Calvin Coolidge, the Last of the Jeffersonians

In an era when the States have been reduced to virtual provinces or wards of the federal government and the Tenth Amendment is repeatedly and audaciously ignored, it is refreshing to look back and appreciate how strongly President Calvin Coolidge resisted spending federal dollars on local issues. This was an indication of his belief in and respect for federalism and in the importance of family and personal responsibility (“These is an inescapable person responsibility for the development of character, of industry, of thrift, and of self-control. These do not come from the Government, but from the People themselves.”)

In his third annual message, in December 1925, President Calvin Coolidge, spoke these words:

“The functions which the Congress are to discharge are not those of local government but of National government. The greatest solicitude should be exercised to prevent any encroachment upon the rights of the States or their various political subdivisions. Local self-government is one of our most precious possessions. It is the greatest contributing factor to the stability, strength, liberty, and progress of the Nation. It ought not to be weakened by assault or undermined by purchase. It ought not to abdicate its power through weakness or resign its authority through favor. It does not at all follow that because abuses exist it is the concern of the federal government to attempt their reform.”

Earlier that year, he delivered a speech titled “The Reign of Law” in which he gave this message (emphasis added):

“If there is to be a continuation of individual and local self-government, and of state sovereignty, the INDIVIDUAL and LOCALITY MUST GOVERN THEMSELVES and the STATE MUST ASSERT ITS SOVEREIGNTY. Otherwise, these rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of ‘public necessity.’ Although the founding generation had established a dual system of state government and federal government, each supreme in its own sphere, it is the States which MUST BE THE GUARDIANS of the form and course of their societies. Our Founders hoped for the permanence of the Union but also they were more concerned with the permanence of the States. In times of war, under the Constitution, we possess an indestructible Union. We must not fail to demonstrate in times of peace that we must possess and maintain indestructible States.”

The following year, he again addressed the theme of federalism:

“Clearly there exists abuse in the business of the federal government. When it is determined to provide a remedy, that is when we most see the abuse. The presumption, therefore, should be that it is in the business of local state governments that they look to solve their own problems. National action results in an encroaching upon the salutary independence of the States and by undertaking to supersede their natural, sovereign authority, it fills the land with bureaus and departments which are undertaking to do what it impossible for them to accomplish and brings our whole system of government into disrespect and disfavor.”

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He later wrote:

“Society is much more danger from encumbering the national government beyond its wisdom to comprehend, or its ability to administer, than from leaving the local communities to bear their own burdens and remedy their own evils. The wiser policy is to leave the localities possessed of their own sources of revenue and charged with their own obligations.”

Coolidge was devoted, as the good Jeffersonian that he was, to the notion that the President of the United States is only obligated to sign into laws those bills which are constitutional. He has no duty to sign those which he believes are unconstitutional. He had great respect for the Constitutional Separation of Powers and the system of Checks and Balances. He believed they are integral and essential to keeping the power of the federal government in check. He referred to these design features as the great “guarantees of Liberty,”. He knew, as our Founders knew, that the greatest of all checks on the power of the federal government was the sovereignty of the States under the federal nature of the Constitution, especially as re-stated in the Tenth Amendment.

From his principled point of view, President Coolidge knew that if he, and all presidents, could maintain the independence of the executive branch and honor the federalist nature of our system, as fought for by our founding generation, the United States and the American public would remain “free from oppression.”

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