Calvin Coolidge was assailed as “silent Cal”—though who wouldn’t wish more a relatively more silent president these days?—and ridiculed by fashionable people everywhere for saying “the business of America is business.” I’ve got a long passage in the second volume of my Age of Reagan recalling liberal outrage when Reagan put up Coolidge’s portrait in the White House cabinet room in place of Jefferson.
Today my AEI pal Leon Kass, writing in the Wall Street Journal, gets at why liberals really hate Coolidge: he was the last serious and self-conscious anti-Progressive Republican president until Reagan came along. Kass reminds us of Coolidge’s great speech (keep in mind that Coolidge was the last president who wrote his own speeches) on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that described the principles of natural right—the chief target of Progressive ideology—as “final.” Kass summarizes Coolidge’s full remarks because of the space constraints of the printed page; here on the internet we have no such constraint, so here’s the original text of the relevant passage:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
No wonder the left hates him. (There is one notable exception to liberal Coolidge hatred, and it comes from, of all people, John Kenneth Galbraith. In his book The Great Crash, Galbraith wrote: “A whole generation of historians has assailed Coolidge for the superficial optimism which kept him from seeing that a great storm was brewing at home and also more distantly abroad. This is grossly unfair.”)
Meanwhile, about that famous Coolidge quote that “the business of America is business.” Turns out this is not only misquote, but completely ignores, and therefore willfully distorts, the full context of Coolidge’s thought. Here’s the full quotation:
After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of our people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. . . Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, and dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. (Emphasis added.)
Saying that the chief business of the American people is business is acknowledging the uncontroversial fact that America is a commercial republic. The full comment shows that Coolidge, far from being a pro-business simpleton, was warning against exactly the worship of commerce and wealth for which he is accused of being a servant. The frequent refrain that Coolidge was “the patron saint of business” is as crude as it is incorrect.
On a separate occasion, Coolidge wrote this:
Great captains of industry who have aroused the wonder of the world by their financial success would not have been captains at all had it not been for the generations of liberal culture in the past and the existence all about them of a society permeated, inspired, and led by the liberal culture of the present. If it were possible to strike out that factor from present existence, he would find all the value of his great possessions diminish to the vanishing point, and he himself would be but a barbarian among barbarians.
This should also serve as a reminder of who are the real champions of “liberal culture” today. It generally isn’t the people who call themselves “liberal.”
Hat tip: Our friend the late Thomas B. Silver, whose great 1984 book Coolidge and the Historians helped start a wave of revisionism that has seen Coolidge’s reputation rescued from the partisan liberal historians of the 1950s.