June 2014 - Volume 19, Number 2
Calvin Coolidge and the Spirit of the Constitution
by John Hendrickson
In his Autobiography, Calvin Coolidge described an early memory of his education which led to his interest in the Constitution. Coolidge wrote:
During the decade of the 1920s, or what became known as the Republican Ascendancy, a conservative direction descended on American politics. In the presidential election of 1920 the electorate rejected the progressive philosophy of President Woodrow Wilson and elected Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding as President. The Harding administration initiated a period of constitutional conservatism which battled against the progressive philosophy of the administrative state and the “living” Constitution.
Political historian Morton Keller adequately described the conservative belief toward the Constitution as “a veritable cult of Constitution worship.” President Warren G. Harding, Vice President and later President Calvin Coolidge, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Herbert Hoover, among others all fit into this mold of upholding and applying the Constitution to public policy.
Constitutional historian Melvin I. Urofsky described the 1920s “as a battleground between traditionalists fearful of the new ways and modernists eager to shed the shackles of older ideas and practices.” At the center of this battle was the Constitution and whether the Constitution was a document that limited the role of government or evolved and changed to meet the challenges of the 20th century by giving the federal government more power.
It was in this debate that Calvin Coolidge became a central player defending the Constitution, limited government, and economic liberty against the progressive impulse to create a stronger federal government through an activist administrative state as promoted by former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
The Constitution was a guide for Coolidge and his administration. “It is a fundamental principle of our country that the people are sovereign. While they recognize the undeniable authority of the state, they have established as its instrument a Government of limited powers,” argued Coolidge. His policies reflected this philosophy. Whether it was spending and tax reduction, defending property rights, tariff policy, immigration, foreign policy, among other areas, Coolidge reflected a constitutional approach to public policy. As historian Paul Moreno wrote, “as President, he [Coolidge] often observed that demands for unconstitutional federal laws arose from the states’ failure to act…” In fact some scholars have argued that he was “America’s last constitutional President.”
Coolidge also understood that the principles of the American Founding — both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — do not change or alter from decade to decade as the progressives argued. As Coolidge stated:
Just as with the Founders, Coolidge also believed that in order for the Constitution and self-government to survive the people had to be vigilant in their preservation and knowledgeable about American history and institutions. Coolidge argued that “to support the Constitution, to observe the laws, is to be true to our own higher nature. That is the path, and the only path, towards liberty. To resist them and violate them is to become enemies to ourselves and instruments of our own destruction.”
In writing the foreword to James M. Beck’s The Constitution of the United States, Coolidge wrote that “it is of first importance that the study of the Constitution should be an essential part of the education of the American youth.” He also warned that “the Constitution is not self-perpetuating:”
Historian John Van Til wrote that Coolidge’s “thought life had two principal features,” which centered on a Christian worldview and a “deep devotion to the Founding Fathers and their achievements in creating the American System, its substance being on display in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
These were the values that made Coolidge’s presidency not only a success, but an example for policymakers to follow today. Calvin Coolidge’s commitment to the Constitution and the principles of the American Founding is also a vital lesson and warning for the nation to take to heart in our current era.
 Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2004, p. 40.
John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute.
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