“A Standard of Righteousness”: The Worldview of Calvin Coolidge
by David Pietrusza
It remains easy, even for his admirers, to reduce Calvin Coolidge’s worldview to a simple balance sheet of dollars and cents, of marginal tax rates, of surpluses, and of deficits.
It is easy.
Yes, Calvin Coolidge did most notably fight—and, at least temporarily, win— battles for lower marginal tax rates and lower federal spending and decreased national debt. And, yes, we will examine those positions, but his basic philosophical construct consisted of far, far more than an inflexible cosmos inhabited merely by the rows and columns of balance sheets.
Yet, those other world views—his greater cosmos—like his economic policies, place him at distinct variance with today’s orthodoxies.
Actually, at greater variance.
Obviously, his birthplace, Plymouth Notch, helped fashion him. “The neighborhood around The Notch,” he would write, “was made up of people of exemplary habits. Their speech was clean and their lives were above reproach. They had no mortgages on their farms. If any debts were contracted they were promptly paid. Credit was good and there was money in the savings bank.”
And, of course, his father, Colonel John Coolidge—a man of rural means, a general storekeeper, insurance agent, farmer, and politician—helped to form him. John Coolidge was a hard worker, a frugal man. Of his father, Calvin would write:
“The lines he laid out were true and straight, and the curves regular. The work he did endured.”
And from his father’s business, he learned this lesson, which never left him:
“As I went about with my father when he collected taxes, I knew that when taxes were laid some one had to work to earn money to pay them.”
Coolidge’s mother, Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge, died—on her 39th birthday—in March 1885. In March 1890, Calvin’s younger sister, Abigail died. She was fourteen. Their deaths moved Calvin profoundly, forging a greater bond between surviving son and father, and, no doubt, reinforcing Calvin’s already powerful, almost crippling, sense of shyness.
No doubt Calvin Coolidge would never have developed into a garrulous man—or into anything besides laconic—but certainly the loss of his mother—and of his sister—did not assist the matter.
It was not easy for him to be a public man. To speak. To meet persons. To shake hands. To do what ordinary politicians do as a matter of course. A horrible shyness possessed Calvin Coolidge, possessed him from his earliest days, and never left him.
He never denied it. He told friends:
When I was a little fellow . . . I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the house. I felt I just couldn’t meet people . . . Most of the visitors would sit with Mother and Father in the kitchen, and it was the hardest thing in the world to have to go through the kitchen door and give them a greeting. I was almost ten before I realized I couldn’t go on that way. And by fighting hard I used to manage to get through that door. I’m all right with old friends, but every time I meet a stranger, I’ve got to go through the old kitchen door back home, and it’s not easy.
But leave the kitchen he did. And at Amherst College, his philosophy received valuable reinforcement.
It is difficult to contend that Calvin Coolidge’s philosophy differed greatly, if at all, from Colonel John Coolidge’s. But history records a multiplicity of examples—a multiplicity squared—of higher education transforming a son or daughter’s ideology. Witness the transition of former Goldwater girl Hillary Rodham at Wellesley—first to a freshman Rockefeller Republican and to a Gene McCarthy activist by her junior year.
These things happen.
They did not happen to Calvin Coolidge, in part because the majority of his classmates at Amherst were Republican—45 of 78—and because he did not let them happen—but also because of the influence of two remarkable professors: Anson Daniel Morse and Charles Edward Garman.
Anson Daniel Morse instructed Amherst students in history, and among the points he made was the importance of political parties. We may think nothing of that. But to Calvin Coolidge they were of great importance. And he often emphasized that.
In his 1925 inaugural address he warned:
Since its very outset, it has been found necessary to conduct our Government by means of political parties. That system would not have survived from generation to generation if it had not been fundamentally sound and provided the best instrumentalities for the most complete expression of the popular will. It is not necessary to claim that it has always worked perfectly. It is enough to know that nothing better has been devised.
In this instance, his worldview coincided with his times. “I believe in party sponsorship in government,” said Warren Harding in 1920, “I believe in party government as distinguished from personal government, individual, dictatorial, autocratic or what not.” When in August 1923, the hand of death passed Harding’s torch to Coolidge, he built upon that foundation.
Thus, history instructor Anson Daniel Morse proved significant, but philosophy and metaphysics instructor Charles Edward Garman proved inestimably more significant.
Professor Garman left behind relatively few writings. But all contemporary observers agreed that he was an extraordinary instructor. William James termed Garman not merely the best teacher at Amherst—but the best teacher in America.
He was also an extraordinary moral force.
Very likely, Coolidge arrived with his armory of basic ideas—public service, private property, frugality, a strict work ethic, and religious morality—already in place. But the undisputed force of Garman’s intellect, will, and personality unshakably cemented those ideals into granite-like permanence.
Garman was, above all, an orthodox Christian. Garman scholar John Almon Waterhouse said of his subject:
To summarize his philosophy, Garman believed that life and man’s struggle as an individual and race consists of a search for the ideal of the perfect state where he has found his true relationship to God and his fellow men. He saw political and divine ethics as inseparable. He believed that Christianity was the answer to all questions. It was the essential element in the acts of service to your fellow and your God. Christianity was the law and the final destroyer of evil in any form.
To Garman this translated into a philosophy of personal public service and ultimately translated into Calvin Coolidge’s life of public service.
“Now a new age is before us,” Garman once said, “ Business is asking for men of ability and integrity to take positions of greater responsibility, and the same is true of municipal affairs and of politics. In short citizenship is the great need of the present time.”
Garman exercised a remarkable influence upon his students, not by drumming ideas into their heads, but by leading them forward upon twin paths of knowledge and logic.
Coolidge’s Autobiography lists few influences upon him. Certainly, his father. And—we will return to him later—Massachusetts United States Senator W. Murray Crane. But it is to Charles Garman that Coolidge concedes the most. When you read what Coolidge writes regarding Garman, the influence of teacher upon student is unmistakable. Listen—and you will hear encapsulated virtually the entire Coolidge world view.
Wrote Coolidge in his Autobiography:
We looked upon Garman as a man who walked with God. His course was a demonstration of the existence of a personal God, of our power to know Him, of the Divine immanence, and of the complete dependence of all the universe on Him as the Creator and Father “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Every reaction in the universe is a manifestation of His presence. Man was revealed as His son, and nature as the hem of His garment, while through a common Fatherhood we are all embraced in a common brotherhood. The spiritual appeal of music, sculpture, painting and all other art lies in the revelation it affords of the Divine beauty.
The conclusions which followed from this position were logical and inescapable. It sets man off in a separate kingdom from all the other creatures in the universe, and makes him a true son of God and a partaker of the Divine nature. This is the warrant for his freedom and the demonstration of his equality. It does not assume all are equal in degree but all are equal in kind. On that precept rests a foundation for democracy that cannot be shaken. It justifies faith in the people.
In ethics he taught us that there is a standard of righteousness, that might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means and that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service. For a man not to recognize the truth, not to be obedient to law, not to render allegiance to the State, is for him to be at war with his own nature, to commit suicide. That is why “the wages of sin is death.” Unless we live rationally we perish, physically, mentally, spiritually.
A great deal of emphasis was placed on the necessity and dignity of work. Our talents are given us in order that we may serve ourselves and our fellow men. Work is the expression of intelligent action for a specified end. It is not industry, but idleness, that is degrading. All kinds of work from the most menial service to the most exalted station are alike honorable. One of the earliest mandates laid on the human race was to subdue the earth. That meant work.
If he [Garman] was not in accord with some of the current teachings about religion, he gave to his class a foundation for the firmest religious convictions. He presented no mysteries or dogmas and never asked us to take a theory on faith, but supported every position by facts and logic. He believed in the Bible and constantly quoted it to illustrate his position. He divested religion and science of any conflict with each other, and showed that each rested on the common basis of our ability to know the truth.
Note that Coolidge posits no natural hostility between religion and truth. And—unlike, as some may say, John F. Kennedy in 1960 or Barack Obama censoring “the Creator” from the Declaration of Independence—Coolidge favored no natural exclusion between religion and governance. For as Garman wrote: “there is no such thing as political ethics apart from divine ethics.” In Calvin Coolidge’s time that proposition—that there exists no natural antipathy or barrier—would not be unique or a fringe opinion or a minority opinion, but rather it was mainstream. It is only in our own time that the idea is commonplace that there must be no relationship between the Constitution and the Christian religion—and, dare I say it—that opinion is advanced most vociferously by those having no genuine regard for either Christianity or the Constitution.
If you do not believe me regarding how commonplace was support for a Christian and Godly republic, harken back to two decades past Calvin Coolidge’s death. Harken to 1952 and a major party presidential nominee who spoke to his national party convention of “the ordeal of the twentieth century, the bloodiest, most turbulent era of the whole Christian age . . .” and concluded, “And finally, my friends, in this staggering task that you have assigned me, I shall always try “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God.”
Four years later this same candidate proclaimed: “Once we were not ashamed in this country to be idealists. Once we were proud to confess that an American is a man who wants peace and believes in a better future and loves his fellow man. We must reclaim these great Christian and humane ideas. We must dare to say again that the American cause is the cause of all mankind.”
The speaker was not Dwight David Eisenhower—nor certainly the long deceased Calvin Coolidge, though it certainly sounds like him—but Adlai Ewing Stevenson, a candidate who was not merely a Democrat or a liberal—but a Unitarian.
For even though we do not speak thusly these days, even Unitarians did so not that long ago.
And so, of course, did Calvin Coolidge. In short, if you do not understand Calvin Coolidge in terms of religion and morality, you do not understand him at all.
Now, did Coolidge believe in the establishment of a religion? In state compulsion in matters of faith? In some manner of Congregationalist Puritan Sharia law?
“There should be no favorites and no outcasts;” he said in accepting his presidential nomination, in a time of Klan resurgence, “no race or religious prejudices in government.”
To the B’nai Brith that year, he dared to proclaim: “The Jewish faith is predominantly the faith of liberty.” His very first act in public office was to introduce a resolution honoring a recently deceased Catholic Democratic fellow alderman. As lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, he literally kissed Cardinal O’Connell’s ring.
In fact, for most of his life, Calvin Coolidge formally belonged to no church at all. Amherst records list him as having no denominational preference.
His Autobiography reveals this intensely personal passage, which tells us so much about his thinking on so many levels:
The first Sunday after reaching Washington [after Harding’s death] we attended services, as we were accustomed to do, at the First Congregational Church. Although I had been rather constant in my attendance, I had never joined the church.
While there had been religious services, there was no organized church society near my boyhood home. Among other things, I had some fear as to my ability to set that example which I always felt ought to denote the life of a church member. I am inclined to think now that this was a counsel of darkness.
This first service happened to come on communion day. Our pastor, Dr. Pierce, occupied the pulpit, and, as he can under the practice of the Congregational Church, and always does, because of his own very tolerant attitude, he invited all those who believed in the Christian faith, whether church members or not, to join in partaking of the communion.
For the first time I accepted this invitation, which I later learned he had observed, and in a few days without any intimation to me that it was to be done, considering this to be a sufficient public profession of my faith, the church voted me into its membership.
This declaration of their belief in me was a great satisfaction.
Had I been approached in the usual way to join the church after I became President, I should have feared that such action might appear to be a pose, and should have hesitated to accept. From what might have been a misguided conception I was thus saved by some influence which I had not anticipated.
But if I had not voluntarily gone to church and partaken of communion, this blessing would not have come to me.
Fate bestows its rewards on those who put themselves in the proper attitude to receive them.
Yes, Calvin Coolidge had faith. He did not see it as something to be shunned, ghettoized and relegated to irrelevancy or antithetical to public policy. But neither did he see morality as something that might be easily legislated. Never a great supporter (if at all) of national prohibition, he provided minimal public support for its enforcement.
“Duty is not collective;” as Coolidge once pronounced, “it is personal.”
And as he said in October 1924: “The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man.” And such a philosophy put the brakes not only on matters alcoholic but on matters economic.
But before we delve into matters economical, let us delve into . . . . . .
. . . silence.
He believed in taciturnity. And while Silent Cal Coolidge could speak, he usually saw the wisdom in not speaking.
In his Northampton living room, hung a simple plaque. It read:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
“He who gives license to his tongue only discloses the content of his own mind,” said Coolidge, “By the excess of words he proclaims his lack of discipline. By his very violence he shows his weakness.”
And getting back to one of his few acknowledged mentors, Senator W. Murray Crane, Coolidge recorded:
He confirmed my opinion as to the value of a silence which avoids creating a situation where one would otherwise not exist, and the bad taste and the danger of arousing animosities and advertising an opponent by making any attack on him. In all political affairs he had a wonderful wisdom, and in everything he was preeminently a man of judgment, who was the most disinterested public servant I ever saw and the greatest influence for good government with which I ever came in contact. What would I not have given to have had him by my side when I was President! His end came just before the election of 1920.
And now, at last, to economics and to governance.
Calvin Coolidge possessed a remarkably coherent philosophy of government—and of life itself. In fact, historian Paul Johnson has praised this supposed cipher as “the most internally consistent and single-minded of modern American presidents.”
Calvin Coolidge may indeed have been the last Jeffersonian, a man who as president believed strongly enough in the limits of government power, and particularly the limits of federal power, to resist the temptation of extending it—even when he would be the man to exercise it.
Coolidge believed that the property of a nation belonged to the citizens of that nation—and not to its government. He believed in strict obedience to the law, in service to others, in idealism rather than materialism.
Quaint ideas nowadays—or maybe not so quaint. We have seen what believers in the all-powerful state have wrought. Some of the worst offenders were Coolidge’s contemporaries. While this supposedly simple Vermonter was carefully circumscribing his own powers, others were not so reticent about governmental power.
Even in his own day, many dismissed Coolidge’s notions of limited government as hopelessly outdated and unsophisticated. He didn’t care. He meant what he said and said what he thought—and remains among the most pithily eloquent advocates for properly restrained government and taxation and concurrently for individual economic responsibility and liberty. He advocated a rigorously circumscribed federal government that empowered the American people to be free to be . . . free to be . . . well, free to be . . . whatever they wanted to be.
A simple philosophy.
So simple that it took humanity until the late eighteenth century to figure it out. So simple it only required the combined energies of a Washington, an Adams, a Jefferson, a Madison, a Hamilton, a Franklin—and a pretty good supporting cast behind them—to make it all work. So simple, that we seem to have forgotten it all. But as we glance back on what Mr. Coolidge articulated about such matters, we realize that not only could he clearly see what the Founders had devised, he could discern the broader human condition—and he could see ahead into the future, into a world where old verities, his verities, would quickly be discarded and disdained.
And he expressed what he discerned in fewer words, better chosen words, than just about anyone before or since.
Let’s take one example—and a not particularly well-known one at that.
In January 1914, on being elected president of the Massachusetts Senate he told his fellow legislators: “The normal must care for themselves.”
The normal must care for themselves. Ah, what is he saying? That if you are a reasonable human you should be able to clothe, and shelter and feed yourself. To make decisions for yourselves, about your future, about your children’s future, about what you can do with your own money, about risks and choices. Adults can take care of themselves.
But note the subtext in the sentence: what about those who are not “normal?” They need help. They cannot adequately fend for themselves. And others—here is that concept of service again—must assist them. Preferably privately. Or, if that is not possible, then through the auspices of government.
All of that in six words.
And he meant what he said. As Massachusetts lieutenant governor he remarked regarding the state’s mental institutions:
Our party will have no part in a scheme of economy which adds to the misery of the wards of the commonwealth—the sick, the insane and the unfortunate—those who are too weak even to protest. Because I know these conditions I know a Republican administration would face an increasing state tax rather than not see them remedied.
But, Calvin Coolidge did not raise taxes—and he did not abandon or neglect the helpless wards of the state. Just the opposite happened. He lowered taxes again and again while providing needed services. He did this by practicing what he called “economy,” a stringent attack on government waste and a refusal to fund programs (no matter how politically popular they might be) that he found to be mere raids on the public treasury—or assaults on the Constitution.
Yes, Coolidge was no “soak-the-rich” politician.
The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong.
Calvin Coolidge cut taxes four times. He produced a budget surplus each year of his presidency. He could do all this because he not only understood economics and government—he understood human nature. In February 1924, he told the National Republican Club:
If we had a tax whereby on the first working day the Government took 5 per cent of your wages, on the second day 10 per cent, on the third day 20 per cent, on the fourth day 30 per cent, on the fifth day 50 per cent, and on the sixth day 60 per cent, how many of you would continue to work on the last two days of the week? It is the same with capital. Surplus income will go into tax-exempt securities. It will refuse to take the risk incidental to embarking in business. This will raise the rate which established business will have to pay for new capital, and result in a marked increase in the cost of living. If new capital will not flow into competing enterprise, the present concerns tend toward monopoly, increasing again the prices which the people must pay.
He said more in that speech—so much more than a half century later economist Jude Wanniski would label his address,
“The most lucid articulation of the [supply-side] wedge model in modern times.”
Yet this master of articulation and plain-speaking has fallen victim to one of the most egregious misunderstandings of the twentieth century, derided as a slavish worshiper of commercial interests.
“The chief business of the American people is business,” Coolidge said in January 1925, and for decades those words have been hung around his neck to “prove” his ultimate philistinism.
The words were wrenched out of context by historians with an axe to grind, and have been repeated by ignorant, sloppy, naïve, or lazy writers ever since.
Indeed, Coolidge did say “The chief business of the American people is business,” but he was only warming up to his main point—a message at considerable variance from what he has been charged with saying and meaning.
Here is what Calvin Coolidge also said:
So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today.
It is only those who do not understand our people who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists.
Idealism. Again, remember back to the philosophy of Charles Edward Garman.
And a philosophy of honest toil. He once wrote: “On a little church high on a Vermont hillside I saw this inscription: ‘No man who lives a life of ease leaves a name worth remembering,’ Industry pays because it is right.”
And of frugality and independence and integrity. Public service translated not into wealth for Calvin Coolidge, for an enlarged portfolio of clients or in corporate directorships but in the opportunity for more service. He lived not high- on-the-hog but in $27-per-month rented lodgings at 21 Massasoit Street, Northampton—half of a pleasant, but modest, white frame duplex. He wrote:
We liked the house where our children came to us and the neighbors who were so kind. When we could have had a more pretentious home we still clung to it. So long as I lived there, I could be independent and serve the public without ever thinking that I could not maintain my position if I lost my office.
All the while, Coolidge kept rising in politics. He won a term in the Massachusetts House and his political philosophy took shape, as did his lifelong predilection to acting without regard to electoral consequences. Said one Massachusetts labor leader regarding Coolidge,
“In all my years of work in the Legislature I have never met a man [in] whose sense of justice and courage I had more trust.”
In the wake of the Boston Police Strike, Coolidge met American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers demand that striking police be restored to the positions they had abandoned, with the words:
There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.
Coolidge’s advisors thought his actions would alienate labor support and cost him re-election. He thought so too. He didn’t care. “It does not matter whether I am elected or not,” he replied matter-of-factly.
But he was elected, and over the course of a three-decade long political career, he provided his opinion on any number of topics. He never wasted words—never minced words.
Here is a sample of what Silent Cal had to say—and what he thought. You will see a consistent return—actually a consistent reliance—on themes established by Charles Edward Garman at Amherst: themes of morality and service and of the freedom of property and of the overwhelming value of work, ever governed by rigorous logic:
Regarding his most basic philosophy of government he contended:
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 the 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. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.
Or putting it more bluntly:
I am for economy. After that I am for more economy.
Regarding taxes he said:
Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery.
High taxes make high prices.
No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.
On congressional pork:
The people who start to elect a man to get what he can for his district will probably find they have elected a man who will get what he can for himself.
And on morality:
A nation that is morally dead will soon be financially dead.
If we are too weak to take charge of our own morality, we shall not be strong enough to take charge of our own liberty.
There is only one form of political strategy in which I have any confidence, and that is to try to do the right thing and sometimes to succeed.
It is very difficult to reconcile the American ideal of a sovereign people capable of owning and managing their own government with an inability to own and manage their own business.
On price controls:
It is not possible to repeal the law of supply and demand, of cause and effect, or of action and reaction. Value is a matter of opinion. An act of Congress has small jurisdiction over what men think.
On the principles of the Founding Fathers:
These principles . . . have now the same binding force as in those revolutionary days when they were recognized and proclaimed. I am not unaware that they are old. Whatever is, is old. It is but our own poor apprehension of it which is new.
On our national needs:
We do not need more material development, we need more spiritual development, we do not need more intellectual power, we need more moral power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more government, we need more culture. We do not need more laws, we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.
Those who do only what they are paid for will never be paid very much.
On the art of legislating:
It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.
On tough economic times:
When depression in business comes we begin to be very conservative in our financial affairs. We save our money and take no chances in its investment. Yet in our political actions we go in the opposite direction. We begin to support radical measures and cast our votes for those who advance the most reckless proposals.
This is a curious and illogical reaction. When times are good we might take a chance on a radical government. But when we are financially weakened we need the soundest and wisest of men and measures.
On soaking the rich:
We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor. This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful. The verdict of the country has been given on this question. That verdict stands.
And you have probably heard this bit of advice:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not;
Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
Genius will not.
Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not.
The world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Press on, said Silent Cal, and the rest will follow. Press on, ladies and gentlemen.