On July 4th, Americans celebrate the Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence. But little thought is often given concerning the peculiarity and importance of the set of ideals prescribed during the nation’s founding.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — what do they mean and why are they still important today?
To understand this sentiment, one may turn to the administration of 30th U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
During his time in office, “Silent Cal” endeavored to restore the nation’s peacetime financial and political stability. His administration reduced large swaths of federal debt accumulated during the Great War, cut wartime tax rates and reduced federal spending.
Nearing the end of Coolidge’s term in 1929, 98 percent of the population did not pay any income taxes. And at the time he departed office, the federal budget stood at $3.3 billion — nearly $2 billion less than when he entered office as vice president in 1921. Silent Cal’s economic policies spurred real economic growth, lowering unemployment and inflation, according to the Mises Institute.
But his accomplishments went further. He was committed to securing the inalienable rights of black Americans. And he endeavored to alleviate the economic and political plight following the Great War.
Uncanny in leadership, Silent Cal led the nation back to peacetime normality.
Coolidge honored and believed in the Declaration’s sole promise: American society will be one in which life and the liberty to procure happiness were fundamental, assuming that one does not violate another’s inalienable rights.
His speech celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration’s signing captured this ethos. Consider Coolidges’ homage obtained from UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project:
“Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals … They belong to the unseen world.”
“Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments … their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government.”
“About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern.”
“But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”
“If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.”
“Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”
“No other theory 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 scepter in our grasp. 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.”
Coolidge articulated the Declaration’s most powerful tool: its endless pursuit to promote and uplift the dignity, humility and liberty of man.
His commitment to these principles rises above his factional impulses, allowing him to lead a nation on the basis of liberty.
As the nation strays farther away from those apolitical ideals expressed in the Declaration, allowing our ideological sentiments to take over our consciousness, this message is evermore important for America today.
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