Reflections From History And Faith
By Jeff Olson
When we celebrated America’s Independence Day some four months ago, there was also another anniversary on that 4th of July. One hundred fifty years earlier, on July 4, 1872, Calvin Coolidge was born. He was not only our nation’s 30th president and first and only American president to be born on July 4th, he was also the 6th vice president to become president upon the death of our nation’s chief executive. At 2:30 the morning of August 23, 1923, while visiting family in Vermont, Calvin Coolidge received word that President Warren Harding had died and that he was President. By the light of a kerosene lamp, his father, who was a notary public, administered the oath of office as Coolidge placed his hand on the family Bible. Just over a year later, he was elected president in his own right.
Some believe that his greatest accomplishment as president was to restore the dignity and prestige of the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history. Perhaps so, but it certainly was not his only accomplishment of consequence. I couldn’t let 2022 slip by without sharing some history of this quiet, unassuming man and underrated president.
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr was born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont to John Calvin Coolidge, Sr and Victoria Josephine Moor. John Sr worked in various occupations, including farming, storekeeping, and public service. He held various local offices and served four terms in the Vermont state legislature. Letters Calvin wrote to his father as a boy, and young man reveal a great affection and a closeness between the two. Coolidge’s mother was an attractive woman who loved poetry and natural beauty. Unfortunately, she was chronically ill and died young. As Calvin wrote in his autobiography: “In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday. I was twelve years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again. It always seemed to me that the boy I lost was her image.” His younger sister, Abigail Grace Coolidge, died five years later at the age of 15.
Upon his graduation from Amherst College, Coolidge began serving the public trust in Massachusetts in 1898 as a city councilman. On October 5, 1905, Coolidge married Grace Goodhue (1879-1957), a school teacher at Northampton’s Clarke School for the Deaf. After 25 years of marriage, he wrote of Grace, “for almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities and I have rejoiced in her graces.” They had two sons, John and Calvin. Calvin died at age 16 of blood poisoning (sepsis), a loss his father never fully recovered from.
Coolidge was elected to various local public and state offices beginning in 1907, including governor of Massachusetts in 1918. His decisive response to the Boston Police Strike of 1919 thrust him into the national spotlight, and in time for the presidential election cycle of 1920. World War I had recently ended, and the U.S. economy and business outlook looked grim. Woodrow Wilson’s administration was one of strong centralized control and high tax rates, so Warren Harding’s campaign centered on the theme of a return to “normalcy” in terms of smaller government with less interference in the economy to create a more predictable environment in which business could confidently operate. On this core philosophy, Harding and Coolidge were elected into office. In Harding’s inaugural address he stated, “No altered system will work a miracle. Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion. Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system.” While the U.S. vice-presidency did not carry many official duties, Coolidge was invited by President Harding to attend cabinet meetings, making him the first vice president to do so.
While many of Harding’s policy initiatives were effective, his weak leadership would contribute to his administration’s decline into scandal. Upon Harding’s death, Calvin Coolidge entered the presidency with the same basic philosophy and policies as his predecessor but with a stronger assertiveness and resolve. He was determined to set America on a course of preserving the old conservative moral and economic precepts of frugality amid the material extravagance and waste of the 1920s. He favored what he called constructive economy, stating that “the chief business of the American people is business.” As he further stated, “We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.” Coolidge was not afraid to say no to cabinet members and other officials with their hands out, thus reducing government spending and tax rates. He viewed lower tax rates from a moral perspective, as a mechanism to reach the goals of legitimate government – American freedom and prosperity. As a result, his presidency was one of budget surpluses, reflecting tough budgeting, strong fiscal discipline, and a period of strong economic growth born of a true understanding of both government and private-sector austerity and of the constitutional role of the federal government. It is no wonder that Calvin Coolidge was considered the “Great Refrainer.”
Although Coolidge was known to be a skilled and effective public speaker, in private he was a man of few words and was commonly referred to as “Silent Cal.”Only four years after leaving the presidency in January 1929, Coolidge died suddenly from a coronary thrombosis on January 5, 1933, at age 60. Shortly before his death, Coolidge confided to an old friend: “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” He didn’t, in terms of the changing political environment and government policies of that time, but he certainly fit in for his times and left a legacy that speaks largely to our times. Silent Cal was not always silent, and fortunately he still isn’t as we now turn to a speech he presented to the American people 98 years ago, on November 3, 1924. In “The Duties of Citizenship,” Coolidge conveys principles, truths, and warnings as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago.
“But all the influence of public opinion, all the opportunity for self-government through the rule of the people, depends upon one single factor. That is the ballot box. If the time comes when our citizens fail to respond to their right and duty, individually and collectively, intelligently and effectively at the ballot box on election day, I do not know what form of government will be substituted for that which we at present have the opportunity to enjoy, but I do know it will no longer be a rule of the people, it will no longer be self-government. The people of our country are sovereign. If they do not vote they abdicate that sovereignty, and they may be entirely sure that if they relinquish it other forces will seize it, and if they fail to govern themselves some other power will rise up to govern them. The choice is always before them–whether they will be slaves or whether they will be free. The only way to be free is to exercise actively and energetically the privileges and discharge faithfully the duties which make freedom. It is not to be secured by passive resistance. It is the result of energy and action.
To live up to the full measure of citizenship in this nation requires not only action, but it requires intelligent action. It is necessary to secure information and to acquire education. The background of our citizenship is the meeting house and the school house, the place of religious worship, and the place of intellectual training. But we cannot abandon our education at the schoolhouse door. We have to keep it up through life. A political campaign can be justified only on the grounds that it enables the citizens to become informed as to what policies are best for themselves and for their country, in order that they may vote to elect those who from their past record and present professions they know will put such policies into effect. The purpose of a campaign is to send an intelligent and informed voter to the ballot box. All the speeches, all the literature, all the organization, all the effort, all the time, and all the money, which are not finally registered on election day, are wasted.
We are always confronted with the question of whether we wish to be ruled by all the people or a part of the people, by the minority or the majority; whether we wish our elections to be dominated by those who have been misled, through the presentation of half-truths, into the formation of hasty, illogical and unsound conclusions; or whether we wish those to determine the course of our Government who have through due deliberation and careful consideration of all the factors involved reached a sound and mature conclusion. We shall always have with us an element of discontent, an element inspired with more zeal than knowledge. They will always be active and energetic, and they seldom fail to vote on election day. But the people at large in this country are not represented by them. They are greatly in the minority. But their number is large enough to be a decisive factor in many elections unless it is offset by the sober second thought of the people who have something at stake, whether it be earnings from investment or from employment, who are considering not only their own welfare but the welfare of their children and of coming generations. Our institutions never contemplated that the conduct of this country, the direction of its affairs, the adoption of its policies, the maintenance of its principles, should be decided by a minority moved in part by self-interest and prejudice. They were framed on the theory that decisions would be made by the great body of voters inspired by patriotic motives. Faith in the people does not mean faith in a part of the people. It means faith in all the people. Our country is always safe when decisions are made by a majority of those who are entitled to vote. It is always in peril when decisions are made by a minority.
But the right to vote is conferred upon our citizens not only that they may exercise it for their own benefit, but in order that they may exercise it also for the benefit of others. Persons who have the right to vote are trustees for the benefit of their country and their countrymen. They have no right to say they do not care. They must care. They have no right to say that whatever the result of the election they can get along. They must remember that their country and their countrymen cannot get along, cannot remain sound, cannot preserve its institutions, cannot protect its citizens, and cannot maintain its place in the world, unless those who have the right to vote do sustain and do guide the course of public affairs by the thoughtful exercise of that right on election day. They do not hold a mere privilege to be exercised or not, as passing fancy may move them. They are charged with a great trust, one of the most important and most solemn which can be given into the keeping of an American citizen. It should be discharged thoughtfully and seriously, in accordance with its vast importance.
I, therefore, urge upon all the voters of our country, without reference to party, that they assemble tomorrow at their respective voting places in the exercise of the high office of American citizenship, that they approach the ballot box in the spirit that they would approach a sacrament, and there, disregarding all appeals to passion and prejudice, dedicating themselves truly and wholly to the welfare of their country, they make their choice of public officers solely in the light of their own conscience. When an election is so held, when a choice is so made, it results in the real rule of the people.”
Cover Image: President Coolidge is signing the Cameron Bill, which authorizes the construction of the Coolidge Dam in Arizona. 7 June 1924 – Library of Congress