Title: Address of President Coolidge Before the Union League of Philadelphia
Date: November 17, 1927
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Context: The state of the country from formation of the Union League during the Civil War to the present; emphasis on economic freedom via private initiative and reasonable taxation
Members and Guests of the Union League:
Both because of the conditions that brought the Union League of Philadelphia into existence, and the patriotic devotion which has characterized its history for more than three-score years, it is especially gratifying to me to receive the mark of approbation of my public services which it has bestowed. Because it has so seldom used this method in the expression of its sanction it is the more precious to those upon whom it is conferred. The knowledge of your favor publicly declared will add increased force to the well-known admonition, not to be weary in well-doing, in the discharge of my office.
Beginning its course in this very month, in the perilous days of the Nation before the Emancipation had been proclaimed, this league has rendered most distinguished service during the conduct of three wars and in the long intervals of an even more glorious peace. Those three conflicts have demonstrated that our Union was not to be broken asunder, that the reaches of liberty were to be extended to include the Spanish islands of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and that the standards of the free nations of the world were to remain supreme. While each of these wars has marked most important eras in our national development, and has laid a new foundation of sound and firmly established principles, yet it has been the activities of our people in the pursuits of peace that have raised our country to the high position which we hold in the world at large.
The Union League represents a history long enough, and a series of events important enough, so that you may well gather once in each year to commemorate its foundation. Everybody is ready to come to the support of Abraham Lincoln now. Everybody is for the Union now. But in the autumn of 1862 the situation was far different. Not only were the Southern States in arms and winning many victories, but there were very considerable elements in the North in sympathy with them and loudly opposing the prosecution of the war. It required not only conviction, but no small degree of courage openly and publicly to resist their influence. The most patriotic efforts were required to fill the ranks of the Army, carry the weight of taxation, finance the cost of equipment and supplies, and bear all the other burdens of fraternal strife. In that time of deep distress a little band of less than a score of men met and determined to associate themselves together to support the Government of their country and further the cause of national defense. They became an example to be followed in many other sections.
From such beginnings this great institution has been created. It now represents a membership running into the thousands, holding an extensive property, and exerting a profound influence for sound principles of government. If we seek for the main motive which has produced these marvelous results, we shall find that it is an abiding faith in America.
I do not mean by America merely that territory stretching from ocean between the Great Lakes and the Rio Grande. That country has lain there throughout the age with its rich plains and mighty forests, its vast deposits of minerals, the far reaches of its watercourses, and all its other natural resources. But, as such, it cast no influence over the lot of humanity. It was only with the coming of the white races of the seventeenth century that it began a career which has raised it to its present place in the world. Its physical attributes lay dormant until their power was released by the hand of man.
America is much more than a geographical location. It is a combination and a relationship. It is the destiny of a masterful, pioneering people, enduring all the hardships of settling a new country, determined to be free. It is the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution, with a system of local self-government. It is the development of the farm, the factory, and the mine, the creation of a surpassing commerce, and the opening of vast lines of travel by sea and land, with broadening opportunity for education and freedom for religious worship. Our country is the result of incomprehensible triumph, conferring upon its own people untold material and spiritual rewards and indirectly raising the standards of the world. It is a combination of all these elements, with their past history and their present aspirations, that we refer to as America.
This nation to-day can not be compared with what it was in 1862. Rocked with war, the South clinging to slavery, parts of the North tinged with disloyalty, Europe saying that the bubble republic was about to break, and in many quarters openly rejoicing in that prospect, our country presented anything but an attractive appearance. It could not be denied that under such conditions there was some reason for apprehending that the Government, the institutions, and the organization of society, which had been established here, were not sound and could not gather sufficient support for their perpetuation. Yet, notwithstanding this appearance, which shook the confidence of so many, the founders of this league looked beyond the disorders of the hour, and, determining to support what was sound and right and reform what was wrong, kept their faith in their country.
At present our land is the abiding place of peace, universal freedom, and undoubted loyalty, holding the regard of all the world as a mighty power, stable, secure, respected. The people are prosperous, the standards of social justice were never so high, the rights of the individual never so extensively protected. If the founders of this league, under the circumstances of their time, were able nevertheless to believe in their country and raise a standard to which those who were determined upon its defense might repair, how much more ought we of this day and generation, the inheritors of all the advantages which their sacrifices secured, the most fortunate people on the face of the earth, not only to have, but by our actions constantly proclaim our faith in America.
But having faith in our country does not mean that we should be oblivious to or neglectful to its problems. The human race is finite. By its very character it is necessarily subject to limitations. We may have sound principles of government, but they will be administered only imperfectly. We may have wise laws, but they will be obeyed only partially. We may have judicious institutions of society, but they will be supported only incompletely. But because we can not expect perfection is no reason why we can not expect progress. In that field our success is unrivaled. The preeminence of America is unchallenged in the advance which it has made in promoting the general welfare of its people.
While we have not neglected religion and education, we have considered our welfare in the past mainly on its economic side. Our population has increased rapidly over a considerable space of years. We have received large numbers of foreign people. For the most part they were vigorous, enterprising, and of good character, but almost always without money and too often without learning. Due to the exigencies of frontier life, many of our native-born have found themselves in a similar situation. To form all these people into an organization where they might not merely secure a livelihood, but by industry and thrift have the opportunity to accumulate a competency, such as has been done in this country, is one of the most marvelous feats ever accomplished by human society. It could never have been done without the utmost of private and public attention to the business side of life. Yet it has been done. The task is by no means complete, but the framework has been erected and no one can deny that the construction is making steady progress.
The object of this economic endeavor has not been the making of money for its own sake. It certainly has not been for the purpose of endowing an aristocracy with wealth. It has been fostered and encouraged by the Government in order to provide the people at large with sufficient incomes to raise their standards of living to a position worthy of a free and enlightened nation. In the carrying out of this mighty project, which in its conception and its execution has never been surpassed by any effort for human advancement, our inhabitants have found the added benefit of a corresponding development of character. The results have reached into the humblest home in the land, carrying hope and cheer with the knowledge that the door of opportunity has been opened to them.
It would be entirely wrong to assume that our present position has been secured as a result of accident. It has come from carefully thought our policy, which has been for the most part consistently followed. We have always held very strongly to the theory that in our country, at least, more could be accomplished for human welfare through the encouragement of private initiative than through Government action. We have sought to establish a system under which the people would control the Government, and not the Government control the people. If economic freedom vanishes, political freedom becomes nothing but a shadow. It has therefore been our wish that the people of the country should own and conduct all gainful occupations not directly connected with Government service. When the Government once enters a business it must occupy the field alone. No one can compete with it. The result is a paralyzing monopoly.
It was in pursuit of this policy that we disposed of the national domain. The Federal Government endowed the agriculture of the Nation with a vast empire at a merely nominal cost. To serve the needs of those regions, it granted great land subsidies, sometimes accompanied with credits for the construction of their railroads. It is even now spending large sums for the building of highways, especially for the benefit of those localities. In order that we might be something more than a Nation of agriculture without any domestic markets for farm produce, where each family merely provided the means for its own subsistence, compelled to pay tribute to foreign manufacturing centers, that we might be a self-sustaining community receiving those benefits which come from a diversity of occupation and interests so desirable in the building of national character, capable of supplying our own means of defense, we have adopted and very generally maintained for a period of more than 100 years a system of protective tariffs. This had enabled us to develop our natural resources, build up our great industries, furnish employment for our increasing population, and markets for our various products of farm and factory. This policy has lately been extended to include restriction upon immigration.
Without the influence of a protective tariff it would never have been possible for our country to reach its present stage of diversified development with its liberal rate of wages, its unprecedented distribution of wealth, and its high standards of living. If these conditions are to be maintained, that policy will have to be continued. In some few lines we can compete with all the world, but in general our agriculture and our industry are compelled to make a larger outlay to provide their establishment, pay a very much higher rate of wages, and therefore find their costs of production are greater than in foreign countries. Any material reduction in our general tariff rates would ultimately result in a drastic deflation of agricultural and industrial values, in the rate of wages, and in the standards of living. Under our present system our foreign commerce has reached the highest peace-time record and our national income has steadily increased to the enormous proportions of $90,000,000,000 for the last calendar year. This represents a volume of production and trade far in excess of that which any other country ever reached. It is the zenith of our prosperity. All of this should be considered in any apprizal of the worth of our long-established policy.
While we have placed the enterprise of the country unreservedly in private hands, we have adopted a system of government regulation and denounced by law restraints of trade and unfair practices in trade, in order that the public might have the full benefits of all fair competition and the opportunities of our commerce be equally free to all. Privilege has no place in either our political or economic system.
Those are some of the economic results which have accrued from the American principle of reliance upon the initiative and the freedom of the individual. It is the very antithesis of communism, but it has raised the general welfare of the people to a position beyond even the promises of the extremists. Arising from this same principle is popular education, the right to justice, free speech, and free religious worship, all of which we cherish under the general designation of liberty under the law.
We rest on these foundations. They have been the supports of an unexampled progress, prosperity, and general enlightenment. All of these look rather large to us now. It is probable that in the coming generations they will appear small. It is always necessary to keep in mind that we have not reached this point in our development without a world of struggle and effort, accompanied by many disappointments and many temporary recessions. We have demonstrated that we were able to meet adversity and overcome it. The test which not confronts the Nation is prosperity. There is nothing more likely to reveal the soul of a people. History is littered with stories of nations destroyed by their own wealth. It is true that we have accumulated a small but a blatant fringe of extravagance and waste, nourished in idleness, and another undesirable class who seek to live without work. A successful people are always a mark for the vicious and the criminal. But these are conspicuous mainly by contrast. The great mass of our people, whatever their possessions, are conscientious and industrious, seeking to serve humanity. They know that the doctrine of ease is the doctrine of surrender and decay. To the effort which built this country, they are giving increased effort to maintain it. The heart of the Nation is sound.
Nothing has more completely demonstrated the character of America than the experience of the last few years. Unexpectedly we were carried into the war. Without faltering, with a wonderful spirit, we met the requirements of those perilous days. We not only conquered the enemy but we conquered ourselves. In the hour of victory we required no spoils; we exacted no reprisals. In the reaction from war-time exaltation the moral power of the Nation suffered little diminution. With remarkable restraint and extraordinary self-control, refraining from excesses, we turned to the peace-time problems of restoration and reconstruction. The people bore the shock of deflation with small complaint. They have pressed steadily forward with their faces toward the dawn.
The work of restoring the national finances has met with large success. The burden of taxation has been extremely heavy, but it has been borne with great courage. Three times it has been materially reduced. Millions of taxpayers have been entirely relieved and heavy reductions granted to others, saving the Nation between $6,000,000 and $7,000,000 each day. The enormous debt has been partly refinanced at progressively lower rates and increasingly diminished in amount. At the end of this fiscal year almost one-third of the entire debt will have been paid. The saving in interest alone is about $1,000,000 for each day. But well over $18,000,000,000 of debt still remains. It is a menace to our credit. It is the greatest weakness in our line of national defense. It is the largest obstacle in the path of our economic development. It should be retired as fast as possible under a system of reasonable taxation. This can be done only continuing the policy of rigid Government economy.
These results have not been easy to accomplish. They have been extremely hard. They have been anything but commonplace. They mark a new epoch and set a new record in successful Government financing. The great burden of the work will be indicated when it is remembered that the Congress was called in extra session in the spring of 1921 and remained in session for nearly two years. The task is not yet completed, but we have reached the point where we can see the end. We are turning toward a new era.
Because of the past insistence on economy in national expenditures, we are in a position to have further moderate tax reduction. But let it be remembered that tax reduction is possible solely on account of economy. Anybody can spend the money somebody else has saved. We can begin to consider internal developments. Each year $75,000,000 goes out of the Federal Treasury for constructing roads. Flood control must be completed. A waterway system for the Mississippi Valley and its tributaries, with one arm reaching to the Gulf, and another to the Atlantic, probably through the St. Lawrence, is only a question of time. The Colorado River project is pressing, the Columbia Basin not far distant. On the sea we shall round out our Navy with more submarines and more cruisers, and private ownership should provide it with an auxiliary merchant marine of fast cargo boats.
On land we shall be building up our air forces, especially by encouraging commercial aviation. We wish to promote peace. We hold a great treasure. It must be protected. Our relationship with the vast territory between the Rio Grande and Cape Horn in a commercial way will become more intimate. Much of that country could be greatly benefited by lines of aviation, which we should hasten to assist them to open. A good system of highways should join the principal points in North and South America. While their own governments must necessarily build these, we can assist in their financing. These will be some of the rewards of a judicious management of the national finances.
Our rise in the world has given us new problems, new responsibilities, both domestic and foreign. The web of our affairs is extremely delicate, extremely intricate. Producing, transporting, marketing, financing, all require a higher skill, a more intelligent organization than under a less developed, less prosperous people. It is, in fact, that skill and that intelligence which have been the measure of our success. The entire life of the Nation, all its economic activities, have become so interrelated that maladjustment in any one of them is sufficient to cause serious disarrangement in all the rest. We have become one Nation. We can only survive through the most elaborate system of concerted action. Any part which fails to function is chargeable with disloyalty to the whole people.
We have been drawn into close relationship with other nations. As inventions have closed up the intervals between different countries they have been brought nearer together, not only physically but economically and morally. We are more concerned than ever with our foreign affairs. The wealth of our people is going out in a constant stream of record dimensions for restoration and development in all parts of the world. We want our moral influence to be on the side of liberty, of education, of fair elections, and of honest constitutional government. Where our obligations to our own citizens under international law have required it we have extended our help to those who were attempting to secure these results. But we have refrained from meddlesome interference, because we recognize not only the right but the necessity for each people to work out their own destiny.
This, I believe, is a fair representation of what has been taking place in the immediate past, and what we may hope for in the immediate future. Rightly understood, there is no more sensational story of human experience. Society is made up of constants and variables. The variables attract us by their contrasts and are always appearing in the headlines. But the constants always predominate, always push ahead in the march of progress. We hear enough of criticism, we hear enough of the evil; but we must not forget commendation, we must not forget the good. This is our Government. This is our society. This is our country. It is solid, sound, secure. It is for us to put forth sufficient effort to keep it so. It is for us to maintain inviolate that profound faith so grandly exemplified by the founders of this league in all things that are American.
Citation: Everett Sanders Papers, Library of Congress
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Joanne Dooley who prepared this document for digital publication.