Calvin Coolidge and Conservatism

It is March 4, 1925 and a crisp forty-four degrees on a mostly sunny day. President Calvin Coolidge stands on the steps of the US Capital. He had just been sworn into his first full term after winning fifty-four percent of the popular vote, seventy-two percent of the Electoral College and seventy-three percent of the states. No President had ever given an inaugural address on the radio in history. 23 million Americans– a fifth of the country– were about to join President Coolidge in making history. Within the last decade, the United States fought in World War One, experienced economic depression, and had a President die while in office. If political stability was the goal, the previous decade came up short.

President Coolidge’s inauguration address can be summarized by looking at its three different themes. He began his address by outlining how America should act going forward. G.K. Chesterton said that conservatism is seeing a fence and inquiring into its purpose before deciding what to do with it. President Coolidge echoed this point in his speech– arguing that going forward required the country to examine the past. As the President himself said, “It is necessary to keep the former experiences of our country both at home and abroad continually before us . . . If we wish to erect new structures, we must have a definite knowledge of the old foundations.”

The newly inaugurated President then went on to describe American foreign policy. He outlined a foreign policy vision based on goodwill and mutual understanding, but balanced with a modern and capable defense in order to achieve the “security of a great people”. The President went farther and linked American foreign policy in moral terms to the rest of the world. President Coolidge went beyond a utilitarian argument for America’s presence on the world stage but linked us to “a common brotherhood of man” and a higher law common to all of humanity.

The final section of President Coolidge’s address examined how the government should interact with the citizens of the country. President Coolidge outlined a relationship between the government that was about respecting and protecting rights. In his address, he condemned the government seizing the means of production– specifically the railroads and utilities–, overbearing taxation– which he equated to “legalized larceny” — while defending individual rights and a free market economy. President Coolidge described these as the “principles America represents”.

Throughout the speech, President Coolidge makes repeated use of “freedom”. Used six times, President Coolidge uses the term over and over to explicitly establish a link between the country and the concept. As the President said; “Under the eternal urge of freedom,” we declared independence. America “made freedom a birthright.” And, the people want “their freedom continued” The President links freedom and America in our independence, in our philosophical foundation, and in our present.

President Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural address was a combination with three main threads– Burkean conservatism, national security conservatism, and libertarianism– each corresponding to an individual section discussed above. these three aspects are the three pillars of fusionism. The speech began with a rigorous and Burkean defense of the founding ideals of the past and America ideals. This can be seen with the repeated references to the past and how we should let it guide us. Burkean conservatism can get a working definition from the Chesterton’s fence (albeit, the fence analogy came in 1929). President Coolidge literally– although I am not sure if intentionally– provided a brief presentation of this idea– only with a general structure instead of a fence.

Then the President’s address flowed into a defense of American military power– a section that can be easily identified with national security conservatives. Today, modern neoconservatives are closely linked to the belief America is safer with an aggressive American foreign designed to protect human rights and democracy. While President Coolidge may not have advocated an aggressive foreign policy, his views are otherwise inline. He believed humanity was linked by the “highest law”. He hesitantly endorsed the idea of America maintaining order and establishing “responsible governments” in the Western Hemisphere. He believed America has a role in securing of “even-handed justice between nation and nation”.

President Coolidge ended by chastising the belief in and actions of an overarching government that could be confused with Ron Paul, FA Hayek or Milton Friedman. Very few political statements personify libertarianism as linking taxation to theft. In fact, “taxation is theft” is a slogan of the modern libertarian movement. Furthermore, President Coolidge provides a defense of a free market economy with lower taxes, albeit he also lends credence to protectionism for labor and industry. He also defends the Constitution as a document which “guarantees” the “right to hold property” and representative government.

Throughout the speech, President Coolidge directly addressed World War One– which only ended eight years prior. In the very first paragraph, the President rebuffed isolationism by praising American efforts to help Europe after the war. This rebuff became point-blank direct when President Coolidge directly by saying the thoughts of isolationism– as well as militarists– should not be entertained.

President Coolidge, instead of siding with either the isolationists or militarists– laid out a middle ground. As I mentioned earlier, the President wanted a policy of peace-oriented towards America, but still willing and able to win a conflict. This was laid out when President Coolidge both denounced “competitive armament” and praised America’s restraint in interfering in the “political conditions of any other countries”.

Lastly, President Coolidge outlined how America’s attitude into the rest of the world would translate to action. He praised the Washington Naval Conference and arms control, praising America’s joining of the Permanent Court of International Justice, and explaining America would only interfere in other countries politics in the name of order and American lives and property.

An adjusted version of an essay I wrote for a political science class. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s