On Character

“We must forever realize that material rewards are limited and in a sense they are only incidental, but the development of character is unlimited and is the only essential” — CC, cited in “Adequate Brevity” compiled and edited by Robert J. Thompson (Chicago: M. A. Donohue & Company, 1924), p.18.

“This country was not made on the theory that we should ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ Its founders were more accustomed to prepare themselves with fasting and prayer that they might meet the serious obligation to live through the morrow. They had their feast days, too, for they found a great happiness in their work. But these were a time of thanksgiving and praise. Instead of falling back and falling down on the claim that the world owed them a living, they moved forward and moved up on the principle that they owed the world the duty of providing for themselves…They put first things first…If this nation is to endure we shall have to continue to walk by their light. We cannot give all our thought to material success” — CC, July 1, 1930, cited from “Calvin Coolidge Says” (Edited by Edward C. Lathem, Plymouth, VT: Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, 1972).

These views are irreconcilable with everything we have been told Coolidge was and what informed his outlook. From the pretentious attempts of William Allen White (who said Coolidge’s faith “rested on the thesis that ‘the rich’ are ‘wise and good’ ” and so dubs Coolidge “the high priest of laissez-faire,” “Puritan in Babylon,” pp.434-5) to the simplistic revisions of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who sums up all that need be known about the immoral twenties with a sweeping generalization of the era on nothing more than one snippet of Coolidge’s oft repeated, “The chief business of the American people…is business” (“The Crisis of the Old Order” p.vii). To stop there with no further inquiry about the man, his motivations or, at minimum, confronting the statement in its entirety is not only shabby scholarship but is the product of a dishonest and biased practitioner. This was supposed to be a man who blindly led the nation in the “worship” of business, the pursuit of profits and the exploitation of the poor and minorities. As a result, the Great Depression laid bare all that was wrong with capitalism, limited government and Coolidge’s “inactive” presidency…while the rise of nationalism that would pull the world back into another war came from Coolidge’s “isolationist” foreign policy…or so the story goes. Approaching the man through his writings and speeches to learn who he was, the nature of the problems he faced (in their historical setting) and how he chose to address them are simply inconvenient quests when the misrepresentations are so much easier  to fabricate. If the template doesn’t fit, make your subject conform to it, they assert.

Meanwhile, eighty years have transpired under this fake portrait of one who addressed all sectors of economic endeavor when he declared, “The chief business of the America people is business” but also said in the same address (to journalists no less),

“Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it…It can safely be assumed that self interest will always place sufficient emphasis on the business side of newspapers, so that they do not need any outside encouragement for that part of their activities. Important, however, as this factor is, it is not the main element which appeals to the American people. It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction. No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life” (Address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925, found in “Foundations of the Republic” p.187-8, 190).

It was in the middle of “Coolidge Prosperity” when he observed that “We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first.” Then he warned, “Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp” (July 5, 1926, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, recorded in “Foundations of the Republic,” p.454). So much for the notion that Coolidge was the naive tool of corporate greed and wanton materialism.

Mr. Coolidge understood that the cultivation of character and the upkeep of integrity are constants whether times are prosperous or impoverished. They are immaterial things from which all our technological and societal complexities follow. The advent of the latest iPad or largest Bigscreen do not translate us into mature people. Only spiritual development can do that. To deny it is like equating knowledge with wisdom. We lose all substance when we reject and deprive our spiritual natures. We are not merely masses of tissue or soulless slaves of matter. Not even culture gives us that unique longing for intangible principles. It comes from above. The possibilities afforded when we resolve to be men and women of integrity, who hold to what is right, good and true over the “window dressing” of material well-being, knows no caps, limits or constraints beyond ourselves. That is both a liberating and profoundly challenging thought. Thanks for reminding us of the obvious, Mr. Coolidge.

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