Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On July 5, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge delivered a speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall honoring the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States. In his speech, he argued that the principles set forth in both the Declaration and the Constitution were eternal and final and that attempts to modify them would result in a reversal of progress, not a great leap forward. Coolidge reminded his listeners that the individual liberties promised to the American people were unlike anything in history. This speech was given at a time of social and political ferment and disintegrating trust in government and authority, and Coolidge sought to distinguish clearly between the revolution of 1776, which he characterized as led with the consent of the people and in a carefully considered and honorable way, and the clandestine, often violent radicalism of the 1920s, to which he did not accord the same legitimacy. He urged a return to the essential American character that both led to and was further developed by the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Summary Overview

On July 5, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge delivered a speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall honoring the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the United States. In his speech, he argued that the principles set forth in both the Declaration and the Constitution were eternal and final and that attempts to modify them would result in a reversal of progress, not a great leap forward. Coolidge reminded his listeners that the individual liberties promised to the American people were unlike anything in history. This speech was given at a time of social and political ferment and disintegrating trust in government and authority, and Coolidge sought to distinguish clearly between the revolution of 1776, which he characterized as led with the consent of the people and in a carefully considered and honorable way, and the clandestine, often violent radicalism of the 1920s, to which he did not accord the same legitimacy. He urged a return to the essential American character that both led to and was further developed by the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Defining Moment

Calvin Coolidge became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding, who had been elected in 1920 with more than sixty percent of the vote. Coolidge shared his predecessor’s conservatism, and Coolidge’s practical New England sensibility was a welcome change from the rumors of corruption that surrounded the Harding administration. Like Harding before him, Coolidge led a nation shaped by the end of World War I and the rejection of international intervention, progressive reforms, and big government. Harding had promised the American people a “return to normalcy,” and Coolidge reduced taxes, took a strict stance against labor agitation, and supported business interests. Coolidge’s policies mirrored the nativist sentiment that had spread throughout the United States following World War I, and he supported legislation restricting immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, further tightened a 1921 immigration restriction act, setting a quota for immigrants based on the number of people from each country already living in the United States. It also barred nonwhite individuals from immigrating.

Coolidge famously said that “the chief business of the American people is business,” and his economic policies reflected his conservatism as well. He urged Congress to balance the budget and reduce taxes, and he argued against subsidies for farmers and bonuses for veterans. He supported high tariffs on imports, protected national industry, and moved to reduce regulation and oversight of corporations. Coolidge had previously established an anti-labor reputation when, as governor of Massachusetts, he called in the National Guard to end the 1919 Boston Police Strike. He continued to oppose labor agitation throughout his presidency, and he particularly disagreed with the radical leftist and anarchist groups strongly associated with the labor movement at the time.

Coolidge’s essential conservatism extended to his feelings about the founding of the United States. He believed that the principles of equality and liberty as described in the Declaration of Independence were essential for continued progress, and a reformist desire to espouse new political theories would lead only to a fundamental loss of freedom. He identified the new revolutionaries, the anarchists and Communists, as being fundamentally different from the American revolutionaries, who had not only the support of their spiritual convictions but also the consent and will of the people behind them.

Author Biography

John Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. He was the first US president to be born on Independence Day. His family had strong New England ties; his ancestor John Coolidge had settled in Massachusetts after emigrating from England in 1630. His father served in the Vermont House of Representatives and the Vermont Senate. Coolidge attended Amherst College, from which he graduated in 1895. He apprenticed at a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts, and passed the bar in 1897. He opened his own practice a year later and soon earned a reputation as a hard-working, intelligent attorney.

Coolidge was active in local Republican politics and was elected first to the Northampton City Council and then to the position of city solicitor. In 1906, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served before returning to Northampton and running successfully for mayor there. He returned to the Massachusetts legislature in 1911 as a senator. Coolidge was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1915 and governor in 1918. During his time as governor, his handling of the Boston Police Strike won him national attention, and in 1920, he was nominated to run for vice president alongside presidential candidate Warren G. Harding.

The Harding-Coolidge ticket won the 1920 election, and Coolidge became president upon Harding’s death in 1923. He finished out Harding’s term and won the presidency on his own merits in 1924. He declined to run again in 1928, choosing instead to return to Northampton and then Vermont, where he wrote his memoirs, penned a newspaper column, and sat on the boards of several corporations and charitable organizations. Coolidge died on January 5, 1933, and was buried in his hometown of Plymouth Notch.

Document Analysis

Coolidge begins his speech with a veneration of the Declaration of Independence and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, noting that “the four corners of the earth unite in coming to Philadelphia as to a holy shrine.” This comparison to a holy site sets the tone for the entire speech, and Coolidge goes on to explain why the Declaration is an eternal document, relevant in any time and flexible enough to withstand any challenge. “Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics,” he says, “every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.” More importantly, the principles espoused in these founding documents are spiritual, almost magical, in Coolidge’s thinking. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which Coolidge calls “hallowed ground” and “a sacred relic,” respectively, “have become sanctified” through their association with the American Revolution. Coolidge argues that the fate and prosperity of the United States depends on adherence to the nation’s foundational ideals.

Coolidge acknowledges that the decision to go to war during the American Revolution was primarily an economic one, as the colonists wanted free trade and resented high taxes. However, he argues that economic factors were only part of the cause, and the newly formed United States was concerned with much more than money. In the years leading up to the revolution, “a new spirit had arisen on this side of the Atlantic more advanced and more developed in its regard for the rights of the individual than that which characterized the Old World.”

Although, like many of the political movements of the 1920s, the revolution was a grassroots movement not led by an aristocracy, Coolidge is careful to differentiate the revolution from those later movements, of which he greatly disapproved. The American Revolution, Coolidge argues, “did not partake of dark intrigue or hidden conspiracy. It was well advised. It had about it nothing of the lawless and disordered nature of a riotous insurrection. It was maintained on a plane which rises above the ordinary conception of rebellion. It was in no sense a radical movement but took on the dignity of a resistance to illegal usurpations.”

Coolidge next provides examples of colonial writers and thinkers who developed the ideas and principles later articulated in the Declaration of Independence, particularly the “doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed,” which ultimately formed the basis of the new nation. From the beginning, this idea of freedom was linked to religious conviction. The nation’s founders, Coolidge says, “justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.” Coolidge suggests that the spiritual convictions that gave rise to these freedoms must be shared by the nation, and its success depends on them. He urges the American people to “cultivate the reverence which [the Founding Fathers] had for the things that are holy” and “follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed.”

Essential Themes

Coolidge’s speech focuses on the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the men who wrote it to the people and government of the United States. He argues that the principles upon which the nation was founded are unchanging and eternal. He traces the development of those ideals prior to the American Revolution and suggests that the Founding Fathers had a unique, spiritual understanding of liberty and the rights of the individual. During the 1920s, a number of movements influenced by industrialization and the chaos of World War I sought to change the American political system, and Coolidge’s celebration of the eternal nature of the nation’s foundational ideals thus also serves to discredit American Communists, anarchists, and others espousing alternative systems of government. Like those agitators, the American revolutionaries sought to shape the nation based on their ideals. However, Coolidge frames the actions of the Founding Fathers as backed by spiritual conviction and carried out with the consent of the people, qualities that, in his mind, make their revolutionary actions–unlike those of the 1920s activists–legitimate.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Coolidge, Calvin. Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. Plymouth: Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, 1989. Print.
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: American in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
  • Pietrucza, David. 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. New York: Basic, 2008. Print.
  • Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.
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