On “The Genius of America”

Having spoken the previous day about the power of religion on the making of America, Calvin Coolidge addressed a group of naturalized citizens on this day eighty-nine years ago. He not only told his audience how glad he was to welcome them to the White House but he even made a couple jokes, the first of which went, “if Methuselah (the longest living man, Genesis 5:27) were at this time an American in his period of middle life, and should drop in on our little party, he would regard us all as upstarts.” With his dry wit, Coolidge underscored the youthfulness of our country among the aged nations of the world.

How was it then that America, still so new among civilizations, had “been blessed with an unparalleled capacity for assimilating peoples of varying races and nations”? What other nation could claim so rapid a population growth in so short a time? While, the population trends were predominantly in a western direction, something different was at work than the simple relocation of peoples that had filled Europe over the centuries.

“It was the fate of Europe to be always a battleground.” Animus over the differences between race, religion, politics and social standards made peace the abnormal condition of life. For Europe, as with most of the globe, it has been war disrupted briefly by conciliation that has been the norm. “It is one of the anomalies of the human story that these peoples, who could not be assimilated and unified under the skies of Europe, should on coming to America discover an amazing genius for cooperation, for fusion, and for harmonious effort.” They were the same people who left the shores of the Old World and stepped into the New. What made the difference? What furnished that incredible genius that transformed antagonism into collaboration and perpetual discord into a people united? Coolidge enumerated three factors responsible for shedding the “ancient antagonisms” of race and class.

First, the “broadly tolerant attitude that has been a characteristic of this country” was responsible. Used in its fullest sense, Coolidge meant the wide forbearance Americans show on a daily basis to each other in regard to religious opinions, political differences and social relationships. These differences, as long as they remained law-abiding, did not hinder fellowship as equals. The increased perception of partisanship is due to an intolerance (not native to American ideals) for mitigating racial and class distinctions. While an intolerant few wish to equate so quintessential an American trait with conformity and compliance, Coolidge saw the strength of this country’s success in its ability to look past such irrelevant differences to real equality. This equality was not a suppression of differing opinions or a coerced conformity of outcomes. This equality rested in maximizing opportunity for “every American to become the architect of whatever fortune he deserves.” The opportunity, not the result, afforded by forbearance is what set apart America from the inherited caste systems of Europe. Leaving the security of the crowded cities and old towns of Europe for the open chance to start anew in America, immigrants quickly found forbearance and cooperation were necessary to succeed.

Second, “our Republican system of Government” was responsible. Leaving behind the centralized governments of the Old World, where subjects neither shared in nor held power to make their own decisions, immigrants to America discovered what self-government truly means. Here equals shared in the burdens as well as the privileges of governance. The benefits of being American did not fall exclusively to masters in some distant capital. For the first time an individual could direct his own affairs through institutions which limited central authorities and liberated people.

Third, “our system of universal free education” was responsible. That system was to serve as an ever-watchful sentry against “the revival of old, or the creation of new regional or group hostilities.” No longer would the prejudices and jealousies of the Old World hold sway. Education was not merely for the wealthiest and most connected among us, it was a measure to which all could attain. The American ideal was to open the mind to the possibilities of the individual, not close it through the victimhood of class warfare and the paralysis of predetermined fate. Education was not for a select few to monopolize their peculiar status, it was the shared endowment of all who strove to become Americans.

Looking out over the audience gathered at the White House, President Coolidge expressed his admiration for those most recently arrived in a long line of loyal, patriotic and law-abiding immigrants. They understood, perhaps more keenly than most, the supreme treasure America’s opportunities afford. He knew and his audience understood that it required the best of each individual, hard work to reap the rewards. It was not gifted. It had to be earned. The only entitlement was for an individual to keep the fruits of his own labor.

When land was abundant and large territories still unsettled, conditions lent themselves to receiving large numbers of immigrants. That had changed by 1924. In order to preserve and maximize opportunity, first for those already here and then for those who have yet to become Americans, limits are applied. It has nothing to do with any of the classes or creeds of the Old World. Rather, it considers the good of everyone concerned. If too many came at once, the country would be unable to assimilate them, wages would fall and the means of bettering one’s conditions would be depleted. If America is to preserve robust opportunity to both the newcomer and those already established here, it must set limits on immigration.

Taking this principle one step forward, Coolidge ventured to his final point. If America welcomed the world, it would no longer remain a distinctive and exceptional place of opportunity for everyone. The first responsibility, however, the Nation owed was to its inhabitants, be they native or naturalized. Coolidge shared their sympathies to help the Old World with its “long established hostilities.”

How can America best help the world, though? Coolidge answered, “We want our America to continue an example and a demonstration that peace, harmony, cooperation and a truly national patriotic sentiment may be established and perpetuated on an American scale. We believe our first great service to the Old World will be in proving this.” Our example was to show how peace and strength come to nations by reinforcing liberty and shedding class differences. That example was to be done “on an American scale,” not a global scale. It was not ours to “Americanize” everyone else. It was up to the Old World to determine its own destiny. Yet, it would come by letting go of those long-cherished yet self-destructive habits. By proving this sentiment of peace, cooperation and patriotism, Coolidge continued, “we shall be doing the things that will best equip us, spiritually and materially, to give the most effective help toward relieving the suffering nations of the Old World.”

What was the best way for the individual immigrant to help the struggling nations of the world? It was not to throw money at the symptoms (hunger, poverty, war), while neglecting the causes: an institutionalized denial of forbearance, self-government and education. It was not to import the Old World’s “race prejudices and race hatreds into action here.” Transforming into the likeness of Old Europe would not work in America. “Bringing America down” would benefit no one and rectify nothing.

What was needed most, as Coolidge encouraged, was “devotion to religion.” To best help, an attachment to the faith of one’s fathers was crucial. America, and consequently the rest of the world, would be far weaker if allowed to drift away from the cultivation of religious faith. Coolidge fostered an environment where immigrants remembered their duty to God as well as man.

America sought to help everyone as the need arose. This policy was not offering to aid one and dispensing harm to another. Nor by hurting America would the world’s distress be alleviated. Instead, Coolidge declared, “We can be in a position to help only by unifying the American nation, building it up, making it strong, keeping it independent, using its inclination to help and its disinclination to injure. Those who cast in their lot with this country can be true to the land of their origin only by first being true to America.” It is then that the “genius of America” is at its finest,  reinforcing individual opportunity that thrives in rejection of Old World intolerance, despotism and ignorance.

4 thoughts on “On “The Genius of America”

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