On the Testament of Work

When Calvin Coolidge spoke of work, and he spoke about it quite often, the dignity all work possessed was never far from his thoughts. He simply did not differentiate between white collar or blue collar or any collar at all. Nor was there a class or caste of the subservient in his eyes. Everything people could dream of doing, however menial or irrelevant it may appear to “the great” — so long as it was morally right and legally allowed, of course — was worthy and ennobling. If imaginations were allowed full ability to reach for the stars (enjoying the fullest possible rewards those ideas could call into being), he considered any kind of work a full-fledged partner in the beautiful kaleidoscope of human potential. There was no job people could do that was beneath them or fitted only to some social or economic underclass. In the effort of simply sweeping the floor, there was a dignity no regal authority could usurp. If we all did well in the small things, we could all be entrusted with greater (and still greater) things. At the same time, there was no fairness or rightness in entrusting those who had proven unfit for the little tasks to be given broad, sweeping power over vast decisions affecting many lives. Life itself required patience and self-government if we were ever to govern any one else. Coolidge had learned that lesson long ago as a boy. He would articulate that truth as a man even while responsible for decisions that could deploy fleets, decimate livelihoods, and redirect the course of entire nations with a single word.

Labor Day to Coolidge was not merely an excuse to relax in idleness, honoring some right to be lazy, but to celebrate the occasion through the exercise of what liberates everyone from the shackles of ignorance, ossification, and privation: Work. It was in creation, innovation, even service, but, also the determination to enact big dreams that we discovered something important about ourselves, perhaps even obvious, but absolutely irreplaceable. As he would say, “cynics do not create” and “savages do not work.” Without work, we can be sure of two outcomes: no achievements will ever defy the nay-sayer and no human being will ever transcend the low station others assign you. Coolidge dares you to prove them wrong. Take him up on it.

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