On This Day, Ninety-Three Years Ago

Reflecting on the events that transpired between August 2 – 3, 1923, Calvin Coolidge would write this six years later:

“Had I been chosen for the first place, I could have accepted it only with a great deal of trepidation, but when the events of August, 1923, bestowed upon me the Presidential office, I felt at once that power had been given me to administer it. This was not any feeling of exclusiveness. While I felt qualified to serve, I was also well aware that there were many others who were better qualified. It would be my province to get the benefit of their opinions and advice. It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions…

“On the night of August 2, 1923, I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs calling my name. I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred.

“His emotion was partly due to the knowledge that a man whom he had met and liked was gone, partly to the feeling that must possess all of our citizens when the life of their President is taken from them.

“But he must have been moved also by the thought of the many sacrifices he had made to place me where I was, the twenty-five mile drives in storms and in zero weather over our mountain roads to carry me to the academy and all the tenderness and care he had lavished upon me in the thirty-eight years since the death of my mother in the hope that I might sometime rise to a position of importance, which he now saw realized.

“He had been the first to address me as President of the United States. it was the culmination of the lifelong desire of a father for the success of his son.

“He placed in my hands an official report and told me that President Harding had just passed away. My wife and I at once dressed.

“Before leaving the room I knelt down and, with the same with which I have since approached the altar of the church, asked God to bless the American people and give me power to serve them.

“My first thought was to express my sympathy for those who had been bereaved and after that was done to attempt to reassure the country with the knowledge that I proposed no sweeping displacement of the men then in office and that there were to be no violent changes in the administration of affairs. As soon as I had dispatched a telegram to Mrs. Harding, I therefore issued a short public statement declaratory of that purpose.

“Meantime, I had been examining the Constitution to determine what might be necessary for qualifying by taking the oath of office. It is not clear that any additional oath is required beyond what is taken by the Vice-President when he is sworn into office. It is the same form as that taken by the President.

“Having found this form in the Constitution I had it set up on the typewriter and the oath was administered by my father in his capacity as a notary public, an office he had held for a great many years.

“The oath was taken in what we always called the sitting room by the light of the kerosene lamp [at 2:47am, the morning of August 3, 1923], which was the most modern form of lighting that had then reached the neighborhood. The Bible which had belonged to my mother lay on the table at my hand. It was not officially used, as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath.

“Besides my father and myself, there were present my wife, Senator [at the time, U.S. Representative Porter H.] Dale, who happened to be stopping a few miles away, my stenographer [Erwin C. Geisser], and my chauffeur [Joseph N. McInerney].

“The picture of this scene has been painted with historical accuracy by an artist named Keller, who went to Plymouth for that purpose. Although the likenesses are not good, everything in relation to the painting is correct.

“Where succession to the highest office in the land is by inheritance or appointment, no doubt there have been kings who have participated in the induction of their sons into their office, but in republics where the succession comes by an election I do not know of any other case in history where a father has administered to his son the qualifying oath of office which made him the chief magistrate of a nation. It seemed a simple and natural thing to do at the time, but I can now realize something of the dramatic force of the event” — excerpt from The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge pp.172-177

Keller Painting

The Keller painting

On Adequate Brevity

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When Amherst College President Alexander Meiklejohn gave tribute to the school’s most renowned graduate, Calvin Coolidge, he realized that Cal was a teacher in his own right. What Coolidge taught he first practiced. It was both natural to his character and so diligently applied that Cal made it seem effortless. Meiklejohn called him, “A Teacher of the Lesson of Adequate Brevity.” We could all use less talk. This is nowhere more true than in politics.

The 2016 Republican Party platform at 35,467 words (4,774 more than in 2012) is well beyond an approachable statement of principles and broad ideals. Are we really so overwhelmed with complexity that we can no longer say what we fundamentally believe in fewer words? Our legislation now runs in the thousands of pages. Media commentary on events now operates around the clock. The speeches of candidates drone on in length but lack substance. Granted, we live in a very uncertain age with immensely difficult problems. But how is compounding the challenge with more verbiage going to fix that? Could we not do with a more direct, straightforward, and concise vision? Could we not use adequate brevity?

 

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Former President Coolidge sitting casually with friends at an Amherst Alumni Day gathering.

The platform of 1924 – in fact, most of that year’s Republican Convention proceedings – bear the imprint of Coolidge’s incisive style. He could say more in twelve words than most do in twelve pages. When Boyd Matheson delivered his seventeen-point proposal for future platforms in Cleveland last month he hit upon something that deserves serious consideration. Who is going to read our 35,000, 54-page treatise when we could contain it to a mere dozen or so universal principles? After all, if Americans no longer read our Constitution, what makes us think the GOP platform is any more accessible?

Our presentation, ever so clunky and cumbersome, fails to resonate and we routinely blame it on the principles year after year. The problem is that we have not lived consistently with those principles either privately or publicly, not the principles themselves. Republicans have a notorious problem getting the message out even back when they were actually keeping platform pledges. The loss of credibility is not just a packaging issue but a failure to live conservatism authentically.

 

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President Coolidge helping raise the flag at local festivities, Lynn, Massachusetts.

We have been fed so long with talking points that a simple expression of our heartfelt ideals is not only a foreign concept but hailed as revolutionary. Have we become so verbose and inconsistent in every part of public business that we can no longer articulate the essentials of what we believe and why in a sincere, coherent, and most of all, brief form? We have opted to lose ourselves in the details. Will that problem lose the election in November? If we can no longer distill down what is most important without a teleprompter or a heavily-crafted policy paper, we aren’t likely to win much of anything in the future. This is not a game. This is not just another crazy campaign year. This is not a time for consulting a brain trust of Beltway wonks to carve the perfect “Elevator Speech.” We will lose if we fail to reach the heart in pursuit of the head.

We are not only face to face against a short attention span, something that both Coolidge and Lincoln (whose 1864 platform was a mere 895 words) understood and mastered in their days. We face annihilation through our own political tone deafness. We are in desperate need of clarity and conviction, consistency and character, competence and qualifications. We condemn fear and coercion in “the other side” but use those weapons in rhetoric to coerce conscience and press voters to act from a spirit of fear rather than faith and courage. We condemn lawlessness and expediency but then surrender to them when we get elected or sent to Washington.

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Grace Coolidge visits some of the children of Clarke School, Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had taught years before. Her lifelong love for both the children who prepared there and the work of the school is evident from this photo from May 24, 1928, one of many taken through the years. She, like her husband, was simply living authentic conservatism without calling it such or labeling it in any way.

We need some difficult truths spoken plainly and delivered ably. We are on the precipice because the heart, the seat of our emotions, is being misled by fear and faithlessness. Speaking to the intellect alone will not salvage the situation. We have to live our principles and internalize them so personally that they are as natural to us and as explainable as the air we breath. We need a communicator who listens first then delivers the essentials like Cal Coolidge, empowering the whole people not a single party system in DC. We need a communicator who speaks not with a list of Party pronouncements but who reaches the country with the principles universal to us all as humans and children of God. After all, we know in our hearts that conservatism isn’t an allegiance to a specific political structure or some access card to power but a way of life.

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The Coolidges’ eldest son, John, and his bride Florence “pulling together” as they camp during their honeymoon on Moosehead Lake in Maine, September 29, 1929.

Finally, to practice some Coolidge brevity, shortening the Platform is but one small step. It is not even the first step. The larger test to each of us as we go about our day, is living conservatism. We don’t call it that but we respect and honor it in our lifestyles unconsciously. Is it truly a part of who we are as voters, candidates, elected officials? Is it what we exemplify as parents, cherish as husbands and wives, nourish as neighbors? Or do we relegate it to some abstract, impersonal duty someone else must bear? Is it something we put on and take off like a change of clothes or a pair of shoes? Is it just a polarizing label, carted out every election year, but one that you indolently dismiss as irrelevant to you?  We should not expect in our public affairs what is missing in our private lives. Rediscovering the liberating power of conservative ideals in all of life is the first step forward to restore homes, rebuild neighborhoods, and revitalize culture across America. First, though, let’s drop the labels, cut down the noise, and simply share with each other openly and honestly what it means to be free. If we do not, we can be sure of one thing: We are forging the chains of our own slavery.

On the Power of the Tongue

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18.21)

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6.45)

Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire…” (James 3.5-6)

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“We read that ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.’ This is a truth which is worthy of much thought. He who gives license to his tongue only discloses the contents of his own mind. By the excess of his words he proclaims his lack of discipline. By his very violence he shows his weakness” — Calvin Coolidge, September 21, 1924.