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September 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 26

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Calvin Coolidge’s Lesson on Civic Responsibility


by John Hendrickson



Many who follow politics have heard the slogan that both ideas and elections have consequences. The Founding Fathers stated in the Constitution that sovereignty is left with the people, and one of the most important rights and responsibilities that we can exercise is the right to vote. Elections, regardless if they are local, state, or federal, are important and voters must be informed when they cast their ballot. Russell Kirk wrote that “many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions and interests and institutions against the grim threat of ideology.”[1] Kirk also argued that “ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford,” and that ignorance is dangerous.[2] Unfortunately, our nation suffers from a crisis in civic education, as many Americans are ignorant of our history and the principles which our nation is based upon. This crisis in civic education also impacts people who cast ballots out of ignorance or who do not vote for whatever reason justifies their civic laziness.


The Founding Fathers understood quite well that human nature was flawed and that a virtuous and informed citizenry was required in order for the republic to survive. James Madison expressed this notion in Federalist Paper 51 when he wrote:


If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.[3]


Calvin Coolidge also understood that human nature was flawed and that people must be especially vigilant when it comes to politics. As a young and emerging politician, Coolidge remarked that politics “like other values it has its counterfeits.”[4] “So much emphasis has been put upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service,” stated Coolidge.[5] Because politics can become corrupt, Coolidge argued that “the power to think is the most practical thing in the world” when it comes to politics and making political decisions.[6]


Thinking, Coolidge argued, “cannot be cloistered from politics.”[7] Coolidge argued that this was especially true in regard to the importance and seriousness of voting when he stated:


Casting a ballot to determine who shall be President of the United States ought to take on a judicial function. The ability, experience and character of the candidate, the policies of which he has identified himself in the past, and those which he proposes for the future, the standing of his associates and advisers, and the results which have generally been secured by the administration of his party ought all to be carefully considered. No other attitude in approaching an election is worthy of a free people.[8]


Selecting a President of the United States, Coolidge explained, “cannot be considered as anything less than a serious undertaking to be seriously approached and seriously discharged.”[9] In reflecting on the right and privilege of voting, Coolidge further stated:


Our institutions are founded upon the deepest faith in the common sense and integrity of the great body of our citizens. We have been given the high privilege of self-government, not only that we might protect ourselves, but that we might support and protect our country and do justice to our fellow citizens.[10]


“Persons with ballots in their hands are endowed with arbitrary and unlimited power,” argued Coolidge, and “unless that power is exercised wisely and intelligently, it will result not only in their own destruction but in the destruction of their fellow countrymen, and in a county so vast and important as the United States the evil effects would be world-wide.”[11]


Because elections and voting have consequences, it is our responsibility, Coolidge argues, to give all candidates and their issues careful investigation and consideration before making a decision. Coolidge stated that it is “highly desirable that we give careful consideration to the proposals that are made by all candidates for the preservation of our liberties, the promotion of our general welfare, and the conscientious discharge of our individual duties as citizens of this great republic.”[12]


“We live under a republican form of government,” stated Coolidge, and he warned that a careless electorate is a dangerous electorate:[13]


We need forever to remember that representative government does represent. A careless, indifferent representative is the result of a careless, indifferent electorate. The people who start to elect a man to get what he can for his district will probably find they have elected a man who will get what he can for himself.[14]


As we prepare for the upcoming election this November, let us remember Calvin Coolidge’s wisdom and learn about all of the candidates and issues that will be on the ballot this fall. It is our responsibility to make a serious and informed decision while voting; to realize that our vote does count; and to realize that voting, as well as not voting, has consequences. Calvin Coolidge understood that America was exceptional because of its founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and the principles which defined those documents. Like Coolidge, we need to be respectful of this heritage and understand that civic ignorance is a dangerous luxury none of us can afford.



[1] Russell Kirk, The American Cause, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2004, p. 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] James Madison, Federalist No. 51, quoted in We Still Hold These Truths, The Heritage Foundation, <> accessed on July 12, 2016.
[4] Calvin Coolidge, “On the Nature of Politics, The Algonquin Club, Boston, Massachusetts, May 12, 1915,” in Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography, edited by David Pietrusza, Church & Reid Books, 2013, p. 43.
[5] Ibid., pp. 43-44.
[6] Ibid., p. 47.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Calvin Coolidge, “Ex-President Coolidge, New York City, Madison Square Garden, October 11, 1932,” in Campaign Speeches of 1932 by President Hoover and Ex-President Coolidge, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, p. 67.
[9] Ibid., p. 66.
[10] Calvin Coolidge, “Ex-President Coolidge, Northhampton, Massachusetts, November 7, 1932,” in Campaign Speeches of 1932 by President Hoover and Ex-President Coolidge, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, p. 263.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 262
[13] Calvin Coolidge, “On the Nature of Politics, The Algonquin Club, Boston, Massachusetts, May 12, 1915,” in Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography, edited by David Pietrusza, Church & Reid Books, 2013, p. 47.
[14] Ibid.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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