On the Higher Work of Business

As then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge spoke just over a century ago, January 1923, to listeners of Chicago’s Jewelers’ Association and many more tuning in across the country through radio, he had this to say:

“There is a moral obligation on the part of each division [of labor] and trade to maintain its service, because the dislocation on one part dislocates the whole. The failure to secure any part of the raw material or service stops the entire production. The individual may leave it and turn to something else, but the trade, the occupation which provides its part of what is necessary for the conduct of the business of the people, under these new methods, is charged with a new moral obligation to maintain its service. We cannot prosper unless each division recognizes its prime duty to stay on the job.

“This, in turn, requires just compensation. But this is a result, not a cause. Work is not done because wages are paid, wages are paid because work is done. If the service be rendered, the compensation will be forthcoming. If the service be not rendered, there is no power that can long enforce payment. The rate of wages in the industrial world will be fixed by one main factor, and that is the amount that is earned. The amount of production, in the long run, always determines the amount of compensation. More and more emphasis is going to be placed on this end of the problem, as it is better and better understood that our real economic condition depends not so much on the amount of wages paid throughout the country as the amount of goods produced. It will always be necessary to supply along with honesty and candor and good will a large amount of hard work. The nation will seek in vain for any substitute for an honest purpose and honest work…

“The government can provide some of the elements, but it cannot provide them all. It can furnish opportunity, but the vision, the initiative, the courage, the uprightness, the application, and the enterprise to grasp it and profit by it must come from the people themselves.

“The main function of government is to maintain order, preserve liberty, and administer justice, but even these simple and elementary requirements cannot be met without the cooperation and the support of the people. This duty is not performed by mere passive acquiescence, it needs the active, energetic, and concerted action of an aroused and earnest citizenship. The business of the people will not be done unless they go to do it. They cannot leave their elections to the dictation of a few. Voluntarily, informedly, advisedly, they must go to the ballot box. They cannot leave the holding of office merely to self-seekers. They must go prepared to make the sacrifice, to endure the discomfiture and the misrepresentation, the loss of business opportunity required by being a candidate for and holding public office. They cannot even leave the administration of justice to itself, they must serve on the grand jury. They must sit in the jury box at the trial of causes, civil and criminal. All of this costs something. It may seem irksome to the business man, but it is a price which we must pay. After all, there is no business quite so important as the public business, and no other business which can succeed if that fails.

“The business men of the nation have been too prone to abdicate at the first appearance of hostile criticism. They must always expect to be criticized, nobody who accomplishes anything escapes it. It seems to accompany success in geometrical progression. Business cannot sit silent, it must justify itself by word and deed, but it is not to be pre-judged. Under our free institutions the achievement of success carries with it a presumption of a fair and honorable public service. Unless those who have a stake in the country, who have a real interest in it, are willing to go down into the public arena and unselfishly bear their share in the contests which are never without wounds and scars, they are not worthy of the institutions which have made them what they are, and have no right to complain of a lack of wisdom in the legislature, or a lack of justice in the courts. It is not enough for them to send, they ought to go. It is not their money that is wanted, it is their personal service. They ought to be among the people, knowing and sharing their burdens, not in their old effort to supplant the people but working for them by working with them…

“The modern economic fabric is exceedingly delicate. It is chiefly sustained by confidence. It is destroyed by any lack of security. It is necessary to have absolute assurance of order and the general observance of law. It is on this side that the solid and substantial element of the community is always found, and it on this side that the real welfare of the people always lies. Such security means not only tranquility at home but peace and good understanding abroad…

“The American conception of business is that it is the means of ministering to the welfare of all the people. It is from this conviction that it secures its maintenance and support. Whenever and wherever it fails of this main purpose either it should be changed and corrected or it should cease to exist. There would be little regard in our country for a prosperity which did not reach to the people. It may not begin there, but certainly it must end there. The power and strength of the people of this nation is beyond comprehension. Whatever they want they can have, on the single condition that they furnish it themselves. There is no limit to what they can take, provided they are willing to pay the price…

“The business of the country, the government of the country, are going to continue to be conducted by human beings with all their frailties, but also with all their strength. If there were any way in which this could be changed, any way that we could put ourselves in all respects, both private and public, under the jurisdiction of beings who had attained perfection, I feel warranted in asserting that there is not a high official charged with the management of any of the great business organizations of the country, or entrusted with the conduct of public office at Washington who would not gladly surrender their power and place to secure for themselves and others such an ideal condition. But the world and all the works thereof are in the hands of plain human beings…We could not, if we would, place ourselves in any other hands. Those who hold to the delusion that larceny is easier than industry would not change their character whether they came into power by the action of stockholders, or by the result at the ballot box. We shall go on making mistakes and making progress. We shall not succeed by following vain promises. We shall accomplish infinitely more good by possessing ourselves with patience, by maintaining a helpful and charitable attitude, by utilizing and perfecting to their limit the instrumentalities of business and government already at hand, than by a continual and supercilious criticism and a ceaseless demand for change. It is with the constructive forces of life that we must join our action. They are all about us, they are strong, they are ample, they are overpowering. ‘Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.’ “

Two years later, President and First Lady Coolidge before the La Salle Hotel, 1925. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

On the Sum of All Commerce

The La Salle Hotel, Chicago

When Calvin Coolidge addressed the 45th annual banquet of the Chicago Jewelers’ Association (along with radio listeners across the country via national hookup) in the Ballroom of the La Salle Hotel on the evening of January 22, 1923, he had much to offer those listening, much that still strikes home one hundred years later. He said:

“It is not only as an industry but as an art that this trade today ministers to a fundamental requirement of all civilization. Its real mission is not to appeal to vanity or to provide the means of mere ostentation, but to give expression to the ennobling sentiment of a love of beauty which lies at the foundation of creative art. To provide the people with treasure in inspiring form is not to serve a bare desire for gain, but is to aid the cause of refinement, culture, and humanity. Such a purpose and such a service are worthy of the best that there is in mankind.

“Beyond its financial return, there ought to be a pride in every calling, a source of satisfaction in every commercial enterprise. The practice has developed in this country of attempting to measure business entirely in terms of money, and on that basis to set limits to its activity with little regard to the other elements which enter into its conduct. The results of commerce cannot be disposed of in so many ounces of silver and so many pennyweight of gold. The final sum, which represents the entire transaction, has to be cast up in the ledger of life. Commerce is not confined to dealing in commodities, it is a dealing with men. The important production of manufacture is not fabric, but character.

“It is this which gives warrant and meaning and life to commerce. Men have found little advantage, little progress, and little satisfaction in a life which only supplied their own wants from the products of the field. It was only when they began to produce to supply the wants of others, when there became an exchange, not only of commodities but of ideas, that there began to rise of that civilized society which found its nourishment and support in commerce.

Ballroom, La Salle Hotel (1910)

“It is not from commerce that we derive our ideals, it is from religion, from education, from the aspirations of the soul; but, it is from commerce that there is derived the power to minister to these ideals and to carry them into effect…It is from this source that there has been provided the means for investigating the laws of nature, for the founding of universities, and the construction of schoolhouses, for the creation of literature, sculpture and painting, for the endowment of charitable institutions, and the building of places of religious worship.

“This is the real purpose and meaning of all the industrial activity of our nation. As a necessary and inevitable result, it is a broadening out of life, the raising of the standard of human existence which reaches to every hearthstone in the land. It is true that these great privileges may be ignored, that these great powers may be misused, that the possession of money, especially if it be too easily secured, may be used, not to create, but to destroy, not to ennoble but to debase. But the evidence is all about that this is not the purpose to which the stupendous resources of our country are devoted. Here and there are examples of wanton prodigality and dissipation, but they represent nothing save their own certain destruction, while the mass of wealth of the country, if not always successfully, is honestly and conscientiously used to give to the people of the nation a more abundant life. Men of the greatest wealth have dedicated their stupendous fortunes almost in their entirety in faith, in hope, and in prayer to this high calling…

“The large enterprises of our country have been created, almost without exception, not by men who were born to the purple, but those who came into life under very meagre circumstances. In a country where the measure of a man is not who he is but what he can do, this may not be of much importance, but it is one fact in the evidence which points to the inescapable conclusion that the makers and builders of America have been and are the people.

“It is not always true that those who perform a large public service meet with financial success, but it is true, almost without exception, that those who achieve great financial success do so by the performance of a great public service. It needs to be realized that they have worked with the people and through the people, and that the great instruments of commerce and industry which they have created are for the people. The service which they render can go on expanding to meet the ever-increasing needs of the people so long as it is profitable and no longer…Only a public enemy could wish to see it torn by dissension and discord and destroyed by envy and malice. Every well-wisher of our country — everyone desirous of the welfare of the people, wants to see it maintained, strengthened, and prosperous through more cooperation, better understanding, mutual forbearance, and good will. Unless this foundation is thoroughly established, all other efforts will be in vain.

“There is no more destructive agency in our national life than that which undertakes to arouse the jealousy of one section against another, to stir up dissension between employer and employed, promote unjustifiable discord between public service corporations and the communities which they serve, and generally to array one part of the productive and business life of the nation against another part. Of course, the blame for such a condition, when it arises, is never confined to one side. Generally, it has its basis in ignorance of the facts involved. Oftentimes there is too little frankness on the part of some charged with the management and too much suspicion on the part of some of the public. The business of the country is not conducted for the purpose of cheating the people. It could not be done even if some of its directors attempted it. Nor do the people wish to oppress anyone, to despoil anyone, or to have the use of property without rendering a just compensation. Nothing would so conduce to an increasing and profitable production, to adding to the welfare of the people, to advancing every art of civilization, as to be rid of all these quarrels and dissensions and work together in peace and harmony under the existence of mutual respect and confidence.”

45th Annual Banquet of Chicago Jewelers’ Association, Ballroom of the La Salle Hotel, Chicago, January 22, 1923. The speakers’ table, where Vice President Coolidge was seated, is located north of center along the wall in the background. Photo credit: The Jewelers’ Circular, (January 31, 1923) 85, 27, p.83.

“Coolidge and the American Project”

On Thursday and Friday, this past week, in Washington, D. C., the Coolidge Presidential Foundation and Library of Congress hosted a superb conference on the thirtieth president, covering in seven sessions the life, learning, and legacy of Cal. It was strongly attended, representing quite a diverse range of scholars, educators, and students of Cal alongside an overdue examination of the instructiveness the man and his era provide. We look forward to more excellent conferences to come and a flourishing return Coolidge deserves to public dialogue and civic discourse. Including his wisdom in the conversation will always elevate every citizen’s knowledge of and responsibility for our own part in what is required to continue our Republic. By rediscovering who he is and why he matters the foundations of our Republic and the price of freedom every American owes will be advanced.

Happy Birthday, in advance, President Washington, and a Happy Presidents’ Day, Coolidgeans everywhere!