Silent Cal Speaks

If Americans know anything about Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the U.S., sandwiched between Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover, it is his nickname, “Silent Cal.” Yet this nickname misleads. While a stereotypically taciturn New Englander at social gatherings (and playing this to effect in Washington), “Silent Cal” was not silent in his official duties. He made thousands of speeches during his several decades in public office. What makes his speeches notable, particularly his speeches as president, is that Coolidge was the last president to write his own speeches. The best of these speeches reveal a deep and subtle take on the nature of America, and advocacy of an “America First” Republicanism that both anticipates today’s Republicanism, but also one that offers a winsome alternative to today’s angry polemics.

In his autobiography, Coolidge writes that his highest aspiration aimed no higher than the Massachusetts governorship. He writes that in his “own mind” he was not qualified to be President (an opinion, he added, shared by “many others”). He achieved the governorship after serving in local politics and then in the Massachusetts legislature. It was serendipity—his unwavering response as governor to an illegal strike by the Boston police—that brought him to the attention of the nation. This propelled him to the Vice Presidency under Warren G. Harding, and then to the presidency upon Harding’s death. Coolidge easily won reelection in 1924, but declined to run again in 1928.

Coolidge’s Republican Governing Philosophy

“Silent Cal” is often suggested as a metaphor for a passive, do-nothing presidency. Yet this takes too little account of Coolidge’s constitutional philosophy, one shared by many at that time. This constitutional philosophy took federalism and the difference between national and state governments seriously. The proper standard for understanding Coolidge’s governing philosophy as president is Coolidge’s governing philosophy as a legislator and governor in Massachusetts, not the governing philosophy of FDR and subsequent presidents.

And the comparison is instructive. While opposed to redistributive “radicalism”—that is, economic redistribution for the sake of redistribution—Coolidge showed a willingness to make use of expansive state police powers, a power the national government does not hold, to support needed public projects and social insurance initiatives.

While Coolidge frequently articulated his horror of public debt—an attitude shared by both parties at the time—as legislator he drafted a bill penalizing unfair competition (a firm selling at a lower price in one market than another for the purpose of driving out competition), chaired a committee that defined and limited the “borrowing powers of railroads,” supported “large appropriations for the relief of unemployment” in response to the very severe but now largely forgotten recession of 1913, developed the infrastructure of western Massachusetts, and created a commission that resulted in the passage of a maternity bill.

As governor, Coolidge signed a law limiting the work week for women and children to 48 hours and supported a commission to “resist profiteering in the necessaries of life.” He also reorganized the state bureaucracy and reduced spending.

A contrast between Coolidge’s behavior as a state official and as a national official can best be seen in his support for infrastructure development and social insurance in Massachusetts, while refusing as president even to visit the states hurt by the Mississippi flooding of 1927. While Coolidge facilitated national efforts to coordinate state and private responses to the flooding, he resolutely opposed direct action by the national government. He thought his personal presence in the states would inappropriately signal a national responsibility to respond to the flooding that he did not believe the national government held.

The point isn’t that all of the state-level policies Coolidge supported were necessarily optimal ones. Rather, it is that Coolidge behaved differently given the level of government in which he held office. At the state level, Coolidge showed himself willing to draw on extensive state police powers to promote the state’s general welfare. At the national level, Coolidge believed his actions were constitutionally circumscribed, and behaved consistently with that circumscription. (This also worked the other way around. As governor, Coolidge vetoed a bill sent to him by the legislature that would have allowed the sale of beer with a 2.75 percent alcohol content. He vetoed the proposed state law because he thought it would violate the then existing Prohibition requirement in the national Constitution.)

Today, however, most Americans seem to expect presidents, and the national government, to solve all problems, those best addressed at the state level as well as those coming under the delegated authority of the national government. And presidents encourage the expectation often enough. The idea that most of the political and legal action in the U.S. should (and does) come at the state level, and therefore calls for different behavior by officials at the different levels, gets lost in the insistence that policy problems are not recognized as important or pressing unless the U.S. president gets involved with them. Coolidge intentionally resisted the pressures of this expectation as president.

Coolidge’s America First

As mentioned above, Coolidge wrote his own speeches. As one might expect, the bulk of his speeches are little more than de rigueur for any high public official. Nonetheless, the new release of Coolidge’s autobiography includes several remarkable speeches by Coolidge. Remarkable for any president to deliver; even more remarkable for a president to write.

Coolidge was certainly a Republican of his era. He supported higher tariffs and immigration restrictions as a means of increasing domestic wages. Yet while he signed the Immigration Act of 1924—which was enacted by veto-proof majorities in Congress—he criticized the exclusion of immigrants from Japan, noting that “If the exclusion provision stood alone I should disapprove it.” Coolidge presumably would have allowed continued immigration from Japan on the same principles as limited immigration from Europe would continue. Moreover, Coolidge resisted the nativist streak at that time reaching a height in the U.S. with membership in the Ku Klux Klan reaching into the several millions during that decade (including future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.) Coolidge forcefully articulated the equality of all Americans irrespective of race or time of immigration.

Coolidge expressed grave concerns about the nationalist spirit unleashed in the U.S. by World War I, and still reverberating in the country. He expressed his concerns, and discussed his “America First” philosophy, in a 1925 speech at Omaha.

One of the most natural of reactions during the war was intolerance. But the inevitable disregard for the opinions and feelings of minorities is nonetheless a disturbing product of war psychology. The slow and difficult advances which tolerance and liberalism have made through long periods of development are dissipated almost in a night when the necessary wartime habits of thought hold the minds of the people.  . . . But when the need for such a solidarity is past, there should be a quick and generous readiness to revert to the old and normal habits of thought. There should be an intellectual demobilization as well as a military demobilization.

This is a remarkable notion for a president to recognize and assert. Coolidge understood that while perhaps the ginning up of a hyper-nationalist spirit during World War I was necessary at the time, it was critical that these wartime passions be “demobilized” along with the wartime military itself. Of interest given today’s call for increased national solidarity, particularly among right-wing post-liberals, is the recognition that national “solidarity” can go too far—and distort the true American genius when it does.

Coolidge continued with a lengthy discussion of his “America first” beliefs:

The generally expressed desire of “American first” cannot be criticized. It is a perfectly correct aspiration for our people to cherish. But the problem which we have to solve is how to make America first. It cannot be done by the cultivation of national bigotry, arrogance, or selfishness. Hatreds, jealousies, and suspicions will not be productive of any benefits in this direction….

It is for these reasons that it seems clear that the results of the war will be lost . . . unless we can demobilize the racial antagonisms, fears, hatreds, and suspicions, and create an attitude of toleration in the public mind of the peoples of the earth…. I believe that the place where it should begin is at home. Let us cast off our hatreds.

Coolidge was a strong, small-government Republican. His Republicanism, however, still breathed strongly of the “free labor” ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, based on the proposition that “All Men are Created Equal.” This emphasis motivated both the Republicans’ small-government orientation and its strong anti-racialism. At the time the large majority of African-Americans registered as Republicans. Coolidge regarded the Declaration of Independence as the “final” word on American principles. As he said in a later speech on the Declaration, discussed below, “If all men are created equal, that is final.”

In the Omaha speech, however, Coolidge took aim at a second, new threat to America in the 1920s, the rising materialism and its spiritual temptations:

If our country secured any benefit, if it met with any gain, it must have been in moral and spiritual values. It must be not because it made its fortune but because it found its soul…. We cannot place our main reliance upon material forces. We must reaffirm and reinforce our ancient faith in truth and justice, in charitableness and tolerance. We must make our supreme commitment to the everlasting spiritual forces of life.

This is, again, an expression of religiosity impossible to imagine today. Coolidge concluded his earlier inaugural address by identifying America’s strength with the Christian missionaries she sends out relative to her military might. “The legions which [America] sends forth are armed, not with the sword, but with the cross. The higher state to which she seeks the allegiance of all mankind is not of human but of divine origin. She cherishes no purposes save to merit the favor of Almighty God.”

Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence

Even more remarkable is an address Coolidge gave in 1925 on the Declaration of Independence. While granting that “in their immediate occasion” the causes of the Revolution were “largely economic,” the principles were framed, he argues, in such a way that the Declaration (and the Constitution) “are the framework of a spiritual event.”

What separates Coolidge’s speech from the trite vulgarities of pro forma civil religion is that Coolidge devotes most of his speech to tracing historical evidence for his distinctive claim that “the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions.”

In distinguishing the doctrine of equality announced in the Declaration from that of the French Revolution, Coolidge argues that “the principles of our declaration had been under discussion in the Colonies for nearly two generations before the advent of the French political philosophy that characterized the middle of the eighteenth century.”

Coolidge’s claims are not simply that Americans have been a religious people. His argument is more pointed than that, suggesting that foundational American commitments in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution cannot be understood properly without also understanding the religious sensibilities in which those texts were understood at the time.

Coolidge starts by citing Rev. Thomas Hooker from a 1638 sermon that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people,” and that “the choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance.” He then moves to the works of Rev. John Wise, published in the early eighteenth century, noting that Wise drew on the earlier work of the political theorist, Samuel Pufendorf. He observes that Wise’s works were republished in 1772 and “have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook for our Revolutionary fathers.”

Coolidge advances a distinctive argument on an historical hypothesis that scholars actively contest today. He argues that “No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outlines of its principles, the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period.”

Provocatively, Coolidge considers, and rejects, the claim of a Lockean founding:

No doubt the speculations which had been going on in England, and especially on the Continent, lent their influence to the general sentiment of the time. Of course, the world is always influenced by all the experience and all the thought of the past. But when we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence, we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.

While the Americans of the Revolutionary era (and before) often articulated their concerns in Lockean-influenced language, the categories themselves, and the substance which filled the categories, derived primarily from the religious sensibilities of the Americans at the time.

Coolidge concludes his speech by doubling down on his claim that the evidence adduces the centrality of religion to the Declaration, and to the American Project more generally. He concludes with the claim that the American Project can be neither understood nor sustained outside of that religious sensibility. He returns again to the criticism of materialism that he articulated in his Omaha speech:

Before we understand conclusions [of the American colonists], we must go back and review the course they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered on the meetinghouse. They were intent on religious worship….  While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scripture…. [T]hey were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training but also in their political thought….

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.  . . .  If we are to maintain the great heritage that has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism.

Coolidge’s claims are not simply that Americans have been a religious people. He argument is more pointed than that, suggesting that foundational American commitments in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution cannot be understood properly without also understanding the religious sensibilities in which those texts were understood at the time. And he asserts his belief that their structures are calibrated only for a people who share those sensibilities.

We see this also in Coolidge’s Röpke-like views on the possibility of a cooperative relationship between capital and labor. Putting all this together—Coolidge’s concerns with the distorting effects of a militaristic spirit that continues into peacetime, on the un-Americanism of racial hostility and antagonism, on the coarsening effect of materialism on American society and on the American Project more broadly, on the fundamental equality of all Americans as articulated in the Declaration, all combined with a small-government philosophy—bespeaks a Christian social philosophy akin to Röpke’s, or even Abraham Kuyper’s Calvinist social thought or Catholic social thought, all articulated with a distinctly American accent.

To be sure, the claims and evidence that Coolidge provides can be contested. That’s not the surprise. Yet the extended argument that Coolidge provides—from his own mind and by his own hand—is surely one of the most remarkable historical-political arguments articulated by a president since those of the Founding period and Abraham Lincoln. There perhaps wasn’t much for a president with Coolidge’s constitutional theory to do in the mid-1920s in America. Yet in Calvin Coolidge the nation had an uncommonly perceptive, and distinctively American, mind in the White House.