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.”

Happy (early) Birthday, Calvin Coolidge!

Coolidge in silhouette. Source: Digital files of the Library of Congress

As America prepares to celebrate what The National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson has described as “an exceptional Fourth of July” , we fans of the nation’s 30th president also take note of the anniversary of his birth, for Calvin Coolidge is indeed the only president born on the national holiday.

This weekend, I returned to the wonderful book “The Provincial” by Hendrik Booraem V., which opens with an evocative description of a 4th of July, 1885 (Coolidge’s 13th birthday)  in the township of Plymouth, VT. It is not known whether the rather small, skinny, sharp-featured Calvin took part in the rowdier amusements that beside the usual noisemaking included “pranks and minor vandalism” such as ringing doorbells, stealing signs, or the back-and-forth stealing of a cannon that went on between the boys and young men of Plymouth and neighboring Plymouth Union. But he could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of this most patriotic of holidays.

More than 40 years later, in 1926, Coolidge spoke on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and Leon Kass, writing in the Wall Street Journal, finds Coolidge’s address a remarkable document, indeed an antidote to the ahistoric thoughtlessness with which this day tends to be celebrated today. Coolidge, reflexively tarred with the charge of “materialism” today, stressed (as he did on other occasions) that “the things of the spirit come first,” and he warned that

“If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things which are holy.”

It is trivial to state that if we forget the roots of our freedom, we may well lose it. One need not be a religious extremist, as indeed Coolidge was not, to be aware of the spiritual, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of that particular American brand of democratic self-government.