Study Guide

Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address Quotes

By Calvin Coolidge

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  • Wealth

    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).

    The U.S. lent a lot of money to European countries during World War I, not to mention the money it spent on its own troops toward the end of the war. The Republican presidents of the 1920s managed to get the national debt down by slashing taxes and cutting government spending to a bare minimum. The end of war, plus the modernization of industry, plus higher incomes, did bring about the "era of prosperity" that Coolidge mentions here.

    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).

    Coolidge saw this as a moral issue, not just an economic one.

    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 […] The property of the country belongs to the people of the country. Their title is absolute. 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 (16.5, 8-10).

    Legalized larceny? Yowza. The only reason Coolidge was able to cut taxes so drastically was because he also made sure the federal government was as small as possible. Notice one big difference, though, from present-day small-government politicians? If you said "the military," then extra credit for you. Even the most gung-ho budget-slashers today want to increase military spending. Guess it's a more dangerous world out there now.

    This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. 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.

    The wealth distribution gap actually widened over the course of the 1920s, but you wouldn't know it here. Coolidge calls up the visions of the American Dream, where everyone has the opportunity to make it and live a life of comfort and wealth. He doesn't want to punish the rich, he wants to make more of them.

    Under the helpful influences of restrictive immigration and a protective tariff, employment is plentiful, the rate of pay is high, and wage earners are in a state of contentment seldom before seen (19.2.).

    It never hurts to mention how your own policies have helped make the economy better. The tariff was a particularly thorny issue throughout the decade, but Coolidge believed that more people buying American products equals more prosperity.

  • Visions of America

    Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity (1.7).

    That's some serious patriotism right there.

    We stand at the opening of the one hundred and fiftieth year since our national consciousness first asserted itself by unmistakable action with an array of force. The old sentiment of detached and dependent colonies disappeared in the new sentiment of a united and independent nation. […] Under the eternal urge of freedom we became an independent nation. A little less than 50 years later that freedom and independence were reasserted in the face of all the world, and guarded, supported, and secured by the Monroe Doctrine. The narrow fringe of states along the Atlantic seaboard advanced its frontiers across the hills and plains of an intervening continent until it passed down the golden slope to the Pacific. We made freedom a birthright (3.1-2, 4-6).

    Nothing like a history lesson to help you paint a picture. 1926 was in fact the 150th anniversary of, well, 1776, but Coolidge brings it up a year early. Not only does Coolidge invoke the American Revolution to rouse the troops, but he also discusses the Monroe Doctrine and westward expansion as the shining examples of American greatness. These events aren't seen quite so positively now—like, who made us the boss of the Western Hemisphere back then?— but Coolidge uses this history to illustrate how America spread freedom all over the place.

    We extended our domain over distant islands in order to safeguard our own interests and accepted the consequent obligation to bestow justice and liberty upon less favored peoples. In the defense of our own ideals and in the general cause of liberty we entered the Great War. When victory had been fully secured, we withdrew to our own shores unrecompensed save in the consciousness of duty done. (3.8-10)

    Interestingly, Coolidge skips over the Civil War in his review of American history. Wonder why… Anyway, here he's using American imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th century to further emphasize how America has generously spread democracy and freedom around the globe. (And if we annexed any other countries' territory in the process, well, so be it.) And of course, the U.S. swept in to save the world in World War I, because we just can't rest until everyone is liberated.

    We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. 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. If we have any heritage, it has been that (4.1-4).

    Openly and candidly American—as opposed to traveling in Europe with a maple leaf decal on your backpack? Coolidge isn't super specific about what it means to be "American," but still, Americans should still be as American as they can be. Given the context of the speech, he means that to be "American" means to defend liberty and American ideals around the world and to make sure every country has access to reasonable-priced Quarter Pounders—or Royales with Cheese, as the case may be.

    A need for a shared culture of American-ness was behind Coolidge's immigration policies, too. He wanted to make sure that we only allowed immigration to the extent that these folks could be fully acculturated into American society.

    Here stands our country, an example of tranquility at home, a patron of tranquility abroad (25.4).

    True, the war was over and the nation was at peace, but there was also a lot of organized crime and violence happening within the country's borders. Not that Coolidge would want to highlight that in his speech, though. Most presidents leave that stuff out of their inaugural addresses. Most.

  • Religion

    But if we wish to continue to be distinctively American, we must continue to make that term comprehensive enough to embrace the legitimate desires of a civilized and enlightened people determined in all their relations to pursue a conscientious and religious life (5.1).

    America was pretty religious (Christian) in 1925. Here, Coolidge seems to equate religion with civilization and enlightenment. Take that, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

    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 (11.13-14).

    Shmoop's extremely educated guess is that Coolidge borrowed a turn of phrase from the prophet Zechariah, "not by might and not by power, but by my spirit alone." Ultimately, the fate of the world rests on a spiritual base; worldly stuff is not going to get us where we need to be.

    The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either within or without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free (24.7-9).

    Because of the influx of immigrants from southern Europe (mostly Catholic) and eastern Europe (lots of whom were Jews), many Americans were worried about a challenge to their own traditions. Coolidge is making a pretty gutsy statement here about religious tolerance. Even though it was written into the Constitution that you couldn't have religious restrictions on holding office, he wanted to emphasize the point. It would be another 35 years until there was a Catholic president (Kennedy), and even then lots of people were afraid that he'd take his marching orders from the Pope.

    Agriculture has been very slow in reviving, but the price of cereals at last indicates that the day of its deliverance is at hand. (19.4)

    There's really nothing spiritual about cereals—unless you're talking about Reese's Puffs, yum—but using the religious language of "deliverance" would probably be more inspirational to the audience then "the price of cereals is looking up." Although, seriously, $4.99 for a box of Cap'n Crunch? That's just nuts.

    America seeks no earthly empire built on blood and force […] 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. (25.7, 911)

    Coolidge is using imagery that calls to mind Crusaders or missionaries. That wouldn't go over very well today. And think about the fact that we had literally just sent soldiers to World War I and were about to send them into Latin American countries. Not to mention all that land the U.S. annexed in the Spanish-American War. That sounds like swords (okay, guns) to us.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    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 (1.6).

    Coolidge knows that the world has become too interconnected for the U.S. to just sit back and watch other world powerhouses destroy each other and the world economy.

    The physical configuration of the earth has separated us from all of the Old World, but the common brotherhood of man, the highest law of all our being, has united us by inseparable bonds with all humanity. Our country represents nothing but peaceful intentions toward all the earth, but it ought not to fail to maintain such a military force as comports with the dignity and security of a great people (5.5-6).

    Sometimes appealing to people's inner moral compasses gets them on your side. Sometimes it doesn't. We can't know for sure how much Coolidge's "we are all people and should help each other" argument convinced his audience—the U.S. was planning to loan a ton of money to Germany to help them repay war reparations—but he definitely takes the moral high ground. He also argues here for having a strong military, even though he actually pushed for de-militarization in the U.S. and abroad.

    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 (9.4-5).

    This is a long-winded way of saying that Coolidge supports the U.S. joining the Permanent Court of International Justice. He stayed out of the League of Nations, but was okay with the court as long as it didn't limit American sovereignty. His use of the words "sophistries" and "subterfuges" suggests that some people weren't being entirely candid or truthful about the reasons for or against joining the Court.

    We have never any wish to interfere in the political conditions of any other countries. Especially are we determined not to become implicated in the political controversies of the Old World […] We have not failed, nor shall we fail to respond, whenever necessary to mitigate human suffering and assist in the rehabilitation of distressed nations (10.1-2, 5).

    It's true that the U.S., with its fairly isolationist platform, had generally avoided getting involved in other country's business, unless it saw some sort of tyranny. It's also true that Coolidge meddled with Latin American countries so much they almost passed serious anti-U.S. legislation. Apparently it's only the Old World politics that need to be avoided—the New World is up for grabs.

    While there may be those of high intelligence who violate the law at times, the barbarian and the defective always violate it. Those who disregard the rules of society are not exhibiting a superior intelligence, are not promoting freedom and independence, are not following the path of civilization, but are displaying the traits of ignorance, or servitude, of savagery, and treading the way that leads back to the jungle (22.1-2).

    Yeah, standards of political correctness were a bit different in 1925. There are always people who view civil disobedience or even anarchy as a sign that they're more enlightened than other rigidly rule-bound folks. Coolidge doesn't buy this one bit. He's a law-and-order guy right down the line.

  • Politics

    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. It is not necessary to claim that it has always worked perfectly. It is enough to know that nothing better has been devised (13.2-4).

    For an opposing viewpoint, visit Shmoop's handy guide to political parties. The framers of the Constitution thought that parties would be the absolute worst thing that could happen, because then narrow factions would promote their own interests at the expense of the common good. Now, however, we know that that never, ever happened.

    When the country has bestowed its confidence upon a party by making it a majority in the Congress, it has a right to expect such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government. This Administration has come into power with a very clear and definite mandate from the people (14.1-2).

    In this section of the speech, Coolidge talks about how political parties have a responsibility to uphold their party platforms. Basically, the idea is "you were elected because you said you'd do this, so you'd better do it or else you're a liar liar pants on fire."

    Coolidge's landslide did imply a mandate, but all presidents claim it even if they just barely squeaked out a win. Or lost the popular vote.

    We are not without our problems, but our most important problem is not to secure new advantages but to maintain those which we already possess. Our system of government made up of three separate and independent departments, our divided sovereignty composed of Nation and State, the matchless wisdom that is enshrined in our Constitution, all these need constant effort and tireless vigilance for their protection and support (20.1-2).

    Can you name those three separate departments? 35% of Americans can't even name one (source). Coolidge gives the nation a mini civics review here; maybe Facebook should slip some of this info into everyone's news feed. Anyway, Coolidge probably brings this up to emphasize the limits on executive power and the respect for local governance.

    In a republic the first rule for the guidance of the citizen is obedience to law. Under a despotism the law may be imposed upon the subject. He has no voice in its making, no influence in its administration, it does not represent him. 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 (21.1-2, 5).

    We hate to say it, but this line is lifted right out of George Washington's Farewell Address. See our "Compare and Contrast" section for the deets.

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