The rise of ideology in late-nineteenth-century America presented challenges beyond those inherent in the political, economic, and cultural changes of the time. By the early twentieth century, progressivism had become a powerful force—a movement declaring that the structures and limitations of the American Constitution must be set aside so that “the people's will” could be divined and put into action by a centralized federal government in an era of centralized national and international economic power. While conservatives entered into a complex and sustained engagement with these challenges, conservative prejudices, habits, and norms remained strong in America, thriving in New England, the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Mountain West, and, in an eccentric version, in the South. In these regions, communities were organized around the principles of ordered liberty in the context of community and reciprocity among neighbors. There the people belonged to myriad voluntary and fraternal associations, they stressed biblical religion, and they continued to believe in the centrality of self-reliance.
From this stream of practical American conservatism came one of the key figures in this tradition: Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge gave conservatism a spare but eloquent voice, enlivening coherent principles and norms in a time of change. He grew up in New England, one of the seedbeds of local self-rule, rooted in a culture dedicated to both thick community and the self-reliance of individuals and families. Educated classically at Amherst College, Coolidge came of age with a deep knowledge of, and love for, American history, and he drew special inspiration from Abraham Lincoln. As a young lawyer (among the few by his time to still enter that profession through apprenticeship rather than attending law school), Coolidge often defended the property rights of small interests. While he understood the importance of concentrations of capital, he stressed that work was prior to capital and that ordered liberty rests on the ability of people to use their freedom and their labor to create property and supply the necessary conditions of life in self-governing associations.
Throughout his career's ascent from local politics to governor of Massachusetts and ultimately president of the United States, Coolidge embodied the conservative politician as have few others. He was deeply rooted in his regional culture, devoted to his family and the range of obligations that make family important to each person's identity, hard-working and self-reliant, intensely patriotic, quietly but profoundly religious, and committed to the principles of conservatism while offering no ideology. In times of dramatic change, Coolidge sought to apply conservative principles.
A practical but passionate focus on freedom and opportunity shaped Coolidge's prudential response to progressive reforms. Devoted to constitutionalism and fully aware of society's reliance on deep, widespread respect for the law, Coolidge generally accepted reforms done within the limits of both. When Theodore Roosevelt used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to break up monopolies, Coolidge appreciated this government action designed to provide greater opportunities for entrepreneurs and small commercial interests. Here Roosevelt acted within the law and did so in defense of what Coolidge called the American ideal. In his many local and state roles, including mayor and governor, Coolidge not only worked to prevent monopolies from taking away opportunities but also followed Roosevelt's lead in trying to find common ground between labor unions and corporations.
Coolidge sought to encourage economic and technological progress in ways that supported communal self-governance. The railroads, primary targets of progressive reformers, for Coolidge were crucial assets for communities. To deliver its services a railroad needed huge amounts of capital and certain governmental protections. But only the railroads, even within certain inescapable regional monopolies, allowed small towns easy access to larger cities and markets. In this case, a well-run and properly regulated, relatively corruption-free railroad supported both economic growth and self-governing local communities.
Accepting some of its reforms, Coolidge opposed progressivism's ideology. This opposition emerged in response to the administration of President Woodrow Wilson and particularly its actions during World War I. The federal government, under the guise of wartime measures, had violated many sacred American principles. The Wilson administration had abused property rights, undermined constitutional limitations on federal power embodied in the Tenth Amendment and the structures of federalism, and expanded presidential powers through unconstitutional executive actions. Worse yet, the Wilson administration undertook the most extensive repression of speech and civil liberties in American history, imprisoning and deporting thousands without due process for any speech the government deemed subversive, including any “abusive language” against the flag, the Constitution, and American military uniforms. These wartime measures built on years of abuses—including Wilson's personal decision to impose racial segregation among federal employees—and exposed the power of an imperial presidency to rule without law.
The authoritarian and lawless nature of the progressive regime frightened Coolidge and set the context for the policies and practices he would pursue as president. Coolidge believed that his primary task as president was to manage the government well, according to the strict requirements of law and the Constitution. Thus he devoted much of his energy not to introducing changes but to making the government responsive within its limited realm. After a spate of progressive reforms (many salutary and legal, but many others harmful to American principles and extralegal), Coolidge wanted government to get out of the way of self-reliant Americans while working efficiently to create and sustain the order and structure that facilitated private and associational life.
Coolidge's learned and brilliant speech celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence articulated American principles as well as any presidential address. Rejecting the progressive claim that the Constitution was an open-ended call for ceaseless change in the name of personal autonomy, Coolidge insisted that the American revolutionaries were no radicals. Rather, the Revolution “was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.” Coolidge deftly explored the deep religious sources of American principles while connecting “natural rights” to both these religious commitments and the Anglo-American tradition.
In a speech welcoming Charles Lindbergh back to America and celebrating his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, Coolidge articulated the principles most evident to American conservatives in this time. First, he praised Lindbergh's character. For conservatives, character had long been a key term denoting a well-formed person: one who has matured so as to be self-governing, in mastery of his passions, and in love with good and noble things, and who possesses such virtues as to be a good citizen, family member, and neighbor. To praise a man's character is to suggest that he is unspoiled, unwilling to “commercialize” himself or to seek cheap fame. More than that, to praise a man's character implies praise of his family, his community, and those who helped form him. And so Coolidge gave clear voice to the conservative view of the self-reliant man—one with character, shaped by others in tandem with his own indomitable will to become self-possessed and self-ruling. Moreover, the liberty of the individual person is possible only when the relevant social institutions have shaped that person to possess good character. Otherwise liberty is transmuted into libidinous license, which ends not in self-rule but in a pathetic form of dependence.