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.