When Calvin Coolidge took up the somber burden of writing a daily column after more than thirty years in public service, he was simply tapping into his natural talent for the pithy and, at times, indicting turn of phrase. It flowed from a mind prepared and full with what he had experienced guided by his personal fount of genuine wisdom. This is why those daily articles – each a precise marshaling of no more than two hundred words – speak with a volume and clarity that are unsurpassed in Presidential prose or political rhetoric both at the time or now. We especially need it now. Some of his offerings are very interconnected with the events of that year, 1930-1931. Others leap forth, cut free of any anchor to time or people and it is in some of those that we find the timeliest advice of all.
As we approach perhaps one of the most important decision of our generation (and consequently, of those yet to come) – the Republican Party’s nomination for President – we would do well to seek the judgment and insight of ol’ Cal. He, surprisingly to some, has much to say about what we might assume is an election year defying (seemingly at every turn) conventional appraisal.
We would do well to also acquaint or reacquaint ourselves with the many other occasions Coolidge had something to say about elected representation. Take, for instance, this golden bit of insight from 1920.
In his veto of what the state legislature had done as a result of pressure from their constituents, he wrote:
“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.’ Opinions and instructions do not outmatch the Constitution. Against it they are void. It is an insult to any…constituency to suggest that they were so intended. Instructions are not given unless given constitutionally. Instructions are not carried out unless carried our constitutionally. There can be no constitutional instruction to do an unconstitutional act.”
The people were not always right in every public decision. Their representatives were not merely bodies in a room to blindly follow popular preferences. Sometimes, representatives in our republic need to apply the brakes and prevent a state or a nation from careening into a political train wreck. That is ultimately why we are a republic instead of a direct democracy. Higher laws and larger obligations prevail over us all.
Or consider this one, from 1919:
“The conduct of public affairs is not a game. Responsible office does not go to the crafty. Governments are not founded upon an association for public plunder, but on the cooperation of men wherein each is seeking to do his duty.”
Writing during the mid-term election of 1930, much of what he observes nonetheless zeroes in on where we stand in 2016. His advice can be cutting at times, but by allowing it to cut, we may discover ears ready to hear and, at last, a readiness to receive the benefit of his instruction. Perhaps, we may yet obtain the blessing of listening and so avoid what seems a certain calamity for us and for generations to come. Below are excerpts from nine articles composed within a month’s time concerning the exercise of voting carefully, informedly, and conscientiously.
October 7, 1930 —
“When times are good and money is plenty we are willing to make liberal commitments. We take chances even to the extent of reckless extravagance. But at such times we want a conservative government. We disapprove of any proposed radical action. But when some depression in business comes we begin to be very conservative in our financial affairs. We save our money and take no chances in its investment. Yet in our political actions we go in the opposite direction. We begin to support radical measures and cast our votes for those who advance the most radical proposals. This is a curious and entirely illogical reaction. But when we are financially weakened we need the soundest and wisest of men and measures. The coming election is no time for rash experiments. The best we can get will be none too good. It is a time to use the same care in our politics that we use in our finances.”
October 8, 1930 —
“For importance 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. The essential quality for the voters to require in their choice of candidates is capacity for public service.”
October 15, 1930 —
“All the predominant political opinion of the nation which is worth cultivating is never impressed by decisions made for effect. Those who compose that body want responsible officeholders to try to find out what is best for the welfare of the people and do that. They are moved by sincerity and integrity of purpose. Pretense does not appeal to them. That is the reason why those who seek popularity so seldom find it, while those who follow an informed conscience so often are astonished by a wide public approval. The people know a sham even when they seem to be trying to fool themselves and they cannot help having a wholesome respect for a reality. The best political effect usually comes to those who disregard it.”
October 17, 1930 —
“Notwithstanding the excellent practice of voting our ideals, nevertheless we have a representative government that must necessarily be about what we ourselves are. We demand entire freedom of action and then expect the government in some miraculous way to save us from the consequences of our own acts…Now the only way to hold the government entirely responsible for conditions is to give up our liberty for a dictatorship. If we continue the more reasonable practice of managing our own affairs we must bear the burdens of our own mistakes. A free people cannot shift their responsibility for them to the government. Self-government means self-reliance.”
October 18, 1930 —
“Like almost everything else, the standards of the press are ultimately set by the people themselves. They will get what they insist on having. If they want a reliable, serious, informing newspaper, it will be furnished for them. If they are content with exciting, highly colored sensationalism, they will get that.”
October 25, 1930 —
“The law of action and reaction does not work anywhere more certainly than in our system of self-government. We get out of life exactly what we put into it. Surely the people can get out of their government only what they put into it. In a republic the people are sovereign. They can manifest their sovereignty from day to day through the avenue of public opinion. That will have some influence on their government. But their greatest opportunity and their gravest responsibility are on election day. With a careless, indifferent, uninformed electorate a republic will deteriorate into a very bad form of government. It will fall into the hands of the incompetent and the vicious. Good government under our system depends on the ballot box…It is a time when the serious second thought of the people is needed. We cannot receive what we do not give. Put good government into the ballot box.”
October 28, 1930 —
“We do not give enough attention to nominations nor elections. We let our choice turn on some immaterial personal characteristic that has nothing to do with the qualifications for the office. We heap so much abuse on public servants that many with every capacity for office will not subject themselves to the ordeal. Conspicuous success in private life is often considered a bar to public recognition. In response to some whim we support candidates who can only succeed in office by disregarding the reason for which they were elected. All of these practices put our government at a disadvantage. We are only saved from a complete disaster because the average person rises somewhat to responsibility. With our increasing intricate system of government and business we must give more attention to the capacity of candidates. Their decisions affect our whole national life. Public service is a most exacting profession. Honest and good intentions are almost useless unless they are supplemented by ability. When we vote for anything but the best we cheat ourselves, our families, and our country.”
November 1, 1930 —
“This republic need fear little internal danger if the people conscientiously discharge their duty to vote. All abuses that may arise will be redressed by that constitutional method. We can secure a government of the bad by the good and avoid a government of the good by the bad only through a general expression of the qualified voters. We have plenty of unthinking people, some vicious, and other organized for selfish exploitation of the public through governmental agencies. All of these elements vote in full force. In a light vote they will be the decisive factor. The great body of our people are thoughtful, serious, unselfish and patriotic. They are not easily deceived, because they contemplate both the future and the past. Demagogues and false issues do not move them. They have wisdom. They are judges of men. The Republic is safe when they vote. Both the voters and public officers may be confused by complicated governmental questions. But the voters are not confused about candidates. They know a sham from a reality. The country needs the judgment of every enlightened voter…”
November 3, 1930 —
“We need to exert ourselves to live up to the ideal of a sovereign, self-governing people. We need to think for ourselves. That means voting our own convictions. We need to act for ourselves. That means going to the polls without having to be dragooned by a ward committee…There is nothing new or complicated about the duty of the voter. Every one can understand it. The cheapest and best way is to meet it. The cost to the people of enfranchised indifference is one of our heaviest taxes. The public welfare requires but a little thought and time of the average citizen.”