The Purpose of America

Title: The Purpose of America

Date: February 22, 1922

Location: Baltimore, MD

Context: Coolidge extols the history and purpose of the nation and the role it plays in the world at large


This is a day which Destiny has dedicated to a larger freedom. It takes us back to the early eighteenth century. That period was marked as one of preparation rather than attainment. Both before it and after it the manifest course of history touched a higher crest. Marlborough, the victor of Blenheim, had just departed from the scene. George II, who with his grandson George III was destined to reign over the British Empire for almost one hundred years, had just come to the throne. Men were still living whose fathers might have known Shakespeare and Milton, might have followed Cromwell at Marston Moor and Dunbar, or might have seen the Mayflower as she carried her passengers forth upon a journey which they have not yet completed, and men were living whose sons were to stand at Concord bridge; were to write the Declaration of Independence and adopt the American Constitution; were to take part in the French Revolution and behold the triumphs of Napoleon end at Waterloo; and finally were to see that century which this day began in 1732 close in 1832 with the Parliamentary Reform Bill. It was to be a century of most remarkable achievements, and if its beginning was not heralded by brilliant events, it held one significant fact. Robert Walpole was prime minister. George II might reign, but he ruled. He was the first of the great commoners, a fore-runner of Pitts and Gladstones in the Old World, and in the New of plain men who would rise to even greater eminence. In the colonies legislative assemblies chosen by popular vote were slowly gaining in their claim of independence. While the people had not yet come to the full exercise of their liberties, they had reached the power to administer, and would soon be seeking the power to control their governments.

It was during this century that the true purpose of America began to be revealed. As we behold it our patience ought to be increased, our faith strengthened, and our belief in human progress reaffirmed. Whatever this might require is more than supplied as we contemplate the birth of George Washington, with all that it has come to mean.

Nations do not come into existence without a purpose. The world soon casts aside organizations which do not minister to its welfare. As we examine the course of known history, as we trace the progress of the race, as we see the problems of existence which had been met and solved by past civilization, and then as we learn of the discovery of a new continent and come to know the cause of its early settlement and mark the spirit of its institutions, there is disclosed to us the meaning and the purpose of our nation. In the fullness of time America was called into being under the most favoring circumstances, to work out the problem of a more perfect relationship among mankind that government and society might be brought into harmony with reason and with conscience. The great events and the great men of our country are those that have made the largest contribution to this purpose. The method by which men have always advanced this cause, the only method by which they ever can advance it, is through service and sacrifice. There can be no great people who are not willing to dedicate themselves to this high purpose.

It was this spirit in the Pilgrim and the Puritan which has drawn to them the admiration of three centuries. For all of them the comfort of the most highly civilized society at home was open; for many of them the enjoyment of wealth and place, reaching up to the splendor of the court; all these were cast aside that they might leave tyranny behind and found a free state amid the hardships of the wilderness, where that which they believed and which they held sacred might have broader scope. Nor was it of themselves even then that they thought most. Believing in piety they formed their church. Believing in freedom and equality they did not scruple to pay the price for their maintenance. “Every township,” their early law decreed, “after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders, shall appoint one to teach all children to write and read; and when any town shall increase to the number of a hundred families, they shall set up a grammar-school.” To such a people liberty was a birthright and independence could not long be denied.

But there was that in the experience of colonial life which brought those who crossed the sea from a somewhat different motive to the same conclusion when they considered their rights were in danger. There had been bred in the English through the centuries which disappear from view in their old German home, a genius for local self-government and an intolerance of foreign interference. If the Pilgrims had landed with a miniature, but none the less complete, charter of democracy in the Mayflower Compact, the early settlers of Virginia, landing with a royal charter, were none the less determined to maintain their rights. They early established a free government under an assembly, now one of the oldest legislative bodies in the world which has been in continual session.

It is not my purpose to trace in detail the well-known course which led up to the American Revolution. A misguided ministry, under a despotic King, secured from a servile Parliament the passage of laws regulating and imposing stamp taxes on the commerce of the colonies. There was never any objection to granting such supplies as were requested, however large, but there was every objection to the imposition of any unlawful tax, however small. But a government which openly flouted public opinion at home was likely to pay even less attention to public opinion in the colonies. These acts were recognized, however, as a direct challenge to the rights of the subjects of the realm everywhere. The Assembly of Virginia led in declaring such taxes unconstitutional, and Massachusetts followed. The great Pitt supported their opposition in Parliament. “Sir, I rejoice,” he said, “that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.” He saw that it was not merely the freedom of the colonies but the freedom of all the realm which was in danger.

Although these taxes were modified under the stress of fear and open rebellion, the right to their imposition was declared and reasserted in a vexatious tax on tea. When this was resisted, a fatuous and tyrannical King resorted to repression by force. “The colonists must either triumph or submit,” he declared. They did not submit. They answered force with force. They would live free or, in resisting usurpation, they would die.

What began in the assertion of constitutional rights ended in the assertion of national sovereignty. If the right of local self-government, if the dearest of all privileges which Englishmen held as their heritage, that of paying no taxes which they themselves had not imposed, could not be guaranteed them under the ancient kingdom, the time had come for them to establish a new nation. This they proceeded to do, beginning the great Declaration with these impressive words: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.”

That which has raised this Declaration to the dignity which it holds among the people of the earth is the genius of George Washington. He did not create the American spirit, but he organized it; he led it, he translated it from solemn declaration into effective action. The words of the delegates were impressive in Congress because they were supported by the army of Washington in the field.

It was some fifteen months from that morning when patriot blood stained Lexington Green to the day when the Liberty Bell first rang in Philadelphia. Some fifteen months away lay Saratoga, a purely American victory, which has been marked as one of a few decisive battles in all history. It was not in high-sounding phrase, or in the voting of resolutions that the Revolution was made or won, but in the service and sacrifice of the people in their homes and above all of the army in the field.

It was not the Declaration but the army which resisted tyranny, which, breaking the power of the King to impose his unlawful will upon the people of the colonies, broke his power to impose an unlawful will upon the people of the realm, and which, preserving the ancient freedom of Englishmen in America, preserved the ancient freedom of Englishmen at home. That army was George Washington. Under him the Americans made a sacrifice for liberty which was not local; it was universal. That sacrifice resisted then, and has ever since been successfully resisting, despotism everywhere. America in its beginnings was doing the work of the world.

True greatness cannot rest merely on a negative. The fame of Washington would be very great if it ended at Yorktown, but both in what he refrained from doing and in what he did after that great event, his fame increases beyond that of a great soldier which is shared by many, into that of a great statesman which is shared by few, and rises to the height of a great patriot which is shared by no one. Washington was first of all an American. He did not refuse the help of foreigners. When, some three years after the conflict began, France made common cause against England, he accepted their assistance gladly and always with the deepest sense of appreciation. But he declared that, if the cause were to be won, it must be won by Americans relying upon themselves. It was this truly American view which not only saved the Revolution but after its conclusion saved what it had won. Washington was a nationalist. That principle lay at the foundation of all his statesmanship. Through the long responsibility of the war he came to know, as no one else could know, the weakness to resist evil of thirteen separate colonies and the power to do good of a united nation. It was the intellectual force of Hamilton which produced the plans and poured forth the arguments, but it was the character of Washington which secured the adoption of the American Constitution. Where Caesar and Napoleon failed, where even Cromwell faltered, Washington alone prevailed. He wished the people of his country to be great, but great in their own right. He resisted the proposal that he should be set up to rule them. He adopted the proposal that they should be organized to rule themselves. He carried these principles through to the end. Later, when some of his countrymen insisted on adhering to the cause of France, while others insisted on adhering to the cause of England, he insisted on adhering to the cause of America, and, with patience and greatness which were sublime, himself bore the resulting abuse of his country for his country’s good.

He was a practical man. If he engaged himself little in proclamation, he engaged himself much in action. To him the Revolution meant an army in the field able to win victories. Knowing where that would lead, he made no haste to claim independence. He made an independent nation. He established a republic under the Constitution, and through two terms as President made its government a reality, with strength enough to preserve order, with honesty enough to meet its financial obligations, and with character enough to win the respect of the world. From henceforth all men, from the most absolute monarch to the most abject subject, were to reckon with what Americans had done and what their country had come to mean.

Under Washington nationality became an accomplished fact. There were those who resisted it then, there were those who would resist it later, through the promulgation of resolutions and finally by force of arms. There were those at home, not confined to any one section, and there were enemies of republican institutions abroad who, for their own selfish reasons, were willing to see the great experiment of self-government fail. But it was not to fail. It was not to diminish. It was to succeed. It was to increase. It was to become all free. We are not to criticise the Fathers because they did not abolish slavery. Progress goes forward step by step. They took their step, and in the pathway of humanity it has a measurement of great length. If they could not acknowledge universal freedom, they declared principles and they adopted institutions which by their very maintenance would establish universal freedom. But it was not only the fact, but the method, which is of importance to us now. There had to be an atonement for slavery. The great evil of its existence had to be resisted by the great sacrifice which was made both by the South and the North for its abolition. It was out of that sacrifice that there came a new birth of freedom, hallowed by the memory of Lincoln. Out of it all there came a most unexpected demonstration of the great strength of free institutions and the power of an awakened conscience in determining the lot of mankind.

It is this same force which sometimes works for a long period silently, with a still small voice, and again goes forth as an army with banners which, for a century now, has shielded the western hemisphere from the menace of Old World aggressions, giving Mexico to the Mexicans and the opportunity for freedom to the islands of the seas.

Our country had proceeded through the course of its history not unmindful of the obligations due to foreign nations, not undesirous of promoting the friendly rivalry of commercial intercourse. It had been not only the merchandise but the word of America which had gone forth into all the world. The name of Washington was known and cherished in all lands, and among all peoples, and his country came to be looked upon as Lincoln saw it, the last, best hope of the world. From it there went out a missionary spirit carrying the promise of general enlightenment, for wherever the American missionary has gone he has carried not only the story of the gospel, but with it the power to establish schools and build hospitals. They ministered to the body, to the intellect, and to the soul. By bearing witness to the truth they supported the cause of freedom. The power of America became a great organizing force wherever it went; but it did not seek foreign conquests, and shrank almost from assuming the government of those dependencies which the doing of duty has intrusted to its care. Serene in its power, in the doing of justice to all, free from all foreign alliance, having nothing to gain from war, foremost in its organized efforts to promote the peace of the world, it expected and feared no possible aggression.

But unconsciously, almost unwillingly, that nation which had been established by Washington and made free under Lincoln, had become a world-power. The setting of its own house in order, great as that accomplishment had been, might give it the power to meet its obligations; it could not give it the power to avoid them. When a military despotism which held in its grasp a great people threatened to destroy the free governments of Europe, when America at last came to realize the issue, the soul of her people was bound to respond. When the leader of the American Expeditionary Force reached France, I do not know whether as he stood before the tomb of that great Frenchman who had first befriended our country, he said, “Lafayette, we are here,” but the event makes the report a reality. From the day when the prow of the Mayflower touched the shores of Massachusetts Bay, wherever any power has sought to substitute the rule of force for the rule of conscience in the affairs of mankind, the soul of America has stood beside the champions of freedom, proclaiming: “We are here.” That spirit of service and sacrifice by which they had saved themselves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called them forth in the twentieth century to cast the deciding weight of their sword into the balance of liberty.

The trial by battle has been decisive. It was as decisive as Yorktown. A stricken and impoverished world has since been struggling to organize and adopt into permanent institutions the results of that victory. Foremost above the desires of all peoples has been the wish to secure new guarantees of peace. No one doubts that the delegates to the Paris Conference were inspired by that noble ideal. Amid all the contending elements they failed to propose a plan which harmonized with the spirit of America. Every one knows that the American soul longed to establish a condition which held the promise of a permanent peace, but its ideal was for a peace not imposed by the major forces of the world from without but maintained by the moral power of the world from within. It saw in the Covenant of the League, whether intended or not, a diminution of its independence, and in its provisions the final sanction not of conscience but of force. It was the American conception that nations, like men, should be free by coming unto a knowledge of the truth, by living in obedience to the law. That was the larger meaning of the war. To translate that meaning into a resolution, to draft it into an agreement, to adopt it as an ordinance, to establish it as one of the fundamental institutions of mankind for the guidance of the society of free nations was a world desire which has tested the statesmanship of civilization.

It was in part in response to this desire that the Washington Conference was called. Men had reached the conclusion that one of the methods of securing peace was by making the necessary sacrifices and performing the necessary services to remove some of the causes of war. It is this which appears to be in harmony with the greater purpose of America. It was not merely the voice of one man, or one party, or one administration, but the true voice of America which proposed, at the opening session of the conference, the scrapping of thirty of its capital ships, aggregating nearly eight hundred and fifty thousand tons, of which fifteen were new ships under construction, on which there had already been spent nearly three hundred and fifty million dollars; and that for a period of ten years the capital ships of this nation be limited to eighteen in number, of a displacement of five hundred thousand tons. It was the same voice which limited the use of submarines and forbade the use of poison gas, which circumscribed the menace of further fortifications in the Pacific, secured justice for China and equal opportunities of participation in her trade and development, and which finally removed the danger of the English-Japanese Treaty-which relied on the sanction of force-and proposed in its place the Four-Power Treaty, which rests on the sanction of justice.

The great strength of this treaty is its simplicity. It does not undertake to establish any artificial relationship; it recognizes the natural relationship between nations. It does not make any new law; it acknowledges the binding force of an eternal law. It is an agreement to respect mutual rights, and whenever those rights are endangered to resort to mutual consultation. This has a sanction to which all force is subject: “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
That rests on the Rock of Ages.

Unto America there has been granted possession of great power which carries with it great obligations. Our domestic burdens are great, but the resources with which they can be met are greater still. We did not suddenly become a great people in 1917, or relinquish our greatness in 1918. The greatness was there, created through long years of endeavor. The occasion revealed its existence. The meaning of America is not to be found in a life without toil. Freedom is not only bought with a great price; it is maintained by unremitting effort. The successful conduct of our economic life is not easy. It cannot be made easy. The burdens of existence, the weight of civilization, cannot be taken from the people. There is no way to establish a better relationship among the people of this nation save through each making great sacrifice. But nowhere does duty done and sacrifice made hold the promise of larger success. The final solution of these problems will not be found in the interposition of government in all the affairs of the people, but rather in following the wisdom of Washington, who refused to exercise authority over the people, that the people might exercise authority over themselves. It is not in the laying on of force, but in the development of the public conscience that salvation lies.

America stands ready to bear its share of the burdens of the world, but it cannot live the life of other peoples, it cannot remove from them the necessity of working out their own destiny. It recognizes their independence and the right to establish their own form of government, but America will join no nation in destroying what it believes ought to be preserved or in profaning what it believes ought to be held sacred. We are at peace with all peoples. We do not deny our duty to continue the making of sacrifices for the welfare of the world. It is not alone for their sake but for our own sake that we should pursue that course. We have adopted toward the world the policy of Washington, not of repression, not of dictation, not of coercion, not of imperialism, but a policy of cooperation, relieving distress, of forbearance, of helpfulness, of sympathy, of forgiveness, a policy which is first of all American, but a policy, above all, of faith in the sanction of the universal conscience of mankind. That sanction is eternal. In it alone is the promise of a larger freedom.


Citation: Foundations of the Republic

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Tamara Harken who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “The Purpose of America”

  1. Tamara Harken

    This speech is a beautiful tribute by President Coolidge to the Idea that is America. It’s a tribute to the spirit of America and the journey that formed our country. It is also a reminder of what our place is in the world, to be an example of freedom, liberty and self-governance. Our forefathers, while not perfect, set us on a path to a better and more just world.

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