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.

On Arizona

AZ Stone Memorial 4-15-24

Tomorrow, April 15, will mark the ninetieth anniversary of the dedication by President Calvin Coolidge of Arizona’s distinctive state stone into the internal walls of the Washington Monument in 1924. Despite being the last of the 48 to join what Coolidge called the “family” of states, the President knew Arizona would not be the last. In his vision of the future, Arizona, like all of America’s states, carried boundless potential and would reach into vast horizons of great achievement.

“It was a fine conception, this, of placing a stone for every State in the Monument to Washington. Who among us will venture to guess how many more times this ceremony will be performed?” He would venture that guess, “…I think we may almost say the assurance, that before many more years our successors will gather here again and once more survey the wonder of American development, as they dedicate the stone of the 49th State. After that, the story of the States will be written by the finger of destiny on the scroll of a long future. It is not for us to know what that story may be. I hope it can be of duty done to the world, but without aggrandizement, without imperialism…”

“I have thought of today’s ceremony as a sort of home gathering of the States, in honor of the coming of age of the youngest member of the family. It is Arizona’s day, and to Arizona we bring our congratulations, our tributes, our affection and our good wishes for her future…It is to this Arizona of tomorrow, to this greater Southwest which the not distant future will know, as we cannot yet fully conceive it, that we today extend the hand of welcome. We dedicated its stone in this national Monument…yet it is only one of the 48 imperial communities which make up our Nation, in which the people hold the proud distinction of being at once citizens and sovereigns.”

Coolidge identified the significance of this dedication not merely as another occasion to deliver a speech or appeal to mundane platitudes but as an opportunity to consider the importance of each state in our political system, celebrating the principle of local self-governance and the strength each state contributes to the soundness of the whole structure. Coolidge reminds us that an all-encompassing, all-consuming National Government is not an indicator of health and well-being, but rather stems from the failure of that most crucial pillar of local governance. If the people, through their States, abdicate the responsibility to manage their own affairs and make their own decisions, they become suppliant supplicants to Washington, and hasten the collapse of the entire structure.

“This occasion has its important and impressive symbolism. Just as this stone and its associates when joined together make a new and altogether different structure than is represented by each standing alone, so the joining of the States makes a new and different political structure.” Just as each stone had to retain its solidity to sustain the Monument, “so in our Nation each State must remain intact, or the political edifice falls.”

Composed of three petrified logs from the Chalcedony Forest in Holbrook, Arizona, the 2 x 4 foot stone rests oat the 320-foot level of the interior wall in the Washington Monument.

Composed of three petrified logs from the Chalcedony Forest in Holbrook, Arizona, the 2 x 4-foot stone rests at the 320-foot level of the interior wall in the Washington Monument.

As Coolidge stood beside Arizona’s striking contribution to the Monument honoring Washington, he understood that “two policies must always be supported. First, local self-government had to continue persisting not simply as a slogan or motto but “in harmony with the needs of each State. This means that in general the States should not surrender, but retain their sovereignty, and keep control of their own government.” The one-size-fits-all “democracy” enforced from a given Federal agency, office or bureau destroys this powerful role each State possesses. If the States lose control of their own sphere of obligations, it only enables the National Government to assert itself with even more inept and reckless results. Still, Coolidge understood that our system did not succeed with a rejection of all government for libertarianism. As he continues, what he would outline next was as equally indispensable for the future of America’s States as the first policy. Second, local sentiments must be a reflection of a “nation-wide public opinion. Each State must shape its course to conform to the generally accepted sanctions of society and to the needs of the Nation. It must protect the health and provide for the education of its own citizens. The policy is already well recognized in the association of the States for the promotion and adoption of uniform laws.” If the States deviated too far from the moral aims and cultural norms of the country as a whole, it would lead to the disregard and impotence of law everywhere. Even more dangerous, it would furnish another excuse for Washington to assume control in order to bring “security” to the situation: asserting jurisdiction over property it did not lawfully possess, over rights no more permitted to grant than to take away, and over details it could not competently understand.

While there would three other states (North Dakota, 1926; New Mexico, 1927; and Idaho, 1928) to join the "family" of State stones during the 1920s, President Coolidge would return only once to dedicate the 47th state, New Mexico's contribution, on December 2, 1927. Here is a small snapshot of that occasion.

While there would three other states (North Dakota, 1926; New Mexico, 1927; and Idaho, 1928) to join the “family” of State stones during the 1920s, President Coolidge would return only once more to dedicate the 47th state, New Mexico’s contribution, on December 2, 1927. Here is a small snapshot of that occasion.

President Coolidge then drove the point home, “Throughout our whole Nation there is an irresistible urge for the maintenance of the highest possible standards of government and society. Unless this sentiment is heeded and observed by appropriate state action, there is always grave danger of encroachment upon the states by the National Government. But it must always be realized that such encroachment is a hazardous undertaking, and should be adopted only as a last resort. The true course to be followed is the maintenance of the integrity of each state by local laws and social customs, which will place it in comparative harmony with all the others. By such a method, which can only be the result of great effort, constantly exerted, it will be possible to maintain an ‘Indestructible Union of Indestructible States.’ The maintenance of this position rises in importance above the hope of any other benefits, which constant changes would be likely to secure. The Nation can be inviolate only as it insists that Arizona be inviolate.”

We will do well to reflect on this ninetieth anniversary of a great dedication to Arizona and the Monument to our first President. But that is not all. Tomorrow also affords us the occasion to reflect on our responsibilities, the continuous duty we bear to zealously preserve self-government, vigilant States and a limited Washington.

On Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821-22

Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821-22

“In spite of all his greatness, anyone who had as many ideas a Jefferson was bound to find some of them would not work. But this does not detract from the wisdom of his faith in the people and his constant insistence that they be left to manage their own affairs. His opposition to bureaucracy will bear careful analysis, and the country could stand a great deal more of its application. The trouble with us is that we talk about Jefferson but do not follow him. In his theory that the people should manage their government, and not be managed by it, he was everlastingly right” — Calvin Coolidge on the third President, 1929, The Autobiography, p.215.

“About the time of the adoption of the Constitution, Jefferson wrote of his disapproval of parties, and somewhat later John Marshall expressed the same opinion. Yet when Jefferson undertook the practical administration of the Government and had a conscientious desire to promote the rule of the people, he became such a thorough party organizer that he has ever since stood as the patron saint of that method of expressing the will of the people. He realized that there was no choice between that system and turning over the administration of public affairs to an oligarchy or an aristocracy. The great place which he holds in our political history is due to his thorough comprehension of that fundamental principle” (Coolidge in one of the last essays he would write, entitled “Political Parties,” published posthumously in the Saturday Evening Post, 1934).

Today marks the 271st anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. A thought-provoking piece by Dr. Clyde Wilson reminds us in “Looking for Thomas Jefferson” to dig past the layers of academic veneer that obscure who he was, how he thought and why he is great…taken, like Coolidge, on his terms not through the lens of modern political prejudices. Historical study, to remain sound and honest however, must resist the urge to replace one set of biases with another. Any scholar must be approached with careful perspective to let the subject lead and inform not conform to the observer’s views.