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Calvin Coolidge and The Duties of Businesses

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

By Jeffery Tyler Syck

This post is from a new series that will highlight Conservative leaders from history. Once a month, Tyler Syck, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and native Kentuckian, will highlight someone we think our readers ought to know more about. Sometimes they'll be politicians, other times they'll be thought leaders or intellectuals.

In most circles Calvin Coolidge is famous for two things: his terse demeanor and his unrestrained support for capitalism which caused the great depression. Undeniably Coolidge is our most laconic president. When he decided not to run for re-election instead of giving a long speech, he released a simple statement: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.” Such straightforward speaking was characteristic of Coolidge throughout his long political career. However, Coolidge’s reputation as a crony capitalist whose actions led to the collapse of the stock market is deeply undeserved. Coolidge is one of America’s great thinkers and statesmen. A champion of conservatism at its very best, his legacy is worthy not only of re-evaluation but praise.

Coolidge argued that America’s dedication to rights and liberty were our greatest resource. He stated that it was the founder’s great achievement to create a regime “predicated upon the glory of man, and the corresponding duty of society .. that the rights of citizens are to be protected with every power and resource of the State.”[i] In short, America is dedicated to the idea that civilization must work tirelessly to improve the lives of people. Coolidge doubted that any foreign nation was capable of destroying a republic devoted to such noble principles. The great threat to America was from the inside. Republics like the United States rely on a selfless populace dedicated to protecting one another’s rights. Thus, it is selfishness which most erodes free government and poses the greatest threat to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Coolidge believed that all facets of American society and government must be dedicated to the principles of the regime. Private enterprise was no different. Coolidge’s reputation as a famous supporter of American business is well deserved, but he did not think titans of industry should be given a free license to do anything as they wished. As Governor of Massachusetts, he championed laws that ensured companies respected the rights of their employees. As president he was not quite so proactive – believing that the regulation of businesses was more a local issue – but he still championed the idea that companies should be concerned with improving the condition of mankind more than profit margins.

In fact, Coolidge was so ardently pro-business because he recognized that in many respects private industry was better equipped to sustain human flourishing than direct government intervention. Coolidge recognized that while government is a great way to bring people together for the common good, it also is a blunt imprecise instrument. Private businesses are closer to the citizens on a day-to-day basis and thus better equipped to help them improve their lots in life.

In our contemporary moment, the free market is increasingly harangued as an avenue for encouraging selfishness at the expense of ameliorating human suffering. Coolidge offers a different vison of the free market that could prove useful to conservatives. In addition, no economic system is without its faults and Coolidge’s vision of a free market designed to better the lives of workers and consumers could offer modern conservatives a way to improve our capitalist economy. Far from being the inept stoic president he is often portrayed as; Coolidge’s ideas offer insights into the problems we face in modern America. Insights we would do well to turn to more often.

[i] Calvin Coolidge, “At The Home of Daniel Webster,” July 4th 1916.

Image via Granger

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