From Class Warfare to Big Government, This 1925 Inauguration Speech Echos the Problems Obama Faces Today

This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.

Woodrow Wilson (March 4, 1917) and Calvin Coolidge (March 4, 1925):

Wilson:


Rarely has a president so directly defied the ideological basis of his own reelection than Woodrow Wilson did in 1917. After campaigning on the grounds that he had "kept us out of war" (i.e., the worsening conflict known as World War I), Wilson would use the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram (in which Germany attempted to enlist Mexico against the United States by offering to return territories conquered during the Mexican-American War) as the basis for involving us in that global conflict. A presidency that Wilson had hoped would be defined by domestic issues was instead destined to be cast on the shores of foreign policy.

In his second inaugural, Wilson made it clear that he knew this was about to happen, even foreshadowing his ultimate characterization of the war as "making the world safe for democracy" in sections such as this:

"That all nations are equally interested in the peace of the world and in the political stability of free peoples, and equally responsible for their maintenance; that the essential principle of peace is the actual equality of nations in all matters of right or privilege; that peace cannot securely or justly rest upon an armed balance of power; that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed and that no other powers should be supported by the common thought, purpose or power of the family of nations; that the seas should be equally free and safe for the use of all peoples, under rules set up by common agreement and consent, and that, so far as practicable, they should be accessible to all upon equal terms; that national armaments shall be limited to the necessities of national order and domestic safety; that the community of interest and of power upon which peace must henceforth depend imposes upon each nation the duty of seeing to it that all influences proceeding from its own citizens meant to encourage or assist revolution in other states should be sternly and effectually suppressed and prevented."

While this passage was hardly as stirring or eloquent in its case for what would later be dubbed "Wilsonian internationalism" as some of Wilson's later oratory, it nevertheless deserves to be appreciated for its larger historical significance. In a speech that rightfully reflected on the transformation wrought by his first term on domestic affairs — much of it good and much of it bad (although Wilson tended to ignore the latter) — it is this section on foreign policy that ultimately makes his second inaugural notable.

Coolidge:


As one reads American political rhetoric from the second quarter of the 20th century, it is hard not to see the growing convergence of the issues from that era with those from our own. Foremost among them was the dispute over whether "economic freedom" best consisted of a state that followed libertarian principles or one that abided by the ideas of progressivism. Then, as now, each side insisted not only that it alone understood those policies which would cultivate prosperity and foster personal liberty, but that its opponents deliberately disregarded these objectives. One can see that in Calvin Coolidge's inaugural address (like Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge had ascended to the presidency due to the death of his predecessor and then been elected to a term of his own), which includes the following passage:

The time is arriving when we can have further tax reduction, when, unless we wish to hamper the people in their right to earn a living, we must have tax reform. The method of raising revenue ought not to impede the transaction of business; it ought to encourage it. I am opposed to extremely high rates, because they produce little or no revenue, because they are bad for the country, and, finally, because they are wrong. We can not finance the country, we can not improve social conditions, through any system of injustice, even if we attempt to inflict it upon the rich. Those who suffer the most harm will be the poor. This country believes in prosperity. It is absurd to suppose that it is envious of those who are already prosperous. The wise and correct course to follow in taxation and all other economic legislation is not to destroy those who have already secured success but to create conditions under which every one will have a better chance to be successful. The verdict of the country has been given on this question. That verdict stands. We shall do well to heed it.

These questions involve moral issues. We need not concern ourselves much about the rights of property if we will faithfully observe the rights of persons. Under our institutions their rights are supreme. It is not property but the right to hold property, both great and small, which our Constitution guarantees. All owners of property are charged with a service. These rights and duties have been revealed, through the conscience of society, to have a divine sanction. The very stability of our society rests upon production and conservation. For individuals or for governments to waste and squander their resources is to deny these rights and disregard these obligations. The result of economic dissipation to a nation is always moral decay.

From the erroneous conflation of progressivism with class warfare to the lucid explanation of why libertarians so emphatically champion the rights of property, Coolidge's speech in 1925 could easily be transplated into the mouths of any number of Republican politicians today.