On Labor Not Laurels

America cannot live on past glory alone. The work of a nation has never yet been done. 

‘Right forever on the scaffold, 

Wrong forever on the throne, 

But that scaffold sways the future, 

And behind the dark unknown

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.’¹ 

That the Pilgrims braved exile in a wilderness across the sea; that the Thirteen Colonies endured the sacrifices of a seven years’ revolutionary war; that the men of the North poured out their blood to preserve the Union, all the gleaming pages of our history, give us no title to luxurious ease, no freedom from conflict, no assurance of an effortless existence. 

‘Lo, all the pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.’² 

The Coolidges receiving a veteran of ’61 at Plymouth Notch. Photo credit: Leslie Jones Collection.

We must have the resolution now to dare and do; we must have the spirit now to overcome, which inspired the men who followed [John] Carver, Washington, and Lincoln. Of course we look to the past for inspiration, but inspiration is not enough. We must have action. Action can come only from ourselves; society, government, and state, call it what you will, cannot act; our only strength, our only security, lies in the individual. 

American institutions are builded on that foundation. That is the meaning of self-government, the worth and the responsibility of the individual. In that America has put all her trust. If that fail, democracy fails, freedom is a delusion and slavery must prevail. 

We have come to the time when we must prove ourselves. The great crisis is at hand. Had Washington, or Lincoln, or McKinley failed, the torch of liberty would have been dimmed but not extinguished. Failure now means the night of despotism, it means that another Caesar is to rule, another Praetorian Guard will sell the purple to the highest bidder. 

Vercingetorex throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Noel Royer, 1899

But we are not to fail. The individual is responding. Ten millions of our youth have enrolled. Evasion is almost negligible. The wealth of the Nation has volunteered. All the material and men for war are forthcoming. 

In recognition of what you have done, of what you are ready to dare, of that last full measure of devotion you are offering to your country, I have been given the privilege of presenting to you this guidon, donated by one of your Lowell citizens. It is presented not to your commanding officer, not to some worthy color bearer, but to every individual of your Battery B. Take it. Bear it for America, for Truth and Freedom, ‘Truth coming from whatsoever source and Freedom knowing no bounds but those which Truth has set.’ 

— Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge, on the presentation of a silk guidon to Battery B, 2nd Field Artillery, at Lowell, Massachusetts, June 15, 1917. 


D-Day (June 6, 1944) remained almost twenty-seven years in the future but Coolidge reminds us, looking ahead to some of the most intense fighting of the Great War, that our freedom can end when we cease to fight for it. May we not forget. 

¹ “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell, 1845; The poem opens with the lines:

‘When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast 
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,         
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb 
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime        
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.’               

² “Recessional” by Rudyard Kipling, 1897

On Democratic Tendencies

A later Mr. Coolidge giving a speech. Photo credit: Leslie Jones Collection.

Every Democratic platform is a strange mixture of a promise of economy and a promise of more reforms that mean only more taxes and more debt. Now, I doubt if this expense can be materially decreased. I have made that statement during this campaign. It is confirmed by my experience as the Mayor of a city and by a study of the state finances. I do believe a Republican governor can check it, and I am as firmly convinced that a Democratic administration will increase it. 

It is the policy of the Democratic party in these days to have government do everything. There is scarcely an activity of life which the Democratic party will not vote to turn over to the government…The framers of our government had seen the evils of government monopoly; they knew from experience that government business meant an end of private business. They believed in the freedom and the independence of the individual. They drew a constitution that prohibited the use of public money for private purposes with the same care that it prohibited the creation of a nobility. Now the Democratic party is attempting to repeal this constitution. They are attempting to create a nobility in business, supplied with public money, supported at public expense, against which the private individual will be as powerless as the serf was powerless against the noble. That is the real meaning of government ownership — the limitation and the extinction of personal freedom and personal independence. 

There is another tendency of Democratic principles in the limitation of freedom. We are extending government aid in all directions — much of it helpful, much of it necessary, but it is a dangerous tendency. We ought to create opportunity; we ought to give every protection. But we ought not to provide a privileged class at the expense of the tax-payers. We ought not to work toward a condition where one class lives on the government and the other class pays the taxes. I want to repeat that self-government means self-support. 

We have established great supervising bureaus. They have enormous inquisitorial powers. They may be made instruments of good or of great evil. They are both state and federal. We call them Boards and Commissions. They need men of the broadest outlook. Their duties should be supervision and control — not operation. They should stand in the place of policemen, not of owners. Under Democratic theories and Democratic opportunities, this distinction is breaking down. The industries of the State do not object to all reasonable police supervision. They cannot remain independent and have government operation. The Democratic party in state and nation is making an experimental laboratory of our industries. Under this system, independence will vanish. The whim of an inspector is set over the operation of all business. 

We do not object to supervision. The Republican party established it. We do object to attempted operation without responsibility. Here is where the state and nation needs the return of our party to power. Ruthless and unskilled interference is breaking down our industries. The slim margin of profit is vanishing under the expense of unbusinesslike restrictions. You need the Republican standard in the appointing power; you need it to control and supervise Commissions. Unless this is speedily restored, danger and destruction wait…

Give us a Republican administration that will make appointments on merit, not political expediency. Let us return to Republican ideals of supervision under the law; we do not need more legislation. Repeal even is unnecessary. What Massachusetts needs — what the Nation needs — is a wise administration of the law. Look not to the legislature for relief — look to the executive. 

— Senator Calvin Coolidge, Address in East Boston, September 2, 1915

The Coolidges receiving visitors at the Homestead in Vermont. Photo credit: Leslie Jones Collection.

On Memory, Trust, and Liberty

Memorial exercises are for the quick not for the dead. It is that we who are living may show that we propose to cherish the high ideals of those who have died, rather than live false to the welfare of their country, that we are gathered here today, or this gathering were in vain. It is not to boast of victory. It is not to lament for defeat. It is not to mourn for the departed. It is to fit ourselves the better for that task which is our heritage that we have taken this hour to contemplate the mighty deeds of the past. It is to prepare ourselves for the duties of the present that we study the actions of great men and mark out the great events of history. 

As Abraham Lincoln said upon the consecrated field of Gettysburg:

‘It is for us the living rather to be dedicated…to the unfinished work which they who fought…have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be…dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.’ 

Words immortal, inspired. We do need an increased devotion, we do need a higher resolution, to preserve and to advance those institutions which the fathers secured for us at the price of so much treasure and the sacrifice of so much blood. 

The Battle of Gettysburg by Paul Philippoteaux (1883)

A fitting memorial to the nation’s dead – what shall it mean to us? Is it a mere rehearsal of the carnage of war? Is it only to glory in the deeds of valor? Is it to be only a schedule of battles, of standards, of field-pieces lost and won? Brute force contending with brute force and all for the spoils of conflict? 

No, these might be the chronicles of the lowest savages – the experience of the beasts of the field, – unworthy of the thought of a Christian nation. No, unless the men of ’61 who ‘read a fiery summons writ in rows of burnished steel’ read therein a call righteousness, unless they went forth under the banner of truth, to ‘front a lie in arms,’ unless they were contending for the eternal principles of justice between man and man, the fire of our enthusiastic devotion turns to ashes, and we should not on each recurring year set aside a day to do them reverence. 

Scene from the Great Reunion at Gettysburg the year before Coolidge’s speech. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Passing over then the great names of our civil war, its mighty armies, its deeds of heroic sacrifice and devotion which marked the armies of the North and South alike, passing over the entire glorious history of the conflict, let us see wherein the Union cause fits into the world progress, and what some of the lessons are which we can draw from its contemplation. Through the centuries the old world had worked out the great problems of religion and philosophy. 

The Greek mind had grasped and solved the problems of the natural universe. They knew that nature was the tool of mankind. Greek philosophy had revealed something of the dignity of man. The power of even a slave to know truth — this attested his divinity. The Roman Empire finally became monotheistic and Christianity sat on its throne. Augustine and his followers grappled with the problem of evil. The great Protestant Reformation gave to man to theory of justification by faith. These relations man to nature and to creation having been thought out men began to study the relation of man to man. It was just at this time when the seed of the Reformation began to grow that the old world turned its thought to the discovery and settlement of the new world. An earth cry, so significantly stated by Edward Everett Hale, went up for a new land in which to work out the sublime scheme of justice between man and man. 

‘Give me white paper! 

This which you use is black and rough with smears

Of sweat and grime and fraud and blood and tears, 

Crossed with the story of men’s sins and fears, 

Of battle and of famine all these years, 

When all God’s children had forgot their birth, 

And drudged and fought and died like beasts of earth.’ 

Bronze statue of the American poet Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), erected in Boston in 1913, also the year prior to Senator Coolidge’s address. Photo credit: Boston Literary District.

‘Give me white paper! 

One storm-trained seaman listened to the word; 

What no man saw he saw; he heard what no man heard. 

In answer he compelled the sea 

To eager men to tell 

The secret she had kept so well! 

Left blood and guilt and tyranny behind, — 

Sailing still West the hidden shore to find; 

For all mankind that unstained scroll unfurled, 

Where God might write anew the story of the World.’ 

The clean paper, on which it must be, is to be worked out to its logical conclusion the fundamental teaching of the Christian religion which had been overlooked for centuries, to be restated revived by the Reformation, is America. When men once began to realize that they were brothers through the fatherhood of the Almighty, joint heirs to an everlasting life, each bearing within himself a divinity capable of communion with the Deity, it was then man began to realize his true dignity and grandeur. When once he began to say ‘I am the keeper of my life, I am the master of my soul’ he knew what freedom was. The sons of God could never be the slaves of men. The divine right of princes went down before the divine right of the people and democracy stood divinely justified. This is the true testing of America, justice between man and man — freedom. It is this which hallows the graves of those who fell from Bull Run to Appomattox. As slavery was the underlying cause, if not the immediate provocation of the Civil War, they died to make men free – realizing to the full the highest scriptural measure of devotion ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ They have given freedom both political and industrial. They have emancipated and enriched and ennobled and enfranchised service. They have rescued man from every thraldom save himself, they have given him liberty. 

Another scene from the Great Reunion of 1913 at Gettysburg. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

But man must not forget that liberty lays on him every duty. There is no freedom but the freedom to do right. That is the note of warning which we must sound with the paean of victory. We, the sons of the Puritans, the nation founded on the Declaration of Independence stand only fifty years from legal human slavery. Scarcely more than fifty years ago it is more than probable the Congress and the people would have made slavery nation wide had it not been for the provisions of the Federal Constitution. Must we not remember, we who boast of self-government, we who rely on the rule of the people, that men are sometimes hasty in their judgment, that safety requires time for deliberation, that out Constitutional guarantees must be preserved. The achievements of the Civil War were not complete without the crowning events of the constitutional guarantees of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth Articles of Amendment. 

Trusting the people is vain, if we only trust them to be pleased with flattery. The only trust that is worthy of the name, the true deep respect that realizes the worth and dignity of man demands that he be told the truth. Don’t treat men as they are, treat them as they ought to be. We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people. A faith that men desire to do right, that the nation is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconsecrated faith that the final approval of the people is given not to demagogues slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandizing with the clamor of the hour, but to real statesmanship ministering to their welfare representing their deep, silent, abiding convictions. 

Snapshot from the processions in New York City, May 30, 1912. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Statutes must appeal to more than material welfare. Wages won’t satisfy, be they never so large. Nor houses, no lands, no coupons though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn. Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, as the slavery question touched it and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole. To that nature, not to selfishness, let the institutions and laws of the nation appeal. 

Recognize the true, the immortal worth and dignity of man. Let the foundation principles of this Union forever proclaim to her humblest citizen, performing the most menial task, the recognition of his manhood, the recognition that all men are peers, the humblest with the most exalted, the recognition that all work is glorified. Such is the path to equality before the law. Such is the foundation of liberty under the law. Such is the sublime revelation of man’s relation to man.

— Senator Calvin Coolidge, Address at Longmeadow, May 30, 1914