Posts tagged with: calvin coolidge

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

United_States_ConstitutionThis afternoon I delivered the Constitution Day lecture at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids. The school did an excellent job promoting the event and I was thankful for an opportunity to speak about our founding documents and introduce Acton ideas and thought to law students. Much of my discussion centered upon Calvin Coolidge’s notion that there is a “finality” and rest within our founding principles. When we endeavor to move beyond the principles of our founding; we begin to move backwards not forward. It was Coolidge who said, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”

Today, we desperately need to recapture the truth that the whole purpose of our Bill of Rights and Constitution is to limit the federal government. As James Madison declared in Federalist #45, “Those powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. In my talk, I stressed the importance of staying faithful to the Constitutional text. My background is theology not constitutional law, but in seminary I was always reminded by my professor Ben Witherington, that “a proof-text without a context, is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” That is true of our founding documents, just as it is true of Scripture.

Our government exists to protect our natural rights. Coolidge, who was sandwiched between the progressive era and the New Dealers, told Americans something that is just as relevant now as it was then: “The pressing need of the present day is not to change our constitutional rights, but to observe our constitutional rights.” Coolidge and Ronald Reagan probably talked more about the U.S. Constitution than any other 20th century presidents. I concluded my remarks by quoting Ronald Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union Address where he talked about the exceptional nature of our Constitution: (more…)

decPerhaps the most enduring legacy of the Declaration of Independence is that it sought to overturn the long abuses and powers of tyrants. It revealed the truth of self-government and that power is inherent in the people. In the second introduction of the document, Jefferson declared:

…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson, always the philosopher, reminds the reader that governments are instituted to protect the natural rights of man, to preserve their freedom above all else. Government is not intended to serve the bureaucracy, rulers, or an elite class.

coolidgebAs we read about the increase of scandal, mismanagement, and corruption within our federal agencies, it is essential once again to revisit the words of Calvin Coolidge. Recent actions at the IRS, Veterans Administration, and the ATF gunwalking scandal all point to systemic problems that come from an entrenched bureaucracy. As more and more of the responsibilities of civil society is passed over to centralized powers in Washington, federal agencies have exploded with power and control, leading to greater opportunities for abuse. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a favorite stump speech line of former presidential candidate George Wallace was, “When I get to Washington, I am going to throw the briefcases of the pointy headed intellectuals into the Potomac.” Wallace was of course speaking about the entrenched bureaucracy in the nation’s capital.

Bureaucracy of some form is necessary under government. But we live in an era where constitutional constraints are eschewed and the bureaucratic machine is becoming more politicized. “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power,” declared Lord Acton. Bureaucracy, by its nature, is problematic to the notion of self-government.

Bureaucracy is a threat to liberty and it’s not accountable to the people, that is the main point Coolidge is reminding Americans in the excerpt from a speech he gave as president at the College of William & Mary in 1926:

No method of procedure has ever been devised by which liberty could be divorced from local self-government. No plan of centralization has ever been adopted which did not result in bureaucracy, tyranny, inflexibility, reaction, and decline. Of all forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory to an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible they become autocratic, and being autocratic they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.

Coolidgepic Next week at Acton University I am giving a lecture titled, “Calvin Coolidge and his Foundational Views on Government.” One of the great things about studying Coolidge is that he is extremely accessible. Coolidge noted during his political career that practicing law was valuable for honing communication skills that promote brevity and clarity in speech. The Coolidge lecture at Acton University will attempt to do likewise. He’s a president that probably would have little trouble with the 140 character limit on Twitter. If you aren’t able to attend Acton University, I’m told the lecture will be recorded, and at some point will be available for a very small fee.

One of the most relevant things about Coolidge today is that in his era he was battling the progressive scheme to perfect man in an attempt to move beyond the spirit of America’s founding principles. In one masterful broadside against the progressive scheme delivered on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he declared:

Calvin_Coolidge_and_Israel_Moore_Foster“The Power of the Moral Law” is the title of an address delivered by Calvin Coolidge at the Community-Chest Dinner in Springfield, Massachusetts on October 11, 1921. Published in The Price of Freedom, the text is only available online through Google Books.

Coolidge’s main point in his remarks was to reinforce the truth that it is prosperity not grounded in a deeper meaning that threatens our American Republic. Displaying his conservative thought, he challenges materialism of government interventionists and reminds proponents of business and the market that material success alone is insufficient. True progress must have a deeper foundation.

There are many lines that stand out in his address, but perhaps few stand out more than this simple sentence: “Ideals and beliefs determine the whole course of society.” Currently, we see this playing out powerfully in our culture today. The ideals that have held our Western and American civilization intact for centuries have largely eroded. Ideals and commonly held standards, especially in the academy, are attacked as backwards and oppressive.

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes – Graphic Novelized!

In November of last year, we had the privilege of welcoming bestselling author Amity Shlaes for a visit here at the Acton Building while she was in Grand Rapids to speak about Calvin Coolidge at Grand Valley State University’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. Aside from being a fine author of some very thought provoking books on history and economics, she’s a delightful lady, and it was a pleasure to have an opportunity to make her acquaintance personally. At the time, she was very excited about a project that she had been working on which was soon to be released to the public – a graphic novel adaptation of her best-selling book, The Forgotten Man. Her enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and I’ve been looking forward to its release ever since. (You can pre-order a copy of the book, which is set to be released on May 27.)

But how does one take a nearly 500 page hardcover book that revisits the economic history of the Great Depression and translate it into a visual presentation on the printed page? It wasn’t a simple process. Paul Rivoche is the artist who worked with Shlaes on the project; in this interview at Graphic Novel Reporter, he describes how the original book was reworked in order to create a compelling visual story:

The original book was nonfiction and of course not at all structured to be a graphic novel. It’s an economic history of the New Deal/Great Depression era, described from an alternative viewpoint. It has a huge cast of characters — all real people — and discusses many abstract ideas. To make it work as a graphic novel, we had to find a new structure for the same material; we couldn’t follow the exact arrangement in the print book. For example, there are many jumps in location in the real-life story we tell, and all these characters coming and going. In prose, it worked because you imagine it in your head, stitching it together, following the steady guidance of the author’s voice. In comics form, the same thing was disorienting. We learned that if the visuals change too fast, without enough explanation, the reader easily becomes confused when dealing with such complex events, all these different scenes and faces. To solve this, we decided to introduce a “framing story” using a narrator, Wendell Willkie. In telling the story, he guides us — at times directly, and in other scenes we hear his voiceover narration in captions. Also, we had to make the story as visual as possible, not all “talking heads,” which make for dull comics. Instead, we highlighted interesting locales: the Hoover Dam, the great flood of 1927, Willkie’s famous debate, and many others. In every scene we aimed to introduce as much movement, action, and characterization as possible.

The full interview has more detail on the project; After the jump, you can listen to an August 2012 Radio Free Acton interview with Amity Shlaes on her then-forthcoming biography on Calvin Coolidge.



coolidge bioCalvin Coolidge’s autobiography was published in 1929, shortly after Coolidge left the White House. He wrote the book in long hand completely by himself. Sales at the time were great but some commentators panned it as being too short and simplistic with little new information or juicy tidbits. In Amity Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge she notes, “Not every reader appreciated its sparse language, but the short book would stand up well to the self-centered narratives other statesmen produced, especially those who relied on dictation and, in their vanity, failed to revise.” Those who read it will find the writing style impressively clear and will easily comprehend the deep well of conservatism which shaped Coolidge’s thought.

Coolidge devoted a number of pages in his autobiography to the positive influence he received from some of his professors at Amherst College. Much of the praise was given to Charles Garman, Coolidge’s favorite professor. Garman, an alumnus of Amherst, was a professor of moral philosophy and metaphysics. Garman also studied theology at Yale and offered a high degree of religious instruction in his courses. He cultivated critical thinking and class discussion. A short overview on the Amherst College website of the Garman years, reads in part: “Garman’s teaching was considered subversive by some for he encouraged his students not to memorize or parrot what they had heard, but to think through the issues for themselves and come to their own conclusions.” In his autobiography, Coolidge said Garman “was one of the most remarkable men,” and he “truly drew men out.” Throughout his life, Coolidge leaves little doubt of the positive influence Garman had in shaping his thought and character. In this excerpt from Coolidge’s autobiography, he describes the spiritual learning that went on inside Garman’s class. It also serves as a pronounced contrast to the kind of instruction that occurs in most contemporary philosophy classes across colleges and universities in America today: