Calvin Coolidge on the Death of American Civilization
Religion & Liberty Online

Calvin Coolidge on the Death of American Civilization

“The Power of the Moral Law” is the title of an address delivered by Calvin Coolidge at the Community-Chest Dinner in Springfield, Massachusetts on October 11, 1921. Published in The Price of Freedom, the text is only available online through Google Books.

Coolidge’s main point in his remarks was to reinforce the truth that it is prosperity not grounded in a deeper meaning that threatens our American Republic. Displaying his conservative thought, he challenges materialism of government interventionists and reminds proponents of business and the market that material success alone is insufficient. True progress must have a deeper foundation.

There are many lines that stand out in his address, but perhaps few stand out more than this simple sentence: “Ideals and beliefs determine the whole course of society.” Currently, we see this playing out powerfully in our culture today. The ideals that have held our Western and American civilization intact for centuries have largely eroded. Ideals and commonly held standards, especially in the academy, are attacked as backwards and oppressive.

Coolidge talks a lot about the importance of sacrifice in his address, a virtue that is quite rare today. Without sacrifice, “there is no other process that can sustain civilization,” declared Coolidge.

Vice-President at the time of his remarks, it’s very likely that Coolidge would be less optimistic with his remarks today, given the explosion of economic regulation and cultural decay. But the important truths he articulates in 1921 are even more pressing. Our era today could easily be called an age that lacks purpose and suffers from aimlessness. Below are some excerpts from his address:

A people gather, grow strong under adversity, weaken under prosperity, and fall, first victims of weakness within and victims of strength without. No one can deny this. Nor need it unduly alarm us…

The trial which the civilization of America is to meet does not lie in adversity. It lies in prosperity. It will not be in a lack of power, but in the purpose directing the use of great power. There is new danger in our very greatness. There are all the old dangers in our incompleteness. It is impossible to overlook our imperfections. The war [WWI] has greatly diminished the substance of some and greatly increased the substance of many. It has already given a new tongue to envy. Without a doubt it will give a new grasp to greed…

There is always a tendency to point to the great business of this country, its wealth and intelligence, and say that economic laws will run their course and provide a final adjustment. They would, but these are not enough, never have been enough, and would not give the result we require. The foundations of civilization do not rest alone on economic laws…

Civilization is always on trial, testing out, not the power of material resources, but whether there be, in the heart of the people, that virtue and character which come from charity sufficient to maintain progress. When that charity fails, civilization, though it “speak with the tongues of men and angels,” is “become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” Its glory has departed. Its spirit has gone out. Its life is done.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.