True or false, did an American president actually consider one of his greatest accomplishments “minding my own business?” Keep reading. . .
One of my favorite July Fourth traditions is remembering the life of our thirtieth president. Calvin Coolidge owns the distinction of being the only chief executive born on this day (July 4, 1872, and serving from 1923-29). Ideally, I would offer a brief biographical sketch followed by a few hundred words of well-crafted praise. But that wouldn’t be fair. . .
I’ll offer a little but I don’t want to cheat readers out of the joy of discovering Calvin Coolidge on their own. His legacy is that rich and rewarding. Dr. Steven Hayward, the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents from Wilson to Obama, grades the presidents primarily on their fidelity to the Constitution, as opposed to legislative advancements. He gives Silent Cal an A+ — the only president to win that honor! Most other historians would rather fawn over those leaders (Woodrow Wilson, FDR and, sorry, conservatives, Teddy Roosevelt) who grew the size and scope of the federal government. Coolidge, when he is mentioned at all, is remembered as a moral but ineffective leader who slept his presidency away.
Coolidge was, indeed, a creature of routine. A country lawyer from Plymouth Notch, Vermont and later governor of Massachusetts, he exemplified, both in word and deed, those time-honored traits of self-reliance, hard work and living within your means. A man of simplicity and no pretense, he is among the last of those who recognized the limitations of presidential power, seeing the overreach of the federal government as a potential threat to individual liberty, families, and communities. So, yes, “minding his own business” is his point of pride. Fittingly, Ronald Reagan prominently displayed Coolidge’s portrait in the White House, praising his economic policies of tax cuts, balanced budgets, and limited government. Coolidge, like Reagan, oversaw a period of peace and prosperity.
Calvin Coolidge was conservative before conservatism needed a name. Coolidge governed on common sense and America’s founding values. He was dour and, by today’s standards, a little bit dull (how refreshing!), inviting the glib know-it-alls of Washington society to look down on him as a mere simpleton. A famous biography of Coolidge is entitled A Puritan in Babylon. A guest at a dinner told the president, “I have a bet that I can get you to say more than two words. His reply: “You lose.” How rare to find a public leader that comfortable in his own skin.
What his critics mistook for aloofness was an enduring belief that public service was an end unto itself and not a stepping stone for fame and adulation. Hard work and strong character speak for themselves and need no justification, least of all the approval of the chattering elites. In his 1925 inaugural address, he remarked, “I favor the policy of economy not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. . . ” When he spoke, he spoke to — and about — the American people.
Great simplicity and great wisdom — that is Calvin Coolidge. His words matter today as much as they did nearly 100 years ago. In 1930 he shared his view of immigration. “Every race and creed that has come here in numbers have shown examples of unsurpassed loyalty and devotion to our country. But only by coming slowly, avoiding city colonies and spreading over the land do they arrive in the real United States. . . We have certain standards of life that we believe are best for us. We do not ask other nations to discard theirs, but we do wish to preserve ours. . . We reflect on no one in wanting immigrants who will be assimilated into our ways of thinking and living.”
Countless more quotes, pertaining to politics, America, and day-to-day life can be found on websites and Facebook pages dedicated to reviving his legacy. The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation is an invaluable resource for all things Silent Cal. The Quotable Calvin Coolidge, compiled by Peter Hannaford, will delight any new or long-time Coolidge junkie. The recent Coolidge by Amity Shales is another must-read.
The joy of discovering Calvin Coolidge is not that he affirms what you already believe, but that he inspires you to be a better person, without pandering and never lecturing. His words celebrate the importance of hard work, which he considered a major building block of a free society. He always extolled the most humble among us, both in word and action. Who needs the historians and their rankings? Calvin Coolidge belongs to the people.