Great thoughts: Calvin Coolidge and American business

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(Host) The thoughts and philosophies of Calvin Coolidge helped shape the American business identity. Commentator Jeff Wennberg thinks they may be more relevant than ever.

(Wennberg) On January 17, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. The speech was titled “The Press Under a Free Government,” but Americans soon forgot the subject and occasion. Out of nearly 2,500 thoughtfully prepared words, nine would come to define the Coolidge philosophy: “The chief business of the American people is business.”

For those of us too young to remember the 1920s, we need only look back at the 1990s to understand why these words resonated within their time. And, perhaps, why they have been so utterly separated from Coolidge’s true message.

Consider, for example, the following from the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

Coolidge was an unabashed capitalist. He consistently promoted unencumbered commerce as the machinery through which society’s ills would be repaired. But he was careful to distinguish between means and ends. He wrote: “Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.”

From the perspective of the post-Enron twenty-first century, the popular caricature of Vermont’s most famous native president seems, well, irrelevant. But consider what he said about prosperity: “Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”

Or success: “The measure of success is not merchandise, but character.”

Or property: “The possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service.”

Or of progress itself: “The law of progress and civilization is not the law of the jungle. It is not an earthly law, it is a divine law. It does not mean survival of the fittest, it means sacrifice of the fittest. Any mother will give her life for her child. Men put women and children in lifeboats before they themselves will leave the sinking ship. John Hampden and Nathan Hale did not survive, nor did Lincoln, but Benedict Arnold did.”

This taciturn Vermonter wrote volumes about character, service, idealism, and the American spirit. His true words speak powerfully about our obligation to one another, and to the future. The real Calvin Coolidge enjoyed unprecedented popularity in his time and, perhaps, could be powerfully relevant in ours.

This is Jeff Wennberg in Rutland.

VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts in this series.

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