Coolidge and the Catholics
In September 1924 President Calvin Coolidge gave a speech to over 100,000 Catholics of the Holy Name Society1 that exhibited his truly prophetic grasp of the role church and state play in upholding and sustaining America’s constitutional order. Now, when that order is beleaguered as never before, the speech should be read and reread by all who prize liberty: It has much to teach us.
In its appreciation of the wellsprings of our constitutional blessings, the speech is reminiscent of something Samuel Johnson was told by his cousin Cornelius Ford, the dissipated parson, when the 18th-century poet, critic, and lexicographer was a young man: “[S]tudy the principles of everything . . . but grasp the trunk hard only, and you will shake all the branches.”2
Coolidge grasped the “trunk” of America’s constitutional order so firmly that it enabled him to speak brilliantly about the natural bond that church and state have in reaffirming America’s liberties. Although addressed to Catholics from a speakers’ platform that included William O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, and Michael Joseph Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore—both powerful prelates who did much to advance the Church in America—the speech appeals to all Americans, Catholics and non-Catholics.
It begins with an acknowledgement of the vitality of conscience, that “heaven-nursèd plant,” as the poet Marvell called it. “Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing,” Coolidge says. “Not that this desire always prevails; oftentimes it is overcome and they turn towards evil. But some power is constantly calling them back. Ever there comes a resistance to wrongdoing.” What is striking about this is that it takes up the theme of conscience to recommend not “liberty of conscience”—as the Founders often did—but the affinity conscience naturally has for goodness, which is something rather more fundamental. Again, Coolidge took hold of underlying principles. He certainly recognized this affinity in the mission of the Holy Name Society when he applauded it for seeking “to rededicate the minds of the people to a true conception of the sacredness of the name of the Supreme Being,” to save “all reference to the Deity,” as he says, “from curses and blasphemy, and restore the lips of men to reverence and praise.” “Reverence” is not a word that we often hear in the mouths of statesmen, let alone politicians. Yet Coolidge defines it in a way to reassure his compatriots that he knows what he is about in referring to so solemn and so practical a thing; and, what is more, he does the Holy Name Society the honor of acknowledging that they, too, apprehend the consequential force of the word.
Indeed, he stresses that:
The importance of the lesson which this Society was formed to teach would be hard to overestimate. Its main purpose is to impress upon the people the necessity for reverence. This is the beginning of a proper conception of ourselves, of our relationship to each other, and our relationship to our Creator. Human nature cannot develop very far without it. The mind does not unfold, the creative faculty does not mature, the spirit does not expand, save under the influence of reverence. It is the chief motive of an obedience. It is only by a correct attitude of mind begun early in youth and carried through maturity that these desired results are likely to be secured. It is along the path of reverence and obedience that the race has reached the goal of freedom, of self-government, of a higher morality, and a more abundant spiritual life.
The first thing that impresses us about this passage and many others in the speech is that it has been written by a man who uses words with unusual care and precision: He uses words to speak the truth. Of course, our own political class and their agents in the media use words so imprecisely, so deceitfully, so falsely that it is a balm to encounter Coolidge’s conscientious truth telling. “The mind does not unfold, the creative faculty does not mature, the spirit does not expand, save under the influence of reverence. It is the chief motive of an obedience.” There is a Johnsonian gravity to that. In his Dictionary, the same dictionary on which the Founders battened, Johnson defined the word “reverence” as “veneration; respect; an awful regard.” He illustrates it with a quote from Psalm 89: “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all about him.” He also quotes Sir Francis Bacon: “When quarrels and factions are carried openly, it is a sign the reverence of government is lost.” Government, in other words, is answerable to the God to whom reverence is due. It is something more than an unaccountable scrimmage for power.
The second thing that strikes us about the passage is that Coolidge links the word “reverence” to “obedience,” which Johnson defines as “submission to authority” and illustrates with a quotation from the 17th-century Anglican divine John Tillotson: “Religion hath a good influence upon the people, to make them obedient to government, and peaceable one towards another.” It is when we read Coolidge’s passage in the light of these definitions that we can see what a clear and incisive grasp he had of the truly fundamental relationship between church and state in our Constitution, which goes altogether beyond the ban on established religion instituted by the Founders.3
As if to remind his auditors that the proper use of language was not merely an attribute of his own, but a clear and bounden duty of responsible statesmanship, “Silent Cal,” as he was known, lays out in the speech a kind of metaphysic of terseness. “We read that ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,’” he says.
This is a truth which is worthy of much thought. He who gives license to his tongue only discloses the contents of his own mind. By the excess of his words he proclaims his lack of discipline. By his very violence he shows his weakness. The youth or man who by disregarding this principle thinks he is displaying his determination and resolution and emphasizing his statements is in reality only revealing an intellectual poverty, a deficiency in self-control and self-respect, a want of accurate thinking and of spiritual insight, which cannot come save from a reverence for the truth.
If the volubility of most politicians abounds in “intellectual poverty,” Coolidge’s brevity was the soul of wit. In our current circumstances, we hear a good deal about how essential it is for us to rededicate ourselves to inculcating the principles of reasoned discourse in the young, surrounded as they are by rabid misologists; but surely Coolidge’s brief speech drives that point home more effectively than reams of white papers. “To my mind, the great strength of your Society lies in its recognition of the necessity of discipline,” he told his Catholic friends.
We live in an impatient age. We demand results, and demand them at once. We find a long and laborious process very irksome, and are constantly seeking for a short cut. But there is no easy method of securing discipline. It is axiomatic that there is no royal road to learning. The effort for discipline must be intensive, and to a considerable degree it must be lifelong. But it is absolutely necessary, if there is to be any self-direction or any self-control. The worst evil that could be inflicted upon the youth of the land would be to leave them without restraint and completely at the mercy of their own uncontrolled inclinations. Under such conditions education would be impossible, and all orderly development intellectually or morally would be hopeless. I do not need to picture the result. We know too well what weakness and depravity follow when the ordinary processes of discipline are neglected.
If lack of discipline and false liberty not only impede but vitiate the education of the young, Coolidge was enough of a man of the world to know whence those things come. To show how repulsed the natural man is by anything redolent of discipline or rule, he quotes from Robert Burns’ exuberant cantata “The Jolly Beggars” (1799). Like Johnson, he had no hesitation taking his wisdom from unlikely sources.
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.
Coolidge’s gloss on the lines is incisive: “That character clearly saw no use for discipline, and just as clearly found his reward in the life of an outcast. The principles which he proclaimed could not lead in any other direction. Vice and misery were their natural and inevitable consequences. He refused to recognize or obey any authority, save his own material inclinations. He never rose above his appetites.” Coolidge also saw how the Holy Name Society “stands as a protest against this attitude of mind.” Church and state, in other words, could always join together where common ground made service to the common good not only possible but imperative.
Flaubert once said that “Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. People have always been like this.” Certainly, we might be tempted to imagine that our own times suffer from an unprecedented unruliness. Yet Coolidge reminds us that his times were just as liable to misrule. Indeed, he was fully aware that “there are altogether too many in the world who consciously or unconsciously . . . hold [the] views and follow [the] example” set out in Burns’ verses, and his response to this lamentable state of affairs had a certain witty lucidity. “I believe such a position arises from a misconception of the meaning of life,” he dryly remarked. Those who feel no reverence and will not submit themselves to discipline “seem to think that authority means some kind of an attempt to force action upon them which is not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others.” For Coolidge, there was a commonsensical objectionableness to such intractability: “To me they do not appear to understand the nature of law, and therefore refuse obedience. They misinterpret the meaning of individual liberty, and therefore fail to attain it. They do not recognize the right of property, and therefore do not come into its possession. They rebel at the idea of service, and therefore lack the fellowship and co-operation of others.” Again, Coolidge expresses these immemorial truths with refreshing concinnity. “Our conception of authority, of law and liberty, of property and service, ought not to be that they imply rules of action for the mere benefit of someone else, but that they are primarily for the benefit of ourselves. The Government supports them in order that the people may enjoy them.”
In a series of lectures that John Henry Newman gave in London in 1850, the future cardinal and saint made observations about church and state that put one in mind of Coolidge’s speech to the Holy Name Society. “The great principles of the State are those of the Church, and, if the State would but keep within its own province, it would find the Church its truest ally and best benefactor,” Newman wrote. “She upholds obedience to the magistrate; she recognises his office as from God; she is the preacher of peace, the sanction of law, the first element of order, and the safeguard of morality, and that without possible vacillation or failure; she may be fully trusted; she is a sure friend, for she is indefectible and undying.” The problem, however, as Newman saw it, was that the state was often not interested in any truly collaborative work with the Church. Why? “It is not enough for the State that things should be done, unless it has the doing of them itself; it abhors a double jurisdiction, and what it calls a divided allegiance; aut Cæsar aut nullus is its motto, nor does it willingly accept of any compromise.”4 The great value of Coolidge’s speech is that he saw very clearly the ways in which church and state could collaborate to achieve the common good, especially at a time when the enemies of liberty and reason were increasingly agitating against such good.
There was a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the president who went out of his way to champion the interests of small businessmen should have reaffirmed this truth in terms of property and the liberty that makes property possible.
When service is performed, the individual performing it is entitled to the compensation for it. His creation becomes a part of himself. It is his property. To attempt to deal with persons or with property in a communistic or socialistic way is to deny what seems to me to be this plain fact. Liberty and equality require that equal compensation shall be paid for equal service to the individual who performs it. Socialism and communism cannot be reconciled with the principles which our institutions represent. They are entirely foreign, entirely un-American. We stand wholly committed to the policy that what the individual produces belongs entirely to him to be used by him for the benefit of himself, to provide for his own family and to enable him to serve his fellow men.
Coolidge could articulate these truths with such commanding clarity precisely because he recognized that “Liberty is not collective, it is personal. All liberty is individual liberty,” a truth corroborated not only by those importunate teachers, experience and reason, but by centuries of Catholic moral theology. Coolidge himself was something of a teacher, as one can see from his animadversions on the genuine genius of our constitutional order.
Coincident with the right of individual liberty under the provisions of our Government is the right of individual property. The position which the individual holds in the conception of American institutions is higher than that ever before attained anywhere else on earth. It is acknowledged and proclaimed that he has sovereign powers. It is declared that he is endowed with inalienable rights which no majority, however great, and no power of the Government, however broad, can ever be justified in violating. The principle of equality is recognized. It follows inevitably from belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God. When once the right of the individual to liberty and equality is admitted, there is no escape from the conclusion that he alone is entitled to the rewards of his own industry. Any other conclusion would necessarily imply either privilege or servitude. Here again the right of individual property is for the protection of society.
Pope Pius XI, no fan himself of collectivism, rejoiced in Coolidge’s speech. Socialism and communism were anathema to him, as they are to all properly formed Catholics. Much of his papacy, extending as it did from 1922 to 1939, was given over to opposing totalitarian evil. He also promoted indigenous Catholicism beyond Europe; in 1926, for example, he personally consecrated China’s first six bishops. It was only natural that he should concur with Coolidge’s masterly defense of liberty. According to the New York Times: “The pope placed the congress in Washington of the Holy Name societies among the things which pleased him the most, and expressed gratification that it ‘culminated in a speech by the President of the Republic himself, who with appropriate words spoke of the respect due to the Name of God, of the ugliness of blasphemy, and of the divine foundation of human authority.’”5
Later in his papacy, in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937), Pius would attest to the consistency with which he and his predecessors had opposed the tyrannical scourge of communism.
This Apostolic See, above all, has not refrained from raising its voice, for it knows that its proper and social mission is to defend truth, justice and all those eternal values which Communism ignores or attacks. Ever since the days when groups of “intellectuals” were formed in an arrogant attempt to free civilization from the bonds of morality and religion, Our Predecessors overtly and explicitly drew the attention of the world to the consequences of the dechristianization of human society. With reference to Communism, Our Venerable Predecessor, Pius IX, of holy memory, as early as 1846 pronounced a solemn condemnation, which he confirmed in the words of the Syllabus directed against “that infamous doctrine of so-called Communism which is absolutely contrary to the natural law itself, and if once adopted would utterly destroy the rights, property and possessions of all men, and even society itself.” Later on, another of Our Predecessors, the immortal Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, defined Communism as “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin.” With clear intuition he pointed out that the atheistic movements existing among the masses of the Machine Age had their origin in that school of philosophy which for centuries had sought to divorce science from the life of the Faith and of the Church.
Pius himself could not have been clearer about his own opposition to communism. Indeed, he echoes many of the points that Coolidge had made in his speech of 1924.
Communism . . . strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse. There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity; no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the Communist system. In man’s relations with other individuals . . . Communists hold the principle of absolute equality, rejecting all hierarchy and divinely-constituted authority, including the authority of parents. Nor is the individual granted any property rights over material goods or the means of production all forms of private property must be eradicated, for they are at the origin of all economic enslavement.
In light of his own fierce fights with the enemies of liberty, Pius naturally welcomed Coolidge’s battle cry against the barbarism inherent in Marxism: “What a wide difference between the American position and that imagined by the vagabond who thought of liberty as a glorious feast unprotected and unregulated by law,” the president told the Holy Name Society.
This is not civilization, but a plain reversion to the life of the jungle. Without the protection of the law, and the imposition of its authority, equality cannot be maintained, liberty disappears and property vanishes. This is anarchy. The forces of darkness are traveling in that direction. But the spirit of America turns its face towards the light.
What gave this modest, this unassuming man—the epitome of small-town America—the confidence that his country possessed the light to overcome the “forces of darkness”? Ironically, it was his humility. “The fame of the advantages which accrue to the inhabitants of our country has spread throughout the world,” he told his listeners.
If we doubt the high estimation in which these opportunities are held by other peoples, it is only necessary to remember that they sought them in such numbers as to require our own protection by restrictive immigration.6 I am aware that our country and its institutions are often the subject of censure. I grieve to see them misrepresented for selfish and destructive aims. But I welcome candid criticism, which is moved by a purpose to promote the public welfare. But while we should always strive for improvement by living in more complete harmony with our ideals, we should not permit incidental failure or unwarranted blame to obscure the fact that the people of our country have secured the greatest success that was ever before experienced in human history.
What Coolidge had to say to the Holy Name Society on that bright September afternoon ninety-seven years ago speaks to us as cogently as it spoke to his contemporaries because it is rooted in the Truth, what Johnson called “the torch of Truth.”7 But when it comes to so eloquent a witness as Coolidge to the great abiding good that church and state can accomplish in the defense of liberty, paraphrase is ill-advised. We must let this good and sensible man tell us what he has to say in his own “appropriate words,” to borrow Pius’s phrase. “Every mother can rest in the assurance that her children will find here a land of devotion, prosperity and peace,” Coolidge told his compatriots of the land he loved. “The institutions of our country stand justified both in reason and in experience. I am aware that they will continue to be assailed. But I know they will continue to stand. We may perish, but they will endure. They are founded on the Rock of Ages.”
1. The Confraternity of the Holy Name Society promotes reverence for the Sacred Names of God and Jesus Christ, obedience and loyalty to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the personal sanctification and holiness of its members. Founded at the Council of Lyon in the year 1274, the Society contributes to the evangelizing mission of the Church and makes perpetual acts of reverence and love for our Lord and Savior. The Dominicans, who were actively spreading the Christian message in the thirteenth century in a crusade against the Albigensians, preached the power of the Holy Name of Jesus. They spread the devotion extremely effectively. In every Dominican church, altars, confraternities, and societies were erected in honor of the Holy Name. The first Holy Name Society in the modern sense was founded in the early 15th century by Didacus of Victoria, one of the greatest preachers of the devotion to the Divine Name. He founded the “Society of the Holy Name of God” and created a rule for its governance whose purpose was “to suppress the horrible profanation of the Divine
Name by blasphemers, perjurers, and by men in their ordinary conversation.” Long after Didacus’s death in 1450, Pope Pius IV approved the Society on April 13, 1564. The apostolate of the Society is to assist in parish ministries by performing the Corporal and the Spiritual Works of Mercy. In seeking God’s grace in order to live a holy life, members are called to receive the sacrament of penance, strengthen themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, nourish their souls on Sacred Scripture, increase their desire of divine love through prayer, and lead their families, friends, and coworkers to Christ Jesus by their acts of charity and piety.
2. Samuel Johnson quoted in Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776-1809 ed. Katherine C. Balderton (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1951), i, 171.
3. Apropos these references to Johnson’s great Dictionary, the objection might be made that it is anachronistic to cite such definitions. After all, Coolidge was writing in the twentieth century and Johnson published his Dictionary in 1755; but it is precisely because Coolidge was so deeply animated by the principles of America’s Constitution that citing Johnson’s definitions is in order, since they were the definitions that the Founders themselves consulted in conducting their happy deliberations.
4. John Henry Newman, Difficulties of Anglicans, Volume I ed. Edward Short (Leominster: Gracewing, 2020), 207. The Latin tag can be translated: “Caesar’s way or the highway.”
5. The news item about the pope in The New York Times appeared in the Ku Klux Klan paper, The American Standard, which assured its readers in the same number that: “Roman Catholicism and Americanism are not compatible. Roman Catholicism is oriental in origin, pagan in conception and destructive in its results. It is a product of orientalism . . . the offspring of the colored, enslaved races of mankind. Can you conceive of Roman Catholicism as being a child of the white race, of the AngloSaxon mind or of the Nordic spirit? For a white man to be a Roman Catholic is for him to be a traitor to all of the traditions, social customs, sacred instincts, and ideals of his race.” The American Standard (1 January 1925), 3, 8.
6. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States by enforcing a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census, though immigrants from Asia were entirely excluded. Laws dating from 1790 and 1870 excluded people of Asian lineage from becoming naturalized citizens. President Coolidge signed the act into law on 24 May 1924. Majorities in Congress ensured the passage of one of the most astringent immigration laws ever enacted in American history. The popularity of the Johnson-Reed act reflected the concern many Americans had over the negative effect that large-scale immigration would have on wages and job competition. The act was also designed to stop communist agitators from coming into the country from Eastern Europe, the threat of communism being a real threat for Coolidge’s contemporaries, not the “red scare” that future liberal historians would deplore. Although nativism was not unprevalent in the country at the time, there was a toughminded recognition that prudence, not bigotry, justified restrictive immigration. In any case, Rushad L. Thomas, editorial associate at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, shows how there was nothing nativist about Coolidge’s views on immigration. On the foundation’s website, Mr. Thomas writes:
Despite putting his pen to this restrictive law, President Coolidge did not harbor the prejudices and racist attitudes that so often color discussions of migration policy. In his 1926 speech at the dedication of the statue of John Ericsson, the Swede who pioneered the technology for the Monitor class of ships that helped America win the Civil War, he said “. . . when once our feet have touched this soil, when once we have made this land our home, wherever our place of birth, whatever our race, we are all blended in one common country. All artificial distinctions of lineage and rank are cast aside. We all rejoice in the title of Americans.” At the 1925 American Legion convention in Omaha, Nebraska, Coolidge said “Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years of the steerage, is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”
7. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No. 3 (27 March 1750), The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), iii, 17.
Edward Short is the author of several acclaimed books on St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, as well as Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.