Study Guide

Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address Analysis

By Calvin Coolidge

  • Rhetoric

    Pathos, with a dash of Logos and Ethos

    Pathos

    It might not seem like Coolidge is aiming for his audience's emotional nerve centers in this speech. After all, he's not using a lot of flowery language, metaphors, or talking about dreams or The Fault in Our Stars. That's just not our boy Cal. But he does want to stir up certain feelings in his audience—primarily, their patriotism and their desire for economic prosperity.

    For example, right at the beginning of the speech he says: "Realizing that we cannot live unto ourselves alone, we have contributed of our resources and our counsel to the relief of the suffering and the settlement of the disputes among the European nations. Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity" (1.6-7).

    What he's doing is justifying American economic and military assistance, but how does he do it? He doesn't just reference globalization or the world economy, he says "we cannot live unto ourselves alone." That's a much more emotionally powerful statement. Plus he frames the assistance as "relief of the suffering," which makes America a paragon of humanitarian virtue. If Americans had to go against their isolationist impulses to get involved in World War I, they needed to feel emotionally invested in the outcome.

    He continues on by giving a sort of mini history lesson, as another way of drumming up the audience's emotional connection to the idea of America. He begins by saying that, "We cannot continue these brilliant successes in the future, unless we continue to learn from the past" (2.3). As he goes through specific events in American history, he always presents them as examples of America's greatness.

    For instance, he describes westward expansion (which some might see as an aggressive, imperialist, violent process) as: "We made freedom a birthright" (3.7). He says America entered World War I, which wasn't necessarily a popular decision in 1917, "in the defense of our own ideals and in the general cause of liberty" (3.8). And of course, "Throughout all these experiences we have enlarged our freedom, we have strengthened our independence" (4.1). It's all about pride in being American and the ideals that have always been associated with that identity.

    On the economy, Coolidge uses recent voting trends as evidence that people were looking for a certain kind of economic policy. Specifically, his kind of economic policy: "No matter what others may want, these people want a drastic economy. They are opposed to waste. They know that extravagance lengthens the hours and diminishes the rewards of their labor. I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people" (15.7-10).

    Notice that he's not talking about himself, he's putting the emotions and desires in the people instead. He's reminding them of how they feel. Then he turns it around and shows how strongly he agrees with them.

    Logos

    Although Coolidge does frequently rely on the emotional pull of his rhetoric to appeal to the audience, he doesn't just leave logic and reason by the wayside. He does at least broadly back up his claims most of the time.

    For example, before doling out the emotional punch at the start of the speech, he reminds the audience that "Already we have sufficiently rearranged our domestic affairs so that confidence has returned, business has revived, and we appear to be entering an era of prosperity which is gradually reaching into every part of the nation" (1.5). Well, that's something tangible and provable, which his audience would see as evidence of the success of government policy.

    He defends the U.S.'s economic assistance to Europe by saying: "One of the greatest dangers to peace lies in the economic pressure to which people find themselves subjected. One of the most practical things to be done in the world is to seek arrangements under which such pressure may be removed, so that opportunity may be renewed and hope may be revived" (11.5-6). That economic system is helping keep the peace by removing a serious source of tension.

    Similarly, he justifies his domestic economy policy with some logical arguments as well: "We do not any longer need war-time revenues […] The property of the country belongs to the people of the country. […] They do not support any privileged class; they do not need to maintain great military forces; they ought not to be burdened with a great array of public employees" (16.4, 8, 10).

    Ethos

    Most inaugural addresses don't have to waste time convincing the audience of the credibility of the speaker; after all, it's the president. He's got the presidential seal, he's up on the presidential podium, and his mama loves him, she loves him, she…

    Sorry, got carried away.

    Anyway, Coolidge was too modest a guy to tout his own character or credibility, but he does make lots of appeals to what he thinks is the ultimate governmental authority: the "matchless wisdom" of the Constitution. It's the source document of all our policies and governance structures, he explains, and everyone needs to get with the program and do what it says. He'd just taken an oath to protect and defend it, and he wants us all to do the same.

  • Structure

    Inaugural Address

    This is a particular kind of speech that's only given by presidents who, you guessed it, have just been inaugurated. So they happen every four years, whether or not it's a new guy or the same guy as last time. (They've all been guys.) They're like a miniature State of the Union Address, because the incoming president generally wants to talk about the state of the country and what he hopes to achieve, but not in as much detail. It's a combination of the practical and the inspirational, and depending on who's giving it, can be uplifting (JFK's), tear-jerking (Lincoln's Second), or just plain meh.

    How it Breaks Down

    American History

    Coolidge says that America can't truly progress without a solid understanding of where the country and its values came from. So he gives a brief history of the nation, focusing on events that support his claim that America has always been about defending its values of liberty and justice: the American Revolution, the Monroe Doctrine, westward expansion, and World War I.

    International Affairs

    Coolidge continues at some length about America's relationship to other nations, which was on peoples' minds because of World War I (which had just ended seven years before), and issues with war reparations payments. He stresses that the U.S. needs to protect its independence, but we also can't sit by and let humanity destroy each other. We have to use our resources to help others. He paints an optimistic picture of the U.S. as a nation that will be able to avoid Old World problems but still play a leadership role in the world. Win-win.

    The Economy

    The 1920s were all about tiny government and major tax cuts. Coolidge reiterates that the people clearly want more tax cuts and reduced government waste, so that's what he plans to do. He emphasizes the need to protect people's property rights, and promoting prosperity by letting people keep the money they earn instead of handing it over to the IRS.

    The Government and its People

    To close out his speech, Coolidge reminds the people that good citizens of a republic obey the law—that's how you live a moral, fulfilling life. But generally speaking, he expresses a lot of optimism about how the American people are uniting over important issues, and that we're progressing in the right direction. Again, he promotes the idea of the U.S. as the moral, liberty-protecting alternative to the despots of the world.

  • Tone

    Confident, instructive

    By the time Coolidge gave his Inaugural Address in 1925, he'd already been in the executive branch for four years, first as Vice President and then President when Warren Harding died in office. He'd won the 1924 election handily, and his policies seemed to be pretty popular and successful.

    It's no wonder, then, that when reading this speech, you get a sense that he's very confident in his ideas. Yeah, it's true that a lot of presidential speeches have that tone, since politicians are supposed to be sure that their way is the best way, but here you don't see as many appeals to the people or Congress as you might see elsewhere.

    Coolidge doesn't really ask for anything. He tells.

    In fact, instead of appealing to the people, he instructs them. Instead of just inspirational talk, he explains why his policies are the proper ones. Sometimes it borders on scolding. This is a guy who clearly feels very sure that his approach is the right way forward for American prosperity and freedom.

    Confident

    Look at how Coolidge begins his speech:

    Our own country is leading the world in the general readjustment to the results of the great conflict […] Already we have sufficiently rearranged our domestic affairs so that confidence has returned, business has revived, and we appear to be entering an era of prosperity which is gradually reaching into every part of the nation […] Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity (1.2, 5, 7).

    Not only are things great in America, but the country's become an inspiration to others. These are bold statements.

    Similarly, when referring to American involvement in World War I, he reminds the audience,

    We are not identified with any Old World interests. This position should be made more and more clear in our relations with all foreign countries. We are at peace with all of them. Our program is never to oppress, but always to assist. But while we do justice to others, we must require that justice be done to us (12.2-6).

    Again, he's making a very big claim: the U.S. will always respond to come to others' aid, while remaining free from political entanglements of the Old World. Also, the U.S. will not allow itself to be taken advantage of.

    He reminds the people that, "This Administration has come into power with a very clear and definite mandate from the people. The expression of the popular will in favor of maintaining our constitutional guarantees was overwhelming and decisive" (14.2-3). Or when he says, "This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous" (17.6-7).

    Coolidge was elected in a landslide, so this made it easy for him to feel confident that Americans approved of his policies. And he could point to the nation's economic prosperity as proof that they were working.

    Instructive

    Coolidge's confidence in his own ideas and the state of the U.S. leads him to give a lot of advice in his speech. The sense is "I know what's up, and here's what needs to happen."

    He justifies his mini U.S. history lesson by declaring that, "We cannot continue these brilliant successes in the future, unless we continue to learn from the past" (2.3). And he follows that lesson by advising that in order to remain American, "we must continue to make that term comprehensive enough to embrace the legitimate desires of a civilized and enlightened people" (5.1).

    Then there's this section, when he's addressing foreign relations:

    We cannot barter away our independence or our sovereignty, but we ought to engage in no refinements of logic, no sophistries, and no subterfuges, to argue away the undoubted duty of this country by reason of the might of its numbers, the power of its resources, and its position of leadership in the world, actively and comprehensively to signify its approval and to bear its full share of the responsibility of a candid and disinterested attempt at the establishment of a tribunal for the administration of even-handed justice between nation and nation. The weight of our enormous influence must be cast upon the side of a reign not of force but of law and trial, not by battle but by reason (9.3-4).

    Remember that the U.S. was highly isolationist at this time, and only got involved in World War I when the Germans subs started sinking American ships. Coolidge was committed to staying out of any more foreign wars, but from these words you get the sense that he's sternly reminding people that the U.S. can't just hide from its international obligations.

    He gets teach-y about domestic issues, too. He seems to be scolding politicians when he says, "There is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship. But if there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office" (13.7-8). Even if you know nothing about 1920s politics, this gives you an idea that something unsavory is happening that Coolidge wants to stop.

    He introduces his ideas on low taxation by reminding the people that, "We do not any longer need war-time revenues. The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required […] is only a species of legalized larceny" (16.4-5). He's directing the approach to government economy here, without a lot of room for debate.

    Perhaps the most scolding part of the speech comes when Coolidge talks about people obeying the law: "Those who want their rights respected under the Constitution and the law ought to set the example themselves of observing the Constitution and the law" (21.5). If not, he'll rap their knuckles with a ruler.

    Inaugural addresses will generally have some degree of confidence—after all, this person has just been elected to lead the country and they have some strong ideas about what to do. But Coolidge's Inaugural Address really gives the impression that it's Coolidge's way or the highway, and that's the best thing for America. He's not aggressive or demanding, but very firm in his statements.

    And occasionally, you can picture him wagging a finger at the audience.

  • Writing Style

    Direct but Sophisticated

    If you read presidential speeches from the early days of, you'll that their sentences can go on for days. Weeks, sometimes.

    By the 1920s, writing styles had changed towards simplicity, and presidential speeches were being received by much larger audiences. By 1925, more people could vote (women got the vote in 1920), so you had to make sure your speeches would appeal to as many people as possible. Coolidge's Inaugural Address shows sophisticated language and syntax, but he doesn't use elaborate sentence structure.

    He keeps the structure simple, but glams up the language enough to prove that he's a refined, well-educated man. Amherst, after all. Plus, it's a special occasion demanding some fancy language. You don't wear jeans and a hoodie to your inauguration.

    Take for example, this quote: "Removing the burden of expense and jealousy, which must always accrue from a keen rivalry, is one of the most effective methods of diminishing that unreasonable hysteria and misunderstanding which is the most potent means of fomenting war" (7.1).

    What he's saying here is that reducing economic and political tension between countries is a great way to stop them from going to war with one another. But he doesn't say "economic tension," he says "the burden of expense"; he doesn't say "cause war," he says "fomenting war." He doesn't go too crazy, he just finds more elegant ways to express ideas.

    But later in the same paragraph he says: "America has taken the lead in this new direction, and that lead America must continue to hold. If we expect others to rely on our fairness and justice we must show that we rely on their fairness and justice" (7.6-7).

    No SAT words or long sentences here. He keeps his syntax simple and clear, and even uses repetition ("fairness and justice") to emphasize his point and sound impressive doing it.

    Another example is when he discusses his tax plans. First, he's explicit and clear in his views: "We do not any longer need war-time revenues. The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare, is only a species of legalized larceny" (16.4-5). Not much left to the imagination there.

    But after explaining his views, he gets a little fancier: "The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which everyone will have a better chance to be successful" (17.8). Again, he's not going full-out Henry James on us, but he's pumping up the volume a bit.

    Keeping his sentences relatively short and direct helps Coolidge get his message across. You'll read (or listen to) this speech and know what his views are without too much trouble. But he also makes sure to elevate his vocabulary, which helps make him look like an intelligent leader and makes the speech rise to the special occasion of an inaugural address.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is pretty straightforward here. Coolidge was elected, he was inaugurated, and this is the speech he gave. The Inaugural Address is a tradition, and generally they're just known as the Inaugural Address of whoever gives them.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Coolidge doesn't exactly open his speech with a bang. But he does open it with a summary of what he's about to say for the rest of the speech, like the thesis paragraph we were all taught to write in middle school:

    No one can contemplate current conditions without finding much that is satisfying and still more that is encouraging. Our own country is leading the world in the general readjustment to the results of the great conflict. Many of its burdens will bear heavily upon us for years, and the secondary and indirect effects we must expect to experience for some time. But we are beginning to comprehend more definitely what course should be pursued, what remedies ought to be applied, what actions should be taken for our deliverance, and are clearly manifesting a determined will faithfully and conscientiously to adopt these methods of relief. Already we have sufficiently rearranged our domestic affairs so that confidence has returned, business has revived, and we appear to be entering an era of prosperity which is gradually reaching into every part of the nation. Realizing that we cannot live unto ourselves alone, we have contributed of our resources and our counsel to the relief of the suffering and the settlement of the disputes among the European nations. Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity (1.1-7).

    It may not grab your attention the way that some other famous speeches do right off the bat, but Coolidge's opening lines tell you what he's going to talk about. It's like the trailer for a movie, which ideally makes you want to see that movie. Plus, he sets up a pretty positive, optimistic tone, so the people listening feel like they can expect good news.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Coolidge closes his speech with some relatively rousing (for him) lines about America's conscience and moral fiber:

    We should not let the much that is to do obscure the much which has been done. The past and present show faith and hope and courage fully justified. Here stands our country, an example of tranquility at home, a patron of tranquility abroad. Here stands its Government, aware of its might but obedient to its conscience. Here it will continue to stand, seeking peace and prosperity, solicitous for the welfare of the wage earner, promoting enterprise, developing waterways and natural resources, attentive to the intuitive counsel of womanhood, encouraging education, desiring the advancement of religion, supporting the cause of justice and honor among the nations. America seeks no earthly empire built on blood and force. No ambition, no temptation, lures her to thought of foreign dominions. The legions which she sends forth are armed, not with the sword, but with the cross. The higher state to which she seeks the allegiance of all mankind is not of human, but of divine origin. She cherishes no purpose save to merit the favor of Almighty God (25.2-11).

    He doubles down on the idea that he introduced earlier, that the country and its people need to continue promoting values he sees as distinctly American: the protection of liberty and justice. He implies that these ideas are different than how other countries operate, and those other countries will now strive to achieve the peace and prosperity that Americans have already accomplished.

    Coolidge injects more passion into his closing lines than anywhere else in his speech. Plus, he wants to end on a positive note, celebrating the country's accomplishments and moral superiority as a way to motivate people to continue on the good path they're on.

    Leave your audience feeling good about themselves and thank the Almighty; that's always a good strategy.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Coolidge might throw in a few advanced vocab words here and there, but in general his speech is pretty easy to understand. The only thing that makes it tricky is that he references recent historical events without a lot of explanation, sometimes pretty obliquely. But if you review a basic history of the time period, you'll get what he's saying.

    The toughest part of the speech might be staying awake while reading it. It lacks a certain exciting something.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Washington's Farewell Address (1796) (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Monroe, 7.1, 10.1-2, 11.13, 12.1-3)
    The Constitution (3.3, 14.2, 16.8, 18.4, 20.2, 21.5)

    Historical and Political References

    The American Revolution (3.1-2)
    The Monroe Doctrine (3.5, 10.3)
    Manifest Destiny and westward expansion (3.7-8)
    World War I (1.2-3, 3.9-10, 16.4)
    Agricultural Depression of the 1920s (19.4)
    Washington Naval Conference (8.2)
    The Dawes Plan and economic assistance to post-WWI Europe (1.2, 10.5
    Permanent Court of International Justice and the League of Nations (9.1-5)
    Election of 1924 (14.1-6)
    Johnson-Reed Act/Immigration Act of 1924 (19.2)

    References to This Text

    Neither Calvin Coolidge nor his Inaugural Address got many shout-outs. When you're known as "Silent Cal," you don't get quoted a lot.

    Historical References

    The London Morning Post via The New York Times, "London Paper Calls Coolidge Practical" (March 5, 1925)
    The New York Times discussed one London paper's reaction to Coolidge's inaugural. They essentially compliment his ideas, although they seem a bit incredulous as to how realistic his vision of American generosity is (source).

    Pop Culture References

    NPR, "Inaugural Addresses Offer Window To Past" (January 19, 2009)
    This radio segment features clips of every recorded inaugural address, beginning with a clip of Coolidge since he was the first to be broadcast and recorded (source).

    Singin' in the Rain (1952)
    One scene in this movie classic has the irritating silent film star Lena Lamont proclaiming: "I make more money than…than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!" (The movie takes place in 1927.) We'll bet our last dollar that's the only mention of Calvin Coolidge on the silver screen.

  • Trivia

    In addition to his two pet lions, Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau, Calvin Coolidge had two pet raccoons that wandered around the White House. (Source)

    Most presidents have to wait until they're dead to get their image on a coin. Coolidge was the exception; his face was on the sesquicentennial half-dollar in 1926. He shared the coin with George Washington. Btw, sesquicentennial means "150 years," and y'all know what happened 150 years before 1926. If not, do your homework.
    (Source)

    The presidential election of 1924 only had about a 50% voter participation rate, down from 70% in 1916 when World War I was happening. This is even after women had finally been given the vote. (Source)

    Coolidge's inauguration was broadcast on 20 radio stations, reaching about 23 million people. Many schools added radio equipment to their auditoriums so the students could listen. Of course, they all changed the stations to metalcore, but it was a good idea anyway. (Source)

    In addition to having the first radio broadcast of an inaugural speech, Cal was the first president to make a transatlantic phone call. He chatted with Spanish King Alfonso III on January 7, 1927, and said, "I welcome this added link, no less strong because it is invisible, between Spain and the United States. I believe it to be true that when two men can talk together the danger of any serious disagreement is immeasurably lessened and that what is true of individuals is true of nations. The international telephone, therefore, which carries the warmth and friendliness of the human voice, will always correct what might be misinterpreted in the written word." Clearly, Coolidge was anti-texting. (Source)

    Amherst College honored its famous alum by naming their indoor baseball facility "Coolidge Cage." Shmoop has stumbled upon the little-known fact that the Grateful Dead performed there in 1983. RIP, Jerry. (Source)