My VIP for this week is “Silent Cal” – otherwise known as President Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States. On July 4th, Americans celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by members of the Continental Congress. This is the reason why the holiday is known as Independence Day.
Even though we celebrate Independence Day, few Americans know about the peculiar and important ideals found in the Declaration of Independence. What do the words “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” mean to Americans today? I found this article by Brett Kershaw to be quite interesting.
Coolidge entered office as vice president in 1921 with Warren G. Harding as president. After Harding died, Coolidge became the president and left office in 1929 having completed 5.5 years as president. The goal of “Silent Cal” was to reestablish America’s peacetime financial and political stability. World War I – often referred to as the Great War – caused great federal debt, and Coolidge endeavored to bring financial stability to the nation.
According to Kershaw, the Coolidge administration “reduced large swaths of federal debt accumulated during the Great War, cut wartime tax rates and reduced federal spending.” He did such a good job that near the end of Coolidge’s presidency in 1929, “98 percent of the population did not pay any income taxes.” When he left office, “the federal budget stood at $3.3 billion – nearly $2 billion less than when he entered office as vice president in 1921.” His “economic policies spurred real economic growth, lowering unemployment and inflation.”
Kershaw noted that Coolidge had an uncanny leadership ability and “led the nation back to peacetime normality.” He “was committed to securing the inalienable rights of black Americans.”
Coolidge shared a birthday with the Declaration of Independence having been born on July 4, 1872 – nearly a century after the Declaration. He “honored and believed in the Declaration’s sole promise: American society will be one in which life and the liberty to procure happiness were fundamental, assuming that one does not violate another’s inalienable rights.”
Coolidge spoke at the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Kershaw obtained the following quotes from UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project.
“Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man – these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals … They belong to the unseen world.”
“Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments … their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government.”
“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.”
“But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
“If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”
“Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”
“No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.”
“We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first.”
“Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. 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. We must not sink into a pagan materialism.”
Coolidge was committed to the principles found in the Declaration of Independence, and this commitment helped him to rise “above his factional impulses, allowing him to lead a nation on the basis of liberty.” He was able to put into word and action the most powerful tool in the Declaration of Independence: “its endless pursuit to promote and uplift the dignity, humility and liberty of man.”
Kershaw noted that America is badly in need of such a leader today because our nation continues to stray “farther away from those apolitical ideals.” This allows “our ideological sentiments to take over our consciousness.” American politics has become a religion for many people – both on the Left and the Right. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Framers of the Constitution were wise to keep politics and religion separate. Otherwise, we could end up with a government like that in Iran.
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