In reading Amity Shlaes’ marvelous biography of Calvin Coolidge, I was struck by a brief poem written by Coolidge’s son, Calvin Jr., during his father’s stint as vice president to Warren Harding.
Coolidge was having a hard time adapting to life in Washington, ridiculed for a variety of things, and struggling to remain supportive of an administration which, as Shlaes puts it, boasted “a temperament wilder than his own.” As one glimpse into these matters, Coolidge’s close friend, Frank Stearns, had sent him a letter expressing his sympathies. “It makes me a little sick at heart that you should not get more comfort out of your success,” Stearns wrote. A sample of Coolidge’s reply: “I do not think you have any comprehension of what people do to me.”
“The price of their status, having it or lacking it, was becoming clear to all the Coolidges,” Shlaes explains. (more…)
In November of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge delivered an address on the topic of the proper relationship between government and business. His audience was the New York State Chamber Commerce. One of Coolidge’s main aims of the speech was to elevate the spiritual value of business.
As president, Coolidge oversaw unprecedented economic expansion and growth, but he also lived through the rise of America’s progressive era and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. New ideas about government and society had already long been popularized in large segments of America by 1925. Coolidge, who saw himself as a civic educator, articulated a much more traditional and conservative view of American ideals. A common recurrence of his public addresses was to praise the truths and virtues of America’s founding principles. At the very end of this address, Coolidge closed with the line, “The truth and faith and justice of the ancient days have not departed from us.” Below is a poignant excerpt from his 1925 address:
While there has been in the past and will be in the future a considerable effort in this country of different business interests to attempt to run the Government in such a way as to set up a system of privilege, and while there have been and will be those who are constantly seeking to commit the Government to a policy of infringing upon the domain of private business, both of these efforts have been very largely discredited, and with reasonable vigilance on the part of the people to preserve their freedom do not now appear to be dangerous.
When I have been referring to business, I have used the word in its all-inclusive sense to denote alike the employer and employee, the production of agriculture, and industry, the distribution of transportation and commerce, and the service of finance and banking. It is the work of the world. In modern life, with all its intricacies, business has come to hold a very dominant position in the thoughts of all enlightened peoples. Rightly understood, this is not a criticism, but a compliment. In its great economic organization it does not represent, as some have hastily concluded, a mere desire to minister to selfishness. The New York Chamber of Commerce is not made up of men merely animated with a purpose to get the better of each other. It is something far more important than a sordid desire for gain. It could not successively succeed on that basis. It is dominated by a more worthy impulse; it rests on a higher law. True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other. While it is not an end in itself, it is the important means for the attainment of a supreme end. It rests squarely on the law of service. It has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.
My pastor made a good point in his sermon Sunday that the more secular we become as a nation the less we talk about “abundance.” Instead, the national dialogue of our politics shift to discussions about scarcity. Many politicians are stuck in the mindset of talking about things like wealth distribution and rationing. The more materialist and less spiritual we become as a nation, the more inclined we are to fight over the table scraps.
If we don’t look to God, we won’t believe the Lord can bless us. In turn, many only want to get what they can. This is all too evident in the excessive shopping we often see where consumers believe stuff equals being blessed. Sadly, some try and substitute stuff for what only the Gospel can provide.
In his 1925 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation , President Calvin Coolidge talks a lot about abundance, a word he used in most of his Thanksgiving Day Proclamations. The Coolidge presidency occurred over a time of unprecedented technological innovation in America as well as economic surplus and growth. Coolidge had a keen understanding of what blessings and abundance meant for the nation and why it was essential that the country “progress in moral and spiritual things.” Material advancement alone was not sufficient. Here is an excerpt from the 1925 proclamation:
The season approaches when, in accordance with a long established and respected custom, a day is set apart to give thanks to Almighty God for the manifold blessings which His gracious and benevolent providence has bestowed upon us as a nation and as individuals.
We have been brought with safety and honor through another year, and, through the generosity of nature, He has blessed us with resources whose potentiality in wealth is almost incalculable; we are at peace at home and abroad; the public health is good; we have been undisturbed by pestilences or great catastrophes; our harvests and our industries have been rich in productivity; our commerce spreads over the whole world, and Labor has been well rewarded for its remunerative service.
As we have grown and prospered in material things, so also should we progress in moral and spiritual things. We are a God-fearing people who should set ourselves against evil and strive for righteousness in living, and observing the Golden Rule we should from our abundance help and serve those less fortunately placed. We should bow in gratitude to God for His many favors.
Unfortunately, most politicians and leaders today are unable to speak with clarity about spiritual wealth and abundance, thus their vision is limited because it remains solely on the things of this world.
Often many on the political right believe that reform or change in the country is just one election or another president away. Some declare another Ronald Reagan can fix America’s problems, but entirely miss that there may be no culture left to support a president like Reagan. For almost every problem in this nation, there is not a political solution that will make any lasting impact or change for the better. This point is entirely missed by so many during all the political debates and shouting matches today. Politics is becoming a mere distraction from the deeper problems. Washington D.C. is the obvious and best example of this fact.
Today we are living through the dissolution of the greater truths that once permeated Western Culture. We are living through a repaganizing of the West that was transformed and lifted up by Christendom. It’s odd to think about the fact we are living through this very monumental time in history and most people are missing it or unaware of it entirely.
Only spiritual enlightenment and a recovery of these truths can transform society and culture today. The evangelistic and holiness revivals in 18th century England completely reformed an amoral and unjust culture. Many historians have concluded that it alone prevented another bloody revolution in that nation.
Below are excerpted remarks from then Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the New York State Convention of the Y.M.C.A. in Albany, New York in 1923. The title of the address is “The Place of Religion in National Life.” There is not a full copy of the address online but you can find it in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Coolidge.
If you follow national politics closely today you may find it odd to hear a political leader speak confidently about universal truths when it comes to government, man, and society. Unfortunately, we don’t normally hear this kind of language from American leaders today. But it’s a valuable reminder of the significance of religious revival if there is going to be any change in the culture, institutions, or government. Coolidge powerfully makes the point that culture drives law and politics. Change and progress ultimately is born in the human heart and does not emanate from the halls or palaces of power.
When we explore the real foundation of our institutions, of their historical development or their logical support, we come very soon to the matter of religious belief. It was the great religious awakening of the sixteenth century that brought about the political awakening of the seventeenth century. The American Revolution was preceded by the great religious revival of the middle of the eighteenth, which had its effect both in England and in the colonies. When the common people turned to the reading of the Bible, as they did in the Netherlands and in England, when they were stirred by a great revival, as they were in the days of the preaching of Edwards and Whitfield, the way was prepared for William, for Cromwell, and for Washington. It was because religion gave the people a new importance and a new glory that demanded a new freedom and a new government. We cannot in our generation reject the cause and retain the same result.
If the institutions they adopted are to survive, if the governments which they founded are to endure, it will be because the people continue to have similar religious beliefs. It is idle to discuss freedom and equality on any other basis. It is useless to expect substantial reforms from any other motive. They cannot be administered from without they must come from within. That is why laws alone are so impotent. To enact or to repeal laws is not to secure reform. It is necessary to take these problems directly to the individual. There will be a proper use of our material prosperity when the individual feels a divine responsibility. There will be a broadening scholarship when the individual feels that science, literature, and history are the revelation of divine truths. There will be obedience to law when the individual feels the government represents a divine authority.
It is these beliefs, these religious convictions, that represent the strength of America, the strength of all civilized society.
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In the latest episode of Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson interviews Amity Shlaes, author of the new biography, Coolidge. Read Ray Nothstine’s review here.
In the book, Shlaes makes an explicit connection between Coolidge’s rough-and-humble upbringing in Plymouth Notch, VA, and his bootstraps optimism about commerce and markets. The Coolidges believed that responsibility, hard work, and a virtuous life were bound to pay off, in large part because they experienced it in their own lives.
On this, Robinson offers a wonderful follow-up (around the 31-minute mark), observing that some have connected Lyndon B. Johnson’s similar “hardscrabble upbringing” with an entirely different perspective, namely his “championing of the federal government as an instrument for lifting the poor of the nation.” Why, Robinson asks, did the early struggles of each of these men lead them to entirely different conclusions about economic empowerment and poverty alleviation? (more…)
Coolidge has a deep understanding of American history, and after contemplating what led the founders to write what they wrote, and what inclined Americans to follow their lead, he ultimately concludes that it was their spiritual inclinations, and the moral and spiritual orientation of the American people, that played the most important role:
Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand [the founders’] conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
Although Christians have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify and overamplify the various impacts of particular religious beliefs on the American founding, Coolidge’s point is a bit more basic and overarching. (more…)
Today, career politicians are out of fashion. In light of Washington’s dysfunction and a hyper partisan culture, the words of politicians offer little reassurances. Their deeds even less. One career public servant is finding his popularity on an upswing exactly eighty years after his death. I asked my grandfather, who turns 97 in July, to rank America’s great presidents? He immediately answered Ronald Reagan, almost reflexively. And then paused for a few moments and declared, “That Calvin Coolidge fellow was good too.”
To remember Coolidge is to remember an altogether different America. One that was rapidly modernizing but still deeply connected to rural life and its foundations. But even for his era, John Calvin Coolidge was a throw back, a man who emerged deep from within Vermont’s rugged hills. The symbols of his humble origins were magnified after the unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923. Coolidge, awakened in Vermont, was immediately sworn in to the greatest office in the world by kerosene lamp by his father, a public notary.
Oft forgotten or lampooned as a “simpleton,” there are no grand monuments for America’s 30th president. He certainly wouldn’t have sought such recognition. But in Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, she offers a kind of monument not just to Coolidge’s economic heroism, but his character.
Coolidge governed and taught from the deep well of America’s Founding and eschewed the material for the spiritual, declaring, “The things of the Spirit come first.” He was leery of progressive schemes saying, “Men do not make laws. They do but discover them.” He added, “If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.” (more…)