Calvin Coolidge quipped shortly before his death, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.” The words came not long before FDR’s ascendency to the presidency and not long after the upsurge of government activism that started in the Herbert Hoover administration. Coolidge, even for his time, was seen as old fashioned, a throw back to simpler values, ethics, and principles. Coolidge cut the name tags out of his suits when he asked his wife to resale them, so not to profit from his name and position. He was lampooned for his hands off approach to the presidency. Ronald Reagan was even teased by the Washington Press Corps for hanging up a portrait of Coolidge in the White House. By many academics today, Coolidge is chiefly mischaracterized as a simpleton largely from quotes like “The chief business of the American people is business.” In that speech in 1925 delivered to newspaper editors, Coolidge also went on to say, “Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence.”
I can’t help but feel that a new appreciation for Coolidge is long overdue. Why? Because almost everything Coolidge warned against is happening now. As the nation faces government mismanagement, rapid growth of centralized power, crippling debt, decline of purpose, and moral decay, the clarity of his ideas are magnified. Coolidge is also the subject of a new biography by Amity Shlaes due out in June. As a public servant, he is vastly underrated for his writing and speeches. He spoke in a manner that was easily understood and he popularized the message of thrift, limited government, religious principles, and conservatism. But there too was an intellectual depth to his remarks about conservatism not seen today by the popular dispensers of those ideas.
One wonders if there will be a major candidate in the general presidential election to offer a defense of the free economy. And in doing so, can defend the great need for morality and virtue within the free market.
Below is a speech Coolidge gave in 1916 as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts on the issues of character, the commercial society, and materialism. The remarks were given to the Brockton, Mass. Chamber of Commerce. Coolidge’s remarks are printed in their entirety.
Man’s nature drives him ever onward. He is forever seeking development. At one time it may be by the chase, at another by warfare, and again by the quiet arts of peace and commerce, but something within is ever calling him on to “replenish the earth and subdue it.”
It may be of little importance to determine at any time just where we are, but it is of the utmost importance to determine whither we are
going. Set the course aright and time must bring mankind to the ultimate goal.
We are living in a commercial age. It is often designated as selfish and materialistic. We are told that everything has been commercialized. They say it has not been enough that this spirit should dominate the marts of trade, it has spread to every avenue of human endeavor, to our arts, our sciences and professions, our politics, our educational institutions and even into the pulpit; and because of this there are those who have gone so far in their criticism of commercialism as to advocate the destruction of all enterprise and the abolition of all property.
Destructive criticism is always easy because, despite some campaign oratory, some of us are not yet perfect. But constructive criticism is not so easy. The faults of commercialism, like many other faults, lie in the use we make of it. Before we decide upon a wholesale condemnation of the most noteworthy spirit of modern times it would be well to examine carefully what that spirit has done to advance the welfare of mankind.
Wherever we can read human history, the answer is always the same. Where commerce has flourished there civilization has increased. It has not sufficed that men should tend their flocks, and maintain themselves in comfort on their industry alone, however great. It is only when the exchange of products begins that development follows. This was the case in ancient Babylon, whose records of trade and banking we are just beginning to read. Their merchandise went by canal and caravan to the ends of the earth. It was not the war galleys, but the merchant vessel of Phoenicia, of Tyre, and Carthage that brought them civilization and power. To-day it is not the battle fleet, but the mercantile marine which in the end will determine the destiny of nations. The advance of our own land has been due to our trade, and the comfort and happiness of our people are dependent on our general business conditions. It is only a figure of poetry that “wealth accumulates and men decay.” Where wealth has accumulated, there the arts and sciences have flourished, there education has been diffused, and of contemplation liberty has been born. The progress of man has been measured by his commercial prosperity. I believe that these considerations are sufficient to justify our business enterprise and activity, but there are still deeper reasons.
I have intended to indicate not only that commerce is an instrument of great power, but that commercial development is necessary to all human progress. What, then, of the prevalent criticism? Men have mistaken the means for the end. It is not enough for the individual or the nation to acquire riches. Money will not purchase character or good government. We are under the injunction to “replenish the earth and subdue it,” not so much because of the help a new earth will be to us, as because by that process man is to find himself and thereby realize his highest destiny. Men must work for more than wages, factories must turn out more than merchandise, or there is naught but black despair ahead.
If material rewards be the only measure of success, there is no hope of a peaceful solution of our social questions, for they will never be large enough to satisfy. But such is not the case. Men struggle for material success because that is the path, the process, to the
development of character. We ought to demand economic justice, but most of all because it is justice. We must forever realize that material rewards are limited and in a sense they are only incidental, but the development of character is unlimited and is the only essential. The measure of success is not the quantity of merchandise, but the quality of manhood which is produced.
These, then, are the justifying conceptions of the spirit of our age; that commerce is the foundation of human progress and prosperity and the great artisan of human character. Let us dismiss the general indictment that has all too long hung over business enterprise. While we continue to condemn, unsparingly, selfishness and greed and all trafficking in the natural rights of man, let us not forget to respect thrift and industry and enterprise. Let us look to the service rather than to the reward. Then shall we see in our industrial army, from the most exalted captain to the humblest soldier in the ranks, a purpose worthy to minister to the highest needs of man and to fulfill the hope of a fairer day.