Issues & Insights

Remembering That Governments Do Not Make Ideals, But Ideals Make Governments


On July 4, Americans celebrate our Declaration of Independence, which was just as truly a striking declaration of liberty, new in the world. But today, many give less thought to the uniqueness and importance of the ideas and ideals that our country’s founding reflected than to what is on the barbecue.  

To reconnect to those issues, it would be appropriate to turn to Calvin Coolidge, the only president born on the Fourth of July (though both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day). It is doubly appropriate because Coolidge honored the Declaration’s commitment to life and the liberty to pursue one’s happiness, subject only to the defense of others’ equal, and equally inalienable, rights, more than any of his successors. He also produced remarkable results without sacrificing our freedoms – substantially cutting tax rates, tax rolls and federal debt, while real economic growth averaged 7%, with 0.4% inflation and 3.3% unemployment, during his presidency.  

In particular, Silent Cal’s speech commemorating Independence Day’s 150th anniversary (though ironically on July 5) merits renewed attention, especially as he wrote his own speeches. Consider this abbreviated version:

We meet to celebrate the birthday of America … a service so great, which a few inspired men here rendered to humanity … still the preeminent support of free government throughout the world.

Enough time has elapsed to demonstrate … the value of our institutions and their dependability as rules for the regulation of human conduct and the advancement of civilization … They have met, and met successfully, the test of experience.

This annual celebration is maintained … to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound … every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.

A new spirit had arisen on this side of the Atlantic more advanced and more developed in its regard for the rights of the individual.

The American Revolution represented the informed and mature convictions of … independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.

The Declaration of Independence was the result of the seasoned and deliberate thought of the dominant portion of the people of the colonies … in no sense a radical movement but … resistance to illegal usurpations … to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land.

The Declaration of Independence … had a much broader and deeper significance than a mere secession of territory and the establishment of a new nation … because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles.

Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.

That our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion … makes it the most important civil document in the world … a new nation was born which was to be founded upon those principles … an incomparable event in the history of government. 

An assertion of the doctrine of equality … had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the corner stones of American institutions.

Placing every man on a plane where … no one possessed any right to rule over him, he must inevitably choose his own rulers through a system of self-government … such doctrines would scarcely have been permitted to flourish and spread in any other country … the Declaration of Independence was profoundly American.

The Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document … Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man … are ideals … We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments … The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.

All men are created equal … they are endowed with inalienable rights … governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed … No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.

America … has remained true to the principles which were declared 150 years ago … The rights of the individual are held sacred and protected by constitutional guaranties, which even the government itself is bound not to violate. 

The real heart of the American government depends upon the heart of the people. It is from that source that we must look for all genuine reform. It is to that cause that we must ascribe all our results.

It was in the contemplation of these truths that the fathers made their declaration and adopted their Constitution … to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few … These are our guaranties of liberty.

Very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes.

The Declaration of Independence … is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things … Our Declaration created them.

If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like minded as the fathers who created it.

Calvin Coolidge articulated America’s founding principles. He traced their origins to Americans’ commitment to liberty, its foundations and its implications. He also emphasized the dangers of moving away from those origins. As he wrote elsewhere, “There is no substitute for a militant freedom,” so that “there is no greater service we can render … than to maintain inviolate the freedom of our own citizens.”

As we celebrate our Independence Day, his understanding is particularly worth remembering, because it is a far cry from the spirit which animates many in America today.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. 

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Gary Galles

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