President Calvin Coolidge once said, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” Not-So-Silent Cal’s simple words from a hundred years ago resonate most especially today, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. But do our current leaders recognize the political privilege our forefathers accorded all of us by adopting the Constitution?
Coolidge, sworn into the nation’s highest office exactly 100 years ago, most certainly did.
And to improve a line from Archie Bunker’s theme song: “Mister we could use a leader like Calvin Coolidge again.” There are many of his qualities we miss today, but three stand out: first, his work to defend property rights; second, his respect for the right to earn a living; and third, his decision to decline another term in the nation’s highest office.
First, the former president respected property rights and understood that, as he put it, “property rights and personal rights are the same thing.” Stable property ownership is a predicate for a stable society, but too many of our elected leaders have failed to appreciate what Coolidge knew.
Thankfully, in recent decades the Supreme Court has taken steps to enforce the constitutional property rights that our Founding Fathers intended the Bill of Rights to protect. For example, in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency this past term, the Court reined in out-of-control EPA bureaucrats that claimed authority to prohibit a husband and wife from building a home simply because their residentially zoned lot was near a lake.
Both the current leader of the free world and the aspirants to that position on the Republican side of the ledger should take steps to follow the Supreme Court’s lead and elevate property rights to their proper place in the constitutional firmament. They can begin this effort by addressing the costly and often unconstitutional conditions imposed on those who seek to build new homes. At the federal level, this comes at the behest of an EPA that overreaches its authority to regulate waters of the United States and a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service unlawfully expanding the definition of endangered species and critical habitat to prohibit development where it is most needed. These misbegotten efforts have helped create the high cost of housing that keeps too many young people from achieving the American Dream of owning a home. A leader will put a stop to these mistakes for the good of the country and its future.
Second, Coolidge knew that the people retained the right to earn a living free of unnecessary and burdensome government regulation. As he put it, “The government has never shown much aptitude for real business. The Congress will not permit it to be conducted by a competent executive, but constantly intervenes. The most free … method ever devised for the equitable distribution of property is to permit the people to care for themselves by conducting their own business. [The people] have more wisdom than any government.”
Recently, some states have begun to heed this Coolidge lesson by making occupational licenses in one state valid in another. Of course, eliminating licensing requirements for most professionals makes more sense as, ultimately, the market will support those who provide a service professionally and weed out those who do not. Nevertheless, any incremental step in the direction of protecting the individual’s constitutional right to earn a living is a step in the Coolidge direction.
Third, like President George Washington before him, Coolidge had so much respect for our Constitution that he walked away from the nation’s highest office. Why? He gave a variety of explanations for why he chose not to run for President in 1928. But one quote stands out: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man,” he wrote. “When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.”
If Coolidge had run for re-election in 1928, he would have won. But just because a leader can run for the presidency does not mean the leader should run.
Coolidge’s presidency is a testament to the best of our country and its leaders. On Sunday, Sept. 17, we will celebrate Constitution Day, and our nation’s current leaders, both in and out of office, should live up to his example.
This op-ed was originally published at The Center Square on September 13, 2023.