America’s birthday is also Calvin Coolidge’s. It’s a fitting coincidence, as the 30th president was one of the most eloquent defenders of America’s principles.
Few words, let alone eloquent ones, are associated with Coolidge, who was, after all, nicknamed “Silent Cal.” Coolidge was that rare politician who valued silence as much as speech — and “no” as much as “yes.”
Coolidge came to national prominence in 1919 by saying “no” to a Boston police-union strike. The officers went on strike to protest the suspension of union leadership by the police commissioner. Public unrest ensued. Massachusetts governor Coolidge responded by calling up the National Guard and declaring that there was “no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” His bold actions earned him national attention. Soon after, Coolidge joined Warren G. Harding on the 1920 Republican presidential ticket as vice president. Coolidge took the presidential oath of office in August 1923 after President Harding’s death.
As president, Coolidge said “no” even more: no to tax increases, emergency spending, farm legislation, subsidies, entitlement programs, and expanded government. Reasoning that to stop bad laws was more important than to pass good ones, he wielded the veto power unabashedly. He was especially fond of the pocket veto, which allowed him to express “disapproval by inaction,” as the New York Times called it. Pocket vetoes do not require the president to explain his reasons for rejecting the legislation in question. Because Congress is not in session to override the veto, the pocket veto kills the bill until the next session.
Coolidge’s courage to say “no” serves as an important example for today’s spendthrift politicians. When he left office in 1929, the federal budget was smaller than when he was sworn in as president in 1923.
But after recounting what Coolidge was against, we should remember what he was for.
Yes, Coolidge was for economic prosperity. His tax cuts and budgetary restraint enabled robust economic growth in America. “The chief business of the American people is business,” Coolidge said in an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He understood, though, that material success wasn’t the most important goal for the American people. While we “make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth,” Coolidge explained, “there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.”
Coolidge encouraged Americans to prioritize the spiritual over the material, to “cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which [our Founders] showed.” This meant a reverence for America’s principles.
Coolidge said yes to America’s principles, and the Declaration of Independence is the clearest articulation of them — it’s the mission statement of America. One of Coolidge’s greatest speeches was on the occasion of the Declaration’s 150th anniversary (his 54th birthday). Silent about himself, Coolidge praised the Declaration’s words on human equality, natural rights, and consent of the governed. America was the first nation founded on those principles. July 4, 1776, the day when they were formally expressed, “has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history” and “an incomparable event in the history of government.”
For Coolidge, these principles spelled security. They were final. “No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions,” he said. To deny the self-evident truths of the Declaration would take America “backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”
These principles provided the foundation for all Americans, whatever their policy preferences or partisan alignments. “Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics,” Coolidge said, “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.”
Calvin Coolidge wasn’t boisterous like Teddy Roosevelt or debonair like Ronald Reagan. He was downright reticent. Though he’s most remembered for silence and for saying no, Coolidge never hesitated to say yes to America. As we celebrate America’s 237th birthday (and Coolidge’s 141st), let’s follow his example and praise the principles that make our country great.
— Julia Shaw is a writer in Washington, D.C., and was a 2011 National Review Institute Washington Fellow.