On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress officially called for the 13 American colonies to secede from Great Britain. Ninety-six years later in Plymouth, Vermont, John Calvin Coolidge Jr. was born to John Sr. and Victoria Coolidge. Considering the distinctly-American place and date of his birth, it is perhaps fitting that Coolidge became arguably the last president who duly understood the Founders’ vision for America’s chief of state. He certainly understood the spirit of America’s Founding.

Fifty-four years later, in 1926, Coolidge addressed a crowd in Philadelphia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of American independence. The following speech became one of the greatest orations in American history on the illustrious ideals behind American government, illustrating that the famously quiet president had a firm grip on what it meant to be a citizen of the United States.

He extolled the “abounding accumulation” of success our Founding produced and ultimately enjoined “We the People” to maintain it.

“We meet to celebrate the birthday of America,” “Silent Cal” began. “The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that it has been an infinite repetition reaching back beyond our vision, that only makes it the more wonderful. But how our interest and wonder increase when we behold the miracle of the birth of a new nation.”

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“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. Whatever may have been the impression created by the news which went out from this city on that summer day in 1776, there can be no doubt as to the estimate which is now placed upon it. At the end of 150 years the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine in grateful acknowledgment 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.”

He pointed out that, although “a century and a half measured in comparison with the length of human experience is but a short time, yet measured in the life of governments and nations, it ranks as a very respectable period. Certainly enough time has elapsed to demonstrate with a great deal of thoroughness the value of our institutions and their dependability as rules for the regulation of human conduct and the advancement of civilization. They have been in existence long enough to become very well seasoned. They have met, and met successfully, the test of experience.”

Next, he noted that he had no intention to “proclaim new theories and principles.” Rather, he meant only to “reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound.”

His point was clear: 15 decades of American prosperity had proved the overwhelming merit of the truths on which we were built. Why change them? Why veer away in exchange for something “new”?

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He went on to describe the one principle, perhaps more than any other, that defined and steered his presidency.

“We are obliged,” he declared, “to conclude that the Declaration of Independence represented the movement of a people. It was not, of course, a movement from the top. Revolutions do not come from that direction.”

Coolidge really believed this. And he practiced it, too.

“Mr. Coolidge’s genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point,” Walter Lippmann famously observed in 1926. “It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity, which keeps Mr. Coolidge occupied constantly.”

“This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably,” Lippmann continued. “It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone…. And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy….”

In other words, the eternally taciturn president understood that the White House did not have to be a prominent factor in everyday Americans’ lives. In fact, from his perspective, it should not be. It was not merely his personal, unsociable preference (although that did certainly contribute). (According to one oft-told story, a journalist wagered at a dinner party that she could elicit more than two words from the president. “You lose,” he responded curtly. On another occasion, he quipped that “the things I don’t say never get me into trouble.”) Coolidge filmy (and perhaps sometimes to a fault) believed the Constitution dictated that the federal government keep aloof from state affairs. As president, Coolidge did as little as possible, and the American people generally approved. He was very popular.

“If the Federal Government should go out of existence, the… people would not detect the difference,” he hoped.

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Satirist H. L. Mencken summed Coolidge’s conservatism up best: the president’s ideal day “would be one in which nothing happens.”

Again, all of this stemmed not only from Coolidge’s reticent nature. It stemmed from his firm belief in the founding ideal that America was always a people-centric nation.

“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,” he continued in his July 4th address. “The Continental Congress was not only composed of great men, but it represented a great people. While its Members did not fail to exercise a remarkable leadership, they were equally observant of their representative capacity.”

He noted that until the Founders received instruction from the people to pursue independence, “they were inclined to withhold action.”

“This obedience of the delegates to the wishes of their constituents, which in some cases caused them to modify their previous positions, is a matter of great significance. It reveals an orderly process of government in the first place; but more than that, it demonstrates that 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 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.”

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“Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments,” he later added. “This is both historically and logically true….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 [emphasis added].”

Ultimately, however, Coolidge reasoned that the people of 1776 did not act of their accord—they were actuated by God. Particularly the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield had had an inestimable effect on the 13 colonies. These ideas imbued themselves into the Declaration through the Founders, who merely represented the religiously-impacted people.

“No other theory,” Coolidge closed his speech, “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. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp.”

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“If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.”

In these words, our 30th president neatly summarized the key tenets of American independence: that government is subservient to the people and the people to religion. At the time, those two ideas had prospered America with 150 years of success. Today, we near 250. And as Silent Cal so eloquently put it, “[i]f we are to maintain [that] great heritage,” we must remember where we came from and what made us great.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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