Do the day’s work

In the afterword of his wonderful biography of Calvin Coolidge’s early years, The Provincial, Hendrik Booraem V draws an interesting line from Coolidge’s lifelong lack of “vitality” and vigor to his political philosophy.

Young Calvin had been a rather weak boy, suffering from a number of ailments, and he never much liked, or participated in, strenuous activity. Even his ventures into sports were mostly confined to sedentary activities such as fishing or riding. In his Amherst college years, he did not excel at any sports and indeed his only participation in competitive sports on record, the “Plug Hat Race” in his junior year, ended with him finishing last.As president, he enjoyed daily walks and apparently fairly limited exercise on a mechanical horse (after developing an allergy to horses) and with other fitness items.

Exercise...the Coolidge way

Booraem ventures that Coolidge’s low vitality was, perhaps subconsciously, regarded by both him and his father as an indicator of impending death or at least of reduced expectations of longevity. As far as can be determined from the extant record, Coolidge had no far-reaching dreams or long-range plans for the future. His famous exhortation to the Massachusetts Senate on Jan. 7, 1914, “Do the day’s work” thus characterizes his approach to politics as well as to life in general. Booraem expands the pithy saying to have it mean “Do the day’s work, yes, with all possible care, intelligence, and honesty; but also, do only the day’s work, make no long-range agenda, set no future goals for achievement.”

Thus, if true, Coolidge’s natural predisposition meshes nicely with a political philosophy that distrusts governmental planning, and that understands the folly of planning in a world where a myriad of individual decisions affect outcomes. It is a humble philosophy that is far removed from the hybris of those who feel that the government, or a class of planners, can know the future and plan for it better than individuals can. This latter way of thinking has been demonstrated by the example of collectivist societies to be an utter failure; still, at least ever since the presidency of Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, politicians have persisted to this day in having government make plans – and to make the actions of individuals subservient to these plans. Whatever the origin of his political philosophy – here, as elsewhere, Coolidge had the right idea.

3 thoughts on “Do the day’s work

  1. Kai,

    I find most of your Coolidge blog posts very well written. However, I disagree with you on this one.

    The quote “Do the days work.” is taken from Coolidge’s cornerstone speech “Have Faith in Massachusetts.” The full quote is:

    “Do the day’s work. If it be to protect the rights of the weak, whoever objects, do it. If it be to help a powerful corporation better to serve the people, whatever the opposition, do that. Expect to be called a stand patter, but don’t be a stand patter. Expect to be called a demagogue, but don’t be a demagogue. Don’t hesitate to be as revolutionary as science. Don’t hesitate to be as reactionary as the multiplication table. Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

    What Coolidge is saying here is that people should work hard at whatever they do whether it be helping the weak or helping companies better serve the people and that they should not worry what other people think. He is saying that people should keep their mind on what they are doing and not worry about the white noise of the crowd which is not as informed or attuned to what the person is actually doing to make society and the world better.

    From what I have read about Coolidge, I think he was an excellent planner and a darn good accountant. He would not have survived his various positions in Northampton, MA and Massachusetts state government if he was not.

    • Bruce, thank you. While your point certainly is correct (remember I’m merely re-stating the author’s view or conjecture), I’d say both interpretations can be true. Coolidge’s statement clearly does have the meaning you say, and he is of course right about that. But he may also be meaning (and that does involve a little reading between the lines, admittedly) that lawmakers (or anyone) should mainly be concerned with the tasks at hand and not worry unduly about the long view – remember also the Coolidge saying about 9 out of 10 troubles you see coming down the road probably running into the ditch before they reach you. As you say, his life and career can’t all have come about without any planning, but it also is true that there were several unexpected turns and events he could not have foreseen or planned for. Anyway, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments – feel free to disagree! đŸ™‚

  2. Kai, one final comment,

    I know you would agree that the decision not to over-react to the 9 or 10 troubles coming down the road is a plan in itself. And it is true that much of government “planning” causes problems rather than solves them. Sometimes, causing some planned chaos may be necessary to help achieve the objective of limiting government. This is a wonderful type of plan if implemented for that purpose and most often would result in a great achievement for mankind.

    “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”
    — Calvin Coolidge

    Great blog! I learn much by reading it.


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