On Real Patriotism

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“…We can not contemplate these graves which are all about us, we can not recall the history which they symbolize, without a deep consciousness that they have placed  upon us an obligation to take a firmer resolution that their sacrifices are to have an influence on our conduct. The place which these heroic figures hold in history is forevermore secure. They did not hesitate, they did not yield, they met their duty squarely. For its fulfillment they were prepared to give their fortunes and their lives. It ought never to be forgotten that it was out of this spirit, supported by these sacrifices, that our country was established, its Constitution adopted and supported, its institutions formed, and its progress and prosperity created, with all that these have meant to the success and happiness of our own people and to the advancement of human welfare all over the world.

“Reverence for the dead should not be divorced from respect for the living. If we hold those who have gone before in high estimation, it will be reflected in our conduct toward those who are still with us. It would be idle to place a wreath on the grave of the dead and leave ungarlanded the brow of the living…

“These men stand ready to respond at any moment to the order of our Government to proceed to any point within our own country or to any portion of the globe where disorder and violence threaten the peaceful rights of our people. Their post is always the post of danger and their lives are spent in service and sacrifice to promote the welfare of their country. America has a just right to satisfaction and pride in the personnel and purpose of its Army and Navy. We can not be loyal to the flag if we fail in our admiration for the uniform.

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“However much we wish to pursue the paths of peace, however much we are determined to live on terms of good will both at home and abroad, we can not escape the fact that there are still evil forces in the world which all past experience warns us will break out from time to time and do serious damage to lawful rights and the progress of civilization unless we are prepared to meet such situations with armed intervention. We could no more dispense with our military forces than we could dispense with our police forces…

“If we are sincere in our expressed determination to maintain tranquility at home and peace abroad, we must not neglect to lay our course in accordance with the ascertained facts of life. We know that we have come into possession of great wealth and high place in the world. There is scarcely a civilized nation which is not our debtor. We are sufficiently acquainted with human nature to realize that we are oftentimes the object of envy. Unless we maintain sufficient forces to be placed at points of peril when they arise, thereby avoiding for the most part serious attack, there would be grave danger that we should suffer from violent outbreaks, so destroying our rights and compromising our honor that war would become inevitable. It is to protect ourselves from such danger that we maintain our national defense. Under this policy it is perfectly apparent that our forces are dedicated solely to the preservation of peace…

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President Coolidge, May 24, 1924. Courtesy of Everett Collection Inc./Alarmy Stock Photo.

“As Americans we are always justified in glorying in our own country. While offensive boastfulness may be carried to the point of reproach, it is much less to be criticized than an attitude of apologetic inferiority. Not to know and appreciate the many excellent qualities of our own country constitutes an intellectual poverty which instead of being displayed with pride ought to be acknowledged with shame…”

— President Calvin Coolidge at Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Day, 1927

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President Coolidge presenting a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1927

On the “Lost Art” of Saying ‘No’

Garland Tucker over at National Review reintroduces to us Presidents, Republican and Democrat, who were also masters of what seems a permanently lost art: the art of saying “No.” It is so easy to say “yes,” in the host of forms it has been uttered these eighty-nine years since Cal left office. Coolidge (and Cleveland before him) understood the President’s higher – and often most important – duty rests in the former. Moreover, they took it beyond the realm of sanitized theory into the gritty trenches of consistent practice. They waded in with daring courage and, though they stood where no one else could, they did not shirk. They stood as granite when the halls of government today are replete with those who have surrendered for infinitely less risk. They understood the role of the President much more profoundly than most of their successors.

The uncompromising reality is that the best answers to most problems simply do not reside in government offices.

Yet, it appears the successors of Calvin Coolidge have been engaged in an impossible race to escape that immutable reality. Every stride taken finds them no closer to the goal of leaving it behind in the dust than when Herbert Hoover first tried to do so back in 1929. The harder each successor tries, the closer reality remains. This is not simply some retro version of the “art of the deal” (which is nothing more than a “yes” disguised as a “no”). After eighty-nine years of telling a seemingly limitless list of petitioners “yes,” has it become an impossible expectation to ever hear “no” again? Out of the national shock that would surely result would come a breath of fresh air America has not known since Cal proved it could be done …and done well.

President Calvin Coolidge penning his first official public document while his private secretary Clark watches 8-5-1923

President Coolidge drafting his first state paper as the new Chief Executive. This was by no means his first encounter with official documents, having been Governor of the vital state of Massachusetts, State Senate President, State Representative, Northampton Mayor, and City Council member. He came to the office with more practical experience than most of his successors can claim. He wears the black arm band in mourning for his predecessor, the beloved Warren Harding. Coolidge’s private secretary, “Ted” Clark, watches, August 5, 1923. Courtesy of Getty Images.

On the Presider-in-Chief

It is a testament to the vision of our Framers that a unitary executive, as opposed to a board of legislator-kings, was the model adopted for these United States. It infused the office with not only an individual’s energy but also a personal restraint, resting on the judgment of the one who presides where no one else can. It remains in the care taken by those choosing that officer of our Republic along with the caliber and quality of the man himself whether the burden of responsibility is well suited or poorly matched. Above all, the President must preside. If he fails to do that, he has failed the American people.

Though 45 men have served, we offer a list below of its first 40 to compare the similarities (both major and minor) shared with #30 in the series, President Calvin Coolidge.

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President Coolidge at the dedication of Mount Rushmore, August 10, 1927. Courtesy of NPS, Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Coolidge is underrated and largely unknown today not because he somehow merited the infamy or did nothing of significance…He actually did quite a lot in his five and a half years in office. He is discounted today because he challenges each American (for him it made no difference the color, the country of origin, or the economic bracket) to do something uncomfortable and downright difficult: to summon a higher citizenship and loftier principles worthy of the country’s blessings. He expects more than we all too often have expected of ourselves. He does this because he knows we are capable of better than what we apathetically settle for personally and politically. He long ago saw through the lie that individuals can do nothing to shatter the way things are. He refused waste in all its forms, including the wasteful mentality that life is merely a “lottery” and everyone else is to blame for your failure to win it. Raised closer to realities than many of us have ever known, Coolidge did not learn these truths from college. He learned them from his own daily experiences on the land, with his family’s stock, and watching their unapologetic example. He first learned character by seeing character at work.

Those who have presided over the Executive Branch in our constitutional system possess a host of colorful examples, good and bad. With Coolidge, it proved a wiser choice than anyone could have realized…primarily because he first succeeded to office on the unfortunate death of his predecessor. Selected for his own worth, the following year, however, Coolidge demonstrated powerfully that the complexities of national leadership had not outgrown the competency of the Framers’ original design. It still worked and he made it look easy: a unitary executive entrusted to preside in office according to his solemn oath, faithfully executing the laws adopted not by some elected royal family nor by a class of those born to govern from Washington. On the contrary, he held office faithfully executing laws passed and granted legitimacy by the people themselves. If the people of the country are disengaged and ambivalent, it will manifest in those they choose to represent them. If the people lack regard for the moral force behind law, the obedience that makes all good things possible, no government can feel it for them. Without that reverence for where laws obtain and secure their validity, no authority on earth can stand.

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Photo by Charles D’Emery. Courtesy of NPS, National Park Service.

And so, our list comparing Coolidge with thirty-nine of our Presidents (Note: Only one in this list is currently living. We pause at Ronald Reagan for a couple reasons: a. His great respect for Coolidge forms a natural bookend to the list; and b. He is the last in presidential sequence to step into eternity, as of this piece):

George Washington: Like Coolidge, Washington announced he did not choose to serve again after his second term neared completion.

Adams: Prepared for the Presidency by first serving as second fiddle in the anonymous office of V.P.

Jefferson: Coolidge was the only President born on the Fourth, sharing a lifelong and unique connection to the Declaration.

Madison: Laid the basis for a constitutional respect for dissent and civil liberties out of war.

Monroe: Presided over one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in American history.

J. Q. Adams: Both enjoyed the honor of their fathers, officeholders themselves, seeing them rise to the highest office in the land.

Jackson: Both men stood firmly against nullification as an illegitimate means of correcting Federal laws.

Van Buren: Helped forge the modern party system that Coolidge held was an essential mechanism for a government of consent, platforms of principles built with popular expression.

William H. Harrison: Both men delivered some of the longest Inaugural Addresses in history.

Tyler: Succeeding upon the death of a President, made clear that the succession of power rested firmly in his hands and no one else.

Polk: Outlined his administration’s agenda early and completed his work by the end of that tenure.

Taylor: Presided through Clayton-Bulwer Treaty which laid the basis for legal arbitration of international disputes (a policy Coolidge decisively encouraged) with respect to the sovereignty of smaller American nations – like dismantling the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine under Coolidge.

Fillmore: Both men of plain tastes, the belief in service and humble living over aggrandizing one’s self by office-holding prevailed even after the lures of Washington.  Fillmore, like Coolidge, stands among those Presidents not to retire to a grand estate but to unapologetic, “regular,” Middle Class American living.

Pierce: As with Lincoln, all three lost sons near the outset of their administrations – feeling helpless to halt its devastation.

Buchanan: Like Coolidge, had only one selection to the Supreme Court, a man who would play a not insignificant role in years to come (Nathan Clifford – one a Democrat, chosen to preside over the Electoral Commission by a Republican; In Coolidge’s case, Harlan Stone – a Republican, chosen later as Chief Justice by a Democrat President)

Lincoln: Both lost precious sons during their terms of office, paying the highest cost for the Presidency. Coolidge shared Lincoln’s homely sense of humor and eloquence as a thinker and speechwriter.

Andrew Johnson: Stubbornly defended the right of the Executive appointment power against the Senate’s attempts to interfere.

Grant: Did his work without fanfare, focusing on payment of the Nation’s debt, sound economy, and restoring a peacetime basis to America — defending both the rights of native tribes and former slaves.

Hayes: Both he and Coolidge were enthusiastic advocates of developing technology – from the telephone to the radio and aviation.

Garfield: While Coolidge was not the intellectual Garfield was, both men shared a rich love for great literature and classical learning.

Arthur: Born amongst the hills and valleys of rugged Vermont, yet raised to the White House.

Cleveland: Both unwaveringly guarded the independence of the Executive through adept use of the veto power.

Benjamin Harrison: Advocated peace but prepared the nation for future war, authorizing construction of Navy vessels that would protect America in its next conflict (Harrison for the Spanish-American War; and Coolidge for WWII)

Cleveland (again): Shared his love for fishing – the simple, unadorned art of rod, worm and fish – and engaged in the work of writing articles for popular publications post-presidency.

McKinley: Stood by a high tariff law that protects American labor and investment against cheap goods and low wages.

Theodore Roosevelt: Like Teddy, Coolidge left a strong mark on American conservation, preserving some of our best-loved monuments, battlefields, forests, and parks (Coolidge believed in developing our resources too not merely shutting them off from use or ownership).

Taft: Both saw and addressed the need for government to operate along business and professional standards in budgeting, civil service, and the legal code.

Wilson: Secured a Pact of Peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact) – recognizing American sovereignty and stronger defense – built on law instead of force as the guiding principle.

Harding: Confirmed and extended Harding’s “Normalcy” agenda – developing his own talents for press relations and media use to an art form.

Hoover: Though hardly two men more different in outlook, methods or experiences, both men lost mothers at very young ages (Hoover at 9, Coolidge at 12).

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Few could be as different as these two, yet both men utilized the great potential of the press conference and media to inspire, teach, and accomplish policy. Both men shared a rugged determination and irrepressible perseverance.

Truman: Long before Harry uttered the words, Coolidge held firm to the maxim that the “Buck” stops with him, the Executive.

Eisenhower: Like Ike, Coolidge warned against a permanent military bureaucracy, insisting on adequate defense, leaving America prepared for protection of direct interests not as the world’s policeman or rental army.

Kennedy: Shared a rise from Massachusetts politics, both men believing in strong national security and the power of religious faith in America.

Lyndon B. Johnson: Shared an extensive practical experience as leaders in Senate bodies – state and federal.

Nixon:  Both men believed firmly in the supremacy of the people’s judgment, the Great Silent Majority.

Ford: Succeeded following scandals under his predecessor, facing a recalcitrant Congress eager to capitalize on the polarization.

Carter: As a former State Governor, chosen as one outside Washington’s establishment.

Reagan: Foreshadowed a vision that restored America’s confidence in its ideals and a return to a focus on government at the service of The People instead of people indentured to their government.