Happy 150th Birthday, Cal!

Speaking of the region of Vermont where he was born that Independence Day of 1872, 150 years ago, when one of his heroes — U. S. Grant — was President, Coolidge writes:

They were a hardy self-contained. Most of them are gone now and their old homesteads are reverting to the wilderness. They went forth to conquer where the trees were thicker, the fields larger, and the problems more difficult. I have seen their descendants scattered all over the country, especially in the middle west, and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and westward to the Pacific slope.

It was into this community that I was born on the 4th day of July, 1872. My parents then lived in a five room, story and a half cottage attached to the post office and general store, of which my father was the proprietor. While they intended to name me for my father, they always called me Calvin, so the John became discarded.

Our house was well shaded with maple trees and had a yard in front enclosed with a picket fence, in which grew a mountain ash, a plum tree, and the customary purple lilac bushes. In the summertime my mother planted her flower bed there…

This locality was known as The Notch, being situated at the head of a valley in an irregular bowl of hills. The scene was one of much natural beauty, of which I think the inhabitants had little realization, though they all love it because it was their home and were always ready to contend that it surpassed all the surrounding communities and compared favorably with any other place on earth.

My sister Abbie was born in the same house in April, 1875. We lived there until 1876, when the place was bought across the road…

Here are some remembrances from my trip up to the Notch a few years ago…

Next, here are some past birthdays for CC…first up, 1924, followed by 1929 and finally 1931. 

Enjoy a slice of Independence Day for Cal this Monday! I sure will.

On Magna Carta: Background of All We Have

“Magna Carta is the background of all that we have” — Calvin Coolidge, per Catherine Palfrey Baldwin in “And Men Wept: An American Book for Americans,” p.72.

Happy 807th Birthday, Oh Magna Carta! As Coolidge carefully points out, however, in his Prize Essay in 1895: “the confirmation of the Magna Carta by Edward I…” Henry III deserves the credit for following the guidance of his older advisors to reaffirm the Charter but it was Edward I The Longshanks who confirmed its solidity in English — and by extension — American law. God bless England and God bless America!

On Judicial Recall

“Fighting Bob” LaFollette pounding home his points over wireless.

The old, feisty Senator from Wisconsin ventured out three times that fall. “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and his Progressives, personified in the papers as a bobcat scratching at the two major parties, had revived an issue from the 1912 campaign: an amendment to the Constitution that would create a popular veto against Supreme Court decisions. It had been one of TR’s recommendations in his speech before the Ohio Constitutional Convention, when he appeared on February 21, 1912, to address the delegates assembled to revise the state charter. In fact, TR had effusively praised the Senator and his work in Wisconsin in that speech and throughout the campaign that year. President Taft tried to counter the platforms of TR’s Bull Moose and, later that summer and fall, Wilson’s Democrats, with a rigorous speaking schedule to counter with his own message: How would it help the whole people in the short-term, not just those TR claimed to speak for, to introduce constitutional anarchy between state and federal authority and among the federal government’s branches itself? As Taft expressed it that October:

“After we have changed all the governmental machinery, so as to permit instantaneous expression of the people in constitutional amendments, in statutes, and in recall of public agents, what then? Votes are not bread, constitutional amendments are not work, referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses, recalls do not furnish clothing, initiatives do not supply unemployment or relieve inequalities of condition or of opportunity. We still ought to have set before us the definite plans to bring on complete equality of opportunity, and to abolish hardship and evil for humanity.”

If there was a political successor to TR twelve years later, however, it was neither Hiram Johnson nor George Norris, it was Bob LaFollette. While TR was reluctant to create an amendment that would itself be subject to the interpretation of the very judges under scrutiny, he wanted his proposal put into action only for close decisions, where a 5-4 rendering should not be considered “settled law” over and against a majority of the country’s wishes, as the Lochner case and others, state and federal had done in recent years. How that popular “recall” was to be done, he left to states like Ohio to sort out. “If there must be decision by a close majority, then let the people step in and let it be their majority that decides.” However it was going to be enacted, something had to be done, he urged.

LaFollette in 1924 suggested this remedy be placed in the legislative branch: “We favor submitting to the people for their considerate judgment a constitutional amendment providing that Congress may by reenacting a measure make it effective over a judicial veto.” Like that provided against the Executive veto in Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution, a similar Congressional act of repassing the bill over Court ruling would insulate it from further judicial review. This frontal attack on the independence of the third, co-equal branch of the federal government was one that very much animated the Republican Party. The top two partners on the ticket, Coolidge and Dawes, took aim at this proposed subordination of judges to legislators and the executive branch in Washington.

Coolidge and Dawes on the front porch at Plymouth Notch (summer 1924). Photo credit: Leslie Jones Collection.

Ahead of LaFollette’s big address at Madison Square Garden on September 18 where he was set to promote the amendment platform before his largest crowd, Dawes had already pointed out its flaws on September 11:

“His proposition is in effect that no inferior Federal court be allowed to set aside an Act of Congress on the ground that it is unconstitutional, and that Congress may set aside the verdicts of the Supreme Court itself, if it declares unconstitutional a law which Congress may have passed. This proposition is to abrogate the principle of three-fold division of power…which is the basis of our Constitution.”

It would effectively, Dawes warned, undo the balance of three branches with one measure and place Congress in predominance over all others before it, the states included. It would potentially put every question of law, policy or social custom before a court of popular whims, already prone to provide immediate gratification to voters solicited every eighteen months. At the same time, it united with that tendency to constantly seek votes a supreme veto power immune from safe from anything the judiciary could decide in the future. There would no court of appeal beyond Congress, save perhaps the Executive, which would grow in consequence, but only as Congress allowed. It would be “disastrous.”

Coolidge, likewise, in dedicating the memorial to Lafayette in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place, had led the response on September 6:

Somewhere must be lodged the power to declare the Constitution. If it be taken away from the Court, it must go either to the executive or the legislative branch of the Government. No one, so far as I know, has thought that it should go to the Executive. All those who advocate changes propose, I believe, that it should be transferred in whole or in part to the Congress. I have a very high regard for legislative assemblies. We have put a very great emphasis upon representative government. It is the only method by which due deliberation can be secured. That is a great safeguard of liberty. But the legislature is not judicial. Along with that what are admitted to be the merits of the question, also what is supposed to be the popular demand and the greatest partisan advantage weigh very heavily in making legislative decisions. It is well known that when the House of Representatives sits as a judicial body, to determine contested elections, it has a tendency to decide in a partisan way. It is to be remembered also that under recent political practice there is a strong tendency for legislatures to be very much influenced by the Executive. Whether we like this practice or not, there is no denying that it exists. With a dominant Executive and a subservient legislature, the opportunity would be very inviting to aggrandizement and very dangerous to liberty. That way leads toward imperialism.

Coolidge was not done. He went on:

Some people do not seem to understand fully the purpose of our constitutional restraints. They are not for protecting the majority, either in or out of the Congress. They can protect themselves with their votes. We have adopted a written constitution in order that the minority, even down to the most insignificant individual, might have their rights protected. So long as our Constitution remains in force, no majority, no matter how large, can deprive the individual of the right of life, liberty or property, or prohibit the free exercise of religion or the freedom of speech or of the press. If the authority now vested in the Supreme Court were transferred to the Congress, any majority no matter what their motive could vote away any of these most precious rights. Majorities are notoriously irresponsible. After irreparable damage had been done the only remedy that the people would have would be the privilege of trying to defeat such a majority at the next election. Every minority body that may be weak in resources or unpopular in the public estimation, also nearly every race and religious belief, would find themselves practically without protection, if the authority of the Supreme Court should be broken down and its powers lodged with the Congress.

Coolidge would go on to win a sweeping victory that November, against two other candidates, which not only banished the spectre of 1912 for more than a generation, it rallied the country around a leader unafraid to defend the smallest minority, the individual, against the threats to silence and suppress them with realigned federal power. That was, in a truer sense than LaFollette’s bobcats or Davis’ Democrats realized, progress.