One hundred years ago, the United States faced an ugly reality that anticipated ours in 2020. The aftermath of World War I included economic depression and turmoil. A flu epidemic added to the chaos and struck down hundreds of thousands of Americans in the space of a few months.
Wages for working men had remained stagnant during wartime, but the removal of wartime controls meant prices of regular goods and services were skyrocketing. The popularity of communism and anarchism appeared to be growing. Riots and strikes in major American cities — from Boston to Seattle — were described with horror in the daily newspapers.
In such a moment, Calvin Coolidge’s firm opposition to lawlessness as governor of Massachusetts made him famous. Voters rewarded his resiliency during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, along with his combination of courage and integrity. In two years, he was vice president. Two years later, he was president.
The parallels between his time and our own are instructive. If ever there were a need to recover his constitutional and political vision and apply it to our own day, that time is now. Constitution Day is an appropriate time to start. By recovering Coolidge’s understanding of the Constitution, we can begin to move in the right direction.
Coolidge’s Constitutionalism in Context
Coolidge’s career in politics coincided with the academic careers of J. Allen Smith and Charles Beard. These historians analyzed the Constitution to prove that it was an inherently anti-democratic tool of would-be oligarchs.
Smith claimed the “spirit” of the American government was aristocratic; Beard gave alleged scientific credibility to that argument by “proving” that the framers of the Constitution were financially or economically invested in its success. Both claims have been disproved, but they were popular books among socialists at the time.
Then, as now, critiques of the Constitution didn’t rest within the groves of academia. They spread rapidly and directly into politics: Progressives demanded radical reforms to the Constitution in 1912 and mounted a new challenge in 1924 when Coolidge ran for election as president in his own right.
Attacks on the American founding and the integrity of the Constitution are nothing new, and Coolidge wrestled with these ideas throughout his career.
Coolidge’s ‘Spirit’ of the Constitution
Coolidge responded to such critics indirectly. Rather than quibble about economic data or dispute the endlessly disputable details of the Constitution, he underscored its religious foundation. It was important to remember these facts, he explained, because “No people can look forward who do not look backward. The strongest guarantee of the future is the past.”
According to Coolidge, America’s political principles were logical developments from its history, and at the center of American history is the story of religion. The earliest colonies were carved out of the wilderness so the colonists might worship God according to conscience. They were born in a desire for freedom, and this desire matured with time.
Coolidge asserted that the Great Awakening was influential in expanding the American view of individual liberty and rights. The Awakening and its truths were essential in the success of the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution. He explained: “The 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.”
For Coolidge, it was the Constitution that brought the principles of the Revolution to full maturity and practical significance. The adoption of the Constitution of 1787 opened the doors to American progress such as the world had never seen.
Civilization and the Constitution
Coolidge’s high estimate of the Constitution also drew from his appreciation for civilization. As a careful political thinker, Coolidge knew how to draw distinctions between more- and less-civilized governments, and in his view, the Constitution of the United States had established the most modern, most sophisticated, indeed, most civilized form of government possible.
The word civilization had a solid definition for Coolidge. To be civilized was to uphold the rule of law, to respect individual rights, and to remember that moral duties are inescapable. The Constitution brought all these elements together.
This was why he could say that there was no higher achievement in government, no more modern form of government, than that which the Constitution had created. It combined stability in government with the principle of human equality. Coolidge explained: “That which America exemplifies in her Constitution and system of government is the most modern, and of any yet devised gives promise of being the most substantial and enduring.”
Coolidge, however, was careful to caution against trusting the Constitution to do more than it promised. It was not “a machine that would go of itself”—quite the contrary. Coolidge was well-aware of the fact that the Constitution imposed the duties of self-government upon every generation of Americans.
While “the men who founded our government” had built carefully and well, “we should be deluded if we supposed [our institutions] can be maintained without more of the same stern sacrifice offered in perpetuity,” he said. Free self-government requires sacrifice, requires recurrence to first principles, requires Americans to know, understand, and defend their way of life and form of government.
Coolidge always maintained that those who criticized the Constitution and the American way of life misunderstood it. The challenge was for citizens of his day to better understand the founders and their handiwork. He observed that “If we could better understand what they [the Founders] said and did to establish our free institutions, we should be less likely to be misled by the misrepresentations and distorted arguments of the hour, and be far better equipped to maintain them.”
This truth applied directly to the Progressives who wanted to transform the government during his lifetime. Their principal reforms were, paradoxically, for direct democracy and greater bureaucracy—so the people could have greater control over their government and to guarantee specialized “expertise” in government. Coolidge thought both reforms were reactionary and ultimately harmful to a civilized constitutional regime.
According to Coolidge, the effect of direct democracy—choosing candidates for office through primary elections and electing senators based on the state popular vote—empowered special interests. Progressive reforms had succeeded in reducing the influence of political parties over their members, but that influence had only been replaced by “organized minorities” that he described as “artificial propaganda, paid agitators, selfish interests” which “all impinge upon members of legislative bodies to force them to represent special elements rather than the great body of their constituency.” This was not healthy republican self-government.
Moreover, the move towards increasing bureaucracy in government had also undermined constitutional self-government. Coolidge noted again and again that “Through regulations and commissions we have given the most arbitrary authority over our actions and our property into the hands of a few men.” This process was “fraught with considerable danger” and ought to be avoided.
Worse still, bureaucratic government meant unaccountable government, which was incompatible with the principles of the Constitution. Coolidge argued that “Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is the one element in our institutions that sets up the pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.” Americans in 2020 understand precisely what he meant.
Learn from Cal Today
What can we learn from Silent Cal for this Constitution Day? A few lessons are clear. He reminds us to study the Founding. If we want to see the Constitution upheld and obeyed, we need to understand it for ourselves.
One lesson he would draw our attention to is the importance of religion in the development of American political principles. As the Founders so often repeated, religion is essential for cultivating the habits of self-restraint and virtue that make free government possible.
Coolidge would also remind us that the Constitution does not magically sustain itself. We the people must be willing to make sacrifices of time, energy, and even financial investment in order to be active and intelligent citizens.
Sometimes this is hard. Coolidge pointed out that administrative agencies must be constantly resisted if constitutional government is to avoid being overwhelmed. In our time, the administrative state is immense, powerful, and largely unaccountable. Citizens who value freedom should stand in support of those who dare to challenge its illegal usurpations of power. Civil disobedience to unjust laws, properly understood, has a well-established tradition in American history.
However, if we want to see the Constitution and the form of government it created survive and handed on to our children, we must recognize that citizenship requires more than voting once every two years. It requires more than engaging in time-wasting debates on social media. It requires the kind of courage and public service that Coolidge displayed throughout his career.