Following Coolidge’s lead to preserve our foundational principles from neglect and misuse, the Calvin Coolidge Institute is performing a vital work in the state of Nevada. They are setting an example for what is desperately needed all across America: to encourage and elect candidates with Cal’s integrity, courage and conviction. In fact, a Coolidge Coalition is forming in our area of Gulf Coast Florida. How about where you live? In studying Coolidge for some time, the more I have learned the more I come to respect and admire what he accomplished through a genuine leadership grounded on moral consistency, political wisdom, and personal resolve. While he would not have wanted any institution to bear his name, he would have taken great satisfaction in those who shoulder the high demands, not merely the blessings, of citizenship and public service. He praised those who kept our institutions true to the ideals of limited government, economic freedom, religious liberty, and individual responsibility. Anchored by the Golden Rule, progress is measured not by cutting ties with the past but by doing what is right not what is expedient, upholding the good of all not favoring the benefit of a few. Hardly outmoded, these ideals are downright indispensable. Party platforms and campaign pledges are not things to be cast aside on victory night, they furnish the direction of leadership and are the substance of a voter’s voice. This is why party cohesion is so crucial to sound government. He also understood that principles mean nothing if not kept practiced and practical, requiring brave and involved citizens prepared to govern their own government. The government, as he often paraphrased President Cleveland, works for the people, not the people for the government. In this way, we grow worthy of America. The Calvin Coolidge Institute deserves every encouragement and support.
Ninety-two years ago, 1922, marked the occasion Vice President Coolidge dedicated the Monument to General Ulysses S. Grant in Washington, coinciding with the centennial of President Grant’s birthday, April 27. As with many of his predecessors in the Presidency, Coolidge (though yet to rise to that great office) would have some very thoughtful and profound assessments of the man and his contributions to our institutions, our republican system and to liberty itself.
Grant was, and rightly belongs, among those we honor as a “great American, who was sent into the world endowed with a greatness easy to understand, yet difficult to describe: the highest type of intellectual power–simplicity and directness; the highest type of character–fidelity and honesty. He will forever hold the admiration of a people in whom these qualities abide. By the authority of the law of the land, with the approving loyalty of all his fellow countrymen, in the shadow of the dome of the Capitol which his work proved and glorified fittingly, flanked on either side by a group of soldiers in action, looking out toward the monuments of Washington and Lincoln, this statue rises to the memory of General Ulysses Simpson Grant. It is here because a great people responded to a great man.”
“…He had the ordinary experiences of the son of an average home maintained by a moderately prosperous business. He went to West Point, not so much with the purpose of becoming a soldier as from a desire to secure an education. He liked horses and rode well. He did not appear brilliant, but he had industry. He worked. He made progress. He had that common sense which overcame obstacles. After his graduation he remained in the army for eleven years, rising to the rank of captain” serving through the Mexican War, resigning voluntarily in 1854. “Destiny sent him to private life, where he could better feel the rising tide of freedom. The next few years he spent as a farmer and a business man. He still worked hard, but he did not prosper, scarcely making a living. He had little taste for small things; it required an emergency to call forth his powers.” The “great crisis” of Union found him in Illinois, working his father’s craft, leather. Volunteering himself again, he declared, ‘Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is, we have a government and laws, and a flag, and they must all be sustained.’
Appointed by the Governor to lead the 21st Illinois Regiment, he took command with characteristic directness, ” ‘Men, go to your quarters.’ Within four years he was to be recognized as the greatest soldier in the world.” His capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, his struggle at Pittsburgh Landing and finally his success at the surrender of Vicksburg combined to make Grant a major-general in the regular army. However, it was at Lookout Mountain and his maneuvers at Chattanooga that “demonstrated his great military genius, both of plan and execution.” The following March would find him taking command of the Army of the Potomac, unleashing “blow upon blow from the Wilderness to Appomattox…”
“…His work finished, though the President had invited him to attend the theatre, he left the city on that fatal evening of April 14. He mourned the loss of Lincoln, but his first allegiance was to his country. His attitude toward Johnson was all that could be required of a general toward his commander-in-chief, until the President, seeking to embroil him in his own political disputes, charged him with bad faith…While Johnson sank in the public estimation, Grant rose, being unanimously nominated and handsomely elected President of the United States.” Coolidge was four months old. As a boy, he would acquire a deepening respect the more he learned of the first President he would recall in youth.
Grant “had little taste for political manuevres. He found his eight years fell on a time of confusion, both of thought and action. He worked as best he could with the contending elements which made up Congress…Although he broke with a well-meaning reform element of his party, which supported Horace Greeley, he was triumphantly re-elected. One of the important contributions which he made to the public service was his veto of the bill which provided for the inflation of the currency by issuing $400,000,000 in greenbacks. At a time when the political ideals of the country were very low, President Grant held to his own high standard of honorable public service…”
“…Through the contested election of Hayes and Tilden, in 1876, he took a course marked by a high spirit of patriotism. ‘No man worthy of the office of President, should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result. The country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns.’ When the man who knew how to command armies took this position for the enforcement of the law, the country stood behind him and peacefully accepted the decision of the electoral commission.”
“His closing years were marked with great tragedy. Betrayed by one whom he trusted, he saw his property dissipated and large obligations incurred. A lingering and fatal malady added anguish of the body to the anguish of his soul. Never was he greater than in these last days. With high courage, without complaint, on a bed of pain, seeking to retrieve his losses, he was preparing his memoirs…He was still thinking of his country, not as a partisan but as a patriot, not even as the general the armies he had led but as an American.” Being near death, he observed, “I have witnessed since my illness, just what I have wished to see since the end of the war–harmony and good-will between the sections.”
“…Great as he had been, his armies had been greater still…As they supported him in the field, their bronze forms support him here.”
Coolidge would reflect on Grant’s great enemy, General Robert E. Lee, seeing two equally noble champions of integrity, recalling that both reflected what was best about America just when it was most needed.
“Men are made in no small degree by their adversaries. Grant had great adversaries. They fought with a dash and a tenacity, with a gallantry and an enduring purpose which the world has known in Americans, and in Americans alone. At their head rode General Robert E. Lee, marked with a purity of soul and a high sense of personal honor which no true American would ever stoop to question. No force ever quelled their intrepid spirit. They gave their loyalty voluntarily or they did not give it at all.”
“It is not so much the greatness of Grant as a soldier but his greatness as a man, not so much his greatness in war as his greatness in peace, the consideration, the tenderness, the human sympathy which he showed toward them from the day of their submission, refusing the surrender of Lee’s sword, leaving the men of the Southern army in possession of their own horses, which appealed to that sentiment of reconciliation which has long since been complete. It was not a humiliation but an honor to remain under the sovereignty of a flag which was borne by such a commander…”
Summing up the significance of this great American and honorable President, never an easy task, seems effortless in the words of Coolidge,
“Our country and the world may well consider the simplicity and directness which marked the greatness of General Grant. In war his object was the destruction of the opposing army. He knew his task was difficult. He knew that the price would be high; yet amid abuse and criticism, amid misunderstanding and jealousy, he did not alter his course. He paid the price. He accomplished the result. He wasted no time in attempting to find some substitute for victory. He held fast to the same principle in time of peace. Around him was the destruction which the war had wrought…He refused to seek refuge in any fictions. He knew that sound money values and a sound economic condition could not be created by law alone but only through the long and toilsome application of human effort put forth under wise law. He knew that his country could not legislate out its destiny but must work out its destiny…His policy was simple and direct, and eternally true. In the important decisions of his life his fidelity and honesty are equally apparent…He never betrayed a trust and he never deserted a friend. He considered that the true test of a friend was to stand by him when he was in need. When financial misfortunes overtook him he discharged his obligations from whatever property he and his family could raise. Here was a man who lived the great realities of life…There was no artifice about him, no pretense, and no sham. Through and through he was genuine. He represented power.”
“A grateful republic has raised this monument not as a symbol of war but as a symbol of peace. Not the false security, which may come from temporizing, from compromise, or from evasion, but that true and enduring tranquility which is the result of a victorious righteousness. The issues of the world must be met and met squarely. The forces of evil do not disdain preparation, they are always prepared and always preparing…The welfare of America, the cause of civilization will forever require the contribution of some part of the life of all our citizens to the natural, the necessary, and the inevitable demand for the defense of the right and the truth. There is no substitute for a militant freedom. The only alternative is submission and slavery.” What Grant gave, “America shall give.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.