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.

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.