Of our 43 presidents, only one — Calvin Coolidge — was born on the anniversary of Independence Day. It was in 1872 on a small farm in Vermont where the emphasis was on simplicity, learning, respect for hard work, thrift, the principles of representative democracy and a deep belief in God. Independence Day was not only his birthday, it also symbolized for him the genius of the American experiment.
When we think of Coolidge today — if we think of him at all — it is as “Silent Cal,” a man of few words. In fact, he had a lot to say, but he used words economically, without adornment. His Yankee upbringing and a classical education at Amherst College combined to give him a way of expressing himself that was, at once, both simple and eloquent.
In July 1926, President Coolidge was in Philadelphia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He was the last president to write all of his own speeches. A latter-day presidential speechwriter would have a hard time improving on what the 30th president said at Philadelphia:
“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 no equality, no 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.” It would be hard to improve on that.
Coolidge’s era, the Twenties, had some parallels to our own: unprecedented prosperity, great technological innovation, emphasis on material gain, but also a widespread thirst for deeper values, for moral grounding. He was the antithesis of the stereotype that comes down to us from the Twenties — flappers, bathtub gin, fast cars and dancing. He constantly appealed to the higher instincts of the people. For example, he once said, “Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.” In a newspaper article after he left the White House, he wrote, “…wealth is not an end, but a means. We need it only for the use we can make of it. The real standard of life is not one of quantity but of quality; not of money, but of character.”
Too bad the corner-cutters and rule-benders at Enron, Arthur Anderson, Worldcom, Tyco and a handful of other “go-go” companies were never treated to a lecture from Silent Cal. Then again, they all seemed to be following the ruling passion of the Nineties. That is, that the end justifies the means. For Bill Clinton, it meant doing whatever was necessary to get to the White House and to stay there, including letting his allies loose to destroy the reputations of anyone who dared criticize him. For the go-go corporate chieftains, it was bookkeeping trickery and endless acquisitions that carried them to greater and greater heights. That is, until their respective bubbles burst.
Coolidge would have had a low opinion of the whole bunch. He had an almost mystical reverence for public service. Today, talk of public service often produces yawns from those who hear it, but for Coolidge, rectitude and a sense of duty were genuine.
As president, he believed in minimalist government, one that should stand aside in areas where it was not needed. His growth-oriented tax policies led to great expansion of prosperity. He produced balanced budgets annually and reduced the national debt by approximately $1 billion each year he was in office. And, shortly after taking office upon the sudden death of President Warren Harding, he cleaned up the scandals that erupted from that administration.
Coolidge would be dismayed by the incessant attacks nowadays upon references to God in our national symbols and institutions. He considered the “inalienable rights” referred to in the Declaration of Independence as being God-given. So did the nation’s founders. Coolidge put it this way: “The foundation of our independence and our government rests upon our basic religious convictions.” Those convictions guided this son of the Fourth of July all of his life.