cultivate the
reverence which they had for the things which are holy. We must
follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they
For Coolidge this was not empty patriotism. It was a continual
challenge, reissued in every generation:
Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of
man -- these are not elements which we can see and touch. They 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 is to endure,
the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue
to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the
Coolidge concluded that our first, most important task as a
nation is not to seek new ideas, but to return to old ideals:
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 of the people of
that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their
conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be
applied to [the Declaration of Independence]. If all men are
created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable
rights, that is final. If governments derive their just power 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 and their soundness, the only direction in which he can
proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time
when there was not equality, not rights of the individual, no rule
of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot
lay claim to progress. They are reactionary.
Our century has proven Coolidge to be exactly right. The
greatest revolution of our time -- defeating a totalitarian empire
-- was the ringing reaffirmation of ideas familiar in Philadelphia
in 1776. It is socialism -- which claimed history as its own --
that now seems reactionary. It is American liberalism that seems
old and tired.
In the 1940s, Arthur Schlesinger wrote, "There seems no inherent
obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States
through a series of New Deals." But, with the perspective of
history, they have advanced toward exhaustion -- toward dependence
and spiritual decay. We forgot about the nature of man and the
limits of government. We neglected that the "things of the spirit
come first." Calvin Coolidge would have found these things obvious.
If only they had been obvious to us.
Let me conclude with a statement by Coolidge that has never been
more current and relevant.
We do not need more intellectual power, we need more
moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character.
We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not
need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more of the
things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.
If the foundation be firm, the foundation will stand.
I would add only that we also need to be graced by leaders of
Calvin Coolidge's stature again.