Address at the Commencement at George Washington University
Calvin Coolidge’s last formal address as President | February 22, 1929
Citation: John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database). Available from World Wide Web here.
My Fellow Countrymen:
Compared with some of the older nations, our holidays are few in number. Being less frequent, they are given a more formal observance. With the possible exception of the Fourth Day of July, none of them on the secular side arouses any more popular interest than the birthday of George Washington. Of course, he is honored for what he did. He was the leader in a successful struggle for independence, which gave him a justified military reputation. He was also the foremost influence in securing the adoption of our Federal Constitution, which gave us a free Republic. Naturally, he was chosen the first President. In this office he brought into practical operation the theories of our National Government, which demonstrated that he was not only a military leader, but a sound and patriotic statesman. In addition to all his public service, he was a man of affairs. He ranks as the best business man of his day. Had there been no Revolutionary War, he would undoubtedly have become the foremost colonial figure of his time.
It is because of his success in so many fields of action that his memory makes such a wide appeal. Wherever men love liberty we find a veneration for the name of George Washington. Wherever there are aspirations for a free government, whether already in being or in future expectation, there is admiration for the institutions he established. Wherever purity of character and self-sacrificing public service are admired, his name is honored and revered. Almost alone of the great figures of history, he can be accepted without any qualifications or reservations. Not only is his fame world-wide, but his life is held in universal respect.
In a day when tilling the soil went mostly by the rule of thumb, we find him developing agriculture in a scientific way. While others were speculating, usually at a loss, he was investing in land and making a profit. When the political thought of his day was centered for the most part in each local colony, he had the vision to see and the understanding to comprehend the advantages of a Federal Union. Although his own State of Virginia had a college in his youth, and there were others in the North, with the possible exception of some short studies in surveying he did not attend any of the higher institutions of learning. Yet he became a well-educated man himself, and in many of his public statements, and finally in his will, he was careful to disclose his views on the importance to republican institutions, of Government-supported free schools, and opportunities for higher education.
Here again he showed distinctly that he was nationally minded, because he coupled the personal benefits of a centralized university training with the cultivation of a national spirit in the students. Since his day so many local colleges and State universities have been established that the provisions of his will have never been put into execution. Yet it is a satisfaction to have this institution at least bearing his name in the National Capital. The views which he expressed on the all-important subject of education have that ring of truth and that soundness which makes them apply with the same force to-day as they had when they were uttered.
Although he, like Lincoln, did not have opportunity to take a college degree, yet, like the Great Emancipator, the Father of his Country had the advantage of working with a citizenship which was well permeated with college men, whom he constantly sought for his advisers in positions of responsibility. It should always be remembered that unless many of their associates had secured the liberal education which comes from college training, the career of both Washington and Lincoln would have been utterly impossible. Without well-educated leaders and general diffusion of learning among the people they would have had no success.
Outside of college walls, but usually under the guidance of competent instruction, Washington was a most painstaking and thorough student. He gained the position which he held through application to hard work. By that means his mind became well trained. He knew how to think.
Not only in what Washington said do we find much wise counsel relating to education, but we find even more in the man himself. His life justifies the existence and demonstrates the necessity of institutions for giving to our youth that broad culture which comes from application to a course in the liberal arts. We need men of technical training. They are much more necessary now than they were in the Revolutionary period. We could not maintain our modern life for any length of time without them. Washington himself would be entitled to considerable rank as an engineer in his day. It is necessary for our progress to have individuals who make a life study of one subject to the exclusion of every-thing else. The danger to them and from them lies in their becoming lost in particulars. While they are wonderfully skilled in their own subject, they often do not comprehend its relation to other subjects.
There would be a place in the world for the soldier and sailor who could see nothing but national defense, a place for the pacifist who would never engage in war and had no comprehension of international relations, for the physicist who had little interest in spiritual ideals, and a place in every large enterprise for the experts in accounting, in production, in transportation, and in merchandising, though they might understand nothing of the broad principles of political economy. But these talents will reach their greatest usefulness only when directed and coordinated by the wisdom of a comprehending executive who may not always know but who rarely fails to understand.
It was in this field that Washington appears to have excelled. He could not have written the Declaration of Independence. Yet, as a statesman he was easily the superior of Jefferson. He could not have prepared the intricate report on manufactures. Yet, he was a far better business man than Hamilton. His words and actions were such that he inspired confidence. The country followed him because it trusted him. They were willing to take his judgment concerning subjects which they did not themselves comprehend. In him was the essence of all great leadership, a power which gives men faith. The people looked on him and believed. They believed in themselves, in their country, and in their future destiny. In that faith they conquered.
It is possible that this kind of talent is born, not made. Yet, as we study the lives of those who have possessed it, we can not escape the conviction that it is enlarged by rigorous training. The only military experience that Lincoln ever had was a few days’ service in the Black Hawk War, to which he always referred with a mixture of amusement. Yet from his early youth we find him constantly employed in the deepest of study trying to learn how to think. Mathematical accuracy was no mere figure of speech with him. His old note papers show that he was engaged in demonstrating his conclusions in accordance with the principles of geometry. When he came to be tried out in a great conflict the dispatches he sent to his armies in the field indicate that his military judgment was unsurpassed by that of any of his generals. When the great Jefferson, master writer brilliantly discoursing on the rights of man, was markedly indifferent to declaring and defending the rights of his countrymen, it was the practical Washington who was bending all his energies to make the rights of man a reality by establishing this Republic under a Federal Constitution.
In all the efforts which our institutions of learning are making to develop science they ought not to fail to put a large emphasis on the development of wisdom. We shall fail, if we put all our endowments, all our honor, and all our efforts into our technical schools and leave unsupported our schools of liberal arts. It will be found just as impossible to secure progress without them as it is to secure civilization without religion.
In addition to the great example of his life, he left a legacy of wise advice and counsel to his fellow countrymen concerning their relations to each other, to their Government, and to their God. As he was about to leave the Army at the close of the Revolutionary War in June, 1783, he issued a letter addressed to the governors of the several States in which he summed up his solicitous interest in the cultivation of good citizenship in the following paragraph:
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in His holy protection; that He would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field; and, finally, that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of Whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy Nation.
His better-known Farewell Address contains nothing finer than this simple, direct, but all-embracing admonition.
Washington was one of the first in a practical way to conceive of the United States as an independent establishment. Before him it had been a Province. After him it was a Nation. Even following the Revolution there were many people in this country who clung to the old thought that we were a European dependency. If we were not to look to England, then we must look to France. It was the clear belief of Washington that we must look to ourselves. Habits of thought live on. There are still those among us who have an inferiority complex and there are still people in Europe who regard us as a Province. He therefore warned us in his Farewell Address to beware of permanent and political alliances. The phrase entangling alliances is not from him, but from Jefferson.
In the thought of that day an alliance meant the banding together of two or more nations for offensive and defensive purpose against certain other nations either expressed or implied. It was a purely artificial creation. It had no reference to an association of practically all nations in an attempt to recognize their common interests and discharge their common obligations. While we should at all times defend our own independence, and maintain our own sovereignty, we should not forget that all nations as well as all individuals have natural and inalienable rights “of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in the words of Jefferson, and, while we should fail disgracefully in our mission in the world if we did not protect those rights for ourselves, we shall also fail if we do not respect them in others.
This principle was clearly understood by our first President, and, being understood, he did not hesitate to put it into operation. When the French undertook to interfere in our affairs in such a way as to threaten the integrity of our Government, he called them to account. When our own citizens, on the other hand, were resentfully refusing to recognize the rights of English subjects, Washington was equally insistent that our Government and our citizens should faithfully discharge their legal obligations – even to our Tory enemies. The Revolutionary War inevitably left many undecided questions pending between the United States and Great Britain. There was the question of turning over to this country certain outpost. There were also certain boundary disputes which were not adjusted until well into the next century. These in turn were followed by differences concerning fisheries. Of course everyone recalls the difficulties under which we suffered as neutrals during the Napoleonic era, which resulted in the War of 1812. A like experience came to us in the World War. We have also had issues arise, sometimes of a serious and threatening nature, with many other countries. We had them during the early period of our national life and shall undoubtedly continue to have them in the future. Both foreign and domestic affairs will constantly produce new questions for consideration.
Those who feel in a considerable state of alarm when they learn that there are subjects requiring diplomatic adjustment at the present time would probably be somewhat relieved if they would consider the history of our international relations. So long as we continue as a Nation we shall have such relations. Because there are matters which require adjustment is no reason for grave concern. There are more and more methods by which the certainty increases that they will be composed.
It is possible to say of our foreign relations at the present time that they have rarely been in a more happy condition. The uncertainties which existed south of the Rio Grande have been very relieved. The domestic disorders in Central America are being adjusted with a satisfaction that is almost universal. Even the mouths of those who would rather criticize us than have us do right have been stopped. The recent Pan American Congress held in Washington exhibited a spirit of friendliness and good will which was most gratifying. Competent and experienced observers have assured me that our relations with South America are on the most satisfactory basis that they have been for 25 years. On the far side of the Pacific our situation is equally satisfactory. We have no important unadjusted problem with the government of any European nation, with the exception of Russia. Outside of that country all the issues that arose, even out of the World War, have been adjusted.
Of course, our citizens meet the citizens of other countries in commercial rivalry in the market places of the world. That will always continue. It is the natural and inevitable result of foreign trade. But it does not raise any issue between our Government and other governments. We believe in a policy of national defense and maintain an Army and a Navy for that purpose. Other countries have similar military establishments. We are committed to the principle of limitation of armaments. The other great powers through the public opinion of their people and the binding obligation of their treaties are more firmly committed to this principle than we are. Each Government is conscientiously seeking to extend this principle. It does not raise any issue among us.
It seems desirable to mention this subject in order that the people of the United States may have my opinion concerning it. We have recently had a national campaign in which, of course, the opposition party was expected to criticize the foreign policy of the Government and suggest that important unsettled issues were gravely interfering with the friendly attitude which we desire to cultivate abroad. In other countries there will be similar campaigns, where the parties out of power will criticize their government in a like manner. There was nothing in our election to indicate that our own country took such statements seriously, and I therefore trust they will not be taken seriously abroad.
For the same reason, our people should not take seriously the campaign utterances of those who may be seeking to supersede the governments in power in other countries. Political utterances of this nature should be carefully differentiated from statements by responsible Government authorities. I should like the people of the United States to know that at the present time there are no questions of importance awaiting settlement between our Government and any of the European Governments with which we have relations. Our Government is on the most cordial and friendly terms with all of them.
Because this is true, there should be an attitude of kindness and good will between our people and all the European people. Whenever we see statements constantly made and seriously entertained concerning the conduct and intentions of our Government likely to prejudice it at home or abroad, there comes a time when a candid presentation of the facts actions have demonstrated that their governments feel that our conduct has been such that they can trust us. After all, the great measure of our standing in the world is determined by whether other nations turn to us for assistance when they have difficulties among themselves. Our very detachment puts us in the position where we are constantly rendering a service to the world which would not otherwise be possible. While we are not associated with any particular foreign group, in the last analysis they all know that they can apply to us when they are in need of friendly offices.
This is the position which I judge. Washington wished his country to occupy. While he warned us against alliances with any, he was no less urgent in counseling the maintenance of friendly relations with all. As our strength has increased, as our power to maintain our independent position has grown, the wisdom of his warning and his counsel has become more and more apparent. Some nations are so situated that it has been and is now necessary for them to seek understandings with others in order to perpetuate their own existence. Others have interests so detached and territory so scattered that they can best protect themselves by some method of regional relations. Our situation is such that we are and can remain unhampered by any such necessities. We do not seek isolation for its own sake, or in order that we may avoid responsibility, but we cherish our position of unprejudiced detachment, because through that means we can best meet our world obligations. If we became closely identified with any specific grouping of nations, however advantageous it might be to us, we could not hope to continue to perform that service.
As we study the statesmanship of Washington, as we see it demonstrated in our domestic and foreign experience, he becomes a larger and larger figure. The clearness of his intellect, the soundness of his judgment, the wisdom of his counsel, the disinterested patriotism of his actions, are constantly revealed to us with a new and compelling force. The reverence for his memory continues to increase. The people of the United States feel that they were exalted in his victory. The people of England feel that even in the defeat of their arms abroad he carried their ideals to victory at home. Such a conquest could not be made save by an exponent of universal truth.