First Words: Calvin Coolidge, March 4, 1925

May 13, 2016 Thomas van der Voort

In this ongoing series, the Miller Center’s First Year Project looks at key phrases from past inaugural addresses—the first words spoken by our new presidents. Today we look at Calvin Coolidge.

Republican Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency upon the death of Warren Harding in 1923. Seeking to build on a growing economy—and a growing sense of optimism—he earned the office in his own right during the election of 1924 with the slogan “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” Despite a discomfort with small talk, earning him the nickname “Silent Cal,” Coolidge was one of the most visible presidents ever, using the new medium of radio copiously and holding an average of eight press conferences a month during his 6 years in office.

Unlike predecessors Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Coolidge believed in a restrained, not activist, presidency, one that resisted any urge to enact sweeping new reforms in the face of rapid modernization. The centerpiece of his domestic agenda was tax cutting, and he championed the “trickle-down economics” of Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Mellon. He also favored a hands-off regulatory policy and failed to address the worsening plight of farmers, vetoing proposals to establish a government corporation to buy up surplus crops. Coolidge did, however, agree to regulate the radio airwaves as a public good and supported relief efforts in the face of the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927.

In foreign affairs, Coolidge was neither an internationalist nor an isolationist, believing in expanding commercial interactions with other nations and joining the World Court while resisting any entangling alliances and participation in the League of Nations.

Although the public admired Coolidge during his time in office, the Great Depression turned public opinion against him. Many linked the nation's economic collapse to Coolidge's policy decisions.

Already we have sufficiently rearranged our domestic affairs so that confidence has returned, business has revived, and we appear to be entering an era of prosperity which is gradually reaching into every part of the Nation. Realizing that we cannot live unto ourselves alone, we have contributed of our resources and our counsel to the relief of the suffering and the settlement of the disputes among the European nations. Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity. 

. . .

Throughout all these experiences we have enlarged our freedom, we have strengthened our independence. We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, in tensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction. 

. . .

We cannot permit ourselves to be narrowed and dwarfed by slogans and phrases. It is not the adjective, but the substantive, which is of real importance. It is not the name of the action, but the result of the action, which is the chief concern. It will be well not to be too much disturbed by the thought of either isolation or entanglement of pacifists and militarists.

. . .

Since its very outset, it has been found necessary to conduct our Government by means of political parties. That system would not have survived from generation to generation if it had not been fundamentally sound and provided the best instrumentalities for the most complete expression of the popular will. It is not necessary to claim that it has always worked perfectly. It is enough to know that nothing better has been devised. No one would deny that there should be full and free expression and an opportunity for independence of action within the party. There is no salvation in an arrow and bigoted partisanship. But if there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office.

. . .

When we turn from what was rejected to inquire what was accepted, the policy that stands out with the greatest clearness is that of economy in public expenditure with reduction and reform of taxation.

. . .

The only constitutional tax is the tax which ministers to public necessity. The property of the country belongs to the people of the country. Their title is absolute. They do not support any privileged class; they do not need to maintain great military forces; they ought not to be burdened with a great array of public employees. They are not required to make any contribution to Government expenditures except that which they voluntarily assess upon themselves through the action of their own representatives.

. . .

Under a free government the citizen makes his own laws, chooses his own administrators, which do represent him. Those who want their rights respected under the Constitution and the law ought to set the example themselves of observing the Constitution and the law. While there may be those of high intelligence who violate the law at times, the barbarian and the defective always violate it. Those who disregard the rules of society are not exhibiting a superior intelligence, are not promoting freedom and independence, are not following the path of civilization, but are displaying the traits of ignorance, of servitude, of savagery, and treading the way that leads back to the jungle. 

. . .

Our Congress represents the people and the States. In all legislative affairs it is the natural collaborator with the President. In spite of all the criticism which often falls to its lot, I do not hesitate to say that there is no more independent and effective legislative body in the world. It is, and should be, jealous of its prerogative. I welcome its cooperation, and expect to share with it not only the responsibility, but the credit, for our common effort to secure beneficial legislation. 

Read more about Calvin Coolidge.

Read Coolidge’s entire inaugural address.