The Spirit of Coolidge on Independence Day

President Calvin Coolidge awarding the Medal of Honor to Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett (right) and Commander Richard E. Byrd (left) for the first flight over the North Pole on 9 May 1926.

President Calvin Coolidge awarding the Medal of Honor to Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett (right) and Commander Richard E. Byrd (left) for the first flight over the North Pole on 9 May 1926.

This July 4 continues the budding tradition of honoring the sole American president born on Independence Day.  But to truly understand Calvin Coolidge (born 1872), who served from 1923-29, requires ditching the edicts of conventional wisdom and bypassing the shelves at your local bookstore full of gushing biographical tomes of FDR, JFK, LBJ and a handful of others.

Worth noting, Ronald Reagan’s reputation is enjoying a slight revival in mainstream circles, but that is only a tool to bash current Republicans, who are deemed too rigid and extremist to consider nominating even someone like the Gipper.

Speaking of Reagan, he hung Silent Cal’s portrait in the White House when he took the reins in 1981, lauding the 30th president’s legacy of tax cuts, limited government and prosperity.  Reagan rightly disregarded the judgements of historians who frequently rank Coolidge in the bottom tier in their highly anticipated rankings of our best leaders.

The quaint country lawyer from Plymouth Notch Vermont (a famous biography of him is entitled A Puritan in Babylon) is typically regarded as a nice man with a dour demeanor who, according to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle.”  Furthermore, he supposedly slept much of his term away, and, like most Republicans, was a shill for the rich.  In truth, his most famous quote — “the business of America is business” — has been taken completely out of context by the so-called experts.

Calvin Coolidge’s life and governance were a living testament to the words he spoke with such simplicity and eloquence.  While he epitomized frugality, hard work, common sense and independence, sometimes even his followers today miss the humanity in his speeches and writings.  In the same “business of America”  speech, he remarked, “We want wealth, but there are many other things we want much more.  We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.  The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

The historians may or may not be aware, but Silent Cal wrote and spoke extensively on such topics as character, duty and honor.

But he also famously noted that it is more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.  Yes, you read that correctly!  Such blasphemy would be an impeachable offense today, but Calvin Coolidge drew his faith not from legislation but from God and the virtues of America’s most humble, hardest-working citizens.

Today, we judge presidents by the bills they pile up and the powers they accrue, thus progressive, activist leaders such as FDR, and, to a lesser degree, Teddy Roosevelt, have fared better historically than men such as Calvin Coolidge, despite his sterling record of peace, popularity and prosperity.

In 2012′s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents, author Steven F. Hayward grades the presidents  (from Wilson to Obama) by an unusual standard — their loyalty to the Constitution.  Fancy that!  Interestingly, Coolidge gets the highest mark in the book, an A-plus. Reagan merits an A-minus only on the basis of two weak Supreme Court appointments, Sandra Day O’Connor and William Kennedy (that minus is barely worth mentioning, as Reagan remains the undisputed titan of 20th Century political conservatism).

Hayward notes Silent Cal’s dignity, intellect and homespun (but never hokey) simplicity.  Among his best quotes:  “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves.” “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.” And, “Perhaps the most important accomplishment of my administration has been minding my own business.”

That last remark alone should earn him a place on Mount Rushmore.  Heck, he belongs above Mount Rushmore.

Naysayers will write off Hayward’s regard for Coolidge as subjective slobbering, but why are his conclusions any less worthy than those of the historians, most of whom lean to the left?

Hayward speaks for many of us, well aware that American heroes and presidents belong to everyone, not just to the molders of elite opinion.

Nothing  written here is meant to exalt Coolidge above the people, flawed and imperfect, from whom he came, but whoever first spoke the adage “we are a great people because we are a good people” clearly had in mind our Fourth of July boy himself, the one and only Calvin Coolidge.

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