Study Guide

Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address Compare and Contrast

By Calvin Coolidge

  • George Washington's Farewell Address (1796)

    When the father of our country bowed out after his second term (like Coolidge, he'd desperately wanted to retire after the first), the nation was in its infancy. Unlike Coolidge, Washington was not looking at a nation that had emerged as a prosperous world power; Washington didn't know whether the American experiment was even going to last. In a 7,641-word statement, 6,000 of which were probably written by Alexander Hamilton, he laid out a few thoughts about what he thought was necessary for the survival of the Union.

    Every year, starting in 1862 and continuing today, this address is read by a sitting senator (source). Guess the speech made an impression.

    It must've made an impression on Coolidge, too, since so many of the themes in his inaugural address look like they were taken right from Washington's valedictory talk.

    It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

    Both Washington and Coolidge advocated neutrality in international relations. France and Britain were duking it out in 1796, and the U.S. had just suffered through a world war in 1925. Both guys wanted as little to do with the politics of Europe. Check out their respective comments:

    Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all
    […] The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.(GW)

    Our country represents nothing but peaceful intentions toward all the earth. […] Especially are we determined not to become implicated in the political controversies of the Old World. […]
    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.(CC)

    They both drive home the American identity as one forged by common struggle and unity of purpose:

    The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.(GW)

    We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American.(CC)

    And both of them give us a little fatherly scolding about holding up our end of the bargain in maintaining the republic:

    The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution, which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.(GW)

    Under a free government the citizen makes his own laws, chooses his own administrators, which do represent him. 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. (CC)

    Last but not least, religion and morality are the pillars of the American project:

    Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.(GW)

    Peace will come when there is realization that only under a reign of law, based on righteousness and supported by the religious conviction of the brotherhood of man, can there be any hope of a complete and satisfying life. Parchment will fail, the sword will fail, it is only the spiritual nature of man that can be triumphant. (CC)

    On the Other Hand…

    The two things that Washington and Coolidge differ on can probably be chalked up to the fact that Washington had been trying to build a country and Coolidge inherited a stable and successful one. Washington, under the watchful eye of Alexander Hamilton, pushed for a strong central government. In his Farewell Address, he emphasized the importance of taxes to keep the government afloat, even though he knew people hated them. In fact, unfair taxation was the reason they fought the war of independence. But Washington insisted:

    […] towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.

    In other words, take your medicine, it's good for you.

    Coolidge knew that taxes were a necessary evil, but he didn't waste any breath defending them. He was too busy drumming up support for eliminating them.

    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. Under this republic the rewards of industry belong to those who earn them.

    For Coolidge, taxes were the disease, not the cure.

    The second big difference was their attitudes towards political parties. Washington warned against the formation of political parties. He'd been watching Hamilton and Madison—and later Hamilton and Jefferson—in epic standoffs about the role of the federal government that sowed the beginning of Federalist and Republican parties. He warned that parties could destroy the unity of the fledgling nation:

    They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

    Much to Washington's dismay, political and ideological differences soon coalesced into the Federalist and Republican parties, and the rest is history. By 1925, parties were an essential part of American politics, and Coolidge was all in:

    Since its very outset, it has been found necessary to conduct our Government by means of political parties. That system would not have survived from generation to generation if it had not been fundamentally sound and provided the best instrumentalities for the most complete expression of the popular will.

    Despite their differences, Coolidge's inaugural address drew heavily on Washington's ideas from the early days of the nation. Their purposes were to unify the nation, boost patriotic feeling, warn of dangers they foresaw both foreign and domestic, and lay out some international and economic policies.

    But we guess it's no wonder; American ideals are timeless, and anyway, it was all in the family.

  • Calvin Coolidge, "First Annual Message" (December 6, 1923)

    Coolidge got an extra year as president when his predecessor Warren Harding died in office in 1923. Which meant that former Vice President Coolidge gave the Annual Message (AKA State of the Union address) as President that year instead of Harding.

    It starts off, of course, with a word about the dearly departed Harding. Not too much, though: "But this is not the occasion for extended reference to the man or his work […] He is gone. We remain. It is our duty […] to take up the burdens which he was permitted to lay down" (source).

    Coolidge wasn't really known for being sentimental. Plus, by this point Harding's scandals in office had seriously tarnished the late president's image, so maybe the less said the better.

    Moving on, Coolidge reviews all the major issues of the day: foreign affairs, domestic affairs (including finances, infrastructure, and racial issues), labor and regulation, welfare and education, and immigration. You know, the usual state-of-everything-in-the-union.

    His views on foreign policy are pretty similar to what you see in his other public talks. He and Congress were definitely against the U.S. joining the League of Nations, although he agrees it's probably a good idea for other less awesome countries. As he puts it, "The League exists as a foreign agency. We hope it will be helpful. But the United States sees no reason to limit its own freedom and independence of action by joining it" (source).

    Like in his Inaugural Address, Coolidge mentions his support for the Permanent Court of International Justice. He sees the court as a way to create peaceful settlements among nations without limiting U.S. freedoms.

    This speech was given before the Dawes Plan, which set up a system of lending to help European countries repay their war debts, was finalized. So when Coolidge talks about the European debts here, those countries haven't totally figured out how to pay them back yet. Still, Coolidge's perspective is very similar to the one in the Inaugural Address. He says,

    […] we have a direct interest in the economic recovery of Europe. They are enlarged by our desire for the stability of civilization and the welfare of humanity. That we are making sacrifices to that end none can deny […] We have reiterated our desire to see France paid and Germany revived. We have proposed disarmament. We have earnestly sought to compose differences and restore peace. We shall persevere in well-doing, not by force, but by reason (source).

    Coolidge likes to frame the American economic involvement in World War I as a humanitarian effort. In both this speech and the inaugural address, he emphasizes its charitable aspects, probably to help justify it to people who might not see why it was at all necessary to get involved in Europe's problems.

    Another familiar topic you'll recognize from the Inaugural Address is keeping taxes as low as possible. Even in 1923, he was saying things like: "Being opposed to war taxes in time of peace, I am not in favor of excess-profits taxes […]. To reduce war taxes is to give every home a better chance" (source). By the time he gave his 1925 Inaugural Address, reforms like these were a done deal.

    The rest of this Annual Message deals with some topics that Coolidge doesn't really mention in his Inaugural Address. For instance, he addresses the racial violence of the era when he reminds the audience that Blacks have rights (because they needed reminders back then): "It is both a public and a private duty to protect those rights. The Congress ought to exercise all its powers of prevention and punishment against the hideous crime of lynching […] for which they furnish a majority of the victims" (source).

    Yeah, we'd say at least a majority.

    And in case you doubted national sentiment on immigration in the 1920s, check out what Coolidge says to Congress in 1923: "New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration" (source). And no, he doesn't really define "American" here either.

  • Calvin Coolidge, "Second Annual Message" (December 3, 1924)

    Coolidge delivered this Annual Message to Congress just four months before his Inaugural Address. He'd just been elected in a landslide victory for him and the Republican party.

    What a difference a year makes. Coolidge seems a lot more positive about the general state of the U.S. in this message than in his 1923 speech.

    The Nation holds a position unsurpassed in all former human experience. This does not mean that we do not have any problems […] but we can provide an era of peace and prosperity, attended with freedom and justice and made more and more satisfying by the ministrations of the charities and humanities of life" (source).

    Well, that sounds promising.

    Then he changes tone to talk about what he sees as the biggest issue of the day: the economy. Yes, this was the prosperous 1920s, but Coolidge is still all business: "We have our enormous debt to pay, and we are paying it" (source).

    Alright then.

    We can see him reiterate a common theme throughout his speeches: running the federal government costs the people money, so the cost of the government must be reduced to save everyone some cash. He also sums up his perspective on the link between public prosperity and federal expenditures, which comes up in one way or another throughout his political career:

    Anybody can reduce taxes, but it is not so easy to stand in the gap and resist the passage of increasing appropriation bills which would make tax reduction impossible […] I am convinced that the larger incomes of the country would actually yield more revenue to the Government if the basis of taxation were scientifically revised downward […] It is altogether likely that such reduction would so encourage and stimulate investment that it would firmly establish our country in the economic leadership of the world(source).

    Similar to all his other speeches, Coolidge defends the lack of federal government intervention in the ongoing agricultural depression. He says, "The Government cannot successfully insure prosperity or fix prices by legislative fiat. Every business has its risk and its times of depression. It is well known that in the long run there will be a more even prosperity and a more satisfactory range of prices under the natural working out of economic laws […]" (source). This is pretty much what he said in 1923 and 1925, and what Harding said before him, and Hoover after him.

    He reiterates his desire to work with the new Permanent Court of International Justice and reviews the state of the foreign debt, with numbers to back it up. Standard Coolidge fare.

    He also claims that the situation of Black Americans has improved—but since there will be a giant KKK march in Washington the following year, we have to take that paragraph with a grain of salt.

    With regard to international relations, which have been moved from the opening of the speech to the end, he establishes ideas that he'll echo in the Inaugural Address a few months later. He tells Congress, "Ultimately nations, like individuals, cannot depend upon each other but must depend upon themselves. Each one must work out its own salvation. We have every desire to help. But with all our resources we are powerless to save unless our efforts meet with a constructive response" (source). God and Calvin Coolidge, help those who help themselves.

    The 1924 speech also includes the line, "While we desire always to cooperate and to help, we are equally determined to be independent and free […] we do not wish to become involved in the political controversies of others" (source). That one's almost exactly the same as the Inaugural Address, so bonus points for consistency, Mr. Coolidge.

    Coolidge builds to a big finish with this line: "I want the people of all the earth to see in the American flag the symbol of a Government which intends no oppression at home and no aggression abroad, which in the spirit of a common brotherhood provides assistance in time of distress" (source).

    Well, for Coolidge, it was a big finish.

  • New York Times, "La Follette Sees Power Combination" (October 30, 1924)

    One of the biggest voices on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Coolidge in 1924-1925 was Robert La Follette, who ended up running as a third-party candidate in the election of 1924. He was a holdover from the Progressive Era of the earlier 20th century, which promoted the idea of a more activist, energetic federal government that could intervene in business and economic policy.

    By the time of the 1924 election, the ideas of the Progressive Era weren't nearly as popular as they'd been before World War I, so La Follette didn't do so well. And by "didn't so so well," we mean he got all of 13 electoral votes. Still, he was well-known throughout the country as the remaining champion of Progressive policies.

    In this article, La Follette tackles the topic of utilities. There'd been debate over how much the government should own or control utilities, and of course Coolidge was firmly on the "as little government as possible" side. La Follette here argues the opposite, saying that water power should be developed by the government, not private utility companies.

    He cites the example of the Canadian government developing power from Niagara Falls over the past 20 years as a great example. Apparently, "During the days of private ownership Canadian residents paid from 7 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour […] whereas the residence charge for light in twelve of the large cities varied in 1923 from 1.1 cents to 2.6 cents" (source). Why should Canadians get all the cheap health care—oops, we mean electricity—when New York is right across the river?

    So basically, power was cheaper under this government-owned system, which challenged the claims that competition between private companies was what kept prices low.

    La Follette also brings up the subject of graft or corruption, which he sees as another downside of relying on private companies. His example here is the Panama Canal, a government project, which he says "was built without graft and was being operated without graft" (source). He admits that government corruption is possible, but when it's the government that's corrupt, the whole thing is much more out in the open. And those corrupt people can get voted out of office.

    The private vs. public ownership argument wasn't a new one in American politics. But this article helps illustrate the rapid shift from the Progressive Era to the 1920s, and how radically different ideas about the role of government could be.