Guest Essayist: Charles K. Rowley, Duncan Black Professor Emeritus of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia

President Coolidge delivered this speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  In this essay, I place President Coolidge’s speech into a relevant perspective first, by outlining two divergent visions about the nature of man and secondly by explaining how these divergent visions culminated in the progressive attack on the essence of the Declaration of Independence.

1. A Conflict of Visions

In 1987, Thomas Sowell one of America’s best economists distinguished between two categorically opposed visions of the nature of man: the constrained and the unconstrained vision.  He claimed, convincingly, that this conflict of visions underpins a large number of disagreements over the role of government and over choices among political alternatives.

For Sowell, a vision is a pre-analytic cognitive act. It is what a person senses or feels before he has constructed any systematic reasoning that could be called a theory.  A vision is his sense of how the world works. Visions, in this sense, are the foundation on which theories are built. Logic is an essential ingredient in the process of turning a vision into a theory, just as empirical evidence is then essential for determining the validity of that theory. But it is the initial vision that is crucial for a man’s glimpse into the way the world works, not least because a vision is a sense of causation, a way of making sense of diverse phenomena under consideration.

Social visions, Sowell claims, differ in their basic conceptions of the nature of man.  A creature from another galaxy who sought information about human beings from reading William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793 would scarcely recognize man, as he appears there, as the same being described in The Federalist Papers just five years earlier.  The contrast would be only slightly less if he compared man as he appeared in Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, or more recently in the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith and Friedrich von Hayek.

From the wide variety of social visions identifiable in the writings of a multitude of scholars, Thomas Sowell isolates and defines two broad categories: the constrained and the unconstrained.  He identifies the constrained vision by reference to a famous passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Smith outlines the likely response of someone in Europe to a dreadful calamity, for example, the swallowing up of the great empire of China by an earthquake:

‘He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man….And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business, or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened.  The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight, but, provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.’

Smith did not at all lament the perceived moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular.  Nor did Smith view these limitations as things that somehow must be changed.  Instead, he treated them as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in man’s vision.  In Smith’s judgment, the fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities that existed within that constraint, rather than to waste scarce time and energy in a futile attempt to change human nature:

‘Nature, it seems, when she loaded us with our own sorrows, thought that they were enough, and therefore did not command us to take any further share in those of others than what was necessary to prompt us to relieve them.’ Smith, ibid.

Smith approached the production and distribution of moral behavior in much the same way in which in 1776, in The Wealth of Nations, he would approach the production and distribution of material goods. In both instances, the objective was to maximize subject to perceived constraints.  His approach was shared, though less happily shouldered, by his great contemporaries in the field of politics, Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton.  Burke summarized the constrained vision when he spoke of ‘a radical infirmity in all human contrivances’. Hamilton expressed a similar view in The Federalist Papers: ‘It is the lot of all human institutions, even those of the most perfect kind, to have defects as well as excellencies — ill as well as good propensities.  This results from the imperfection of the Institutor, Man.’

Smith, Burke and Hamilton, together with the large majority of those who have shared, and continue to share, in this constrained vision of the nature of man, fully recognize that a society cannot function humanely, if at all, when each person acts as though his little finger is more important than the lives of a hundred million other souls.  The crucial word, however, is act. In practice, people on many occasions sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others.  But this sacrifice is due to such intervening factors as charitable incentives, devotion to moral principles, to concepts of honor and nobility, rather than to loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

Through such artifacts, man may be persuaded to do, for his own self-image, or inner needs, what he surely would not do for the good of his fellow man.  To achieve such ‘good’ outcomes, what is required is a set of moral incentives designed to move man to look to his better angels.  Surely what is not possible, and is not to be contemplated, is to try to change the underlying selfish nature of man. For, as David Hume wisely pronounced:  before Smith ever made his mark: ‘mean sensual man is here to stay.’

Thomas Sowell selects, as an exemplar of the unconstrained vision of mankind, another 18th century contemporary of Adam Smith, William Godwin, whose 1793 book I referred to at the outset of this essay.  Godwin’s book proved to be an immediate success in Britain, only to retreat under the revealed historical outcome of the unconstrained vision of mankind, namely the French Revolution, as it collapsed into the Terror, and into Madame Guillotine, with blood splashing down the pavements of La Place de la Concorde.  Eventually, of course, liberté, égalité, and fraternité disappeared under the unconstrained dictatatorship of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, at least until the little man met his Waterloo at the hands of Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s General Blucher.

Godwin’s vision of mankind could not have been further distant from that of Adam Smith.  According to Godwin, man is a perfectible creature, capable of intentionally creating social benefits.  His desire to benefit others, indeed, is the essence of man’s virtue and the road to man’s happiness.  Man is capable of directly feeling the needs of others as being more important than his own, and of acting on such feelings even directly against his own, and his family’s interest.  Godwin refers to ‘men as they hereafter may be made’ and concludes that: ‘Men are capable, no doubt of preferring an inferior interest of their own to a superior interest of others, but this preference arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of nature.’  He also notes the essential unimportance of man: ‘If a thousand men are to be benefited, I ought to recollect that I am only an atom in the comparison, and to reason accordingly.’

In consequence, Godwin views man’s apparent selfishness as artificially created by false incentives in society.  His proposed solution is to exert effort to make individuals do what is right because it is right, not because of economic or psychic payments to divert the great weight of self-interest. The nature of man is not at all constrained by selfishness.  It is completely receptive to perfectibility through exposure to ideas such as those expressed in his book

2.  The Progressive Assault on the Declaration of Independence

Progressivism was the name given to the reform movement that ran from the late 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century.  It picked up political support during the FDR years and has never truly lost ground since then in the United States, though periodically it has been checked (most especially during the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan).  President Calvin Coolidge, arguably, did more to check the movement than any other president, and his 1926 speech offers a magnificent defense of the Founders constrained vision of mankind. Let me identify the key areas of disagreement between the Founders and the progressives that led Silent Cal to speak out so eloquently.

(i). The Founders argued that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with inalienable rights to life and liberty and (I infer) with an imprescriptible right to property.  This natural moral order is based on rules discovered by human reason, rules that promote human flourishing.  The progressives dismissed these arguments as naïve and unhistorical.  In their judgment, liberty is endowed not by God but by the state.  Man is not made in the image of God, but rather is a social construct.  Thomas Dewey wrote: ‘Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.’

(ii). For the Founders, the gift to man by nature — the capacity to reason and the moral law discovered through reason — is more valuable than any gift from government.  Yet, since men are not angels, government is necessary for the security of liberty.  Government, from this perspective, is always and fundamentally at the service of the individual.  Its purpose is to enforce the law of nature, and to secure an individual’s negative freedom from the despotic and predatory domination by others.  In the Founding, the purpose of government was not envisaged as being to secure positive rights such as the freedom from want or poverty.  The progressives disparaged this limited view of government.  In their judgment, the role of the state is to free individuals from the limits imposed by nature and necessity.  As Thomas Dewey wrote: ‘Laws and institutions are means of creating individuals.’

(iii). The Founders argued that political society is formed through a voluntary association of individuals, through a social contract.  Government operates under a universally-endorsed rule of law.  The progressives poured scorn on this notion.  As Charles Merriam wrote: ‘The origin of the state is regarded, not as a result of deliberate agreement among men, but as the result of historical development, instinctive rather than conscious, and rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.’

(iv). For the Founders, government — though grounded in the divine law – is itself a human artifact, compromised by all the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.  As such it must be strictly limited, both because it is dangerous for it to become too powerful, and because its role is not to provide for the highest things in life.  The progressives, in contrast, viewed the state as divine and the natural as low.  Private property was singled out for particular criticism, with many progressives referring to themselves as socialists.  As John Burgess wrote: ‘’the most fundamental and indispensable mark of statehood is the original, absolute, unlimited power over the individual subject, and all associations on subjects.’

3.  The Coolidge Address

On July 5, 1926, President Coolidge eloquently defended the Founders against the progressive scourge.  He upheld the Declaration of Independence as ‘a great spiritual document’.  He insisted that there could be no progress by moving away from the Declaration of Independence: ‘If all men are created equal, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.’  Coolidge concluded that ‘Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments.’  To rekindle the Founders’ enduring truths, he admonished, ‘We must keep them replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped.’

No President replenished the truths of the Founders more than Calvin Coolidge, both in his rhetoric, and in his actions as a President who honored the constrained vision of mankind via his always constrained governance of a great nation.

Read The Inspiration of the Declaration by Calvin Coolidge here:
Charles K. Rowley is Duncan Black Professor Emeritus of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia ( He has written extensively in the fields of classical liberalism, economics, public choice, law and economics and political history. His forthcoming book (Springer 2014) co-authored with Carol Bin Wu, is entitled: Britannia’s Tortuous Road to Freedom 1066-1884: From Medieval Absolutism to Constitutional Monarchy, Limited Suffrage and the Rule of Law.  He writes a daily c

Monday, June 10, 2013

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  1. […] In 1926, in Philadelphia, he gave one of his most prominent speeches as commander-in-chief, “The Inspiration of the Declaration.” It served as a strong reminder of the principles America must preserve. He […]

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