A Coolidge address that lives on…in misquotations

87 years ago today, on January 17, 1925, president Coolidge addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He couldn’t know it at the time, but his address contained the words that in the intervening years have most often been misquoted and misappropriated for use against him – “the chief business of the American people is business.” No one who reads the whole address, or even the passage of it that contains the quote, will confirm the widespread erroneous impression that Coolidge speaks for crass materialism, or for a Babbitt-like myopic focus on the accumulation of wealth. Indeed, as he unequivocally states, “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.”

Obama more pro-business than Coolidge?

A linguist comparing recent Obama speeches with Coolidge’s rhetoric today on NPR appears to think so. I’ll reserve judgment on this… but it seems to me that “rhetoric” is the key word here – where Coolidge was consistent in word and deed, Obama so far has been mostly talk and no action that would justify the label “pro-business”.

A Coolidge quote

In his 1920 Woman’s Home Companion piece on Coolidge (“A man with vision – but not a visionary”), Bruce Barton quotes from a speech Coolidge gave Feb. 4, 1916 to the  Amherst alumni association; the full text can be found in the compilation volume “Have Faith In Massachusetts“. Notwithstanding the somewhat antiquated style, the meaning of Coolidge’s words is still true today:

„As a result of criticizing these conditions (the distribution of wealth), there has grown up a too-well-developed public opinion along two lines; one, that the men engaged in great affairs are selfish and greedy and not to be trusted, that business activity is not moral and the whole system is to be condemned, and the other, that work is a curse to man, and that working hours ought to be as short as possible, or in some way abolished.“

As we have seen, the Coolidge presidency came at (or possibly even past) the end of an era where businessmen were lionized and admired and the work ethic was held in high esteem. The progressive element in the arts and in politics had already been challenging and attacking these values for several decades. A distrust of business and wealth is pervasive to this day. As for the value of work, only today are the social sciences beginning to find that work is essential to human well-being. Of course we need to recognize that in Coolidge’s day, “work” still meant mostly hard, physical toil that can hardly be compared to today’s workplace conditions.