Calvin Coolidge takes the Oath as Governor, January 2, 1919

Calvin Coolidge takes the Oath as Governor, January 2, 1919

Standing in the Massachusetts House chamber, Governor Coolidge faces the joint gathering down the hall from where he had presided as President of the State’s Senate since 1914. Notice the new Governor’s father is conspicuously seated to the right of the podium.


On that occasion, he addressed the General Court,

“Each individual must have the rewards and opportunities worthy of the character of our citizenship, a broader recognition of his worth and a larger liberty, protected by order — and always under the law. In the promotion of human welfare Massachusetts happily may not need much reconstruction, but, like all living organizations, forever needs continuing construction. What are the lessons of the past? How shall they be applied to these days of readjustment? How shall we emerge from the autocratic methods of war to the democratic methods of peace, raising ourselves again to the source of all our strength and all our glory, — sound self-government?”

On Women’s Suffrage, the Revolution and Civic Participation

“In Massachusetts the 19th of April is known as Patriots Day. It is honored and set apart. The whole Nation is coming more and more to observe it. As the time lengthens from the occurrences of 1775, its significance becomes more apparent and its importance more real. It stands out as one of the great days in history, not because it can be said the American Revolution actually began there, but because on that occasion it became apparent that the patriots were determined to defend their rights.”

“The Revolutionary period has always appeared to me to be significant for three definite reasons. The people of that day had ideals for the advancement of human welfare. They kept their ideals within the bounds of what was practical, according to the results of past experience. They did not hesitate to make the necessary sacrifice to establish those ideals in a workable form of political institutions. As I have examined the record of your society, I believe that it is devoted to the same principles of practical idealism enshrined in institutions by sacrifice.”

Grace Coolidge leading by example, completing her absentee ballot on the White House lawn, while both her and Calvin urge all Americans to get out and vote in that year's election, 1924.

Grace Coolidge leading by example, completes her absentee ballot on the White House lawn, while she urges all Americans to get out and vote in that year’s election, 1924.

Calvin likewise, filling out his absentee ballot in front of the White House, encourages everyone eligible to exercise their informed choice at the ballot box.

Calvin likewise, filling out his absentee ballot in front of the White House, encourages everyone eligible to exercise an informed choice at the ballot box.

These words, given before the Daughters of the American Revolution on April 19, 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge, underscored that the principles which fueled the fight for independence were neither abstract concepts nor rigged systems of thought to consolidate power in the hands of a few men, at the expense of all individuals, including women. As Coolidge continued,

“This is but the natural inheritance of those who are descended from Revolutionary times. In this day, with our broadened view of the importance of women in working out the destiny of mankind, there will be none to deny that as there were fathers in our Republic so there were mothers.” Cokie Roberts was hardly the first to recognize and praise this all too obvious truth. As Coolidge goes on, “If they did not take part in the formal deliberations, yet by their abiding faith they inspired and encouraged the men; by their sacrifice they performed their part in the struggle out of which came our country. We read of the flaming plea of Hannah Arnett, which she made on a dreary day in December, 1776, when Lord Cornwallis, victorious at Fort Lee, held a strategic position in New Jersey. A group of the Revolutionists, weary and discouraged, were discussing the advisability of giving up the struggle. Casting aside the proprieties which forbade a woman to interfere in the counsels of men, Hannah Arnett proclaimed her faith. In eloquent words, which at once shamed and stung to action, she convinced her husband and his companions that righteousness must win.”


Hannah was not some isolated instance, though, in a supposedly chauvinistic society, as Coolidge points next to others, some named and many more unnamed who shared in the burdens of freedom. “Who has not heard of Molly Pitcher, whose heroic services at the Battle of Monmouth helped the sorely tried army of George Washington! We have been told of the unselfish devotion of the women who gave their own warm garments to fashion clothing for the suffering Continental Army during the bitter winter of Valley Forge. The burdens of the war were not all borne by the men.”


The President would go on to commend the laudable record and work by the Daughters of the American Revolution for carrying on out of a wisely crafted charter and many acts of service the practical ideals of that Revolutionary generation of men and women. Yet, who could assert that in a Republic the work of one generation is adequate? To continue a free people with republican institutions, the sacrifice of each citizen of every generation is necessary for liberty to last. “Our Republic gives to its citizens greater opportunities, and under it they have achieved greater blessings than ever came to any other people. It is exceedingly wholesome to stop and contemplate that undisputed fact from time to time.” As a corollary to this apparent realization, it becomes necessary that if so many good things are to continue to be enjoyed, it demands “a corresponding service and sacrifice. Citizenship in America is not a private enterprise, but a public function.” None of us can opt out of our duty to vote and still reasonably expect someone else will execute what is ours to exercise. When we refuse to exercise the duties of freedom, we will soon find ourselves severed from the benefits that inseparably accompany them. It short, “disaster will overtake the whole fabric of our institutions.” Participation is the heart of our Republic. “If we are to maintain the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, if we are to have any measure of self-government, if the voice of the people is to rule, if representatives are truly to reflect the popular will, it is altogether necessary that in each election there should be a fairly full participation by all the qualified voters.” Put another way, if we do not participate in the direction of America, that choice will be made for us, usually without our consent and against those principles for which we would vote as informed individuals. As Phyllis Shlafly once put it, our vote is to be a choice, not an echo.

Coolidge did not have much to commend on the participation of voters, even after the victory for woman’s suffrage went into effect just before the 1920 election. “It was hoped,” the President noted, “that giving the vote to women would arouse a more general interest in the obligations of election day. That has not yet proved to be the case.” Calculations from 1920 found that out of some 27 million votes cast, only 37 per cent represented the votes of women. While Coolidge knew that blaming women for failing to exercise so recently recognized a privilege was not entirely fair, yet he understood that it was symptomatic of an even more serious problem when the voter disenfranchises herself or himself by simply not showing up. It remained a “startling fact that in the past two presidential elections [1920 and 1924] barely 50 per cent of those qualified to vote have done so.”

Holding the "Nation's Birthday Book" these Daughters visit President Coolidge in preparation for the Sesquicentennial that year, 1926.

President Coolidge signs the “Nation’s Birthday Book” and the Patriot’s Pledge of Faith, standing with 13 women of the Sesquicentennial and Thomas Jefferson Centennial Commissions seeking to purchase and preserve Monticello, May-June 1926.

Returning to the practical idealism of our Revolutionary generation, Coolidge believed that the solution would be found not in legal disenfranchisement or punitive action but in “all bodies of men and women interested in the welfare of his country to join together under some efficient form of organization to correct this evil which has been coming on us for more than 40 years, but which within the last decade has become most acute.” This is what made the Daughters of the American Revolution so pivotal a contributor to real results in the future of the country. It was not for lack of effort that turnout was declining — as the President made clear in the very next statement — praising the work of numerous volunteer efforts from the National Civic Federation, the National League of Women Voters and many other citizen groups banding together to inform and inspire all Americans to get involved, using the power each citizen already possesses through the ballot box to express one’s will in public decisions. Yet, Coolidge saw the glass not as half empty but as fuller than it would have been had not all of these worthy efforts been made to educate civic responsibilities. Numbers were already revealing that most of the world’s leading nations had far higher voter rates that ours. Even Italy produced more involvement.

Coolidge was not indulging the forces that find fault in America because it has not lived up to some unrealistic definition of perfection, he was urging every man and woman to embrace the duty that goes hand in hand with freedom. What made the indifference toward voting so perilous was its “insidiousness,” the subtle illusion that no harm is inflicted on the future by sitting out the election. In actuality, by abstaining, our interests and choices — the popular will — go unrepresented every time we decline to vote. We need not fear that faith in our foundations is somehow invalidated. The people, even in the gravest emergencies, prove worthy of self-government. “It is only the approach of some silent and unrecognized peril that needs to give us alarm. Such a situation will develop if the Government ceases to represent the people because the public has become inarticulate…But if the people fail to vote, a government will be developed which is not their government.”

Notice the woman next to President Coolidge's left is his Assistant Attorney General, Mabel Willebrandt

Notice the woman next to President Coolidge’s left is his Assistant Attorney General, Mabel Willebrandt.

As Coolidge summarizes to the Daughters of the American Revolution gathered on this day eighty-eight years ago, “This is not a partisan question, but a patriotic question. Your society, which is organized ‘to cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American freedom,’ may well take a leading part in arousing public sentiment to the peril that arises when the average citizen fails to vote…The whole system of American Government rests on the ballot box. Unless citizens perform their duties there, such a system of government is doomed to failure.”

If we stay home this year – 2014 – what is to say America will not pass that point of no return, the failure of which Coolidge warned, a future shut off forever from that “second chance” to assert the power that was always ours but having been abdicated for so long, now rests with others insulated from and unaccountable to our choice, our consent and our control.

The Coolidges, in retirement, out to vote on election day, 1932. It would be his last in 39 years of civic participation.

The Coolidges, in retirement, out to vote on election day, 1932. It would be his last after 39 years of civic participation.

On Andrew Jackson and America’s Pioneering Spirit

President Coolidge presenting a wreath at the Jackson Memorial in Lafayette Park, January 1924.

President Coolidge presenting a wreath at another landmark in honor of the General and 7th President, the Jackson Memorial in Lafayette Park, January 1924.

“One of the great sources of the strength of our country has been the pioneering spirit…Our people have ever been going forth into the forest and over the plain to establish themselves in the region of the unknown. They have sought new fields to conquer. They have been pioneers, however, not only in the physical world, but in the realm of ideas. The frontier has long since disappeared…but the ambition to enter uncharted regions of industry, of enterprise, of social relations, and of thought continues with increasing fervor.”

“We would miss much of the significance and meaning of the history of the United States unless we took into account this outstanding quality. Our whole outlook has been greatly influenced by it. It is the complete antithesis of all systems of class and caste…” Instead of finding that their place in life, and the way to think “had been previously ordained for them” America “came into existence” for the very “purpose of escaping from this doctrine…The people who came here were seeking freedom of action and freedom of mind. The great revelation of our country has been that men are not born to servitude and obscurity. They are born to all the possibilities of a glorious station which can be won by their own achieving.” Such is the essential difference between self-governed liberty and security by coercion and conformity. It resides in the confidence that we can be trusted with freedom and are born for great things, not the bureaucratic management of our mediocrity.

America’s history is something of which to we can yet find reason to admire and honor. The pioneers who lived and triumphed “by their own achieving” is not the rare exception, it is “our national epic…It is a record of untiring effort, undaunted courage, and persevering will, all of which have set an inextinguishable mark upon the history of our country.”

“One of the outstanding figures which so well represents this development of our national life is Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States…Thrown on his own resources as he was, he grew up proud and high tempered, oftentimes violent in his disposition, and considerably interested in the sports of the countryside…” From the study of law he went on to serve as Tennessee’s first Representative in the House. General Jackson would go on to defeat the attacking British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815, before word of peace had reached our shores. “New Orleans being under martial law, he was soon engaged in altercations with the civil authorities. He did not hesitate to arrest judges and the United States attorney when they interfered with his orders…When civil authority was resumed he submitted to a fine of $1,000 for contempt of court. ‘I have during the invasion,’ he said, ‘exerted every one of my facilities for the defense and preservation of the Constitution and the laws. Considering obedience to the laws, even when we think them unjustly applied, is the first duty of the citizen. I entreat you to remember the example I have given you of respectful submission to the administration of justice.’ Nearly 30 years later the Congress remitted the fine with interest.”

“This was a most significant statement. It might well have been pondered by those who were undertaking to argue away the Constitution after General Jackson became President. Here was a man who stood ready to fight a duel, if he thought the circumstances required it – of an impetuous nature and impatient of all restraint, yet clearly announcing the supremacy of law. More than that, he was acting upon that principle…He believed that at all times and in all places the duly constituted authority of law should be supreme.”

The statute of Andrew Jackson, given by the State of Tennessee and accepted by President Coolidge stands underneath the dome of the Capitol in Washington, where Coolidge, in 1928, delivered the address featured here.

The statute of Andrew Jackson, to which President Coolidge refers, stands underneath the dome of the Capitol in Washington.

Coolidge, finding much to admire about his predecessors, was not above the firm criticism or even the refrain of praise. Yet, when he identified closely with a frailty, he exemplified a remarkable measure of charity and understanding. Such was the case with President Jackson’s temper. Known for his outward calm, Coolidge could give vent to a fiery wrath of his own at times. Whereas some Presidents would look with hypocritical disdain, even withering contempt, for some of those who came before them, Coolidge practiced a humble forbearance, especially when it came to judging history. Being keenly aware of his own flaws, how could he harshly condemn others with all the benefits of hindsight while he shared in that lack of perfection too? He was no partisan hack either, taking cheap shots for their own sake, as his reflections on the Democrat Jackson make plain. In Coolidge, there was no double standard. For Calvin, treating others as we would be treated was not a trite phrase, it was his life. It is not the suppression of passionate conviction, it is sharing (regardless of party) a common fidelity to the supremacy of law and love for our exceptional foundations. It was simply what Americans, imbibing deeply the spirit of the pioneers, do.

As Coolidge surveyed the legacy of President Jackson, he revealed how profound an impact his predecessor had upon him, the Office and the Nation. “He was regarded as a President of the people, and in seeking to remove their burdens and improve their condition he favored economy and payment of the public debt. When this should be done, he favored dividing the surplus revenues among the States. He also criticized the United States Bank,” taking on (like Coolidge many years later) controversial issues which could easily have been deferred to others in the future.

Coolidge reminded his audience that Jackson, while not always consistent, held courageously to both the preservation of the Union and the obligations of the Executive. In the midst of Jackson’s historic battle with Calhoun over nullification in April 1833, he affirmed,

” ‘Our Federal Union – it must be preserved.’ ”

“Without reference to his former views on the tariff or States rights, when this ordinance was passed, President Jackson declared, ‘The duty of the Executive is a plain one. The laws will be executed and the Union preserved by all the constitutional and legal means he is invested with.’ He soon followed this with a proclamation denying the right of secession, refuting the power of a State to set aside an act of Congress, and asserting the supremacy of the Federal Constitution. This proclamation has been regarded as one of the best state papers of any American President…A service of this nature, rather at variance with some of the positions he had formerly taken and some of the policies strongly supported in his own party, could only have been performed by a great man.”

Tennessee Gentleman, portrait of Jackson from 1831. Part of the collection at The Hermitage, Nashville.

Tennessee Gentleman, portrait of Jackson from 1831. Part of the collection at The Hermitage, Nashville.

“His fight on the bank was not yet ended. His next move was an attempt to withdraw the public deposits…Of course, a violent change of this nature affecting the financial policies of the Nation, was bound to have an economic effect throughout the country. Government funds in local banks were used for speculation, which, as usual, brought the reaction of depression.” It is especially noteworthy that President Coolidge includes this concise illustration from history about speculation at a time coinciding with feckless investment in quick money on the market throughout 1928, the year of this speech. It was another occasion where President Coolidge gave sober warning to any who would heed. In this, and many other ways, his attempts to carefully “tap the brakes” (so as not to discourage sound growth) met with little notice at the time. “Opinions have differed,” just as they would over the causes and cures of the recession turned Great Depression of the 1930s, “but no one doubts the great courage of President Jackson in opposing it or the public approbation he received in support of his policy.” Jackson, contrary to Arthur Schlesinger’s wishful claim, was hardly the precursor of FDR, who spent while Jackson paid off the Nation’s entire debt and assumed greater supervision of individual freedoms while Jackson kept faith in the people to govern themselves.

No doubt anticipating his own retirement from public office in just less than eleven more months, President Coolidge turned to Jackson’s departure from Washington. “On the 7th of March, 1837, he set out for his old home, The Hermitage. He had triumphed over opponents who were considered then, and rank now, among the greatest statesmen of his day. Calhoun had gone down on nullification. The great figure of Daniel Webster had stood with the President on that issue, but had opposed his banking policies. Clay had compromised and lost…If at times he was high tempered and overbearing, there is no fairer story of chivalrous devotion and affectionate consideration than that which he lavished upon his wife. In her benign presence he was all submission.”

“History accords him one of the high positions among the great names of our country. He gave to the nationalist spirit through loyalty to the Union a new strength which was decisive for many years. His management of our foreign affairs was such as to secure a wholesome respect for our Government and the rights of its citizens. He left the Treasury without obligations and with a surplus. Coming up from the people, he demonstrated that there is sufficient substance in self-government to solve important public questions and rise superior to a perplexing crisis. Like a true pioneer, he broke through all the restraints and impediments into which he was born, and leaving behind the provincialisms and prejudices of his day pushed out toward a larger freedom and a sounder Government, carrying the country with him.”

“In recognition of the great qualities of her most illustrious son, the State of Tennessee has presented his statue to the National Government. In gratitude for the preeminent service which he rendered, I, as President of the United States, accept it, to stand here in the Hall of Fame so long as this Capitol shall endure.”

It was underneath this awesome scene that President Coolidge accepted the statute of Andrew Jackson, April 15, 1928.

It was underneath this stunning view that President Coolidge accepted the bronze statute of Andrew Jackson from the State of Tennessee, April 15, 1928.