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Abstract

This article is intended as a short reflection on the inaugural address of Calvin Coolidge and its central message and themes. Most of the information is based upon Kennedy, David M. and Cohen, Lizabeth. “The American Pageant”.

The Inaugural Address of Calvin Coolidge: Some Reflections

The American history of presidents is an interesting record. Some presidents loom large in the fabric of history, overshadowing generations of political leaders. Others are hardly known by most people. Some left huge impacts upon the government and the society they led, while others were content to put the “preside” in “president” and simply fulfill their places during times of blandness in the political scene. All, however, played a role in the development of the American presidency to this day. Often, the most revealing glimpses into the thoughts of American presidents is found in their inaugural addresses – the first speech they make and sometimes the only speech which is not pre-planned for the public eye or impersonally drafted by speechwriters. It is thus not surprising that in Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address, we can find summed up the dominant attitude of America in the post-WW1 era. Coolidge reflected upon what most Americans thought about themselves and the world – and what most government officials thought about the world as well. He attempted to lay out a clear definition of what America was and what it ought to be, a definition which, though modified occasionally, managed to hold American minds until the outbreak of WW2.

One of the most noticeable assertions of Coolidge’s address which reflected the general consensus in America at the time was the assertion of American non-intervention. After WW1 many Americans sought a retreat from the global stage to rebuild their own country and remain at peace. But most interesting about Coolidge’s assertion of non-intervention is the balance and clarity he gives to it. While he insists that the United States had “never any wish to interfere in the political conditions of any other countries,” he adds that Americans still had the moral obligation as champions of freedom to use their powers to balance the world. In essence, the United States would have no part in wars which were conducted on matters of national interests or policies. However, as a universal champion of the human rights principles upon which it was founded, the US would indeed intervene to protect those rights globally. Coolidge also added that international action on the part of the United States would require equal action from its beneficiaries; the road to peace would lie ultimately with humanity’s goodwill and not with military action on the part of any country.

After addressing issues abroad, Coolidge turned his attention to domestic issues, reminding the American people that any changes they wished to see in the world had to be made in themselves first. To reinforce his point, Coolidge detailed the responsibilities of citizenship. Americans would have to maintain their fidelity to the process of democracy by remaining aware of their country’s political system and by voting to help shape the rule of law. Additionally, the new president explored the workings of the party system in American politics, encouraging Americans to shove aside political labels, party loyalties, and intense partisanship to accomplish broader political goals. The responsibility of the American citizen became, then, not a loyalty to a particular party but an analysis of what various parties were actually doing politically.

Finally, Calvin Coolidge addressed what was to become one of the foundational principles of his presidency – fiscal responsibility. While Coolidge noted that the government could prove one of the greatest detriments to the standard of living by means of taxation, he reminded citizens that their government was in their control. The extent to which the government burdened them would depend on the extent to which they were involved in balancing its budget. In America, the right to property was absolute; the more the government taxed, the less this right was upheld. It was ultimately the people who knew best how to manage their money. In this manner, Coolidge essentially laid out the principles of fiscal conservatism in his address. The better the government could reduce its expenditures without reducing its fulfillment of its basic obligations, the more prosperous the people of America could become. Most importantly, President Coolidge strikes the heart of fiscal conservatism in his statement “I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people.” The real heart of fiscal conservatism, according to Calvin Coolidge, is not saving money for money’s sake – it is saving money for the sake of the people who must earn that money.

The inaugural address of Calvin Coolidge was less than a few pages long, even with large print. It is a fittingly sized address for a president whose statute in history is slightly smaller than that of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. But in its few pages it contains timeless wisdom about the role of the President of the United States. Calvin Coolidge shared in those few pages an entire vision, an entire philosophy of what the United States was and where it was going in the 1920s.

Politics History United States


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