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Coolidge and ‘the best ideas of democracy’

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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. — Calvin Coolidge.

The Wall Street Journal published today a timely, and much needed, reflection by Leon Kass on Calvin Coolidge’s address delivered at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926. Kass asks: What is the source of America’s founding ideas, and their “singular combination” in the Declaration?

Many have credited European thinkers, both British and French. Coolidge, citing 17th- and 18th-century sermons and writings of colonial clergy, provides ample evidence that the principles of the Declaration, and especially equality, are of American cultural and religious provenance: “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.” From this teaching flowed the emerging American rejection of monarchy and our bold embrace of democratic self-government.

Coolidge draws conclusions from his search into the sources. First, the Declaration is a great spiritual document. “Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man . . . are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. . . . Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish.”

In his speech, Coolidge noted that the idea that a people have a right to choose their own rulers was “not new” in political history. Here’s part of the passage that Kass referenced:

… if these truths to which the Declaration refers have not before been adopted in their combined entirely by national authority, it is a fact that they had been long pondered and often expressed in political speculation. It is generally assumed that French thought had some effect upon our public mind during Revolutionary days. This may have been true. But 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. In fact, they come from an earlier date. A very positive echo of what the Dutch had done in 1581, and what the English were preparing to do, appears in the assertion of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, of Connecticut, as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that —

The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.

The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance.

This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church. The great apostle of this movement was the Rev. John Wise, of Massachusetts. He was one of the leaders of the revolt against the royal governor Andross in 1687, for which he suffered imprisonment. He was a liberal in ecclesiastical controversies. He appears to have been familiar with the writings of the political scientist, Samuel Pufendorf, who was born in Saxony in 1632. Wise published a treatise entitled “The Church’s Quarrel Espoused” in 1710, which was amplified in another publication in 1717. In it he dealt with the principles of civil government. His works were reprinted in 1772 and have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers.

While the written word was the foundation, it is apparent that the spoken word was the vehicle for convincing the people. This came with great force and wide range from the successors of Hooker and Wise. It was carried on with a missionary spirit which did not fail to reach the Scotch-Irish of North Carolina, showing its influence by significantly making that Colony the first to give instructions to its delegates looking to independence. This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his “best ideas of democracy” had been secured at church meetings.

Read “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” by Leon Kass in the Wall Street Journal.

Read Coolidge’s Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, Pa. (July 5, 1926).

On the PowerBlog, read Ray Nothstine’s “Keep Cool with Coolidge” (August 2007) and “Amity Shlaes on Thrift and Calvin Coolidge” (March 2011).

Read a profile of Samuel von Pufendorf in Acton’s Religion & Liberty and Lord Acton’s discussion of his work in “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Jim Cooke

    This appreciation of our 30th President is timely and yet neither you nor the WSJ note that Calvin Coolidge’s birthday is the 4th of July. He was born in Plymouth, Vermont on Independence Day of 1872. In his remarkable Autobiography (1929) he recalls that the first birthday he could remember was when he was four. His father took him fishing and there was a picnic. 
    “Silent Cal” recalls the Centennial of our country – fifty years after the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

  • William Barto

    This is a great post, but I am pretty sure that the Hooker who wrote The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity was Richard, not Thomas (who would not likely be found on any list by Lord Acton!). 

    • William: Thanks very much for pointing out my careless error. I’ve deleted the following reference from the post: Read Lord Acton’s list of the “100 Best Books” which includes Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. John

  • Bill Russell

    Coolidge was a grand and good man – and eloquent. The last President to write his own speeches.  English author Paul Johnson reveres him.  But it is as shortsighted to look for sources for the nation’s foundational principles in the American experience as it is to source them in the French Enlightenment.  The Declaration of Independence draws on Catholic scholastic tradition: especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine. Eg:

    Equality of man
    Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal;
    they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
    “All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind”
    (“De Laicis,” c.7) “There is no reason why among equals one should rule rather
    than another” (ibid.). “Let rulers remember that they preside over men who are
    of the same nature as they themselves.” (“De Officus Princ.” c. 22). “Political
    right is immediately from God and necessarily inherent in the nature of man” (“De
    Laicis,” c. 6, note 1).
    St. Thomas: “Nature made all men equal in liberty,
    though not in their natural perfections” (II Sent., d. xliv, q. 1, a. 3. ad 1).

    The function of government
    of Independence: “To secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

    Bellarmine: “It is impossible for men to live together without someone to care
    for the common good. Men must be governed by someone lest they be willing to perish”
    (“De Laicis,” c. 6).
    St. Thomas: “To ordain anything for the common good belongs
    either to the whole people, or to someone who is the viceregent of the whole people”
    (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3).

    The source of power
    Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted
    among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
    “It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king,
    consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a
    particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes
    4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power”
    (“De Clericis,” c. 7).
    St. Thomas: “Therefore the making of a law belongs either
    to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people”
    (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects,
    and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and
    position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).

    The right to change the government
    Declaration of Independence: “Whenever
    any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the
    people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government…Prudence, indeed,
    will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light
    and transient reasons.”
    Bellarmine: “For legitimate reasons the people can
    change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,”
    c. 6). “The people never transfers its powers to a king so completely but that
    it reserves to itself the right of receiving back this power” (Recognitio de
    Laicis, c. 6).
    St Thomas: “If any society of people have a right of choosing
    a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice,
    or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege
    et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6).