Only one American president shares a birthday with his country. He was not charismatic; he did not seek to leave a legacy; he was not out to get rich. Born in Vermont, he cut his political teeth in Massachusetts, becoming governor in 1918. Neither of those extremely blue states celebrates him as a native son, but I doubt he would care. He was never out for accolades. Actually, it was his vexing stoicism that allowed many friends and foes to fill in the blanks. He was characterized as taciturn, unfriendly, and tight-fisted. In truth, he had much to say. His distinction was that, unlike other politicians then and now, he refrained from speaking when he had nothing to say. He was the ultimate Yankee: detached in demeanor but convicted in heart. I speak of Calvin Coolidge. While standing still and saying nothing, he rocked nonetheless.
Coolidge was born on July 4th, 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The son of a general store owner, he grew up sweeping floors, selling produce and attending to myriad other chores typical of rural boyhood. As far as biographers can tell, his only aspiration as a child was to take over the store one day. He was neither a stellar student nor star athlete, yet somehow was admitted to Amherst College where he thrived like never before. The man who would one day be lampooned as “Silent Cal” was celebrated as a wit, an orator and a superb scholar. Upon graduating, he apprenticed at a central Massachusetts law firm and was admitted to the bar in 1897. At the same time, he became active in Republican politics. After stints in the state legislature and as lieutenant governor, he assumed the governor’s chair, gaining national attention for his decisive action in breaking a strike by the Boston city police.
This new status made him a perfect candidate for the vice-presidency in 1920. In those days, of course, VPs were not presidential advisors as they are in modern times. There was little for them to do aside from the understudy role so Coolidge used his spare time to visit his family in Vermont often. On one such visit—August 2, 1923—his father woke him up in the middle of the night to inform him of the death of President Warren Harding. Being a justice of the peace and notary public, the senior Coolidge was legally empowered to administer the presidential oath of office to his son. So keyed up by this extraordinary turn of events, Calvin immediately went back to bed after the “so help me God.”
I love it. This was vintage Coolidge. It was not that he assumed the duties of president casually. He had a solemn reverence for the institution. But it was three in the morning and he was tired. It goes to his fundamental philosophy that ours is a government of laws, not men. The country would survive a few more hours without his pronouncements. In his habits, his speech, his governance and his appearance, he was what can be best described as spare—no flowery verbiage, no superfluous regulations, no unnecessary appropriations, no nonsense. And, unlike my other favorite stoic president, Grover Cleveland, Coolidge sported no extra poundage. A clip of his Yankee straight talk can be seen and heard here:
This is all prologue, however. What drove Coolidge was deep-seated conviction about the difference between the United States and other countries, about—dare I say it?—American exceptionalism. On the 150th birthday of the United States in 1926—his own 54th birthday—President Calvin Coolidge spoke to a huge gathering at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He spoke of the element that made the U.S. a vibrant and virile presence among the nations of the world:
A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if it roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man - these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but 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. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
Today, of course, journalists would be unable to digest rhetoric of this style. It is too ponderous…and exceeds 140 characters. Furthermore, it assaults their self-image as worldly and mature and unencumbered by supernatural ideas. Fortunate are we, in the information age, to see for ourselves what really rings true and why. Long disparaged by opinion makers in the media and in academia, Calvin Coolidge is now enjoying a renaissance, thanks to diligent biographers like Amity Shlaes, author of the 2013 bestseller, Coolidge. She notes how the president kept a healthy perspective regarding his own high office:
He was among the most selfless of presidents, ranking individual above political constituency and office above individual. Once, on a walk with the president, Senator Selden Spencer of Missouri tried to cheer Coolidge by pointing to the White House and asking, in a joking tone, who might live there. “Nobody,” Coolidge replied, “they just come and go.”
On this Independence Day, we can look upon Calvin Coolidge and his wisdom for a sound perspective on the reasons for our founding, and the proper place and temperament of those that presume to lead us.
Happy 142nd Birthday, Mr. President. Happy 238th Birthday, USA. And a happy Fourth of July to all my readers.