Estimated reading time: 18 minute(s)

From October 9, 1922, through October 14, the White House, led by then-President Warren G. Harding, collaborated with the Better Homes Campaign, led by Marie Mattingly Meloney, to stage the Better Homes in America Demonstration Week. With the cooperation of most of the Governors of the States and many private entities, events were staged across the United States promoting home ownership and sound home maintenance. The plan for the festivities was described in detail in a Government Plan Book, and I wrote an introductory article to the Demonstration Week relying on the Plan Book and additional contemporaneous sources.

Then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge served as the honorary Chairman of the Advisory Council for Better Homes Demonstration Week. It appears from extant documents and later records that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who also delivered remarks, was the point person for the Harding Administration in staging the event. As we know in the present, Coolidge and Hoover went on to serve as the next two Presidents of the United States.

Photo from the March 4, 1921, Presidential Inauguration of Warren G. Harding.  From left to right:  President-elect Warren G. Harding; Florence Harding; Grace Coolidge; Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge.  Photo retrieved from the Library of Congress website.  LOC Photo ID: cph 3c11915 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11915.
Photo from the March 4, 1921, Presidential Inauguration of Warren G. Harding. From left to right: President-elect Warren G. Harding; Florence Harding; Grace Coolidge; Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge. Photo retrieved from the Library of Congress website. LOC Photo ID: cph 3c11915 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11915.

Coolidge and Hoover approached the Demonstration Week from different perspectives. Coolidge examined the place of the home in the life lived well, and the moral aspects of home ownership with regard to the character of the United States. Hoover’s remarks were practical in their orientation, focusing on matters of government policy and economic incentives.

In this article, I will focus on the remarks of Calvin Coolidge, with an article published on the remarks of Herbert Hoover to follow on the next day.

A Brief Introduction to Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was serving as the Vice President of the United States during the 1922 Better Homes in America Demonstration Week. I have covered numerous speeches and writings by Coolidge here at The New Leaf Journal. His speeches and writings are characterized by his clear thinking, economical use of English, precise and careful word choice, and aesthetic sensibilities. He deserves far more recognition than he receives for being one of the finest and clearest writers in the American political lexicon.

Coolidge’s remarks for Better Homes in America week are decidedly not utilitarian in their orientation. Instead, Coolidge put the concepts of the home and owning a home into the context of his idea of the “Good life,” which in turn he considered in the context of the United States as a whole.

Coolidge, Home, and Becoming President

On the one year anniversary of the Better Homes in America Demonstration Week, Calvin Coolidge was serving as the 30th President of the United States – a position he ascended to on August 2, 1923, on the occasion of the untimely death of President Harding. That Coolidge had offered his thoughts on the importance of the home less than one year earlier is striking with the knowledge that he would take the presidential oath of office in the sitting room of his childhood home in Vermont, and that the oath would be administered by his own father. Coolidge described the scene in his 1929 autobiography:

The oath was taken in what we always called the sitting room by the light of the kerosene lamp, which was the most modern form of lighting that had then reached the neighborhood. The Bible which had belonged to my mother laid on the table at my hand.

The childhood home of Calvin Coolidge - where less than one year after his 1922 "Better Homes" speech he would take the Presidential oath of office.
A photograph of the room wherein Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath of office and the lamp that was used. Photo credit: “20120921 39 Calvin Coolidge home” by davidwilson1949 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Coolidge noted that he did not use the Bible in taking the oath because that was not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts.

I wrote an article in The New Leaf Journal about the memories that Coolidge had of his sickly mother, who he lost when he was still a young boy. Reflecting on that strange twilight when Coolidge took the Presidential oath and those memories of his childhood and mother, he wrote the following:

This room was one which was already filled with sacred memories for me. In it my sister and my stepmother had passed their last hours. It was associated with my boyhood recollections of my own mother, who sat and reclined there during her long invalid years, though she passed away in an adjoining room where my father was to follow her within three years from this eventful night.

But in 1923 there was little time to reflect – after paying a visit to his mother’s grave, John Calvin Coolidge made his way to Washington as the 30th President of the United States.

Calvin Coolidge’s Remarks for Better Homes in America Demonstration Week

We return to 1922 – where Calvin Coolidge was still Vice President, with no idea that he would be President within the next year. The Plan Book for Better Homes in America Demonstration Week includes Coolidge’s written remarks for the occasion (it is unclear whether they were ever delivered in oratory form). Coolidge served as the honorary Chairman of the Better Homes in America Demonstration Week.

Below, I will work through Coolidge’s speech in its entirety – paragraph by paragraph – first re-printing his words and second offering my brief assessment. You can also read his full remarks in the form of a PDF that I prepared for the purpose of convenience.

Coolidge – Attending to the Local

Coolidge wrote:

We spend too much time in longing for the things that are far off and too little in the enjoyment of the things that are near at hand. We live too much in dreams and too little in realities. We cherish too many impossible projects of setting worlds in order, which are bound to fail. We consider too little plans for putting our own households in order, which might easily be made to succeed. A large part of our seeming ills would be dispelled if we could but turn from the visionary to the practical. We need the influence of vision, we need the inspiring power of ideals, but all these are worthless unless they can be translated into positive actions.

My Assessment: Fix Oneself Before Fixing the World

Coolidge began his remarks with a gentle rebuke of much of the idealism of the day, and perhaps of the prior Wilson Administration. He noted – not incorrectly – that people with broad visions of how the world should work often fail to apply those visions to their own lives and homes. Furthermore, in “liv[ing] too much in dreams and too little in realities,” one has a tendency to spend his or her time thinking of grand ideas rather than enacting anything positive.

Coolidge viewed many of the projects conceived with the aim of “setting worlds in order” to be proverbial pipe-dreams. Conversely, were one to endeavor to set his or her own household in order and commit to that endeavor as fervently as the grand idealists want their dreams to become reality, the task “might easily be made to succeed.”

In Coolidge’s view, many of the ills of society in 1922 stemmed from people averting their eyes from the practical toward grand visions. Instead, he suggested that people should be inspired by ideals, but focus on making those ideals concrete through positive action. Those actions were far more wont to succeed when applied locally than to the world writ large.

Coolidge’s carefully conceived assessment was on point and holds as much value today as it surely did in 1922. In one of my articles, I noted a similar issue regarding contemporary productivity discourse – where the idea of being productive becomes paramount and necessarily disconnected from intended object of the production. Coolidge, in his remarks, offers his critique of idealism that is disconnected from the world as it actually is.

Coolidge – The Meaningful Life in Prosperity

Coolidge:

The world has been through a great spiritual and moral awakening in these last few years. There are those who fear that this may all be dissipated. It will be unless it can be turned into something actual. In our own country conditions have developed which make this more than ever easy of accomplishment. It ought to be expressed not merely in official and public deeds, but in personal and private actions. It must come through a realization that the great things of life are not reserved for the enjoyment of a few, but are within the reach of all.

My Assessment: Living Well in Abundance

Coolidge wrote this passage at a time when the United States was experiencing new levels of economic prosperity as it and the rest of the world recovered from the tragic events of the First World War.

While acknowledging the material gains that had been made and the hopes for a more peaceful and prosperous future for the world, Coolidge shared the concern of those who feared that these positive changes would not affix to the lives of ordinary Americans in perpetuity. What was needed for the condition of the American people to improve was not ambitious ideas for society, but instead the effort to turn the positive conditions of the time “into something actual” and concrete.

Coolidge – who grew up in rural Vermont in the last quarter of the nineteenth century – observed that conditions in the United States made life far easier for the people of the United States than it had been for any people before. This, in turn, made it possible to direct the energy of the nation toward living well – toward creating the conditions where individual families could live moral lives in comfort and prosperity in their own homes.

How could the material gains seen in the early 1920s be turned into conditions for stronger families and communities? Coolidge believed that the solution did not lie fully in Government – or “official and public deeds.” Instead, he stated that it was the responsibility of the common people – “in personal and private actions” – to channel the quality-of-life improvements into living well.

Here, and throughout the essay, Coolidge made clear that his view of living well and the Good life was not necessarily coextensive with material prosperity. Material prosperity made it easier to direct one’s attention to living well, but it was not, in and of itself, living well. Coolidge implored Americans to attend to the important affairs with the “realization that the great things in life are not reserved for the enjoyment of a few, but are within reach of all.”

Coolidge – The Important Things in Life

Coolidge:

There are two shrines at which mankind has always worshipped, must always worship: the altar which represents religion, and the hearthstone which represents home.
These are the product of fixed beliefs and fixed modes of living. They have not grown up by accident; they are the means, deliberate, mature, sanctified, by which the human race, in harmony with its own great nature, is developed and perfected. They are at once the source and the result of the inborn longing for what is completed, for what has that finality and security required to give to society the necessary element of stability.

The Foundations of the Republic

In a time of new inventions and growing material prosperity, Coolidge identified the two most important things as the two things that have “always” been most important to mankind: religion and home. As President in 1926, Coolidge wrote after classifying the Declaration as a “great spiritual document”:

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.

Coolidge’s sentiments in 1922 were in accord with his more well-known speech on July 4, 1926. The things that were most important to the good life were religion and home, the latter of which encompasses the local community, the physical home, and the family. That humans always put these things first was no accident. Instead, faith and home first is the only order of priorities that are “in harmony with” the nature of people.

The end of the foregoing passage is one of the most intricate of Coolidge’s Better Homes address:

[Religion and the home] are at once the source and the result of the inborn longing for what is completed, for what has that finality and security required to give to society the necessary element of stability.

Mankind, in Coolidge’s view, long for “finality and security.” In so longing, people desire faith and a home with a family. The result of that longing is that people – both in 1922 and long before that – found those things. The improvement of society – to Coolidge – was not found in new inventions or greater wealth, but rather in the hearts of a religious and moral people building strong homes and families. Material prosperity flowed from that foundation.

Coolidge – On Ownership

Coolidge:

The genius of America has long been directed to the construction of great highways and railroads, the erection of massive buildings for the promotion of trade and the transaction of public business. It has supplied hospitals, institutions of learning and places of religious worship. All of these are worthy of the great effort and the sustained purpose which alone has made them possible. They contribute to the general welfare of all the people, but they are all too detached, too remote; they do not make the necessary contribution of a feeling of proprietorship and ownership. They do not complete the circuit. They are for the people, but not of the people. They do not satisfy that longing which exists in every human breast to be able to say: ‘This is mine.’

The General Welfare and the Individual

Coming off what I described as Coolidge’s most intricate passage, he penned the remarks most difficult. In this passage, Coolidge distinguishes projects directed toward the general welfare from the specific longing of the individual. As he makes clear, Coolidge in no way diminishes the importance of great public works which contributed to unprecedented gains in the general welfare of the American people in 1922, but he noted that these should not be conflated with the desire of every person to have a sacred home and all that which the home entails. The great public works benefited the people broadly, but did so while being remote from the individual.

Coolidge pointed to a desire inherent “in every human breast” to own something. The longing he described in the prior passage for faith and home could not be satisfied through public works – but only by the local community and the individual household. To rent or have a stake in was not to own. It was a type of comfort and control over one’s life that Coolidge believed the American people sought.

Coolidge – Institutions and the Individual

Coolidge:

We believe in American institutions. We believe that they are justified by the light of reason, and by the result of experience. We believe in the right of self-government. We believe in the protection of the personal rights of life and liberty and the enjoyment of the rewards of industry. We believe in the right to acquire, to hold, and transmit property. We believe in all that which is represented under the general designation of a republic. But while we hold that these principles are sound we do not claim that they have yet become fully established. We do not claim that our institutions are yet perfected. It is of little avail to assert that there is an inherent right to own property unless there is an open opportunity that this right may be enjoyed in a fair degree by all. That which is referred to in such critical terms as capitalism cannot prevail unless it is adapted to the general requirements. Unless it be of the people it will cease to have a place under our institutions, even as slavery ceased.

On the Institutions and the People

Here, Coolidge refers to several rights and privileges under the Constitution, and enshrined in the Declaration, as institutions. He notes the ideas of self-governance, liberty, and the right to owning the fruits of one’s labor and property. Coolidge informed the wisdom of these institutions, which was established not only “by the light of reason,” but also through the American experience.

However, to affirm the wisdom of the institutions was not the same as to say that they had been perfected. Perfection, in Coolidge’s view, was creating the condition in which people could, through their own work and merit, avail themselves to the American institutions. It is in this sense Coolidge considers “capitalism” as “adapted to the general requirements” of American society. For example, owning property is an inherent right, but the institution, and the economic ideas supporting it, has no practical effect if there is no property to own or if even modest property owning is out of reach for the vast majority of people.

Implicit in this passage is a concept of sovereignty. A people that cannot expect to fully benefit from its institutions, as noble as those institutions may be, are not their own rulers. If the American people “cease to have a place under our institutions,” the American people are no longer sovereign, and the institutions no longer theirs.

Coolidge – Encouraging Home Ownership

Coolidge:

It is time to demonstrate more effectively that property is of the people. It is time to transfer some of the approbation and effort that has gone into the building of public works to the building, ornamenting, and owning of private homes by the people at large—attractive, worthy, permanent homes.

On Coolidge’s Policy

In the most policy-oriented passage of the remarks thus far, Coolidge advocated for making increasing home ownership as much of a priority as the United States Government had made public infrastructure. However, Coolidge did not consider increasing home ownership an end in and of itself, he qualified his recommendation by encouraging the construction of “large-attractive, worthy permanent homes” to be owned by American families.

Coolidge – The Importance of Home

Coolidge:

Society rests on the home. It is the foundation of our institutions. Around it are gathered all the cherished memories of childhood, the accomplishments of maturity, and the consolations of age. So long as a people hold the home sacred they will be in the possession of a strength of character which it will be impossible to destroy.

Home as a Foundation

Coolidge discusses the importance of home in two aspects.

Firstly, in Coolidge’s view, a strong concept of “home” is the foundation of society. The institutions that America held dear in 1922 owed their strength to the strength of the American people, whose strength was that of families and local communities.

Secondly, Coolidge discussed the importance of home to individuals. The home was that on which one’s life was centered – from memories of childhood to “the consolations of age” – the very ideas that Coolidge would reflect on in his 1929 autobiography when he reflected on his remarkable life.

Fortunes change for better in worse, but home, Coolidge explains, gives people the temperance to live well in abundance and the strength to persevere through adversity: “So long as a people hold the home sacred they will be in possession of a strength of character which it will be impossible to destroy.”

Coolidge – The Role of Women

Coolidge:

Apparently the world at large, certainly our own country, is turning more and more for guidance to that wisdom born of affection which we call the intuition of woman. Her first thought is always of the home. Her first care is for its provision. As our laws and customs are improved by her influence, it is likely to be first in the direction of greater facility for acquiring, and greater security in holding a home.

On the Role of Women in Home Ownership in 1922

1920, the election that sent the Harding-Coolidge ticket to the White House, was the first presidential election in which women had the right to vote. It was against that backdrop that Coolidge noted that the world “is turning more and more for guidance to that women born of affection which we call the intuition of women.”

Writing at a time when the majority of women were homemakers, Coolidge hoped that the greater influence of the views of women in American society would encourage greater efforts to be made in support of home ownership and in holding and maintaining homes.

Coolidge – The Answer to Challenges to the Soundness of American Institutions

Coolidge:

Some of the fine enthusiasm which was developed by the required sacrifices of war may well find a new expression in turning towards the making of the home. It is the final answer to every challenge of the soundness of the fundamental principles of our institutions. It holds the assurance and prospect of contentment and of satisfaction.

On the Home and American Institutions

Coolidge began this section by expressing his hope that the sacrifices American families made to ensure peace and tranquility abroad could yield real, tangible benefits for Americans at home. Home ownership, Coolidge argued, was the “final answer to every challenge of the fundamental principles of our institutions.” For Americans to own their homes was for Americans to, under the American institutions, achieve personal sovereignty over a place of their own – or as Coolidge wrote earlier in the remarks – a place of which an American could say “this is mine.” The guarantee of the right to be property would be fulfilled when those who worked hard could turn their pecuniary rewards into a place to call home.

Coolidge – A Realistic Dream

Coolidge:

Under present conditions any ambition of America to become a nation of home owners would be by no means impossible of fulfillment. The land is available, the materials are at hand, the necessary accumulation of credit exists, the courage, the endurance and the sacrifice of the people are not wanting. Let them begin, however slender their means, the building and perfecting of the national character by the building and adorning of a home which shall be worthy of the habitation of an American family, calm in the assurance that “the gods send thread for a web begun.”

Making a Dream a Reality

Here – Coolidge expresses an ambitious desire that America could be turned into a “nation of home owners.” Had Coolidge, who began his essay by offering a gentle rebuke of those who neglected affairs that they could implement in order to effect substantive change thus contradicted himself? Was not a call for a “nation of homeowners” the very type of distant dream that Coolidge argued distracts people from making real, meaningful change?

Coolidge, well aware of how he began his remarks, carefully made his case that building a nation of home owners was not only desirable in the abstract, but realistic in the present. He took the position that the material resources and wealth existed to undertake the project, and the American people would support it. For Coolidge, the “nation of home owners” would be a nation where even those hard-working Americans of “slender means” would be able to “build[] and adorn[] … a home which shall be worthy of the habitation of an American family…” In this way, each home owner would build a stable foundation for his or her family, and in this way, “perfect[] the national character.”

When considering what Coolidge means by “perfect the national character,” we should also consider the opening passage to his remarks. In addition to the spiritual and tangible benefits of home ownership that Coolidge described in his remarks, there is also an inherent benefit not only in owning a home, but also in taking responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance. Recall Coolidge’s critique of those who focus on distant, unobtainable ideals, instead of attending to their own affairs and communities. Coolidge’s view was that if people had a home of their own, and took responsibility for the home and their families, the aggregate of all these individual cases would serve to strengthen the United States at its very core .

Coolidge – Conclusion

Coolidge:

Here will be found that satisfaction which comes from possession and achievement. Here is the opportunity to express the soul in heart. Here is the Sacred influence, here in the earth at our feet, around the hearthstone, which raises man to his true estate.

Coolidge’s Final Thoughts

In owning a home, Coolidge hoped that Americans would benefit from the achievement of creating a place of their own for them and their families. In furnishing and maintaining the home, an extension of the home owner, Americans would have “the opportunity to express the soul in art.” Finally, last but certainly not least for Coolidge, the Sacred influence was at work in the home, present around the hearthstone, and watching over families from the beginning of life to death.

Conclusion

Coolidge’s remarks are in line with much of his political writing, but it is distinct from the other documents and excerpts I came about surrounding the Better Homes for America Demonstration Week. Coolidge, like others, advocated for policies that encouraged home ownership and made it accessible to ordinary people – even those of “slender means.”

The majority of Coolidge’s speech, however, sought to answer the question of why home ownership is a desirable condition for Americans. Here, he eschewed platitudes and worked to make a meaningful case for why it was important. Among the reasons Coolidge articulated was the hope that in focusing one’s energies to the improvement and maintenance of his or her own home and community, the foundation upon which America the place – as opposed to America as an abstract idea – would become stronger. In the realm of ideas, Coolidge’s view was that the American institutions, as remarkable as they were, were only those of the citizenry insofar as the citizens had access to their benefits. In ensuring that the American people were sovereign in America, and that they could fulfill those most basic desire for home and religion, Coolidge saw the prospect of perfecting the American institutions.

It is important to bear in mind that Coolidge’s ethos was that of personal responsibility. That likely motivated his decision to begin his remarks by expressing the home to see more people take concrete steps to improve their personal and local affairs before moving on to changing the world. Moreover, in looking at how Coolidge described people who he hoped to see achieve home ownership, there are numerous points in the remarks where it is clear that he is referring to expanding opportunity to those who work to take advantage of it. Granted, Coolidge simultaneously hoped that making home ownership accessible to ordinary people would serve, in and of itself, to cultivate good habits and morals.

Coolidge differed from the idealists and others advocating for solutions from the top not in his stated hope for a more perfect union, but instead in his belief that the path toward reifying the material gains of the early 1920s lay in the hearthstone of the American family homes.