Considering my moniker on this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a great fan of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States. Admittedly, for a long time this appeal stemmed from the commendable pithiness of his pronouncements, and the wit he frequently employed in them. As an individual who is rather taciturn and fond of the driest bon mot, I feel an affinity for Silent Cal.
But recently, it is the content and not the style of the man’s public service that has drawn my admiration. Last July 4th in the Wall Street Journal, Leon Kass wrote about Coolidge’s address commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Kass’s piece illuminated the ideas of the 30th president and showed their relevance to our time. He is often written off as the ultimate laissez-faire leader, whose fanatical devotion to small government in a time of excess led to the Great Depression. Surely these critics never read Coolidge’s Independence Day oration, in which the same man who once said “the chief business of the American people is business” warns against a spirit of “pagan materialism,” I wonder if they would understand the message even if they did read it.
Fortunately, Coolidge took the opportunity offered by other national holidays to elucidate his ideal of American society. In 1924, Memorial Day still took place on May 30, the day set aside by the Grand Army of the Republic for decorating the graves of fallen comrades “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” That Memorial Day, the 30th president spoke to a crowd at Arlington National Cemetery on “Freedom and Its Obligations.” Coolidge began his address by rooting the day they observed in its historical context. Memorial Day arose as a way to pay tribute to the dead of the Civil War, so the president recounted the issues that led to the separation of the states and the conflict that ensured. Instead of limiting his discourse to the specifics of the Civil War, however, Coolidge recognized the larger questions that drove the conflict and survived to his day, and ours: “How can the Government govern and the people be free? How can organized society make and enforce laws and the individual remain independent?” Coolidge noted that even when individuals could be absolved of any responsibilities, they would naturally infringe on the rights of others, betraying their very independence. The solution, the president argues, is membership in a community, and deference to its best interests:
When each citizen submits himself to the authority of law he does not thereby decrease his independence or freedom, but rather increases it. By recognizing that he is a part of a larger body which is banded together for a common purpose, he becomes more than an individual, he rises to a new dignity of citizenship.