Calvin Coolidge the most underappreciated president of the last century

Eighty-nine years ago today, President Calvin Coolidge gave this speech about the 4th of July. It is well worth reading in its entirety today.  

…Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.

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 this 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.

The observance of laws had become a major weakness in 1920s America due to most ridiculous crusade American voters ever embarked upon, the 18th Amendment's constitutional ban on the production, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Just how ridiculous can be seen in the special act of Congress that allowed Woodrow and Edith Wilson to hire a person to remove their extensive private wine collection from the White House at the end of his term, Lest it was said, only partly in jest, incoming President Warren Harding should drink it dry.  The Wilsons’ wine collection continued to grow despite Prohibition.   There are bottles at Woodrow Wilson House museum that almost certainly entered the country during Prohibition via the diplomatic pouches of various embassies and were then delivered to the Wilson residence by visitors who had diplomatic immunity.

Coolidge felt Prohibition was badly misguided.  It had, however, been properly enacted.  As Massachusetts's Governor, Coolidge had vetoed a bill that attempted to thwart federal enforcement of the 18th Amendment by allowing the sale of "small beers" and low alcohol wines. His veto message was 

"Opinions and instructions do not outmatch the Constitution. Against it, they are void."

As President Coolidge walked a fine line between the dries and the wets in Congress. He believed laws should be enforced, but he was also set on reducing rather than expanding the role of the federal government.  The expansion of federal law enforcement in response to the era's lawlessness would happen under his successors, in particular Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, FDR saw the kidnapping of the son of a brewery owner who was a major fundraiser as an almost personal affront.

It would take over 12 years of lawlessness, political corruption and juries refusing to convict people before Congress would act to repeal prohibition and the issue would be sent to the states for ratification.   During those years the law was treated with such contempt that one Los Angeles jury was dismissed and threatened with prosecution after they imbibed all the evidence. While historians tend to categorize Prohibition as a program initiated by rural rubes, it actually had considerable support among wealthy plutocrats who were concerned that alcohol consumption was inhibiting business productivity.  It finally ended when some of the people who had used their money to support it, such as both John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Jr. came to realize it was a total failure.

However, in the 1920s and 30s, in many states the pro temperance forces could still be a potent political force. Indeed, there was almost an unholy alliance between those who wanted to keep it hard for people to get a drink and politicians who were getting rich helping bootleggers maintain local distribution monopolies. For that reason the 21st Amendment is the only Amendment to have been ratified by special state conventions as opposed to the state legislatures.  More than one sot of a politician talked out of both sides of his mouth on the issue.  For example, Minnesota's progressive hero Governor Floyd B. Olson could ask Temperance activists to pray that he find the strength to overcome demon rum one day and was said to then make deals with bootleggers the next.

Coolidge was also the last President to reduce the size of the federal government.  He was the people's choice candidate, after eight years of the intellectual "progressive" Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to fundamentally transform the world and who had greatly expanded the federal government.  In 1920 deadlocked Republicans turned to the lightweight and corrupt charmer, Warren Harding as their nominee in a series of backroom deals that brought the phrase "smoke filled rooms" into our political lexicon.  Delegates then rebelled at an attempt to cut another deal for the VP slot and rallied to support Coolidge for VP in the roll call vote.  Harding proved a corrupt disaster, but when he died in office and Coolidge stepped up to the Presidency, Coolidge proved to be a genuine reformer. It came as no surprise to his supporters.  As Governor of Massachusetts, at that time a one year term of office, Coolidge had implemented a reorganization plan that saw appointees from his own party lose sinecures as post after post that had accreted over the years was determined to be redundant. Coolidge brought a similar attitude to the federal bureaucracy.

Historians don't favor Presidents who try to shrink the size of the government, so we don't learn much about Coolidge in our history books.  In addition, Coolidge's favorite son, Cal Jr. died suddenly of blood poisoning shortly after Coolidge became president, which greatly contributed to the "silent Cal" reputation.  In fact, Coolidge was a highly skilled wordsmith with an extensive knowledge of history. He made use of the new medium of radio.  He also had a flair for the dramatic.   In 1919, Governor, Coolidge had to deal with a wildcat police strike in Boston.  Coolidge had never been anti-union.  He was pro the rule of law.  When union leader Samuel Gompers butted in with a compromise because public reaction against the strikers was hurting all unions,  Coolidge replied via telegram. The telegram made Coolidge a national political figure.

Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity, the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.

Imagine the impact of those words with the telegraph convention of spelling the word Stop in lieu of using the punctuation mark of a period.    

HT Powerline