Study Guide

Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address Themes

By Calvin Coolidge

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  • Wealth

    Calvin Coolidge was all about the Benjamins—saving the Benjamins, to be more specific. He wanted to put money back in the pocket of average Americans, and the way he did that was to drastically cut taxes. That way, people could buy stuff instead of handing it over to the government. And if credit was easy to get, well, they could buy even more stuff.

    Coolidge was confident that tax cuts and government spending cuts would keep the prosperity of the '20s roaring. If the government only would butt out and let corporations flourish free of regulation and high taxes, the rising tide of prosperity would lift all boats, as they say. Since Coolidge's day, this approach has been called everything from supply-side economics and the "trickle-down" theory, to "voodoo economics" (the last by George H.W. Bush). Cut taxes for the rich, and the cuts will pay for themselves.

    Of course, Coolidge's economic policies may have helped cause economic problems down the line, but in 1925 everything was all sunshine and illegal champagne.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What's Coolidge's primary concern with regards to the American economy? What's he trying to achieve?
    2. How do Coolidge's economic ideas compare to other 20th-century presidents?
    3. How would you summarize Coolidge's financial policy?
    4. Do you see any of Coolidge's ideas about wealth and financial policy in place or being debated today?

    Chew on This

    It wasn't so much that Coolidge wanted everyone to be wealthy, he just didn't think the federal government should play any role in that outcome.

    The fact that the U.S. could loan scads of money to Europe while cutting taxes shows just how baller the economy was in the early 1920s.

  • Visions of America

    It wouldn't be an inaugural address without the newly-elected president painting their own picture of America. Coolidge's vision of America is a nation of hardworking people who reap the fruits of their labor and live a life free of government interference. He sees an economic machine of vibrant businesses that could be unleashed to pour wealth into the hands of those industrious folks.

    On the international front, Coolidge leans into a picture of America as a beacon of freedom and morality, even with its faults. He invokes the history of America—well, selected parts—to show how the U.S. is the great beacon of democracy who must lead the way for the rest of the world while staying true to some "America First" ideals.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. How does Coolidge's vision of America compare to contemporary views? How about yours?
    2. Why do you think he uses particular events or imagery to create his picture? What affect do they have?
    3. Is his vision of America clear? If not, what do you think he should expand on?

    Chew on This

    Coolidge creates a totally unrealistic vision of America, glossing over the bad stuff like racism and income inequality.

    If Americans saw America like Coolidge did, no wonder they didn't want to get involved in any other countries' problems.

  • Religion

    Plenty of folks in the 1920s thought the country's values and morals were eroding. Coolidge laced his Inaugural Address with appeals to America's traditional values, and did it in the language of the Christian majority. Even with our constitutional wall of separation of church and state, Coolidge still presents his idea of America in religious terms, as if the morality of the nation relies on the people's faith. It's clearly Christianity he's referencing; he uses the image of the cross to symbolize spirituality and virtue.

    God's been on our money since 1864 (religious revival) and in our Pledge of Allegiance since 1954 (in response to the threat of godless communism). It would've been unheard of in 1925 (and still is today) for a President to ignore God in an inaugural speech. What was different back then was Coolidge using specifically Christian symbolism, rather than a more inclusive religious reference.

    Happy Holidays, everyone.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What's the overall message Coolidge is trying to convey through the religious theme of his speech?
    2. How does Coolidge try to appeal to non-Protestant Americans? Or does he?
    3. How does the religion theme tie into Coolidge's ideas about the economy and foreign policy?
    4. Was Coolidge violating the wall of separation by using all his religious language?

    Chew on This

    The speech showed that Coolidge was one of the folks who believed that the U.S. was a Christian nation.

    At this point in history, the religion angle was probably a pretty good way to appeal to people's better natures.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    It took a long time to get the U.S. involved in World War I, which was a horrible and bloody war that just illustrated to Americans how the Old World of Europe had torn itself to pieces. So one of the big concerns of the 1920s was how the U.S. could avoid getting pulled into other messy foreign conflicts, like whether the British or American version of The Office was funnier.

    Coolidge firmly believed in staying out of those kinds of conflicts, but also saw the U.S. as having a vital humanitarian role in the world. In his Inaugural Address, he emphasizes that America needs to stay independent and genuinely "American," but also needs to help those poor nations of the world struggling under outdated and oppressive regimes.

    Coolidge limited immigration to protect American jobs, but he was generally okay with allowing foreigners into the country as long as they adopted American culture and ideals.

    As we discuss in our "Symbols" section, Coolidge returns again and again to the idea of "Americanness." He's not entirely clear about what this means, but one thing is clear: we are not like them. And Steve Carrell is totally different from Ricky Gervais.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. How does Coolidge think we can continue being influential without getting involved with the rest of the world?
    2. How does Coolidge differentiate the U.S. from other regions?
    3. What purpose could Coolidge's portrayal of the "other" have in his political agenda?
    4. How was the U.S. able to maintain an isolationist stance through so much of U.S. history? What features of the country helped it maintain some degree of distance?

    Chew on This

    Coolidge really needed to reference World War I to make his arguments work.

    In the 1920s, the U.S. seemed to want all the commercial benefits of globalization but none of the responsibility. That totally changed after World War II.

  • Politics

    As a political speech, the Inaugural Address lays out Coolidge's approach to government loud and clear: hands off. His tax and spending cuts, and minimalist approach to federal involvement in Americans' lives, set a conservative agenda that's still going strong in the Republican Party of today.

    Coolidge was a fan of the party system; he thought it gave Americans a chance to let their views be known and gave the winning party a mandate to govern on their promises. Seriously, think of what would happen if candidates had to be evaluated on their merits and not on party affiliation? Or if people voted their beliefs and consciences on policy without regard to party loyalty? Or if legislators could ignore party differences and work together to pass commonsense law? Or…

    Oh, wait.

    Well, Coolidge does acknowledge that the system isn't perfect but that it's the best we've got. He couldn't anticipate how polarized things would get in the 21st century.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Does Coolidge make any strong political statements in his speech? Why or why not, do you think?
    2. Do Coolidge's ideas about the American political system illustrate anything that you know about his policies or political career?
    3. Why do you think he brings up the American political system in this speech, given that he's just won the election? What other ideas does it relate to?

    Chew on This

    Coolidge probably didn't make suggestions for improving the political system because he was trying to minimize his government's activity, and that would require activity.

    Coolidge is weirdly demanding about American obedience to the political party system.

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