On What Makes Heroism

Colvill_MonumentFew today are likely to hear the name of William Colvill with anything more than a passing acknowledgement. Other than to historical enthusiasts, what Colonel Colvill did and why it is important are even more obscure to most people today. Yet, a memorial in his honor still stands an hour south of Minneapolis in the town of Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Here President Coolidge came down from Wisconsin, where he and Mrs. Coolidge were staying that summer, to dedicate the improved monument to the late Colonel on July 29, 1928, almost eighty-six years ago.

In his dedication address, President Coolidge offered more than the typical niceties and platitudes politicians evoke on such occasions. Coolidge actually reflected on the meaning of heroism and after explaining how Colvill earned that distinction, he ventured into the virtual minefield of political-geographical relations to conclude that what Colvill and his fellow soldiers of the First Minnesota did resulted in a better America, both North and South.

Mr. Colvill at the Monument to the valiant First Minnesota at Gettysburg, 1897.

Mr. Colvill at the Monument to the heroic Americans of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, 1897. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Heroic deeds have about them an element of immortality. We stand in reverence before those who perform them and cherish their memory down through the ages because we recognize in them the manifestation of a spiritual life, the evidence of things not seen, a presence which was without beginning and is without end, a power that lifts men above the things of this earth into the realm of the divine. Except as we cherish a belief in these realities, we should have no requirement for heroic deeds and no reverence for those who do them.” “Because of their very nature,” Coolidge declared, “because a knowledge of them inspires us to higher things, it is altogether fitting that we should assemble on this Lord’s Day to reconsecrate ourselves by dedicating a memorial to one of the heroes of…Gettysburg.” Without a constant response to “that high conception of eternal duty” there can be no heroes. A reverence for the memory of those who sacrificed in its call reaffirms our belief in “right and truth and justice,” even when it requires the giving of “life itself” to support and sustain it.

A nation’s heroes, what today might be called “role models” declare in a way no other expression can whether it believes that truth exists, right is worth defending and justice can be realized. “Heroism,” after all, as Coolidge reminds us, “is not only in the man but in the occasion. While there is a certain glamor which attaches itself to the peril which the highwayman and the bandit incur in their criminal activities, it is not genuinely heroic. It will not survive analysis. It leads nowhere. Having no moral quality, it provides no inspiration. It is only a counterfeit of the reality. If it is remembered at all, it is not as a blessing but as a curse.” The un-fulfilling fascination with moral deviancy from Jesse James and Al Capone all the way to Tupac Shakur and Ice-T affirms the soundness of Coolidge’s observations, especially when it comes to our heroes.

Colonel Colvill, 1863

Colonel Colvill, 1863

It was Colonel Colvill and the First Minnesota who turned the tide at Gettysburg on the second day of that three-day ordeal in July 1863. Just as the “overwhelming forces of the Confederates under Longstreet and Hill” were about to flank the vulnerable left side of the Union Army and proceed to roll up the entire force arrayed against them, the already depleted regiment of General Hancock, led by the eight weary companies of the First Minnesota under Colonel Colvill, rushed in to check the Confederate advance. When it was done, only 47 of the 262 men under Colvill still stood. “In all the history of warfare this charge has few, if any, equals and no superiors. It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism against an apparently insuperable antagonist.” The actions of these Americans at so crucial a time meant something greater than preventing defeat at Gettysburg, when all was done, it saved the country, North as well as South.

“We may well stop to consider on this Sabbath Day what Power it was that stationed these men at this strategic point on this occasion, which held so much of the hope of humanity.” It was “the same Power which guided the path of the Mayflower, which gave our country Franklin and Washington, which brought this northwestern territory into the Union…and peopled it with freedom-loving immigration, which raised up Lincoln and Grant, which went to the rescue of liberty in Cuba and on the fields of France. Was it not the same Power which set these men as its sentinels on that July day to guard the progress of humanity? We we behold it all we can but conclude in the words of Holy Writ that, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ “

But, someone may ask, how could this be after all that had happened to the South? Coolidge answers, “The time has come when our whole country can take a more dispassionate view of the long train of events that led up to Appomattox and the new constitutional guarantees of freedom to every inhabitant under our flag. Our national life was begun without any adequate and final declaration of the principle of freedom or demarcation of the line separating the authority of the States and the authority of the Federal Union. Some of the ablest minds of the country honestly differed in their interpretation of our institutions.” This was hardly the fault of that founding generation, it was left to later Americans to work out the never-ending task of self-government expressed in “a more perfect union,” a work that no single generation or region can complete on its own. Each generation has some great task to fulfill its part in the continuous renewal of liberty.

"First Minnesota at Gettysburg" by Don Troiani. Courtesy of the Minnesota National Guard. 262 Minnesotans charged 1,600 Alabamans to halt the Confederate effort to flank the Union Army, July 2, 1863.

“First Minnesota at Gettysburg” by Don Troiani. 262 Minnesotans charged 1,600 Alabamans to halt the Confederate effort to flank the Union Army, July 2, 1863. Courtesy of the Minnesota National Guard.

As opinions became increasingly intensified, the “irrepressible conflict” came. Standing removed from the heat of those events, Coolidge reminds his listeners down to this day that the South is “in many ways entitled to sympathy” not “blame.” The charge of guilt for slavery and its attendant destructiveness was not to be laid at the feet of that region in particular nor to America in general. It was a “net of circumstances” from which “it was totally unable to extricate itself” alone, despite its very best thinkers deploring conditions as they were. It was a “national tragedy” that involved all people, black and white, rich and poor, North and South. The entire country could only free itself “by an appalling national sacrifice.” No one section of the nation could do so by itself, it would take everyone together accomplishing something that no people had ever done before: the defeat of a deeply-rooted institution of human nature that had prevailed in all of mankind’s history by the ideal of moral equality before our Creator. No other nation had ever fought such a conflict for such eternal truth let alone done so successfully.

At the end of the conflict, Coolidge acknowledges, the North was “depleted” while the South was “entirely prostrated.” Though the North had an earlier start and easier task, “it was necessary” for the South “to go through the long and painful process of erecting an entirely new structure. The old methods of existence and of business had to be discarded and new systems established. This would have been most difficult under any circumstances. Coming at the end of four years of conflict, it was well-nigh impossible. But the task was performed slowly and imperfectly at first, but in recent years with a rapidity that seemed scarcely possible.” It is to the rise of this “new South,” in Coolidge’s own time, that the President turned with highest praise. The region that could have remained mired in victimhood, loss and defeat, was exemplifying for all the nation to see the exceptional resilience of American ideals. Agriculture had come back stronger than before but to this had been added the development of coal, iron, water power and manufacturing. It was especially to manufacturing that the South was rebuilding on foundations for which all ultimately had fought and sacrificed on both sides.

The Coolidges with Minnesota Governor Theodore Christianson in front of Colonel Colvill's memorial, July 29, 1928

The Coolidges with Minnesota Governor Theodore Christianson in front of Colonel Colvill’s memorial, July 29, 1928

Coolidge was not speaking in empty generalities, he reiterated firm facts everyone could observe: the South was rising anew. Forty per cent of goods imported overseas came from Southern ports. Manufactured products had nearly tripled in value in less than thirty years, totaling $9.5 million. Capital invested in the manufacture of cotton had risen from $130 million to $1 billion since 1900. Bank deposits had multiplied tenfold. Public improvements likewise illustrated exponential growth in just thirty, short years. Taking stock of these incredible achievements throughout the South, President Coolidge summarized, “It is perfectly apparent that in progress and prosperity the South is going forward in a way which it could never have done under the old system.”

These developments were neither surprising nor cause for lament to Coolidge, they were the results of freedom preserved by genuine heroes, both North and South. The great historical irony is that if Colvill had not checked the Confederates at Gettysburg, the immense blessings of a “new South” would have never come to so many Americans down to our current day. The South, with all its modern possibilities, would have never been built. After all, Coolidge notes, “It has been demonstrated that what never could have been created under a condition of servitude is the almost natural result of a condition of freedom. Human nature has been so designed that men are only at their best when they are permitted to live like men. It is when they are released from bondage of the body, given control over their own actions, receive the returns from their own labor, and released from bondage of the mind so that ignorance and superstition are replaced by education and moral influences, that most progress is made toward an enlightened civilization.”

Skylines of the “New South”

Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville, Tennessee

Mobile, Alabama

Mobile, Alabama

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta, Georgia

Dallas, Texas

Dallas, Texas

Houston, Texas

Houston, Texas

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Virginia

Columbia, South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina

This was not the work of one geographic segment of the country, however, it was lifting the entire Nation “into a new life with unparalleled swiftness,” giving labor “a new dignity throughout the whole country.” The expansion of American’s free markets some $35 billion since 1921 alone was not due to mechanical or material causes, they were only possible through the “spiritual regeneration of our country.” It was a laying aside of the “bitterness, hatred, and sectional animosities” which had “retarded” progress for years following the war. Attempting to keep “alive” these “hostile sentiments” for “political advantage” could no longer obtain an accepted place here. Racial and sectional prejudice, part of the human condition everywhere, would never be eradicated completely from every heart but they were alien to the outlooks and principles of reasonable Americans, North and South. A moral renewal had resulted in a material change. This perpetual division and sectional discord would not enjoy a place in the revitalization of America after the War had torn it apart. A new respect for each other must preside here. The floods that had inundated the lower Mississippi Valley that same spring confirmed the North and South were moving together past the old, wasteful and tired attitudes looking, instead, “with pride and satisfaction upon the brilliant contribution which the other is making to the national welfare.” Each part of America “just as eager to help the other as they are to help themselves.” Flood-relief demonstrated this by both levying a sum equal to the cost of the Panama Canal and being largely paid for by Northern states. Coolidge could joyfully commend everyone invested in America’s healing, affirming, “We are a united Nation.”

This was, essentially, why tens of thousands had come to Cannon Falls that day. Our heroes, like Colonel Colvill, inspire us to moral heights, or else they are not authentic heroes at all. The North and South had come back together on firmer foundations because Americans of all sections had risen to the occasion, sacrificing even life itself for the preservation of those “higher things,” the unseen realities, as Coolidge called them. Americans were rededicating themselves “to the support and preservation of those principles which have been revealed to us through the human understanding to be true and demonstrated through long experience to be sound.” Issuing from a renewed faith in those great ideals, all Americans, Coolidge concluded, “have come to increase our admiration for all that is heroic in life, to express our reverence for those who have made sacrifices for the well-being of their fellow men, to renew their fealty to the Constitution of the United States, to rejoice in the universal freedom which it guarantees and in the perfect Union which it has created, and finally for all these blessings in gratitude and humility to acknowledge our dependence upon the Giver of every true and perfect gift.” No firmer basis for summoning the heroism needed to reunite and redeem America can be found than this.

The President at Cannon Falls, dedicating Colvill's memorial

The President at Cannon Falls, dedicating Colvill’s memorial. Courtesy of the Hubbard County Historical Museum.

On Serving All Humanity in Disease Prevention and Medical Advancement

Courtesy of the University of Alabama, http://acumen.lib.ua.edu/u0003_0000581_0002917.

Courtesy of the University of Alabama, which now continues the work of the Gorgas Memorial Institute, http://acumen.lib.ua.edu/u0003_0000581_0002917.

Unable to meet with President Coolidge on October 2, 1923 as scheduled, Dr. Franklin Martin of the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Tropical and Preventive Medicine, left a simple request in his absence: would Coolidge accept the honorary Presidency of the Institute? The President, long appreciative of the strenuous endeavors by William C. Gorgas and his team in eradicating Yellow Fever and Malaria that had so long afflicted the people of tropical and semi-tropical regions, enthusiastically accepted and here writes one of the most expressive acceptance letters he ever wrote, commending a cause that meant a great deal to him. The work continued by the Institute in honor of the late Mr. Gorgas not only practiced the law of service but had accomplished immeasurable good for all people in the continued eradication of preventable diseases. To Coolidge, there was no virtue in allowing “the jungle” to consume a standard of living America had proven possible that in previous generations had been unknown even to monarchs. Neither progress nor justice resided in bringing standards back down for all alike. It meant keeping that standard increasingly as high as possible so that more instead of less can have a fuller life to give to those who do not have it now, at least on this side of eternity. Surrendering that fight to the elements would not only squander the great achievements of men like Gorgas and Dr. Martin but would endanger people all over the globe, plunging the world back into the dark reign of preventable disease and unnecessary loss. By accepting this honorary role, Coolidge was not assuming this work under government management but supporting the innovation and dedication of millions of individuals, empowered by freedom, to better the world through selfless service.

Addendum: Calvin Coolidge’s Advice for Voting, Campaigning and Governing

As a postscript to the wealth of good sense and political saavy of Calvin Coolidge presented yesterday, these four “honorable mentions” deserve further consideration, especially as this year has brought to the forefront things more important than the party affiliation of those seeking office. Character and qualifications are imperatives that can no longer be ranked as distant secondaries to appearances and external polish. This campaign has brought to front and center questions of where a candidate or officeholder lives or should live, how competent he or she is in representing our interests and how committed one remains to the day’s work, not merely the next election or the next political promotion. Coolidge, more timely now than ever, weighs in on all of these issues. After all, Coolidge reminds us that where a person lives is where the heart lives also and being faithful in small things makes one fit for greater things.

“They all taught me to be faithful over a few things. If they had any idea that such a training might some day make me a ruler over many things, it was not disclosed to me” — Coolidge from The Autobiography, 1929, p.19

Here Coolidge is alluding to the scene of final judgment described by the Lord in Matthew 25, verses 21 and 23; cf. Luke 16:10-12. The question Christ asks in Luke should be honestly answered by every candidate on the ballot this year: “If you have not been faithful in what is another man’s who will give you what is your own?” Coolidge unassumingly kept his focus on the work at hand, even when the lure of national prestige and popularity rose with the campaign of 1920, as he recounts, “I was Governor of Massachusetts, and my first duty was to that office. It would not be possible for me, with the legislature in session, to be going about the country actively participating in an effort to secure delegates, and I was totally unwilling to have a large sum of money raised and spent in my behalf.” Too many are concerning themselves with 2016, when there is work to be done today. How much better would office holders be if they adopted Coolidge’s attitude? Do the day’s work, make it your first duty and tomorrow will take care of itself.

“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. I always made my living practicing law up the time I became Governor, without being dependent on any official salary. This left me free to make my own decisions in accordance with what I thought was the public good. We lived where we did that I might better serve the people” — The Autobiography p.96

Whether the candidate actually lives in the same jurisdiction or district one is seeking to represent matters. It matters because voters need to know that the candidate is fully invested in what they are being elected to accomplish, that we are getting the best a candidate is and will do. It means living by the same rules you expect of others. If the candidate remains insulated from the consequences of his or her decisions, the responsibilities entrusted will neither be borne nor respected. Voters are seeking to learn whether the candidate is going to uphold integrity, serving self or for the genuine good of all those one is oath-bound to represent.

“I made progress because I studied subjects sufficiently to know a little more about them than any one else on the floor” — The Autobiography p.103

Some seek to distinguish themselves through grandstanding, boisterousness or the condescension of promoting big appearances with little substance. Coolidge demonstrated the quiet diligence of learning what the issues are, understanding the subjects under consideration not voting to learn what was in them. This measure of informed leadership is not to silence questions or win arguments but to understand the best course for responsible self-government. He advanced not by clever showmanship but by his grasp of public questions and human nature he proved qualified to speak and fit to lead.

Finally, “The requirements of the situation as it developed seem clear and plain now, and easy to decide, but as they arose they were very complicated and involved in many immaterial issues. The right thing to do never requires any subterfuges, it is always simple and direct. That is the reason that intrigue usually falls of its own weight” — The Autobiography p.133

Speaking of his part as Governor in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, Coolidge presents a maxim that applies to every time and place. Politics is so easily distracted from the essentials and as events unfold, peripherals crowd in to obscure what is fundamental. Coolidge reminds us to separate the extraneous from the essential, truth from falsehood, the constructive from the harmful, the eternal from the temporal. When that is done, the right course shines free of all pretense, sham and artificiality.

Calvin Coolidge: Advice for Voting, Campaigning and Governing

The Coolidges vote together, November 2, 1920. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August of 1920, recognized suffrage for women nationwide and enabled Grace to join her husband and to cast her ballot for the first time.

The Coolidges vote together, November 2, 1920. The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August of that year, recognized suffrage for women nationwide and enabled Grace to join her husband and to cast a Presidential ballot for the first time. Massachusetts provided for woman suffrage on school, bond and tax issues. Before the Nineteenth Amendment, most states already had either full, Presidential or local suffrage for women. Only 10 states had little or no formally recognized voting rights: PA, MD, VA, WV, OH, NC, SC, GA, AL, and FL.

Being as it is an election year, with some primaries already behind us and more soon to come, thousands of campaigns, large and small, are underway. Whether you are a candidate, a voter or currently serving your town, your county, your district or your state, take a few moments to stop, listen and take to heart what Calvin Coolidge had to say about voting, campaigning and governing.

When he rose to Presidential responsibility in August 1923, he had already served as a local precinct Committeeman, City Councilman, City Solicitor, State Representative, Mayor, State Senator, President of the State Senate, Lieutenant Governor, Governor and Vice President all before age 52. He has much to tell us. If we returned to the principles he exemplified we would find a higher caliber of candidates, a more faithful public service, and a stronger citizenship. As we head into election time, think on these 30 bits of political wisdom from our thirtieth President.

“You need not hesitate to give the other members your views on any subject that arises. It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones, and better to spend your time on your own committee work than by bothering with any bills of your own except in some measure that your own County or some other persons may want you to introduce for them…See that bills you recommend from your committee are so worded that they will do just what they intend and not a great deal more that is undesirable. Most bills can’t stand that test” – letter to his father, September 6, 1910

“Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness…The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act or resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil…The normal must care for themselves. Self-government means self-support…Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a standpatter, but don’t be a standpatter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be a revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. Don’t hurry to legislate. Give administration a chance to catch up with legislation…Statutes must appeal to more than material welfare. Wages won’t satisfy, be they never so large. Nor houses; nor lands; no coupons, though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn. Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole. To that, not to selfishness, let the laws of the Commonwealth appeal. Recognize the immortal worth and dignity of man” – Address to the State Senate on being elected its President, Boston, January 7, 1914

“The law, changed and changeable on slight provocation, loses its sanctity and authority” – Adequate Brevity p.54

“I am not one of those who believe votes are to be won by misrepresentations, skillful presentations of half truths, and plausible deductions from false premises. Good government cannot be found on the bargain-counter” – Address at Riverside, MA, August 28, 1916

“We have had many attempts at regulation of industrial activity by law. Some of it has proceeded on the theory that if those who enjoyed material prosperity used it for wrong purposes, such prosperity should be limited or abolished. That is as sound as it would be to abolish writing to prevent forgery. We need to keep forever in mind that guilt is personal; if there is to be punishment let it fall on the evil-doer, let us not condemn the instrument” – Address at Associated Industries Dinner, Boston, December 15, 1916

Young C

“So much emphasis has been put upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service” – Essay “On the Nature of Politics”

“Public men must expect criticism and be prepared to endure false charges from their opponents. It is a matter of no great concern to them. But public confidence in government is a matter of great concern…It is necessary to differentiate between partisan assertions and actual conditions” – “On the Nature of Politics”

“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” — “On the Nature of Politics”

“It seemed to me that the towns in this commonwealth correspond in part to what we might call the water-tight compartments of the ship of state, and while sometimes our state government has wavered…whenever that has arisen, the towns of the commonwealth have come to the rescue” – Dedication of Town-House, Weston, MA, November 27, 1917

“Under our National Government the States are the sheet-anchors of our institutions. On them falls the task of administering local affairs and of supporting the National Government in peace and war”—Address at Tremont Temple, November 2, 1918

One of several vintage pins from the campaign of 1924 that resulted in a landslide for Coolidge.

One of several vintage pins from the campaign of 1924. Coolidge won in a landslide that year over both his Democrat and third-party challengers.

“Those in whom is placed the solemn duty of caring for others ought to think of themselves last or their decisions will lack authority. There is apparent a disposition to deny the disinterestedness and impartiality of government. Such charges are the result of ignorance and an evil desire to destroy our institutions for personal profit. It is of infinite importance to demonstrate that legislation is used not for the benefit of the legislator, but of the public” – Veto of Salary Increase, 1919

“Naturally the question arises, what shall we do to defend our birthright? In the first place everybody must take a more active part in public affairs. It will not do for men to send, they must go. It is not enough to draw a check. Good government cannot be bought, it has to be given…Unless good citizens hold office bad citizens will” – Speech at Tremont Temple, November 1, 1919

“We have had too much legislating by clamor, by tumult, by pressure. Representative government ceases when outside influence of any kind is substituted for the judgment of the representative. This does not mean that the opinion of constituents is to be ignored. It is to be weighed most carefully, for the representative must represent, but his oath provides that it must be ‘faithfully and impartially according to the best of his abilities and understanding, agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Constitution and laws’” – Message to the Massachusetts Legislature accompanying the Governor’s Veto, May 6, 1920

“Real reform does not begin with a law; it ends with a law. The attempt to dragoon the body when the need is to convince the soul will end only in revolt” – Address before the American Bar Association, San Francisco, CA, August 10, 1922

“Error lies in supposing that great fundamental reforms can be at once accomplished by the mere passage of a law. By law is meant a rule of action. Action depends upon intelligence and motive. If either of these be lacking, the action fails and the law fails” – Address before the NY State Convention of the YMCA, Albany, NY, April 13, 1923


“The problem of preventing vice and crime and of restraining personal and organized selfishness is as old as human experience. We shall not find for it an immediate and complete solution in an amendment to the Federal Constitution, an act of Congress, or in the findings of a new board or commission” – Adequate Brevity p.112

“We must have no carelessness in our dealings with public property or the expenditure of public money. Such a condition is characteristic either of an undeveloped people, or of a decadent civilization. America is neither…We must have an administration which is marked, not by the inexperience of youth, or the futility of age, but by the character and ability of maturity” – Address at the Seventh Meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, Memorial Continental Hall, June 30, 1924

“I want the people of American to be able to work less for the Government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. This is the chief meaning of freedom” – Acceptance Address of Presidential Nomination, August 14, 1924

“A political campaign can be justified only on the grounds that it enables the citizens to become informed as to what policies are best for themselves and for their country, in order that they may vote to elect those who from their past record and present professions they know will put such policies into effect. The purpose of a campaign is to send an intelligent and informed voter to the ballot box. All the speeches, all the literature, all the organization, all the effort, all the time and all the money, which are not finally registered on election day, are wasted” – Radio address from the White House, November 3, 1924

“Propaganda seeks to present a part of the facts, to distort their relations, and to force conclusions which could not be drawn from a complete and candid survey of all the facts. It has been observed that propaganda seeks to close the mind, while education seeks to open it. This has become of the dangers of the present day…Unfortunately, not all experts are completely disinterested. Not all specialists are completely without guile. In our increasing dependence on specialized authority, we tend to become easier victims for the propagandists, and need to cultivate sedulously the habit of the open mind…We need to keep our minds free of prejudice and bias. Of education and real information we cannot get too much. But of propaganda, which is tainted or perverted information, we cannot have too little” – Address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D. C., January 17, 1925

Colonel Coolidge inspects the lead vehicle of the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour about to depart from Plymouth, September 1924. The driver, John P. Cowan of Pittsburgh, would use this unique means of bringing Coolidge to the country. A thoroughly grassroots movement, the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour would see 5 million participants in 100,000 automobiles before reaching their final stop on the Pacific. It must have worked since on November 4, Calvin Coolidge decisively beat the combined political support of both his challengers with 15.7 million votes, carrying 35 of 48 states and securing 382 electoral votes out of 266 needed to clinch victory). His 25.2 point margin victory is one of the largest popular votes garnered to this day.

Colonel Coolidge inspects the lead vehicle of the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour about to depart from Plymouth, September 1924. The driver, John P. Cowan of Pittsburgh, would use this unique means of bringing Coolidge to the country. A thoroughly grassroots movement, the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour would see 5 million participants in 100,000 automobiles before reaching their final stop on the Pacific. It must have contributed mightily to the result since on November 4, Calvin Coolidge decisively beat the combined political support of both his challengers with 15.7 million votes, carrying 35 of 48 states and securing 382 electoral votes out of 266 needed to win. His 25.2 point margin victory is one of the largest popular votes garnered to this day.

Here is a map following the route the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour traveled September 9-November 3, 1924. The first of its kind, a cross-country, political road rally spanned some 56 days in duration and crossed 17 states, 6500 miles in total.

Here is a map following the route the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour, using the Lincoln Highway, traveled from September 9 to November 3, 1924. Being the first of its kind, the Lincoln Tour was a cross-country political road-rally that started with six automobiles driven by Coolidge’s Plymouth friends and neighbors and ended 56 days, 400 stops, 17 states and 6500 miles later on the Pacific coast in Washington state.

“What we need is not more Federal government, but better local government…When the local government unit evades its responsibility in one direction, it is started in the vicious way of disregard of law and laxity of living…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. If we can not govern ourselves, if we can not observe the law, nothing remains but to have some one else govern us, to have the law enforced against us, and to step down from the honorable abiding place of freedom to the ignominious abode of servitude” – Address at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1925

“The doctrine of State rights is not a privilege to continue in wrong-doing but a privilege to be free from interference in well-doing” – Address at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, May 15, 1926

“We have built our institutions around the rights of the individual. We believe he will be better off if he looks after himself. We believe that the municipality, the State, and the National will each be better off if they look after themselves. We do not know of any other theory that harmonizes with our conception of true manhood and true womanhood” – Address before the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C., April 16, 1928

“For important political service the three qualifications necessary are character, ability and experience. Some of our voters are not giving sufficient consideration to these requirements. They are often supporting candidates whose greatest appeal is that they are good fellows. An agreeable personality is a fine quality, but it is not enough to administer a great office. It is vain to support office seekers who smile, if it results in electing officeholders who are not competent. The government cannot be run successfully by substituting the power of entertainment for the power of accomplishment” – Calvin Coolidge Says (daily column), October 8, 1930

“This general principle of passing one piece of legislation at a time is most salutary. It prevents crowding through measures that the majority does not favor and forces all bills to stand on their merits” — Calvin Coolidge Says, January 16, 1931

Calvin and Grace greeting Americans on the White House lawn

Calvin and Grace greeting fellow citizens visiting the farm

“A good measure can stand discussion. A bad bill ought to be delayed…Open debate is the only shield against the irretrievable action of a rash majority” – Calvin Coolidge Says, March 10, 1931

“There is only form of political strategy in which I have any confidence, and that is to try to do the right thing and sometimes to succeed” – The Autobiography, p.189

“The political mind is the product of men in public life who have been twice spoiled. They have been spoiled with praise and they have been spoiled with abuse. With them nothing is natural, everything is artificial. A few rare souls escape these influences and maintain a vision and a judgment that are unimpaired. They are a great comfort to every President and a great service to their country” – The Autobiography, 1929, p.229

“Talking is all right, but the side that organizes and gets the vote to the polls is the side that wins” – Coolidge to Everett Sanders, September 21, 1932

Bruce Barton: “Governor, how it is that you have been able to stay in public life all these years and hold office when you have no money?”
Calvin Coolidge: “I’m solvent.”
Bruce Barton: “He took care to keep solvent. He never lost his head. He never let anything change him“ – radio eulogy by author and long-time Coolidge advocate, Bruce Barton, broadcast on NBC radio the night of Coolidge’s death, January 5, 1933 (Coolidge Wit and Wisdom p.x)

President Coolidge and Vice Presidential running-mate Charles Dawes, July 1924

President Coolidge and Vice Presidential running-mate, Charles Dawes, July 1924

On Continuing Constructive Economy

President Coolidge signs the Revenue Act of 1926, February 26, 1926

President Coolidge signs the Revenue Act of 1926, February 26, 1926. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Instituted to measure the success or shortfall of the Budget system year by year, the Business Organization of the Government met twice annually, once in January and at the end of the fiscal year each June. Led by the President and his Budget Bureau Director, it would be left to Coolidge and Director Lord to lift these meetings out of the realm of a burdensome and tedious anomaly from the status quo. Instead of “business as usual” the Coolidge administration walked what it talked, bringing a focused and even entertainingly competitive application of private sector principles to what had been a wasteful and inefficient government norm. As everyone knew, however, when the department heads, bureau chiefs and agency leads met with the President and the Budget Bureau Director for the tenth time on January 30, 1926, the progress of four and a half years could come stall, abruptly halt or unravel before their eyes if any one of them succumbed to the pressures continually upon them to revert to the old habits of Washington as usual. Now elected in his own right, there was no code of honor binding Coolidge to adhere to Harding’s budget program. He continued it because it was morally right and necessary for the country, whoever occupied the White House. Each month was making it more and more difficult, however, for those who made his budgets reality every year. Prosperity was abounding. The economy was roaring and revenue had only increased with the expectations of a new tax bill, which would be passed less than a month after their meeting on February 26th, drastically improving conditions from what had already been beneficial relief under the Revenue Act two years before.

A student of government and especially of tax policy, President Coolidge, began to see a pattern of both good prospects and detrimental concerns for the future. The meeting later that year, on June 21, would make it even clearer: government expenses were reaching a natural plateau, that made future possibilities for drastic cutting genuinely no longer possible. By that summer, Coolidge reminded his audience again that the past five years under a Budget system had removed $2 billion of waste from the Federal budget not once or twice, but five times. However, the Federal Budget, chopped from $5.5 billion in 1921, now stood at some $3 billion but was very close to reaching an impasse. Progress would begin undoing itself to the harm of every American household. The standards of living would begin to fall under disrepair and the cost of government would have to return to extracting the earnings of the people who would again work less for themselves and more for government. To Coolidge this was an intolerable regression. Coolidge made emphatically clear that this program was not about saving a dollar if it meant destroying an individual. Each partner in this great enterprise was saving to serve people, not money. Closing schools, abolishing courts, disbanding the police forces and discontinuing fire departments was not moving in the direction of civilization but back toward anarchy and the law of might triumphs over all.

Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, 1926. Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, 1926. Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

This did not mean that the Budget system had completed its work or that constructive economy was done. Far from it. Now came the most difficult juncture: Would constructive economy, what Coolidge termed the securing of more results for less cost — the people getting the most possible out of every tax dollar, continue? After all, he approached the question not with a concern for where government was going to find reliable streams of revenue but how every cent of revenue could be saved and only expended to maximum benefit of those who worked to earn it, American taxpayers. As Coolidge declared in the June meeting of 1926, “The real purpose for which we are assembled is to discuss plans and adopt policies which will affect in their actual daily life the welfare, progress, and prosperity of 117,000,000 people. What we do here reaches into every home in the land. It determines whether the taxgatherer is going to require more money from the head of the household to meet the cost of maintaining the Government, or whether the taxgatherer is going to leave more money with the head of the household to meet the cost of maintaining the family. Our efforts here are translated into benefits for the head of the household and his family.”

These bi-annual meetings were anything but irrelevant abstractions, they directly impacted the lives of every person in the country. There were faces tied to every decision made in Washington. A choice to stop now and abandon constructive economy — however insignificant it seemed to each little office in government meant priceless blessings to the future good of families all across the country. Coolidge wanted to remind those who had partnered with his effort to budget that millions of real people waited at the end of their determination to uphold their obligation.

Functional Distribution of Expenditures FY 1926. Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

Functional Distribution of Expenditures FY 1920-1926. Courtesy of Fraser, http://fraser.stlouisfed.org/.

It was just as important to recognize that constructive economy was not simply an incessant negative, it sometimes called for reallocations of spending on new endeavors in order to secure even greater efficiency with the people’s money. The construction of public buildings, vacating the expensive rental of private property, would ensure that more was gained for less as property taxes would decrease and rental costs could be eliminated. Personnel, what everyone knew to be the biggest expenditure in the budget, had seen 5,000 names (roughly 1% of the total Federal workforce) at a cost of $8 million reduced from the payroll. These numbers were people to Coolidge who, he knew, would find the real value of their labor in the burgeoning marketplace without weighing down the American people at exaggerated prices from the public Treasury. Of course, when possible, efficiency meant moving one person unneeded in one department to where they were in need. Or, as Coolidge said in June, “I am encouraged in the thought that we can have further reduction of personnel without discharging a single person by the simple device of not filling all the vacancies that occur.”

The call of constructive economy summoned everyone to serve the taxpayer, from the newest clerk to the most senior administrator. Government work was not “good enough” to do less than any private business must do to meet the constant challenge of efficiency and solvency. This included travel costs and per diem rates. Government employees were not free to spend because it was there. The surplus of 1926 was no excuse to waste the money of the American people. “We are not striving to save the dollar simply to save it,” Coolidge declared. “We are not striving to save the dollar at the expense of the public service. Rather do we approach it from the other side and save the dollar for the good that it will bring to the people whom we serve. We can make the dollar purchase more by purchasing more wisely. We can eventually save money by a justified expenditure to-day which will reduce future annual unproductive expenditures. This is constructive economy.”

Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, 1926.  This chart especially illustrates the progressive rate of taxation in the Twenties, giving the lie to those who still claim taxation spared "the rich" while punishing "the common man."

Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, 1926. This chart especially illustrates the progressive rate of taxation in the Twenties, giving the lie to those who still claim taxation spared “the rich” while punishing “the common man.” The exact opposite was the case under Coolidge-Mellon tax policy.

The Revenue Act that would be passed in February 1926 finally achieved a number of the objections Coolidge had wanted done in 1924. Top marginal income rates were sliced to 25%, a 21% decrease from 1924. The new Act “relieved some 2,000,000 people from paying any direct tax and reduced the burden of all other taxpayers. General prosperity is the aggregate of the individual prosperity of our citizens. To permit the people to retain more of their own earnings is to increase their savings and purchasing capacity, which assures prosperity.” In 1926, married couples with no dependents, making the typical middle class bracket of $3,000 net, paid nothing. Single persons making $3,000 paid only $16.88. The laundry list of taxes invented during the war had governed some 50 categories of goods, now there were only 5. This meant a loss of $275 million in revenue and under the law “no compensating increases” were levied to replace them. Under the previous tax law, upwards of 40% of America’s businesses “with not one dollar of profit were obliged to pay a large tax.” In 1926, this ended so that businesses could make payroll, cover costs and barely break even without having to face a tax penalty for profits they did not make. Another provision withdrew individual income tax records from public disclosure requirements thereby helping to protect taxpayers from being targeted by those who deemed income or what someone else paid to be “unfair.” The rewards of this Act would continue to come to light in the coming year but it already confirmed the “theory that reduction of tax rates economically applied will stimulate business, and thereby increase taxable revenue.” Holding to the Budget system would ensure that the people obtained a maximum return on their investment.

"Who said they didn't believe in Santa Claus?" by "Ding" Darling, The Des Moines Register, November 8, 1926.

“Who said they didn’t believe in Santa Claus?” by “Ding” Darling, The Des Moines Register, November 8, 1926.

Another cause of concern for Coolidge came from the budget estimates of the next two years, which held razor thin surpluses that could very easily evaporate should even the slightest unforeseen expense arise. It was evident that while revenue was increasing, several factors were going to begin undermining the success of future tax cuts if relied upon recklessly. First, President Coolidge was concerned that a reliance on the current sources of revenue to increase steadily was a misleading and faulty hope. The back taxes that had accrued so much of the increase in 1925 and 1926 were going away. There would not be another year of so ample a contribution to the surplus. The departments could not depend on this revenue in their appropriation requests to the President like they had in previous years. Constructive economy meant “preparation for the future.” If costs were wisely planned out, retrenchment would continue as it had the previous year, saving $24 million in reserve when all was said and done. This conscientious discipline of spending less than one had would only reap greater dividends for the future.

Second, President Coolidge was concerned that loose spending would foreclose any possibility of further tax reduction in the coming years. Tax rates had been cut three times by the summer of 1926, and the latest Revenue Act had secured much for the country that would only increase as the new year dawned. Yet, the President knew that government was even then taking too much from people’s earnings so that Americans were all the poorer for it. If those gathered to effect constructive economy deviated from that mission, surplus would soon melt into deficit, the budget would be overwhelmed with demands from every side and prosperity would be inundated with financial distress resulting in “want, misery, disorder, and the dissolution of society.” As he would repeat again in June, “The limit is close at hand when further expansion in the costs of government will bring the danger of stagnation and financial depression.” Little could anyone know how prescient this statement would be when, by 1930, market downturn would become depression through that very cause. Coolidge’s warnings were not political hyperbole either, the men and women gathered for the Business Organization of the Government had seen these dangers manifest firsthand from 1919 through the turmoil of 1921. While part of the increase in revenue from the Revenue Act of 1926 would come from business expecting reductions, it would not help anyone to infer more tax cuts were to be expected in the future. Doing so too soon would have the reverse effect of precluding cuts as government would become lackadaisical about responsible budgeting.

State-Fed Spending 1921State-Fed Spending 1925

Third, President Coolidge was concerned with state and local spending trends. While the Federal Government had faithfully maintained the cutting of expenditures with an accompanying reduction in debts and taxes, States and municipalities around the country embraced a “mounting tide of expenditure and indebtedness.” During the same five years that the Federal Government had brought expenses down more than $2 billion, $4 billion in increases were being expended by State, county and municipal authorities. When the cost of all government nationwide approached $9.5 billion in 1921, 60% of that total was Federal. In 1925, when the cost of all government stood at $11.5 billion, only 27% of the total fell to the Federal level. Coolidge explained the basis for this dramatic turn-around. “The answer to this reduction of 33 per cent in the Federal share of all government costs is not that we are performing less service for the people or neglecting our physical plant. The real answer is that we have so far put our house in order as to decrease our demands upon the people and to give them more efficient government at less cost…There is cause for concern in this situation. It is fraught with grave consequences to the public welfare. The Federal Government has decreased its cost by practicing the homely virtue of thrift. This has not been an easy task. It has required cooperative effort and sacrifice in every direction. If the interests of the people demanded this action on the part of the Federal Government, surely they would seem to demand similar action with regard to the increase in these other local governmental costs. This suggestion is not meant as a criticism of the officers of our local governments. It is rather a statement of fact. It shows how hard it is in these times to reduce the costs, taxes, and debts of governments. But it can be done if the people will cooperate.”

The President signs the Revenue Act, 1926. To the left of the legislators stands Secretary Mellon, Director Herbert M. Lord and Everett Sanders, all the right of the photo. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The President signs the Revenue Act, 1926. Legislative leaders of both parties bask in the light of the Coolidge team, L to R: Democrat Furnifold M. Simmons of North Carolina (concealed by the flag hanging in the foreground); Democrat John N. Garner of Texas (directly behind Coolidge), who vehemently opposed tax cuts; President Coolidge (seated), flanked by Republicans Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, House Majority Leader John Q. Tilson of Connecticut and Representative William R. Green of Iowa; followed by Treasury Secretary Mellon, Budget Bureau Director Herbert M. Lord and the President’s secretary, Everett Sanders. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Legislators stand in the midst of the Coolidge tax policy team, with Democrat Senator Simmons directly in front of Mellon beside his fellow Democrat from the House, "Texas Jack" Garner.

Legislators stand in the midst of the Coolidge tax policy team, with Democrat Senator Simmons standing in front of Mellon to flank the President’s chair with fellow Democrat from the House, “Texas Jack” Garner.

The people of the country had to remain behind these efforts of constructive economy just as much as the Congress, the President and his Executive Department. It was larger than any one person, one department or even one administration. Yet every individual, doing one’s part, was indispensable to the overall result. The President had relentlessly made the case for this effort every year for five years but without the experienced logic of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, the creative leadership of Budget Director Lord, the tenacious legislative skill of Appropriations Chairmen, Representative Martin B. Madden in the House and Senator Francis E. Warren in the Senate, the intense accounting discipline of Comptroller General John R. McCarl, or the rugged perseverance of thousands of Federal employees, who made all these ideals reality, the Budget System would have failed and the country probably would never have experienced the historic prosperity of the 1920s. It was a test throughout the country of the “success of self-government.” By using money, not as the end result, but as any other “utility — to advance the welfare of the human race” through “a wise expenditure, well balanced and within the means of the people,” America would pass that test worthy of freedom.

Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was instrumental with Representative Madden in the fight for tax reduction.

Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was instrumental with Representative Madden in the fight for tax reduction.

Comptroller General John R. McCarl, head of the General Accounting Office for fifteen years, 1921-1936. As his term of office came to a close, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote of him, "Among the welter of Washington's yes-men, he was a forthright, solitary and heartening no-man." At the same time, the Hartford Courant observed, "McCarl was neither negligent, careless nor open to 'suggestion.' He made his rulings without fear or favor."

Comptroller General John R. McCarl served as head of the General Accounting Office for fifteen years, 1921-1936. As his term of office came to a close, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote of him, “Among the welter of Washington’s yes-men, he was a forthright, solitary and heartening no-man.” At the same time, the Hartford Courant observed, “McCarl was neither negligent, careless nor open to ‘suggestion.’ He made his rulings without fear or favor.” We can understand why Coolidge found him to be a steadfast ally and faithful public servant.

Representative Martin B. Madden (R-IL), chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, visiting Coolidge at the White House, September 6, 1923.

Representative Martin B. Madden (R-IL), who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, is seen about to visit Coolidge at the White House, September 6, 1923.

“That is constructive economy,” Coolidge affirmed. “It does not partake of a mean and sordid nature; it is not narrow and selfish, but rather broad, generous, and ennobling, undertaking to deal justly with the whole situation by raising such revenues as the people can fairly bear to meet such expenditures are are fairly required…The result is America. Into the making of that result and its continued success your patriotic service and devotion is a contributing factor of enormous importance.” When all had been tallied, it meant something far more than “the saving of money.” It was a justification of our “wonderful American experiment for the advancement of human welfare.” After all, it “is not the only method by which we have built railroads, developed agriculture, created commerce, and established industry, not only the method by which we have made nearly 18 million automobiles and put a telephone and a radio into so large a proportion of our homes, but it is also the method by which we have founded schools, endowed hospitals, and erected places of religious worship. It is the material groundwork on which the whole fabric of society rests.” This meant so much more than material goods. “It has given to the average American a breadth of outlook, a variety of experience, and a richness of life that in former generations was entirely beyond the reach of even the most powerful princes.”

All the energy expended would be in vain were it not for “the keeping of our faith.” Our framework of popular government would implode at its very core if it throws “away self-restraint and self-control,” adopting economically unsound laws that squander this moral inheritance America is exemplifying to the world. “America has demonstrated that self-government can be administered as fairly to protect each individual in all his rights, whether they affect his person or his property. Under constitutional authority we tax everything, but we confiscate nothing. It is not through selfishness or wastefulness or arrogance, but through self-denial, conservation, and service that we shall build up the American spirit. This is the true constructive economy, the true faith on which our institutions rest.”

On Civility and Partisanship

Alexander-Hamilton-vs-Aaron-BurrTwo hundred and ten years ago today the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr abruptly ended the life and public career of one of the most inflammatory and yet accomplished men of the Founding generation. Hamilton, one of Calvin Coolidge’s most respected figures, has appeared on America’s ten-dollar bill since July 10, 1929 in recognition of his preeminent role as the founder of our national system of finance. His legacy in cementing party politics is less known and even less appreciated. As history bears out, however, rough-and-tumble partisanship is anything but new to our time. Hamilton’s death demonstrates that, as polarizing as many today feel it is, what is happening now hardly compares to the days of Hamilton. Consider the imprisonment of opposition newspaper editors under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the resulting Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions arguing for state invalidation of Congressional acts. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, impeached and nearly removed from office for his unconcealed advocacy of Federalist causes, tested the very limits of partisanship and national integrity later in the same year Hamilton died. Consider the violent rhetoric of the 1800 election from James T. Callender’s scandalmongering pen and Philip Freneau’s National Gazette to Hamilton’s spirited campaign not only against Jefferson’s “womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment of Great Britain” but also the venom of The Porcupine’s Gazette against the Republican opposition. Jefferson’s “ho-mance,” as it might be termed today, with Revolutionary France would continue to express itself in unrestrained enthusiasm while Federalists were labeled as the actual “Reign of Terror.” Yet, as we know, America survived it all.

Partisanship and what many would consider incivility today have been with us since the founding. Consider the furious threats of the New England states to secede from the Union should Madison continue “his war” against Britain after 1812. Consider the road leading to 1861, from the Nullification Crisis of the Jackson administration to the bloodshed subsequent to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Consider, for instance, 1856 when Representative Preston Brooks, in defense of impugned honor, took a cane to Senator Charles Sumner’s head, beating him into unconsciousness on the Senate floor. Consider the imposition of strict, even malicious, means during Reconstruction in the 1860s and 70s, exacting vengeance, not justice, from the seceded states of the South. Consider the partisan upheaval of the 1890s, which pitted Democrats and Republicans in fierce lines of division over immigration, the gold standard and other public policy questions.

The 1920s were no exception to this rule. In Coolidge’s own time, elected officials mockingly read into the Congressional record absurd poems ridiculing the President’s use of a mechanical horse gifted to him. Missouri Democrat, James A. Reed, would make an industry of hurling insults and incendiary rhetoric during Cal’s administration just as California Republican Hiram Johnson would. James Cox, the Democrat candidate for President in 1920, lamented, “There is behind Senator Harding the Afro-American party…to stir up troubles among the Colored people upon the false claims that it can bring social equality, thereby subjecting the unsuspecting Colored people to the counterattacks of those fomenting racial prejudice.” The rhetoric of race-baiting and bigotry existed even in what too many mistakenly assume was some kind of “golden age of civility,” when parties worked together without name-calling or substantial disagreements on policy. Of course, we recall Dorothy Parker’s sarcastic response upon learning of Coolidge’s death in 1933, asking, “How could they tell?” The point, as Pietro S. Nivola of the Brookings Institution, reminds us, is that the “severity of today’s partisan discord pales in comparison with these epic clashes from the republic’s early years.” Truthful rhetoric had little restraint on this or any other heady era of partisan back-and-forth. Yet, the country survived each time.

Nivola further shows how partisanship, far from a cause for dismay to the Founders, serves a very beneficial purpose: It gives the electorate a choice. Voter participation rises when clear contrasts on principle are exemplified. As Nivola observes, greater turnout is hardly the sign of an unhealthy polity. Besides, bipartisanship has proven to be no sure safeguard at all for sound legislation, whether it be the Social Security Act of 1935, “hefty agriculture subsidies,” the “sacred cows” of energy lobbies or the Medicare law of 2003. In each case, the “benefits to taxpayers” remain dubious at best. Nivola recounts the findings of McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal, who conclude that polarization is on the upswing but Nivola places this in historical perspective. It is no unprecedented or novel partisanship we are witnessing today.

Enter Calvin Coolidge. The defense of our dual-party framework is one of his most emphatic imprints on the development of political thought. To Cal, partisanship was not inherently harmful to the country. After all, he did say, “While an independent attitude on the part of the citizen is not without a certain public advantage, yet it is necessary under our form of government to have political parties. Unless some one is a partisan, no one can be an independent.” The voters of this country choose between two distinct sets of party principles. The platforms of each party must not simply mirror each other. The electorate is not served by attempting to “one-up” the other side. It must campaign on and then follow-through with its platform.

To Coolidge, principles must translate into effectual governance. “Unless those who are elected on the same party platform associate themselves together to carry out its provisions, the election becomes a mockery.” Channeling both Madison and Hamilton, Coolidge knew that party government is the expression of the electorate’s will. Supplanting actual revolution, a process of orderly and lawful change takes place through elections every two years. “But,” as President Coolidge declared during his Inaugural Address, “if there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office.” It must continue as a vital force in governing. That means partisanship.

Coolidge had seen what a “narrow and bigoted” perversion of partisanship had inflicted on the nation under the Wilson administration. His vice-presidential opponent in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had perfected it into an art form, criticizing Coolidge for his remarks about the “miasma” of Wilson’s militant and “unconstitutional” regime. As Cal surveyed the years of Democrat Party control, he spoke in Boston on September 18, 1920, saying, “The American people are turning from the contemplation of a mirage which, for a time, they mistook for a reality. When the political history of the past eight years is written it will resemble nothing so much as a chapter of accidents…The abounding prosperity of the Nation was turned to a state of adversity by breaking down the system of protection and by destroying the confidence of those engaged in all business enterprise. The cost of living was not lowered, but profitable employment, the only means wherewith the people could meet any cost, reached well nigh the point of disappearance. The charge laid against Republicans of countenancing the wicked principle of putting the dollar above the man, was entirely outdone by the Democratic practice, which put the dollar completely out of reach of the man…The very spirit of America withered, and the glory of the nation for the time departed…”

Then Coolidge, surveying the slate of Republican candidates in nationally and in Massachusetts, proclaimed his commitment: “In support of these candidates and the principles they represent, the country is turning again to realities. It wants to turn away from the mirage of false hopes and false security. It wants to be done with miasma of war. It wants the security of peace. It wants to live again under the government of the Constitution” (emphasis added). Even then, Coolidge knew that being partisan was not the culprit, a “narrow” and “bigoted” opposition for its own sake, was. There remained a valid place for partisan principles working with the Golden Rule instead of selfish and petty criticism as the expedient means to its own ends. As Coolidge showed, partisanship is not inherently incompatible with civility.

Calls for civility have all too often become thinly disguised efforts to muzzle any manifestation of disagreement, however tepid, guilting opposition into self-imposed compliance. No longer implementing what Madison called “the republican principle” of majority party coherence, the agenda of powerful minorities have created the impression that Washington’s “gridlock” problem is directly attributable to rogue obstructionists. The problem, it is claimed, comes not from a Republican House majority actively partnering with the Democrat Senate majority but from conservative or “Tea Party” partisans like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul who point out this discrepancy of party commitments. Instead of the “reasonable” and “bipartisan” “adults” like Susan Collins, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Boehner, these “public enemies,” like Ted Cruz, are ostracized for nothing more than articulating ideals grounded in the conviction that their Party is a choice, not an echo, as Senator Goldwater once said. In truth, the opposition of those who know they are Taxed Enough Already has become the only group brave enough to hold a Republican Party, so cowed by decades of false accusations, to its elected mission. By demonizing anyone who defends a government of limited powers operating by our consent, any challenge by principled partisanship is marginalized as “extreme” and worse. Responsible governing takes a back seat to the game of appearing cooperative, sacrificing very valid reasons for party opposition on principle in place of the illusion of “bipartisanship.” Which, in reality, is nothing more than a disregard for party loyalty in order to form an altogether unelected entity one might call, a “Party of Power,” implementing a patchwork of minority agendas that the country does not want, did not choose and runs contrary to its interests as a whole.

No longer tempering legislation by debate or careful circumspection, measures, however destructive they be in fact, are hastily and emotionally implemented into law. Efforts to, at minimum, slow down this headlong rush into disaster are met with vitriol not only from outside one’s party but within it. What we see now at work is democratic mob rule not our long-cherished dual party system. If party government is to remain an “effective instrument,” as Coolidge called it, it must retain the confidence and consent of the governed. The party sent to control the part of the government to which it has been elected, must control it, enacting a consistent and united direction that upholds the party principles. “Any other course is bad faith,” Coolidge affirmed, “and a violation of the party pledges.” Being a maverick as the situation suits is not something noble and heroic, in other words. It is bad faith, a betrayal of what one is and commits to do. It is in party loyalty — which is simply a fidelity to the principles for which the party stands — that preserves faith in the people and their institutions by acting on what they have chosen be done.

Leaders can mislead but parties are entrusted with responsibility to carry out their ideals. Sometimes, as Coolidge said, keeping those promises means collaborating with those outside the party to keep one’s party honest. He did so without descending into mean vindictiveness, but he still championed those policies and positions that his Party committed itself to perform. As Coolidge wrote in his memoirs, “The independent voter who has joined with others in placing a party nominee in office finds his efforts were all in vain, if the person he helps elect refuses or neglects to keep the platform pledges of his party.”

When others wavered and deviated, Coolidge held course. He owed as much to the American electorate. Not all had voted for him, of course, but a majority party had been sent to assume command of the Executive and Legislative branches and, as far as it depended upon him, they would adhere to a platform that was partisan, a vision that meant something, policy proposals that coherently and clearly differentiated from what the Democrats would do. Coolidge would not govern by a different standard than what elected him. The anniversary of Hamilton’s untimely death should remind us that partisanship is not novel to our time. Just as civility did not sweep the country under Coolidge, so principled partisanship is not incompatible or somehow destructive to the country now. If it were, America would have died in its infancy. Coolidge articulates the abiding importance our two party system plays for government to remain an effective expression of our will. It means some opposition will unavoidably come our way. It means not everyone will agree to temper opposition along principled lines and thus rush into the bigoted and obsessive excesses possible with even good things. This does not mean party opposition is neither sound nor beneficial. Coolidge demonstrates that a principled partisanship has and will continue to serve this country well.

On Real Public Service

In an excellent speech by Mick Wright, candidate for Alderman in Bartlett, Tennessee, to a local Rotary Club in the Memphis area, we are reminded that a Republic functions by our active participation. It does not run itself. It is not only the spirit of Elizabeth Powel that preserves and renews but also the outlook and wisdom of Calvin Coolidge, whose diligent and practical application of principle into genuine public service still speaks. We must not assume that someone else will exercise for us the unique and personal responsibilities already in our hands. Mr. Wright understands that if public affairs are going to change for the better, it starts with you and with me in our homes, our neighborhoods, our local governments. It demands a public service at its most practical and personal. There simply is no substitute for an informed and involved citizenship. As Coolidge once said, “Naturally the question arises, what shall we do to defend our birthright? In the first place everybody must take a more active part in public affairs. It will not do for men to send, they must go. It is not enough to draw a check. Good government cannot be bought, it has to be given…Unless good citizens hold office bad citizens will.” After all, we are not impotently at the mercy of circumstances as they are, “We are the possessors of tremendous power, both as individuals and as states. The great question of the preservation of our institutions is a moral question. Shall we use our power for self-aggrandizement or for service?” To which end are we exerting the tremendous power each one of us possesses?

79287-004-946746F8 young Coolidge