Coolidge’s Enduring Thoughts on the Meaning of a Free Republic
Nearly 100 years ago, one of the greatest addresses given by any President of the United States was delivered to an audience in Philadelphia, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the meeting in that city of the First Continental Congress.
It was delivered on September 25, 1924. And though the address is nearly a century old, President Calvin Coolidge, notoriously a man of few words, made each sentence seem as fresh today as when he spoke them.
In commemorating the First Continental Congress for the role it played in establishing the United States as an independent nation, President Coolidge delivered a powerful vision of what it takes, and what it means, to live as a citizen in a free republic. It is an address that, in its key elements, is fully vital and current, offering great meaning and context for today’s Americans. Here, running at just over 3,100 words long, is the text of Coolidge’s remarkable speech:
No American coming to Philadelphia on this anniversary could escape being thrilled at the thought of what this commemoration means. It brings to mind events which in the course of the century and a half that has passed since the day we are celebrating have changed the course of human history. Then was formed the ideal of the American nation.
Two years later this was put into practical effect by the Declaration of Independence. Here, too, was prepared and adopted the Federal Constitution, guaranteeing unity and perpetuation of our national life. The place of this imperial city in history is secure.
Your heritage has that mysterious quality by which it has enriched not only your own citizens but the people of the earth. Wherever we find a nation which has gained its liberty, which has shaken itself free from despotism and established a republic, there reigns the influence with which the exalted record of your achievements has directed the destiny of the world.
We cannot do justice to the memory of the men and work of the first Continental Congress without recalling events which preceded it and recognizing the consequences which followed it. The first important act of cooperation among the Colonies had resulted from their need for common defense in the French and Indian War two decades earlier. Even prior to that various royal Governors had proposed some union of the Colonies under a viceroy.
But this meant a weakening of the local and popular assemblies and a broader and more effective control by the Crown. Such proposals were resisted by the inhabitants, who were extremely jealous of their liberties. As far back as 1754 a Colonial conference was held at Albany, on the initiation of the Governors. Only a minority, however, attended.
At that time Benjamin Franklin, with a prophetic vision, proposed a plan of union which bore a remarkable resemblance to our present Constitution. But the people feared this would destroy their local Government, leaving them at the mercy of a distant Parliament, while the English authorities feared that by revealing to the Colonies an accurate knowledge of their own power it would inspire ambitions for independence. So the plan of Franklin at that time found no support on either side of the Atlantic.
But the idea grew. When the English Government entered upon a course which threatened the liberties of the Colonies by passing the Stamp Act and the Boston Port Act, by interfering with the local Assemblies, by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, by maintaining a standing army quartered on the people, by denying to the inhabitants the right of trial by a jury of the vicinage, by undertaking to make judicial officers the creatures of the Crown, and other unwarranted tyrannies, the first Continental Congress was assembled to register a solemn protest against these illegal actions.
They came with various credentials from local Assemblies and voluntary conventions, scarcely representing the people in a legal way, but reflecting their spirit in the determination to defend their liberties. It was no ordinary gathering.
Among them were Jay and Livingston, Galloway and Mifflin, Biddle and Chase, Harrison, Lee, Randolph, the Rutledges, the Adamses, and finally, George Washington. They were men of faith, they believed in their cause. They trusted the people. They doubted not that a higher power would support them in their effort for right and freedom.
Judged by the character of the State papers which they produced, and by their later careers in the field or at the council table, after 150 years they still rank as a most remarkable study by the American people. If we could better understand what they said and did to establish our free institutions, we should be less likely to be misled by the misrepresentations and distorted arguments of the hour, and be far better equipped to maintain them.
The Colonists claimed certain rights of self-government. They were determined to maintain that principle. The burden which resulted from the pretentions of King George and his ministers, and the exactions of Parliament, were not of great consequence and could be borne, but the principle which the people declared was of supreme importance.
To acquiesce even in minor violations was to admit that a course of action might be taken which would deprive them of the chartered rights of Englishmen and reduce them to mere subjects. But in their resistance they resorted neither to threats nor extreme measures, but pursued the dignified, stronger and unanswerable course of moderation. The Congress prepared a petition to the King, an address to the people of the Colonies, an address to the people of England, and an address to the people of Quebec.
While they protested vigorously against their grievances, they protested also a loyalty to the Crown and a pride in the Empire. They declared they were supporting the common cause of liberty, both of the colonies and England itself.
“May not a ministry with the same armies enslave you?” they asked the English people. “Do not treat this as chimerical. In less than half a century, the quit-rents reserved to the Crown from this vast continent will pour large streams of wealth into the royal coffers, and if to this be added the power of taxing America at pleasure, the Crown will be rendered independent of you for supplies, and will possess more treasure than will be necessary to purchase the remains of liberty in your island. In a word, take care that you do not fall into the pit that is preparing for us.”
No wonder such a statement aroused the sympathy for the Colonial cause of such broad and liberal statesmen as Pitt and Burke.
But to the Crown and to the traditions of English liberty it contained only expressions of loyalty. The address to King George was an explicit and unmistakable document, but it closed with these words of loyal devotion: “That your Majesty may enjoy every felicity through a long and glorious reign over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and dominions till time shall be no more is and always will be our sincere and fervent prayer.”
They indulged in no bluster, no threats and no departures from the proprieties of a petition to the throne. But they had no hesitation about making a plain statement of the truth because they politely observed, “as your Majesty enjoys the signal distinction of reigning over freemen, we apprehend the language of freemen cannot be displeasing.”
But the Congress did not confine itself to addresses and petitions. It wished not only to win the approbation of the opinion of the world, but to prove its right to speak for the colonies.
It was necessary to show that they were capable of a united action, both powerful and effective, therefore, they adopted the policy of non-intercourse under an agreement known as “The Association.” By it they pledged themselves not to import, export or consume British products and these were not to be brought in after December 1, 1774.
The importation of slaves was to cease. A few months later trade with the West Indies was to be suspended. Exports to Great Britain and Ireland were prohibited. Merchants refusing to adopt these boycott agreements were to feel the boycott of the people. The production and manufacture of wool was to be encouraged. Local committees were to enforce these proposals by the power of public opinion.
The Association enjoined frugality thus:
“We will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
The non-intercourse agreement was to continue until Parliament repealed the objectionable laws. This bold measure was denounced by many in England as treasonable, but it has often been referred to in this country as the beginning of the movement for independence. Where appeals and supplications had been disregarded, this could not fail to secure earnest attention.
In the declaration of the Congress there was no note of defiance, but their very moderation increased their influence. The vigor of their argument and the logic of their legal position were relied upon to defend their cause. While there was a growing feeling that conflict impended, the Congress carefully avoided anything that could be distorted into provocation for a resort to arms. Here was the great strength of their position.
Because of their restraint they secured the confidence of the most influential forces at home and abroad. They promoted union among the colonies while promoting dissension in England. They compelled the sympathy of the great Whig leaders, who could not support liberty in England while denying it in the Colonies.
It would be difficult to find a better illustration of the superiority of moderation and candor over violence and deceit in seeking a solution of difficult public questions.
It is easy to draw broad indictments or indulge in sweeping promises. It is no trouble to indulge in invective. But denunciation does not provide a remedy. In moderation and restraint is much more likely to be found a way to agreement upon constructive measures.
Appeals to violence and hatred in the First Continental Congress might have produced a rebellion, but they could not have accomplished revolution. They might have led to war, but they could not have secured victory.
Almost all our history as an independent and united nation can be traced back to the assembling of the first Continental Congress, which we are met to celebrate. Our achievements have been wrought by adherence to its policies of reason and restraint, accompanied by firmness and determination. We are not likely to desert that course of action now.
The case which the Congress stated was unanswerable. One side or the other must either give way or maintain its position by force of arms. That conflict for which the Congress had laid the logical foundation was not long in beginning. Liberty never won a more substantial and far reaching victory than that which resulted from our Revolutionary War. It established the American nation, with all that it has since meant in the accomplishments of the world and all that it holds of future promise. A form of government was organized in harmony with what Franklin had proposed at Albany in 1754.
But the Constitution was not adopted until various experiments with unworkable systems showed some such action necessary. Whatever may be the reputation of that great instrument at home, modified and adapted to local needs, it has been adopted as the fundamental law for republics in every quarter of the world.
The influence of that great document, framed in Philadelphia in 1787, can be traced in every constitution on earth, from China to Peru, from the Australian Commonwealth to the German Republic. They all bear the same testimony.
The idea of a republic was not new, but the practical working out of such a form of government under separate and independent and yet well balanced departments, was a very new thing in the world. The governments of the past could fairly be characterized as devices for maintaining in perpetuity the place and position of certain privileged classes, without any ultimate protection for the rights of the people.
The Government of the United States is a device for maintaining in perpetuity the rights of the people, with the ultimate extinction of all privileged classes. It is a Constitution which is the product of human experience with all its toil and suffering, its blood shed and devastation, its oppression and tyranny, but like wise with all its wisdom, its love of liberty and its determination to follow the truth.
The First Continental Congress met to redress grievances which were the result of Government action. The Revolution was fought to resist those same grievances, and finally, the Constitution was adopted to prevent similar impositions from ever again being inflicted upon the people.
They are all in that precious document, these priceless guarantees. The people do not propose again to entrust their government to others, but to retain it under their own control. No one can tax them or even propose a tax upon them, save themselves and their own representatives.
Instead of encroaching upon local Assemblies, it guarantees each state a republican form of government. It regulates suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. It protects the home from the uninvited intrusion of the military force of the Government.
It guards the right of jury trial and undertakes to make judicial officers independent, impartial and free from every motive to follow any influence save that of the evidence, the law and the truth. These are representative of the great body of our liberties, of which the Constitution is the sole source and guarantee.
Ours, as you know, is a Government of limited powers. The Constitution confers the authority for certain actions upon the President and the Congress, and explicitly prohibits them from taking other actions. This is done to protect the rights and liberties of the people.
The Government is limited; only the people are absolute. Whenever the legislative or executive power undertakes to overstep the bounds of its limitations any person who is injured may resort to the courts for protection and remedy. We do not submit the precious rights of the people to the hazard of a prejudiced and irresponsible political determination, but preserve and protect them by an independent and impartial judicial determination.
We do not expose the rights of the weak to the danger of being overcome in the public forum by popular uproar, but protect them in the sanctity of the courtroom, where the still, small voice will not fail to be heard.
Any attempt to change this method of procedure is an attempt to put the people again in jeopardy of the impositions and the tyrannies from which the First Continental Congress sought to deliver them.
The only position that Americans can take is that they are against all despotism, whether it emanate from a monarch, from a parliament, or from a mob.
A significant circumstance of the First Congress, one which ought never to be overlooked, lies in the fact that it resulted from the voluntary effort on the part of the people to redress their own grievances and remedy their own wrongs. We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves.
We are too solicitous for Government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the Government has superior capacity for action. Often times both of these conclusions are wrong.
Every one knows that our economic problems are very far from being solved. But we are making constant progress, both in the field of production and distribution. When certain abuses arose, we adopted a policy of Government regulation and control.
I have no doubt that some action of that kind was necessary, and of course, such a policy would be continued. But it has not been, nor can it be hoped that it will be, always wisely administered. While it provides some defense against wrongdoing, its restrictions often hamper development and progress, retard enterprise, and when they fail to produce the perfection promised tend to bring the Government into discredit.
The real fact is that in a Republic like ours the people are the Government, and if they cannot secure perfection in their own economic life it is altogether improbable that the Government can secure it for them. The same human nature which presides over private enterprise must be employed for public action.
It is very difficult to reconcile the American ideal of a sovereign people capable of owning and managing their own government with an inability to own and manage their own business. No doubt there are certain municipalities where some public utilities have been managed through public ownership with a creditable success. But this is very different from a proposal that the National Government should take over railroads and other public utilities.
What a strain this would be to our economic system will be realized when it is remembered that public commissions set the value of such utilities at about $35,000,000,000, and that they have about 2,750,000 employees. Such an under taking would mean about $1,750,000,000 annually in bond interest, and an operating budget estimated at about $9,000,000,000.
These utilities are no longer in the hands of a few, directly or indirectly. They are owned by scores of millions of our inhabitants. It would mean a loss in public revenue estimated at $600,000,000 a year, and while in industrial states it might not increase the tax on the farmer more than 3 per cent. or 4 per cent., in many agricultural counties it would run as high as 40 per cent.
When we recall the appalling loss and the difficulty in the management of $3,500,000,000 worth of ships, we should undoubtedly hesitate about taking on ten times that value in public utilities. But this is no occasion to discuss the details of public ownership.
I have mentioned the desirability for the people to keep control of their own government and their own property, because I believe that is one of the American ideals of public welfare in harmony with the efforts of the first Continental Congress. They objected to small infractions, which would destroy great principles of liberty.
Unless we can maintain the integrity of the courts, where the individual can secure his rights, any kind of tyranny may follow.
If the people lose control of the arteries of trade; and the natural sources of mechanical power, the nationalization of all industry could soon be expected. Our forefathers were alert to resist all encroachments upon their rights.
If we wish to maintain our rights, we can do no less. Through the breaking down of the power of the courts lies an easy way to the confiscation of the property and the destruction of the liberty of the individual.
With railways and electrical utilities under political control, the domination of a group would be so firmly entrenched in the whole direction of our Government, that the privilege of citizenship for the rest of the people would consist largely in the payment of taxes.
The Fathers sought to escape from any such condition, through the guarantees of our Constitution. They put their faith in a free republic.
If we wish to maintain what they established, we shall do well to leave the people in the ownership of their property, in control of their Government and under the protection of their courts.
By a resolute determination to resist all these encroachments we can best show our reverence and appreciation for the men and the work of the first Continental Congress.
The amazing thing about President Coolidge’s address is that it would only take a handful of changes to the contemporary examples he gave to make the speech fully apply in the United States of 2021. Its meaning is both timely and timeless.
Who, among all those who would be President of the United States of America, could give such an address today?