“The Destiny of America” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1923 Memorial Day commemoration ceremony in Northampton, Massachusetts, Vice President Calvin Coolidge paid tribute to both the US form of government and the prevailing sense of patriotism among Americans. The vice president cited a wide range of examples from American history, each of which demonstrated the distinctiveness of Americans, particularly during times of tumult and conflict. Coolidge also celebrated the wealth of resources and opportunities available in the country, suggesting that such an abundance of assets would be maintained if the government avoided unnecessary regulation and taxation. Furthermore, Coolidge looked to distinguish the economic, political, and social environment in the United States from that of war-torn Europe and elsewhere.

Summary Overview

During the 1923 Memorial Day commemoration ceremony in Northampton, Massachusetts, Vice President Calvin Coolidge paid tribute to both the US form of government and the prevailing sense of patriotism among Americans. The vice president cited a wide range of examples from American history, each of which demonstrated the distinctiveness of Americans, particularly during times of tumult and conflict. Coolidge also celebrated the wealth of resources and opportunities available in the country, suggesting that such an abundance of assets would be maintained if the government avoided unnecessary regulation and taxation. Furthermore, Coolidge looked to distinguish the economic, political, and social environment in the United States from that of war-torn Europe and elsewhere.

Defining Moment

The decade of the 1920s was dubbed the “Roaring Twenties,” referring to the sense of cultural exuberance and renewed optimism in the years following World War I. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States had experienced a major economic boom. Virtually every sector of the economy grew, aided by the growing prevalence of electricity and other energy sources and the expansion of transportation, from the vast railway system to the appearance of automobiles. Labor productivity was at 3.8 percent per year, a much higher rate than in the previous decades. World War I, which ended in 1918, had completely devastated Europe, but left the United States largely unaffected.

With prosperity the common theme during the 1920s, Americans began to spend and invest more money than before. Consumers started investing heavily (and often at great risk) in the stock markets. Capital flowed freely between financial institutions and businesses. The “bull market” during this period appeared unsustainable and headed for an eventual slowdown, but Americans were unconcerned with such warnings.

Politically, the 1920s were worthy of another nickname: the Republican Era. The activist Progressive Era, exemplified by Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to use government to foster social reform, bolster organized labor, and create an international network of nations, was on the wane. Americans wanted less government involvement by the 1920s, and the platform of President Warren G. Harding and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, reflected this notion.

The Republicans were aided by a general fear of left-wing ideals associated with the Red Scare, during which Americans were increasingly worried about the rise of Bolshevism and Communism in eastern Europe. Indeed, one of the most prominent issues in the minds of Harding and Coolidge was the reconstruction of Europe. Harding’s administration remained focused on the European stage, in terms of not only rebuilding that continent’s infrastructure but also avoiding the apparent left-wing radicalism that was starting to surge in the region.

The fear of radicalism and the desire for continued economic growth also contributed to the decline of labor unions. Organized labor was finding itself under attack from government, business, and the general public. Flush with profits from the strong economy, businesses were increasingly able to negotiate higher wages with their employees, without involving the unions.

With fear of Bolshevism and distrust of Progressivism prevalent in the United States, citizens grew disillusioned with the role of their federal government. Known to resist confrontation and controversy, Harding used the phrase “return to normalcy” as his campaign slogan. Despite the eventual ineffectiveness of Harding’s presidency, the Republican Era continued with his successor, Coolidge, who became president in August 1923 after Harding’s death. Coolidge continued to focus on ensuring the moral and social stability of the nation by drawing from his own thoughtful, Christian upbringing.

Author Biography

John Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His mother and sister died early in his life; his father was a prominent public official. Coolidge graduated from Amherst College and pursued a career in law and government. While still living in Northampton, he won a seat on the city council in 1900, chairmanship of the Northampton Republican Committee in 1904, a position on the Massachusetts General Court in 1907, and, eventually, the office of governor in 1919. He left office to serve as vice president to Harding. In August 1923, Harding died, leaving Coolidge as president. In 1924, Coolidge won reelection, holding office until 1929. He retired to Northampton and died on January 5, 1933.

Document Analysis

Coolidge’s speech celebrates the values and principles that gave rise to American patriotism. He views patriotism as a positive force in the United States, fostering the protection of individual rights and liberties. Patriotism also serves as the foundation for the American democratic system of government, which he extols as worth defending at all costs. The United States’ political, economic, natural, and social resources, he says, are the reasons the United States remains intact while European countries struggle to rebuild after World War I.

American patriotism, Coolidge argues, represents the foundation of the American way of life. In particular, he says, patriotism involves both a desire to ensure the freedoms and rights of every individual and loyalty to the overall society. Patriotism is at the core of the American political system, which was designed to protect the people rather than to impose a political will over them. The country’s destiny, he adds, relies on continually recommitting to the nation’s fundamental values. Coolidge echoes the view that the United States is “the last great hope of the world” that, if left unaltered, would survive any effort to destabilize it.

American government, Coolidge argues, is an organic product of the nation’s historically imbued morals and values. The myriad types of people who settled the country, he adds, had to collaborate to create a strong, but not domineering, legal and political system. Although it is not perfect, Coolidge acknowledges, the American system of checks and balances serves the country well, particularly in light of the limitations it put on all branches of government.

The key to continuing the American success story, Coolidge argues, is the indivisibility of and equality among the nation’s people. He says that there are enough resources in the country for every American and that no disproportionate shares of those resources should be given to any one level of society. Furthermore, government should ensure that the poorest citizens have an opportunity to gain education and employment. “There is no end of the things which the government can do” with regard to the public welfare, he says.

Coolidge adds that Americans should take notice of the issues facing postwar Europe. Europeans are being stifled under excessive taxation to pay down debts, he says. The US government, he advises, should avoid excessive taxation and regulation or else risk similar economic issues.

Coolidge concludes his speech by marking the occasion’s significance, paying homage to the American spirit and to the peace that US soldiers have fought to maintain. The peace the United States enjoys, he says, flows not only from these soldiers but also from every American. After all, he comments, peace is central to the values espoused by the settlers, colonists, and the earliest Americans, and it is a tenet that endures in the modern country as well.

Essential Themes

Coolidge used the Northampton Memorial Day celebration not only to honor the men (particularly those from Northampton) who gave their lives to protect the values and virtues of the United States, but also to pay homage to those principles themselves. Coolidge states that the American way of life stems from patriotism, liberty, and independence, and that such concepts distinguished the United States from the war-torn nations of Europe.

Coolidge espouses the Republican notion of a minimally intrusive government. To be sure, every American should have the opportunity to pursue his or her own goals. Where there are social and economic inequities, he says, government should help correct that imbalance. Then again, as the European example showed, American government should avoid unnecessary taxation or regulation. Such burdens, he says, slow the growth of national economies.

American social, political, and economic principles, Coolidge suggests, emerged naturally from the values and ideals of the men and women who helped build the country. The country’s destiny, as he describes it, remains as long as Americans continue to hold on to their values–especially patriotism, which is a concept that focuses on preserving democratic ideals, the country’s political system, and the highest concern for the public good. Therefore, Americans should embrace their heritage, he says, and continue the traditions of self-governance and liberty.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. Marblehead: Wiley, 1931. Print.
  • Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1998. Print.
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States of the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Himmelberg, Robert F., ed. Antitrust and Regulation during World War I and the Republican Era, 1917–1932. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
  • Lowi, Theodore J. The End of the Republican Era. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996. Print.
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