Calvin Coolidge photo

Address to the Holy Name Society, Washington, DC

September 21, 1924

Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing. Not that this desire always prevails; often times it is overcome and they turn towards evil. But some power is constantly calling them back. Ever there comes a resistance to wrongdoing. When bad conditions begun to accumulate, when the forces of darkness become prevalent, always they are ultimately doomed to fail, as the better angels of human nature are roused to resistance.

Your great demonstration which marks this day in the City of Washington is only of many like observances extending over our own country and into representative other lands, so that it makes a truly world wide appeal. It is a manifestation of the good in human nature which is of tremendous significance. More than six centuries ago, when in spite of much learning and much piety there was much ignorance, much wickedness and much warfare, when there seemed to be too little light in the world, when the condition of the common people appeared to be sunk in hopelessness, when most of life was rude, harsh and cruel, when the speech of men was too often profane and vulgar, until the earth rang with the tumult of those who took the name of the Lord in vain, the foundation of this day was laid in the formation of the Holy Name Society. It had an inspired purpose. It sought to rededicate the minds of the people to a true conception of the sacredness of the name of the Supreme Being. It was an effort to save all reference to the Deity from curses and blasphemy, and restore the lips of men to reverence and praise. Out of weakness there began to be strength; out of frenzy there began to be self-control; out of confusion there began to be order. This demonstration is a manifestation of the wide extent to which an effort to do the right thing will reach when it is once begun. It is a purpose which makes a universal appeal, an effort in which all may unite.

The importance of the lesson which this Society was formed to teach would be hard to overestimate. Its main purpose is to impress upon the people the necessity for reverence. This is the beginning of a proper conception of ourselves, of our relationship to each other, and our relationship to our Creator. Human nature cannot develop very far without it. The mind does not unfold, the creative faculty does not mature, the spirit does not expand, save under the influence of reverence. It is the chief motive of an obedience. It is only by a correct attitude of mind begun early in youth and carried through maturity that these desired results are likely to be secured. It is along the path of reverence and obedience that the race has reached the goal of freedom, of self-government, of a higher morality, and a more abundant spiritual life.

Out of a desire that there may be a progress in these directions, with all that such progress means, this great Society continues its efforts. It recognizes that whoever has an evil tongue cannot have a pure mind. We read that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." This is a truth which is worthy of much thought. He who gives license to his tongue only discloses the contents of his own mind. By the excess of his words he proclaims his lack of discipline. By his very violence he shows his weakness. The youth or man who by disregarding this principle thinks he is displaying his determination and resolution and emphasizing his statements is in reality only revealing an intellectual poverty, a deficiency in self-control and self-respect, a want of accurate thinking and of spiritual insight, which cannot come save from a reverence for the truth. There are no human actions which are unimportant, none to which we can be indifferent. All of them lead either towards destruction and death, or towards construction and life.

To my mind, the great strength of your Society lies in its recognition of the necessity of discipline. We live in an impatient age. We demand results, and demand them at once. We find a long and laborious process very irksome, and are constantly seeking for a short cut. But there is no easy method of securing discipline. It is axiomatic that there is no royal road to learning. The effort for discipline must be intensive, and to a considerable degree it must be lifelong. But it is absolutely necessary, if there is to be any self-direction or any self-control. The worst evil that could be inflicted upon the youth of the land would be to leave them without restraint and completely at the mercy of their own uncontrolled inclinations. Under such conditions education would be impossible, and all orderly development intellectually or morally would be hopeless. I do not need to picture the result. We know too well what weakness and depravity follow when the ordinary processes of discipline are neglected.

Yet the world has never thoroughly learned this lesson. It has never been willing entirely to acknowledge this principle. One of the greatest needs of the present day is the establishment and recognition of standards, and holding ourselves up to their proper observance. This cannot be done without constant effort and it will meet constant opposition. Always there have been those who fail to recognize this necessity. Their opposition to it and their philosophy of life were well expressed by Robert Burns in that poem which describes the carousing of a collection of vagabonds, where one of them gave his views:

"A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty's a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest."

That character clearly saw no use for discipline, and just as clearly found his reward in the life of an outcast. The principles which he proclaimed could not lead in any other direction. Vice and misery were their natural and inevitable consequences. He refused to recognize or obey any authority, save his own material inclinations. He never rose above his appetites. Your Society stands as a protest against this attitude of mind.

But there are altogether too many in the world who consciously or unconsciously do hold those views and follow that example. I believe such a position arises from a misconception of the meaning of life. They seem to think that authority means some kind of an attempt to force action upon them which is not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others. To me they do not appear to understand the nature of law, and therefore refuse obedience. They misinterpret the meaning of individual liberty, and therefore fail to attain it. They do not recognize the right of property, and therefore do not come into its possession. They rebel at the idea of service, and therefore lack the fellowship and co-operation of others. Our conception of authority, of law and liberty, of property and service, ought not to be that they imply rules of action for the mere benefit of someone else, but that they are primarily for the benefit of ourselves. The Government supports them in order that the people may enjoy them.

Our American government was the result of an effort to establish institutions under which the people as a whole should have the largest possible advantages. Class and privilege were outlawed, freedom and opportunity were guaranteed. They undertook to provide conditions under which service would be adequately rewarded, and where the people would own their own property and control their own government. They had no other motive. They were actuated by no other purpose. If we are to maintain what they established, it is important to understand the foundation on which they built, and the claims by which they justified the sovereign rights and royal estate of every American citizen.

They did not deny the existence of authority. They recognized it and undertook to abide by it, and through obedience to it secure their freedom. They made their appeal and rested their cause not merely upon earthly authority, but in the very first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence asserted that they proposed "to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them". And as they closed that noble document in which they submitted their claims to the opinions of mankind they again revealed what they believed to be the ultimate source of authority by stating that they were also "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of " . . . their "intentions".

When finally our Constitution was adopted, it contained specific provision that the President and members of the Congress and of state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officials, should be qualified for the discharge of their office by oath or affirmation. By the statute law of the United States, and I doubt not by all States, such oaths are administered by a solemn appeal to God for help in the keeping of their covenants. I scarcely need to refer to the fact that the houses of the Congress, and so far as I know the state legislatures, open their daily sessions with prayer. The foundation of our independence and our Government rests upon our basic religious convictions. Back of the authority of our laws is the authority of the Supreme Judge of the World, to whom we still appeal for their final justification.

The Constitution and laws of our country are adopted and enacted through the direct action of the people, or through their duly chosen representatives. They reflect the enlightened conscience of our country. They ought always to speak with the true and conscientious voice of the people. Such voice has from time immemorial had the authority of divine sanction. In their great fundamentals they do not change. As new light arrives they may be altered in their details, but they represent the best that we know at any given time. To support the Constitution, to observe the laws, is to be true to our own higher nature. That is the path, and the only path, towards liberty. To resist them and violate them is to become enemies to ourselves and instruments of our own destruction. That is the path towards servitude. Obedience is not for the protection of someone else, but for the protection of ourselves. It needs to be remembered that it has to be secured not through the action of others, but through our own actions. Liberty is not collective, it is personal. All liberty is individual liberty.

Coincident with the right of individual liberty under the provisions of our Government is the right of individual property. The position which the individual holds in the conception of American institutions is higher than that ever before attained anywhere else on earth. It is acknowledged and proclaimed that he has sovereign powers. It is declared that he is endowed with inalienable rights which no majority, however great, and no power of the Government, however broad, can ever be justified in violating. The principle of equality is recognized. It follows inevitably from belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God. When once the right of the individual to liberty and equality is admitted, there is no escape from the conclusion that he alone is entitled to the rewards of his own industry. Any other conclusion would necessarily imply either privilege or servitude. Here again the right of individual property is for the protection of society.

When service is performed, the individual performing it is entitled to the compensation for it. His creation becomes a part of himself. It is his property. To attempt to deal with persons or with property in a communistic or socialistic way is to deny what seems to me to be this plain fact. Liberty and equality require that equal compensation shall be paid for equal service to the individual who performs it. Socialism and communism cannot be reconciled with the principles which our institutions represent. They are entirely foreign, entirely un-American. We stand wholly committed to the policy that what the individual produces belongs entirely to him to be used by him for the benefit of himself, to provide for his own family and to enable him to serve his fellow men.

Of course we are all aware that the recognition of brotherhood brings in the requirement of charity. But it is only on the basis of individual property that there can be any charity. Our very conception of the term means that we deny ourselves of what belongs to us, in order to give it to another. If that which we give is not really our own, but belongs to the person to whom we give it, such an act may rightfully be called justice, but it cannot be regarded as charity.

Our conceptions of liberty under the law are not narrow and cramped, but broad and tolerant. Our Constitution guarantees civil, political and religious liberty; fully, completely and adequately; and provides that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States". This is the essence of freedom and toleration solemnly declared in the fundamental law of the land.

These are some of our American standards. These principles, in the province to which they relate, bestow upon the people all there is to bestow. They recognize in the people all that there is to recognize. They are the ultimates. There is no beyond. They are solely for the benefit and advantage of all the people. If any change is made in these principles it will not be by giving more to the people, but by taking from them something of that which they now have. It cannot be progress. It must be reaction. I do not say that we, as citizens, have always held ourselves to a proper observance of these standards towards each other, but we have nevertheless established them and declared our duty to be obedience to them. This is the American ideal of ordered liberty under the law. It calls for rigid discipline.

What a wide difference between the American position and that imagined by the vagabond who thought of liberty as a glorious feast unprotected and unregulated by law. This is not civilization, but a plain reversion to the life of the jungle. Without the protection of the law, and the imposition of its authority, equality cannot be maintained, liberty disappears and property vanishes. This is anarchy. The forces of darkness are traveling in that direction. But the spirit of America turns its face towards the light.

That spirit I have faith will prevail. America is not going to abandon its principles or desert its ideals. The foundation on which they are built will remain firm. I believe that the principle which your organization represents is their main support. It seems to me perfectly plain that the authority of law, the right to equality, liberty and property, under American institutions, have for their foundation reverence for God. If we could imagine that to be swept away, these institutions of our American government could not long survive. But that reverence will not fail. It will abide. Unnumbered organizations of which your own is one exist for its promotion. In the inevitable longing of the human soul to do right is the secure guarantee of our American institutions. By maintaining a society to promote reverence for the Holy Name you are performing both a pious and a patriotic service.

We Americans are idealists. We are willing to follow the truth solely because it is the truth. We put our main emphasis on the things which are spiritual. While we possess an unsurpassed skill in marshaling and using the material resources of the world, still the nation has not sought for wealth and power as an end but as a means to a higher life.

Yet Americans are not visionary, they are not sentimentalists. They want idealism, but they want it to be practical, they want it to produce results. It would be little use to try to convince them of the soundness and righteousness of their institutions, if they could not see that they have been justified in the past history and the present condition of the people. They estimate the correctness of the principle by the success which they find in their own experience. They have faith but they want works.

The fame of the advantages which accrue to the inhabitants of our country has spread throughout the world. If we doubt the high estimation in which these opportunities are held by other peoples, it is only necessary to remember that they sought them in such numbers as to require our own protection by restrictive immigration. I am aware that our country and its institutions are often the subject of censure. I grieve to see them misrepresented for selfish and destructive aims. But I welcome candid criticism, which is moved by a purpose to promote the public welfare. But while we should always strive for improvement by living in more complete harmony with out ideals, we should not permit incidental failure or unwarranted blame to obscure the fact that the people of our country have secured the greatest success that was ever before experienced in human history.

The evidence of this is all about us, in our wealth, our educational facilities, our charities, our religious institutions, and in the moral influence which we exert on the world. Most of all, it is apparent in the unexampled place which is held by the people who toil. Our inhabitants are especially free to promote their own welfare. They are unburdened by militarism. They are not called upon to support any imperialistic designs. Every mother can rest in the assurance that her children will find here a land of devotion, prosperity and peace. The tall shaft near which we are gathered and yonder stately memorial remind us that our standards of manhood are revealed in the adoration which we pay to Washington and Lincoln. They are unrivaled and unsurpassed. Above all else, they are Americans. The institutions of our country stand justified both in reason and in experience. I am aware that they will continue to be assailed. But I know they will continue to stand. We may perish, but they will endure. They are founded on the Rock of Ages.

Calvin Coolidge, Address to the Holy Name Society, Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives