Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)
The United States celebrated its 150th anniversary on July 4, 1926. To commemorate the occasion, then-President John Calvin Coolidge delivered a speech in Philadelphia. July 4th was also President Coolidge’s birthday, although that fact did not make the address. Coolidge delivered a remarkable Fourth of July speech that has garnered renewed interest in recent years. In this post, I will examine Coolidge’s views on why we commemorate Independence Day.
The Structure of My Review
President Coolidge’s July 4th remarks were long. For that reason, I will not reprint them in their entirety here, like I did in an article about the much shorter July 4th speech he delivered in 1918 as the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. Instead, I will focus on one aspect of the speech: Coolidge’s view on the purpose of Independence Day and how it is properly conceived and observed.
I may discuss other aspects of the speech in subsequent posts. You may read the entire speech at The American Presidency Project. I recommend skimming the speech yourself before reading my post or reading along with my highlights.
An Examination of Coolidge’s Independence Day Speech
Why do we commemorate Independence Day? Coolidge offered his view:
It is not so much, then, for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound.
According to Coolidge, Independence Day is properly conceived as an occasion to “reaffirm and reestablish” the theories and principles that guided the Founders – those principles which have demonstrated their soundness in the success of the United States.
Coolidge explained that no matter what troubles the present, “every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.”
Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence
Coolidge described the Declaration:
Three very definite propositions were 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.
The ideas articulated in the Declaration were not unique individually, although Coolidge opined that they hitherto “had never been assembled before in such a combination.” But what was most remarkable about the Declaration was not its unequivocal assertion of axiomatic principles, but what the colonists proved in reifying its words with their sacrifices:
It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world.
The Declaration would be true and correct without the sacrifices of the colonists, but it would not have changed history without those sacrifices. The Declaration is, according to Coolidge, an incomparable pronouncement because “a new nation was born which was to be founded upon those principles.” Moreover, this “was an assertion that a people had arisen determined to make every necessary sacrifice for the support of these truths and by their practical application bring the War of Independence to a successful conclusion and adopt the Constitution of the United States with all that it has meant to civilization.”
Coolidge on the Constitution of the United States
The Revolution was inspired by the definite propositions of the Declaration. But the guarantor of liberty is the Constitution:
It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their declaration and adopted their Constitution. It was to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few. They undertook to balance these interests against each other and provide the three separate independent branches, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial departments of the Government, with checks against each other in order that neither one might encroach upon the other. These are our guarantees of liberty.
The government, according to Coolidge, can only help to sustain the lofty ideas set forth in the Declaration. Because the Declaration provides that power flows from the people, “[t]he people have to bear their own responsibilities.” The structure of the Constitution, as well as the view of humanity in the Declaration, preclude any “method by which that burden can be shifted to the government.”
The Importance of Understanding the Founders
Coolidge warned against the danger of “reform” with regard to how the Government works. The Founders, Coolidge stated, “came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world.” To cast aside these conclusions and replace them poses “more danger of harm than … hope of good.” Coolidge wrote that the citizenry must attain a better understanding and comprehension of our system of government and the foundations of government in general to understand why the Founders created the system of Government in the way they did to support the ideas set forth in the Declaration.
We learn that Coolidge did not view the understanding the Government as a mere legal pursuit. Returning to what he viewed as the purpose of Independence Day, Coolidge explained the importance of gleaning wisdom from America’s Founding:
Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought.
As we will see, Coolidge concluded not with a discourse on America’s system of Government, but instead on an examination of the religious basis of the Founders’ worldview.
Colonial Churches and American Democracy
Coolidge noted that the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, once remarked that the “best ideas of democracy” came from church meetings. The 30th President went on to describe examples of democratic thought in the churches of the colonial era. Reverend Thomas Hooker of Connecticut stated as early as 1638 stated in a sermon:
The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people. The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance.
Coolidge also quoted from John Wise, who wrote in 1710 that “[t]he end of all good government is to cultivate humanity and promote the happiness of all and the good of every man in all his rights, his life, liberty, estate, honor, and so forth…” The form of Government ordained for these purposes, according to Wise as quoted by Coolidge, was democracy: “Democracy is Christ’s government…”
Three years earlier, Reverend Charles W. Lyons gave an Independence Day speech – which we previously wrote about on site – wherein he focused largely on ideas and events in Europe to demonstrate that the Founders were building upon past wisdom and experience in crafting the Declaration. Coolidge, who was well-acquainted with Lyons, adopted a more local focus:
[W]hen we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.
The Democratic and Religious Character of the Colonists
In light of the religious ideas and practices that, in Coolidge’s view, inspired the Declaration, Coolidge found that “it is natural that the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence should open with a reference to Nature’s God and should close in the final paragraphs with an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world and an assertion of a firm reliance on Divine Providence.”
There was something unique about the character of the United States, according to Coolidge, that allowed the ideas practiced in churches and penned by political leaders to flourish in America – at a time when “such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country.” As for why this was the case, Coolidge largely agreed with Lyons’s remarks three years earlier:
In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the Colonies. These great truths were in the air that our people breathed. Whatever else we may say of it, the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American.
That is, the people who were inclined to uproot their lives and move to the New World did so precisely because they were looking to live by the truths that were later put to parchment in the Declaration and reified by the blood of patriots.
Earlier in his speech, when discussing the causes of the Revolution and its nature, Coolidge opined that “[t]he American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.” In this sense, the Revolution, according to Coolidge, “was in no sense a radical movement…” It was, instead, “conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.”
The Declaration as a Spiritual Document
In Coolidge’s view, the Declaration, inspired by experience and religious practice, “is a great spiritual document.” He noted that the definite propositions of the Declaration that we can all readily recite are intangible:
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.
What Coolidge Meant By Understanding Our Forefathers
Coolidge made clear that it is important for the American people to understand our system of Government – for one who seeks to effect change should understand why that which he or she seeks to change exists in the form it does. In order to do this, one must understand why the Founders structured our Government in the manner in which they did. Coolidge insisted that his audience understand the Founders’ broad worldview in addition to the debates that animated the Constitutional Convention:
Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meetinghouse. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live.
Notably, Coolidge does not restrict the importance of understanding to the great men of history from the Founding Generation. He spoke of the importance of understanding the Founding generation in its entirety, from Washington to the ordinary people who lived in those times. Coolidge had earlier in his speech noted that in light of the fact that the Revolution was premised on the idea that power derives from the consent of the governed, it could not have succeeded without the wisdom of the governed: “The Continental Congress was not only composed of great men, but it represented a great people. While its Members did not fail to exercise a remarkable leadership, they were equally observant of their representative capacity.”
What the men of the Founding generation had in common, according to Coolidge, “was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures”:
Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
“We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed”
Coolidge began his conclusion with the definite proposition that the Declaration of Independence “is the product of the spiritual insight of the people.” It was this insight, in Coolidge’s view, that created the conditions for America’s remarkable prosperity:
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.
Material prosperity followed from the spiritual basis of the United States. To focus on that which follows would cause that material prosperity to “turn to a barren scepter…” Coolidge, in the height of the roaring twenties in which Americans experienced a degree of prosperity that the world had not previously known, stated that Americans “must not sink into a pagan materialism.” Instead, he implored that Americans must “cultivate the reverence which [the Founding generation] had for the things that are holy.” He concluded his remarks as follows:
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 worshiped.
My Thoughts on Coolidge’s Independence Day Speech
On the occasion of the 150th Birthday of the United States and his own 54th birthday, Calvin Coolidge asked Americans to use Independence Day as an occasion to look backward. Specifically, he encouraged us to study the Founders. By this, Coolidge did not mean only that we should study the words of the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other texts and histories. As he explained, Coolidge believed that it was imperative that we understand who the people of the Founding generation were who sanctified the words of the Declaration with their blood and treasure. What inspired them to do this? Why did they carry out the Revolution in the manner they did and craft the Constitution that we still have today to reify the axiomatic truths set forth in the Declaration?
Coolidge was the last President of an Executive Branch that would be radically transformed within years of his leaving office in 1929. There is an aspect of his speech wherein he warns his listeners that once radical change is brought to America’s government, that change cannot be undone. Had he not died in 1933, he would have likely concluded that the substance of his warnings were well-founded.
Yet, while the American Government and the American people may be quite different than they were in 1926, self-evident truths remain self-evident. The definite propositions in the Declaration of Independence are as true today as they were in 1776. The sentiments, motivations, and morals of those who made the Declaration one of the most important political documents in history can be ascertained just as well today as they could have been for Coolidge’s audience.
America’s prosperity was enabled by the sacrifices and wisdom of the Founding generation and by those who built on their work. Coolidge was correct in noting that to focus on prosperity first rather than on the foundation of that prosperity is itself the foundation for a sort of soulless materialism, or worse yet, a fundamental abandonment of the idea that political power is not vested in a particular class, but rather derives from the consent of the governed.
Independence Day need not be a solemn occasion. There is much to be grateful for as we approach the 95th anniversary of Coolidge’s 150th Independence Day speech. We should be grateful for those who sacrificed to create the United States – human flaws and all, and for what they bequeathed to posterity. In that spirit, let us heed Coolidge’s advice and use Independence Day as an occasion to ponder the wisdom, sentiments, experiences, and morals of those who brought the American Revolution to a successful conclusion based on timeless ideas organized in an innovative way.