"It is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow."
Calvin Coolidge was deeply committed to limiting the power of the state. But his desire to check the expansion of the federal government was always rooted in America's founding principles. He declared of the founders, "They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power." Coolidge has often been referred to as "the last Jeffersonian president."
Coolidge was sandwiched in between the rise of Wilsonian and New Deal progressivism. He was deeply critical of those that wanted to harness the state as an overseer of the community and individual man, a project that had too often in the past led to tyranny. He warned Americans about the risk inherent in progressive, big government schemes: "Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers." He was a conservative who actually reduced the size and scope of the federal government during his presidency. Tyrannical leaders that preached the supremacy of the state like Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini came to power alongside Coolidge.
A lawyer and career politician, Coolidge served as a state legislator, lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts. He was elected Vice President, on a ticket with Warren G. Harding, and in 1923 following Harding's sudden death, was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States. Coolidge assumed office in an unforgettable manner. His father, a notary public, administered the oath to Coolidge by a gas lamp in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, in 1923 at 2:47 a.m. The image reminded Americans of his humble and rural origins.
Coolidge immediately sought to lower taxes; he cut the top marginal rate from 65 percent to 20 percent. At the end of his term, 98 percent of Americans paid no income tax. Coolidge cut government, promoted federalism, property rights, and most importantly he articulated a vision for an America that promoted work and religious faith. He linked it to America's past, calling faith "the foundation of our independence."
He took his position as civic educator seriously, writing all of his speeches, including the brilliant address "the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence." In that 1926 speech he declared, "The things of the spirit come first."
Coolidge was lambasted by political opponents and the intellectual class as a "tool of big business," but he was deeply critical of materialism and profit for merely profit's sake. While he is famously quoted as saying, "The chief business of the American people is business," he is not as well known for another line in that same address where he said, "Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence." He warned Americans against sinking into "pagan materialism." Over his entire career, he argued that economic policies and taxation were indeed moral matters.
He did part ways with contemporary free-market devotees with his support of high tariffs, which was popular among Republicans of that era. But his ideas of common sense conservatism are needed again today. He always sought to remind Americans that government ultimately had few answers for their problems and was fond of saying, "The people cannot look to legislation generally for success."
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