On the World Beyond Politics

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When looking back on America’s past Presidents, we are reminded that few – if any – were not hard workers. Each in his own way gave everything he had to give to its calling. For some, unfortunately, the rigors of the Office demanded more than the individual could spare. Some were broken by it. Some left a greater impression on it than others. Others were extinguished before their work, seemingly, reached completion. Each, to an inescapable degree, have been forever shaped by the weight of its responsibility and obligation. At times, it has been feared that the burden has become too great for one person. After the sunset of Wilson’s administration and the death of Harding, many wondered whether the Presidency was now a sure killer.

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As the Roman imperium aged, it was believed the system had grown too complex and the leadership potential too small since the giants of Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan. To mitigate this, the Empire  was divided into halves and later quarters before “bigger men” arose to disprove the notion that the Empire was ungovernable as a unified whole once more. The Presidency of the United States has likewise faced vital challenges through the years but always emerges vindicated as an Office best left in the hands of one individual, not to a committee.

The scope and scale of the problems our Presidents have faced move hand-in-hand with the confidence Americans place in whomever currently occupies the Office. Confidence itself constantly balances between a cord of steel and a thread of silk. Sometimes, the problems faced are very great but handled so deftly that in hindsight they become mere footnotes in the textbooks of time. Other problems are more than what smaller men can meet. Ultimately, men requisite for the occasion are raised up for the work that is needed. Still, there are times when foolishness is entertained and wisdom disdained, when recklessness prevails and perspective retreats. History, after all, is not a mountain of foregone effects or predetermined outcomes. It is the result of countless little decisions made by all creatures great and small.

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The President in South Dakota, summer 1927.

Coolidge’s example illustrates how great men can appear in nondescript packaging. His deft handling of some of the biggest problems the United States ever faced are largely footnotes in specialized histories now. They were not small challenges at the time. This is all the more remarkable because he did not set out to “fix” or “solve” anything. Yet, much got done. All this despite having no gift for oratory and certainly never looking the part. Harding was the one who looked Presidential yet he lacked the mental prowess for the job. Cal certainly never hailed himself as anything great or transformational either. Wilson was the one who took up the mantle of international peacemaker yet he lacked a practical flexibility to adjust himself to changing circumstances. All of Cal’s training in life and political office embedded an unshakable repugnance to self-importance or indispensability. He loathed everything about that attitude, being ever-vigilant himself lest it germinate within. This was a major reason behind his refusal to run again in 1928. No one was irreplaceable. No President was a savior. Our only Savior came two millennia ago. For Coolidge, this was not cynicism but a firm faith that leadership is not a limited resource emanating from one person, one time or one place but continually drawing from an abundant, renewable supply that can be discovered and developed in many individuals. No one has an exclusive claim to it.

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A record musky brought to Superior, to the delight of President Coolidge, Wisconsin, summer 1928. Photo credit: Quiet Lakes Association.

As such, Washington was not nor should it be the sun around which America’s daily life should orbit. The real America was out there…in the rest of a diverse and diligent country. It lived in the generous hearts of good neighbors, engaged citizens, devout churches, volunteer organizations, civic clubs, trade and commercial associations, schools, cultural groups, and strong homes. The stronger those pillars of American ideals were, if continually built up, the more Washington could be outshined and surpassed in power and importance with no detrimental consequences for the future. America did not live by Washington alone. Coolidge was no anti-government purist. He understood the increasing complexity of the Federal system better than many and observed the upward trend was irreversible, but only to an extent. The Coolidge-Mellon tax plans argued for fiscal balance that avoided both extremes: (1) Confiscatory rates that encouraged tax havens for the wealthy and discouraged earning potential for those least able to bear them, lower incomes; as well as (2) Eliminating the taxing authority altogether and repealing all laws concerning revenue collection. Coolidge and Mellon rejected both extremes. Neither would have achieved the whopping 26% decrease of national indebtedness, accompanied by six $1 billion surpluses every year of Coolidge’s tenure. No President since has seen more than two surpluses back-to-back, the last time being Eisenhower in 1956-1957.

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President Eisenhower, the last Chief Executive since Coolidge to preside over back-to-back budget surpluses.

Coolidge understood the difference defined in the Constitution was for a limited government, not necessarily equivalent to a small one. Fewer personnel did not a less expensive or less abusive government make. More than this, however, Coolidge saw a whole world outside politics. Politics should not be the end-all of existence. There were certainly “news junkies” then as there are now. Even some Presidents ate, slept, and breathed politics. James K. Polk, Speaker of the House turned Chief Executive, comes to mind. He accomplished everything he set out to do in a single term but, in so doing, destroyed his health and died shortly after leaving office.

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President James K. Polk (“Young Hickory,” in honor of predecessor “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson). Portrait by G. P. A. Healy, 1858. Polk had already been dead nine years by that time.

Coolidge himself would not enjoy a long post-presidency, having expended so much of himself while in office. Yet, he saw a confrontation coming – he knew not when – but he observed a crossroads ahead when the real America outside of D.C., the cultural, religious, and civic institutions in every neighborhood, small town and large city, would be forced to reckon with a sprawling, homogenizing, unrestrained federal government for daily subsistence or else face annihilation. Coolidge saw the danger Washington’s cold, humorless politics posed on the diverse range of interests and collaborations at work every day across the country. He escaped Washington at every opportunity to dedicate cultural monuments across the nation not only to explore more of America but to find refreshment among its diverse people engaging in the kaleidoscope of their endeavors.

By decentralizing politics and cultivating life outside it in countless ways, he hoped, Americans might forestall the surrender of absolutely everything to the political mind so dominant in Washington. Instead, he wanted Americans to keep a healthy balance of what was most important, retain their creativity and adaptability, their humanity and faith, their sense of humor and their “horse sense,” to keep contributing to the world that really does flourish outside politics, and find the blessings of liberty and fulfillment of character on a thousand frontiers still awaiting those brave enough to pioneer them.

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President and Mrs. Coolidge (seated at left) in coastal Georgia during the winter of 1928. They enjoy a traditional evening oyster roast around a fire pit while the singers of Georgia Industrial College (standing at right) entertain. Photo credit: Georgia State Archives.

On Thankfulness

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Thanksgiving Day at the Coolidge home, 1919.

“Thanksgiving is not only a holiday, it is holy day. It is by no means enough to make it an occasion for recreation and feasting. Thanks are not to be returned merely to ourselves and to each other. The day is without significance unless it has a spiritual meaning. For more than three centuries our people have felt the need of celebrating the harvest time as a religious rite by offering thanks to the Creator for all their earthly blessings. There can be no true Thanksgiving without prayer.

     “If at any time our rewards have seemed meager, we shall find our justification for Thanksgiving by carefully comparing what we have with what we deserve. The little band of Pilgrims who first established this institution on the shore by Plymouth Rock had no doubts. If their little colony of devoted souls, when exiled to a foreign wilderness by persecution, cut in half by disease, surrounded by hostility and threatened with famine, could give thanks how much more should this great nation, less deserving than the Pilgrims yet abounding in freedom, peace, security and plenty, now have the faith to return thanks to the author of all good and perfect gifts”

— Calvin Coolidge, November 27, 1930

On the Educated Mind and Political Science

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“For it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probably conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator. Again, each man judges correctly those matters with which he is acquainted; it is of these that he is a competent critic. To criticize a particular subject, therefore, a man must have been trained in that subject: to be a good critic generally, he must have had an all-around education. Hence the young are not fit to be students of Political Science. For they have no experience of life and conduct, and it is these that supply the premises and subject matter of this branch of philosophy. And moreover they are led by their feelings; so that they will study the subject to no purpose or advantage, since the end of this science is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether they are young in years or of time, it is because their life and its various aims are guided by feeling; for to such persons their knowledge is of no use, any more than it is to persons of defective self-restraint. But Moral Science may be of great value to those who guide their desires and actions by principle” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.3.5-7.
 
Notice Aristotle uses the word “admits” (epidechetai) when approaching each subject according to its nature and kind – the action of receiving or accepting part and place as many of us are about to do with our Thanksgiving guests. It hardly means we have agreed with everything they ever did, said, or will in the future.
 
Aristotle is arguing that each specific subject has a legitimate place and that to impose a single expectation that all conform to the same degree of scientific precision is not the result of an educated mind but quite the opposite. To bar admission of those studies that seek truth for only those that regurgitate knowledge is many things but it is not an education. Aristotle is describing a truly liberating education understands that philosophy has an indispensable part and all that a student needs to learn cannot be reduced to only what is measurable with vial, ruler or level. In short, STEM is not enough.
 
Hearing something outside our familiarity does not mean our will has instantly been overpowered and the idea enthroned over us without our consent. To react with the fear that hearing equates to agreement – an emotion of the inexperienced and immature – is the strongest demonstration that we lack an educated mind.
 
We do the young no favors to award them power before first teaching them self-restraint. This is where political science cannot blindly bequeath its potency for children (in heart and head not merely age) to freely wield it. The series of fads sweeping through education, since John Dewey, keep swapping the foci of resources with increasingly disintegrating results. One after another robs students of what they most need, erodes basic competence for living circumspectly, and all the while astonishes “the experts” when the situation only keeps getting worse. A moral training is the garden where the souls of our children must first be brought. Moral education has not brought us to this point. The space allowed for its demonstration has diminished in proportion to an increase of social turmoil. The shootings, the behavioral problems, the abuse issues, the plethora of dysfunction at all levels will not find a cure through mastering the arrangement of chemical compounds or effectively experimenting with electrical current. Man does not live by technology alone. Without the things of the spirit coming first – the purposes and precepts that make the machines we daily use possible at all – it will (as Calvin Coolidge once said) become a barren scepter in our grasp. We may hold symbols of immense, unprecedented might but without the ability to govern ourselves, we will remain vulnerable and lost before anything or anyone promising quick relief and material answers.