Though it is usually recalled that more than one President has gone with the arrival of July 4th, it is less known that only one President came in with the anniversary of America’s independence: Calvin Coolidge. It goes without saying that this was his favorite day growing up but it was often a day of exertion and serious thought for him, especially as it usually required a speech with all its rigors of preparation and delivery.
As he labored over what to say and how it needed to be said to be worthy of their memory, he considered often what had been sacrificed by those who signed the great Declaration. Most of them were very young – in their 20s, 30s, and 40s – with much to lose. For them it was not a symbolic gesture to be abandoned when the pressures became too great or the risk too heavy to bear. They actually had more to lose than most. Yet, they stepped forward when it was far easier to stay quiet and passive. In the end, they knew their loyalties rested not on an elite set of power-brokers but stood entrusted to their Creator and the surpassing rightness of their cause laid before the final Arbiter of their consciences and legacies. They bore that truth resolutely and some, taking that pledge of life, fortune, and their most sacred possession – their honor – with unshakable seriousness, paid in both life and means before the promise of those Declaratory ideals would come to fruition. More than one would never see America begin to live out those ideals under the written Constitution but having looked on that prospect from a distance, they saw a glimpse of what could be emblazoned in the words to which they affixed their names, their reputations, their all.
Coolidge summarizes what they did and why it matters best when he said,
“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers…
“It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their declaration and adopted their Constitution. It was to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few. They undertook to balance these interests against each other and provide the three separate independent branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial departments of the Government, with checks against each other in order that neither one might encroach upon the other. These are our guarantees of liberty. As a result of these methods enterprise has been duly protected from confiscation, the people have been free from oppression, and there has been an ever-broadening and deepening of the humanities of life…
“We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meetinghouse. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
“No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. 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. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed.”