Calvin Coolidge is the only president in U.S. history to have been born on Independence Day. He is also one of the few who understood the Declaration of Independence’s spiritual moorings.
“Silent Cal,” as he was called, was thought to be a quiet introvert in interpersonal communication. And this was largely true. Once, Coolidge was at a dinner party and a woman informed him that she and a friend made a bet that she could get him to say more than two words to her. Coolidge turned to her and said, “You lose.”
Still, once on the rostrum, Coolidge could deliver powerful truths marked by crystal clear language. When President Ronald Reagan was asked which presidents influenced him most, Reagan named Calvin Coolidge.
Coolidge delivered the speech excerpted below on July 5, 1926, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In it, he celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by demonstrating the inherently spiritual nature of the American spirit, as well as the conservative essence of one nation, not under government, but under God.
Read it. You’ll be glad you did.
We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. It is to pay our tribute of reverence and respect to those who participated in such a mighty event that we annually observe the fourth day of July. At the end of 150 years the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in acknowledgement of a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity, that it is still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world.
It is not so much then for the purpose of undertaking to proclaim new theories and principles that this annual celebration is maintained, but rather to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound.
We are obliged to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was in no sense a rising of the oppressed and downtrodden. It brought no scum to the surface, for the reason that colonial society had developed no scum. The great body of the people were accustomed to privations, but they were free from depravity. If they had poverty, it was not of the hopeless kind that afflicts great cities, but the inspiring kind that marks the spirit of the pioneer. The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.
The Declaration of Independence was the result of the seasoned and deliberate thought of the dominant portion of the people of the Colonies. It was in no sense a radical movement but took on the dignity of a resistance to illegal usurpations. It was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.
It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance.
No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.
This was the purpose which the fathers cherished. In order that they might have freedom to express these thoughts and opportunity to put them into action, whole congregations with their pastors had migrated to the colonies. 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.
In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish.
Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments.The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.
Ours is a government of the people. It represents their will. Its officers may sometimes go astray, but that is not a reason for criticizing the principles of our institutions. The real heart of the American Government depends upon the heart of the people. It is from that source that we must look for all genuine reform. It is to that cause that we must ascribe all our results.
There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes.
No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first.