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Presidential ponderings

A former president’s deep, silent, abiding convictions


Calvin Coolidge Gibson Green/Alamy

Presidential ponderings

Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography is a great book. He was born on July 4, 1872—the only president born on Independence Day—and died in 1933. Based on his published speeches, here are answers Coolidge might have given had I had the privilege of interviewing him.

After tens of thousands of Ku Klux Klan members marched on Washington during the summer of 1925, you traveled to Omaha to address the American Legion Convention. What was your main point? There are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. We need to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.

What do you think about the popular “America first” slogan? The problem we have to solve is how to make America first. It cannot be done by the cultivation of national bigotry, arrogance, or selfishness.

You say “we must apply the rule of toleration.” Please define that rule. We can make little contribution to the welfare of humanity on the theory that we are a superior people and all others are an inferior people. Before we decide that we are better than everyone else, we need to consider what we might do if we had their provocations and difficulties.

The course that most impressed you at Amherst College was an American history one taught by professor Anson Morse. I learned to think the thoughts of earlier Americans. Their intellectual life centered around the meetinghouse. They were intent upon religious worship. While men of deep learning were among them, and later some had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not too much engrossed in how much they knew or how much they had as in how they were going to live.

They read the Bible early and often. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. 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.

You prized the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period. The profound theology of Jonathan Edwards, the popular preaching of George Whitefield, the colonial clergy who had earnestly instructed their congregations all played a part. 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.

We tend to look back at the 1920s as a decade of increased prosperity. It was, but I tried to teach that the things of the spirit come first. Otherwise, our material prosperity would turn to a barren scepter in our grasp, and we would sink into a pagan materialism.

You spoke to the American Bar Association about “the limitations of the law.” Why that topic? I was concerned about the growing multiplicity of laws. So long as the national government confined itself to the fundamentals of liberty, order, and justice for which it was primarily established, its course was reasonably clear and plain: No large amount of revenue required, no great swarms of public employees. There was an opportunity for mature deliberation. What the government undertook to do it could perform with a fair degree of accuracy and precision.

That changed under Woodrow Wilson? We embarked on a policy of a general exercise of police powers by the public control of much private enterprise. The government has not at its disposal a supply of the ability, honesty, and character needed to solve problems, nor the wisdom that enables it to take great enterprises and manage them.

Why won’t better laws save the day? Behind many of these enlarging activities sits the untenable theory that there is some shortcut to perfection, that new laws can elevate the standards of the nation immediately and perceptibly. That has never been the case in human experience. Progress is slow and the result of a long and arduous process of self-discipline. It is not conferred upon the people: It comes from the people. Real reform does not begin with a law; it ends with a law. The attempt to dragoon the body, when the need is to convince the soul, will end only in revolt.

Why can’t government enforce top-down laws? The enforcement of the law becomes uncertain. The courts fail in their function of speedy and accurate justice. Citizens question their judgments and threaten their independence.

You spoke about wise giving to charities, and came back to that in your 1925 inaugural address. I had studied an impressive array of testimony that the average dollar of indiscriminate, well-meaning, ignorant donation to charity is mostly wasted. Many such dollars are far worse than wasted when sentimentality replaces sense. The best service we can do for the needy and the unfortunate is to help in such manner that their self-respect and their ability to help themselves shall not be injured but augmented. I favor the principle of economy not because I wish to save money but because I wish to save people.

Any advice for those seeking political office? The final approval of the people is given not to demagogues, slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandising with the clamor of the hour, but to statesmen, ministering to their welfare, representing their deep, silent, abiding convictions.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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SJS

Amity Shlaes' biography is an excellent read. I noticed someone commented on getting. it. I visited the Coolidge Library in Northampton. The librarian mentioned that Shlaes, and especially her research assistants, spent many hours combing through Cal's papers. It is worth the visit. As his home town in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. He was quite a man.

SAWGUNNER

Silent Cal has gotten a bad rap over the many decades. The reliably liberal OAH ( Organization of American Historians) seems to confer greatness ranking only on the more activist interventionist (read: power crazed) Oval Office residents. I believe Herbert Hoover lived on as an "elder statesman" right up to the late 1950s. Sad that Cal's wisdom was so easily cast aside

FIMIKI

Humility of the kind that Coolidge shows is certainly out of fashion, and sorely needed. Thank you for this!

TALL3332

Coolidge's "responses" to your questions reveal a temperament and character completely alien to our current public life. What a breath of fresh air.

Then I see that his autobiography, with Shlaes' introduction, is the Book of the Year Pick for Understanding America.

I'm sold! Heading for the library, or bookstore if necessary.

Thank you so much for rummaging around the new book offerings to find these jewels!

CROB3561

I will miss your historical interviews. We certainly could use a man like Calvin Coolidge today far more than another Woodrow Wilson or a person who thinks they can rule like President Roosevelt in the 1930's.

SAWGUNNERCROB3561

The first interview with a long deceased luminary was when Rush Limbaugh interviewed Sir Winston Churchill. That the words of both Sir Winston and Coolidge stand relevant to our modern world says all that need be said about their greatness, timeliness and timelessness!