‘Thinking’ Cal Coolidge on the Declaration of Independence

Textbooks have pictured President Coolidge (1923-29) as an accidental, dim-witted president who said little, and thus, was dubbed "Silent Cal." Actually, he was the most popular political figure in America throughout the 1920s. I have concluded that he should be known as "thinking" Cal Coolidge.

One of Coolidge’s passions was the works of the Founding Fathers. One of his more important speeches was delivered on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall on July 5, 1926. The celebration was on July 5 because July 4 was a Sunday, and the nation had a long-standing custom of avoiding public celebrations on Sundays.

Coolidge took this occasion to remind Americans what it was that made the Declaration such a great document. To Coolidge’s mind, the Declaration was "a great spiritual document."

Coolidge asked his audience to look at the Preamble and note the three main ideals the writers of it included, ideals which appeal to the inner spirit of man. And what are the three ideals? These "self-evident truths," the writers said, were that "men are created equal," that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights," and that the just powers of government must be derived from "the consent of the governed."

Coolidge went on to discuss at length the other, more conventional, sense in which the Declaration was a spiritual document. The Founders naturally saw the substance of the Declaration as arising from the religious life of Americans, a point Coolidge extracted from their speeches and writings. In particular, he noted how many Founders at the time of the Revolution were fond of quoting the Rev. Thomas Hooker’s sermon before the Connecticut General Court in 1638. Said Hooker, "The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people." Further, "The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance." Coolidge also added that early in the 18th century the Reverend John Wise published a number of works which were also often quoted in the Founder’s generation. Hundreds of Election Day sermons also reiterated the spiritual (biblical) basis of rights. Coolidge also quoted Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged the significance of preachers at the time of the Revolution. These preachers, said Coolidge, reached "the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson who acknowledged his ‘best ideas of democracy’ had been secured at church meetings." To emphasize that American religious life informed the Founders, Coolidge quoted from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, presented to the general assembly on July 27, 1776. Among other things, Mason penned the following, "’Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state.’"

Coolidge had much to say beyond the fact that the Declaration was rooted in the religious and spiritual lives of Americans: Good historian that he was, Coolidge saw in his time the rise of the notion that the central ideas of the Revolution had their roots in French thought. Coolidge emphatically denied this notion. He did so by referring again to the depth of the Declaration’s spiritual roots. In Coolidge’s words, "These great truths were in the air that our people breathed. Whatever else we may say of it, the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American."

As if speaking to political leaders in the 21st century, Coolidge said, "It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences … that we may therefore very well discard their (the Founders) conclusions for something more modern." He went on to note that such reasoning cannot be applied to the Declaration because the principles enunciated in it are final and cannot be improved upon. In Coolidge’s words, "If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions."

Coolidge concluded by affirming that the Founders were men "who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power." To him, "No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people." And finally, "We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy."

Perhaps there still are a few American citizens who can appreciate the significance of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps Coolidge’s view may stimulate a deeper appreciation of the spiritual climate in which the Founders worked as they embarked on the Revolution that founded the American nation.

L. John Van Til, Ph.D., is a Fellow for Law & Humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.