This past weekend, the Ashbrook Center hosted eighteen history and government teachers for a discussion about the life and presidency of Calvin Coolidge.
Overshadowed by more activist presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and tainted by the assumption that the “Coolidge Prosperity” in the mid-1920s led ineluctably to a stock market crash in 1929 and to nearly a full decade of economic depression, Coolidge is rarely given the opportunity to speak to us on his own terms. Participants in last weekend’s colloquium found in Calvin Coolidge a man who, despite the nickname of “Silent Cal”, said much about America’s uniqueness – and said it with great eloquence.
To Coolidge, as to his Puritan ancestors, America was still very much an experiment in self-government. The Puritans, he wrote, came to the New World “undecked with orders of nobility,” eager to create a new society without the inherited class distinctions and ranks of the Old World. “They cared little for titles,” Coolidge explained, “still less for the goods of this earth; but for an idea they would die.” Like Coolidge’s father and family, and generations of his ancestors and friends in the rugged mountains of Vermont, the Puritans knew the meaning of labor; with their hands, Coolidge says, “they wrung from the soil their bread”. But from their humble beginnings, Coolidge marveled at the results. “What an increase, material and spiritual, three hundred years has brought that little company…. No like body has ever cast so great an influence on human history.”
With collectivist and socialist movements gathering strength in the Old World of Europe, Coolidge labored to create a vision for his fellow Americans of a nation that could continue to avoid class enmity, and the extremes of oligarchy or anarchy threatened by class conflict. As Governor of Massachusetts, he was confronted with the very real danger of anarchy in the form of a strike by members of the Boston Police Department. Arguing for better working conditions and benefits, some members of the Boston Police attempted to unionize, and went on strike. Endorsing the Boston Mayor’s decision not to rehire striking police, Coolidge explained that the success of their strike had “meant anarchy” and that striking officers “dispossessed themselves. They went out of office.” Coolidge’s popularity soared nationally as a result of his response to the strike, earning him a place on Warren Harding’s presidential ticket in 1920, and setting the stage for his election as President in 1924.
His response to the strike also revealed something about Coolidge’s political principles. Denouncing the striking police, Coolidge wrote, “No man has a right to place his own ease or convenience or the opportunity of making money above his duty to the State.” Coolidge was guided by the vision of an America without class distinction, an America in which the law was made in the interest of a sovereign People – not for the benefit of private interests (by which term he meant not only business interests, but also labor, and even those from previous generations who argued for a right to own slaves).
It was in the interest of the people as a whole that Coolidge presented his fiscal policy. Shortly after assuming the presidency in the wake of Harding’s death, Coolidge noted the cost to Americans of their involvement in Europe’s Great War. “For seven years the people have borne with uncomplaining courage the tremendous burden of national and local taxation. These must both be reduced. The taxes of the Nation must be reduced now as much as prudence will permit, and expenditures must be reduced accordingly. High taxes reach everywhere and burden everybody. They wear most heavily upon the poor. They diminish industry and commerce. They make agriculture unprofitable. They increase the rates on transportation. They are a charge on every necessary of life.” Despite this, Coolidge did not hesitate to encourage the federal government, prudently, to fund certain public improvements and public buildings which promised to make commerce and administration more efficient.
Throughout his life and presidency, Coolidge retained a great respect for the role of educators, especially civic educators. He called education “the cornerstone of self-government,” and he wrote that “Teaching is one of the noblest of professions.” His explanation of this deserves to be read and cherished by all who have taken up that noble profession:
It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility. Those who mold the human mind have wrought not for time, but for eternity. The obligation which we all owe to those devoted men and women who have given of their lives to the education of the youth of our country that they might have freedom through coming into a knowledge of the truth is one which can never be discharged. They are entitled not only to adequate rewards for their service, but to the veneration and honor of a grateful people.
Last weekend’s colloquium was the last offered by Ashbrook in the 2013-14 school year. We will begin accepting applications for 2014-15 colloquia late this summer. To be notified when the application period opens, please click here and submit your name and email address.