Speeches that Made History: Calvin Coolidge Reminds Us of the Declaration’s Inspiration

by Derrick G. Jeter

Calvin Coolidge became President of the United States just a few years into the Harding–Coolidge administration. While vacationing at his father’s farm, in Plymouth, Vermont, Coolidge received word that President Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923. In the early morning of August 3, a knock came on John Coolidge’s door. Mr. Coolidge called his son and the Vice President appeared at the top of the stairs. Told of the President’s death, Coolidge reportedly said about assuming the presidency: “I believe I can swing it.” Robert Sobel, picks up the story:

Coolidge and his wife returned to the bedroom. They washed, dressed, and knelt by the bed to pray. Then they went downstairs, where Coolidge dictated a message of sympathy to Mrs. Harding. . . .

Coolidge received a telegram from Attorney General Daugherty urging him to take the oath of office immediately. He went across the street to the general store and telephoned Secretary of State Hughes, who informed him, the oath could be administered by a notary. Coolidge told Hughes his father was a notary, and the Secretary replied, “Fine.” Coolidge returned home, and in the downstairs sitting room John Coolidge, using the family Bible, swore his son in as [the thirtieth] president. The time was 2:47 am. [1]

President Coolidge rooted out the corruption left by the Harding Administration and planted the seed of the “Coolidge prosperity” in the roaring twenties. In 1924 he was elected to the presidency in his own right. While vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he dedicated Mt. Rushmore, Coolidge declined to run in 1928. In his typical laconic style, Coolidge declared: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”

Coolidge is the first and only president born on the Fourth of July and sworn in by his father. He was the last president to shake hands for hours with citizens visiting the White House; the last to rely exclusively on written letters and telegraphs to carry out the duties of the office (the one White House telephone was outside the Oval Office in a little booth); and the last to have only one secretary and no aides.

Not given to bombast, Coolidge used words economically. But when he did speak his words carried weight. As a speaker, Coolidge was not a rhetorician or an orator. He was a logician—argument based upon argument, drawing to the obvious conclusion. On the 150 anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, delivered on July 5, 1926, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Coolidge traced the inspiration of our founding document. His conclusion was simple and profound, especially in this day of multiculturalism and pluralism: “the Declaration of Independence . . . is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.”

The speech is worth reading in the whole, but here is a flavor of Coolidge’s tribute to the spiritual beginnings of America and to our Declaration of Independence. Enjoy. Happy Fourth of July. And God bless America!

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It is little wonder that people at home and abroad consider Independence Hall as hallowed ground and revere the Liberty Bell as a sacred relic. That pile of bricks and mortar, that mass of metal, might appear to the uninstructed as only the outgrown meeting place and the shattered bell of a former time, useless now because of more modern conveniences, but to those who know they have become consecrated by the use which men have made of them. They have long been identified with a great cause. They are the framework of a spiritual event. The world looks upon them, because of their associations of one hundred and fifty years ago, as it looks upon the Holy Land because of what took place there nineteen hundred years ago. Through the use for a righteous purpose they have become sanctified. . . .

The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possess the courage to dare to maintain them. . . .

It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over the length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite proposition where set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. . . .

A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause. . . .

About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to the great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers. . . .

No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped. [2]

[1] Robert Sobel, Coolidge: An American Enigma (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1998), 232.

[2] Calvin Coolidge, “The Inspiration of the Declaration of Independence,” July 5, 1926, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/html/the_inspiration_of_the_declara.html, accessed July 3, 2011.

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