"The Press under a Free Government"
Published in 1925
One of the ideas most often associated with the 1920s is that "the business of America is business." These words, spoken by President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) in a speech to newspaper editors, did indeed capture the pro-business spirit of this economically well-to-do decade. A closer look at this speech, however, reveals a more complex picture of Coolidge's ideas about his nation.
Coolidge climbed the political ladder slowly and steadily, reaching the presidency unexpectedly when President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) died in office before the end of his first term. Born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Coolidge attended Amherst College and later established a law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts. He served as a city councilman and state legislator and eventually as governor of Massachusetts. In that position Coolidge gained national recognition and praise from the Republican Party for his firm handling of a police strike in Boston. That led to his nomination as Harding's vice presidential running mate in the 1920 election. As vice president, Coolidge was a quiet presence. Thrust into the office of the presidency, he vowed to carry on the policies begun by Harding.
Soon after Coolidge took office, the corruption that had riddled Harding's administration started to become public knowledge. Coolidge managed to distance himself from the scandals, partly by supporting the prosecution of the culprits and partly by his reputation for honesty and integrity. In 1924 Coolidge was re-elected on his own merits, running under the slogan "Keep Cool with Coolidge" and winning an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote.
Coolidge's laissez-faire approach (a policy of noninterference) was clearly in line with the times and with the beliefs of most U.S. citizens, as was the pro-business stance evident in this excerpt. But the speech is more than just pro-business. Coolidge highlights the importance of a free press in a democracy and, responding to fears that newspapers run by large, powerful corporations would not present the news in a fair, balanced manner, asserts that the business and editorial departments of newspapers can and should be kept separate. Coolidge is remembered for the famous line that "the business of America is business." Yet what followed was the claim that money is not everything, and that idealism is the most important characteristic of the American people.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from "The Press under a Free Government" …
Even though this speech contains one of Coolidge's often-quoted phrases, it is not usually noted that he goes on to qualify the idea of business as the chief concern of the United States. He suggests, in fact, that values like peace, honor, charity, and idealism are more important than wealth.
According to New York governor and Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944), as quoted on the White House Web site, Coolidge was "distinguished for character more than for heroic achievement. His great task was to restore the Presidency when it had reached the lowest ebb in our history."
Although Coolidge generally opposed government intervention in business affairs, some important laws were passed during his administration that imposed restrictions on two major new industries. The Air Commerce Act put aviation under the Commerce Department's control. The Radio Commission was set up as a federal agency to regulate use of the airwaves by radio stations.
Excerpt from "The Press under a Free Government"
The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press. It has always been realized, sometimes instinctively, oftentimes expressly, that truth and freedom are inseparable. An absolutism could never rest upon any thing save a perverted and distorted view of human relationships and upon false standards set up and maintained by force. It has always found it necessary to attempt to dominate the entire field of education and instruction. It has thrived on ignorance. While it has sought to train the minds of a few, it has been largely with the purpose of attempting to give them a superior facility for misleading the many. Men have been educated under absolutism, not that they might bear witness to the truth, but that they might be the more ingenious advocates and defenders of false standards and hollow pretenses. This has always been the method of privilege, the method of class and caste, the method of master and slave.
When a community has sufficiently advanced so that its government begins to take on that of the nature of a republic, the processes of education become even more important, but the method is necessarily reversed. It ils all the more necessary under a system of free government that the people should be enlightened, that they should be correctly informed, than it is under an absolute government that they should be ignorant. Under a republic the institutions of learning, while bound by the constitution and laws, are in no way subservient to the government. The principles which they enunciate do not depend for their authority upon whether they square with the wish of the ruling dynasty, but whether they square with the everlasting truth. Under these conditions the press, which had before been made an instrument for concealing or perverting the facts, must be made an instrument for their true representation and their sound and logical interpretation. From the position of a mere organ, constantly bound to servitude, public prints rise to a dignity, not only of independence, but of a great educational and enlightening factor. They attain new powers, which it is almost impossible to measure, and become charged with commensurate responsibilities.…
Our American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to their readers, and at the same time they play a most important part in connection with the business interests of the community, both through their news and advertising departments. Probably there is no rule of your profession to which you gentlemen are more devoted than that which prescribes that the editorial and the business policies of the paper are to be conducted by strictly separate departments. Editorial policy and news policy must not be influenced by business consideration; business policies must not be affected by editorial programs. Such a dictum strikes the outsider as involving a good deal of difficulty in the practical adjustments of every day management. Yet, in fact, I doubt if those adjustments are any more difficult than have to be made in every other department of human effort. Life is a long succession of compromises and adjustments, and it may be doubted whether the press is compelled to make them more frequently than others do.
When I have contemplated these adjustments of business and editorial policy, it has always seemed to me that American newspapers are peculiarly representative of the practical idealism of our country. Quite recently the construction of a revenue statute resulted in giving publicity to some highly interesting facts about incomes. It must have been observed that nearly all the newspapers published these interesting facts in their news columns, while very many of them protested in their editorial columns that such publicity was a bad policy. Yet this was not inconsistent. I am referring to the incident by way of illustrating what I just said about the newspapers representing the practical idealism of America. As practical newsmen they printed the facts. As editorial idealists they protested that there ought to be no such facts available.
Some people feel concerned about the commercialism of the press. They note that great newspapers are great business enterprises earning large profits and controlled by men of wealth. So they fear that in such control the press may tend to support the private interests of those who own the papers, rather than the general interest of the whole people. It seems to me, however, that the real test is not whether the newspapers are controlled by men of wealth, but whether they are sincerely trying to serve the public interests. There will be little occasion for worry about who owns a newspaper, so long as its attitudes on public questions are such as to promote the general welfare. A press which is actuated by the purpose of genuine usefulness to the public interest can never be too strong financially, so long as its strength is used for the support of popular government.
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. …
Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth. …
American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people. Therefore, I feel secure in saying that they are the best newspapers in the world. I believe that they print more real news and more reliable and characteristic news than any other newspaper. I believe their editorial opinions are less colored in influence by mere partisanship or selfish interest, than are those of any other country. Moreover, I believe that our American press is more independent, more reliable and less partisan today than at any other time in its history. I believe this of our press, precisely as I believe it of those who manage our public affairs. Both are cleaner, finer, less influenced by improper considerations, than ever before. Whoever disagrees with this judgment must take the chance of marking himself as ignorant of conditions which notoriously affected our public life, thoughts and methods, even within the memory of many men who are still among us.
It can safely be assumed that self interest will always place sufficient emphasis on the business side of newspapers, so that they do not need any outside encouragement for that part of their activities. Important, however, as this factor is, it is not the main element which appeals to the American people. It is only those who do not understand our people, who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction. No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life. It is in this direction that the public press can lend its strongest support to our Government. I could not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room, but my ultimate faith I would place in the high idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.
What happened next …
Coolidge's administration was marked by conservatism. He supported tax cuts for the rich (believing that more money would thus be poured into investments, which would eventually benefit all of the nation's citizens), isolationism (keeping out of other countries' affairs), and restrictions on immigration. He believed that the government should not interfere in business and private affairs. Coolidge opposed efforts to provide the struggling farmers of the rural United States with more government support, which some historians feel helped to bring about the economic collapse known as the Great Depression (1929–41). Republican Party leaders were surprised when Coolidge announced that he would not run for reelection in 1929. He died in 1933.
Did you know …
- It was Vice President Coolidge's own father, a notary public (a person authorized to perform certain legal formalities), who gave him the oath of office (the official, verbal promise a president makes to fulfill the duties of his office). Coolidge was vacationing at his family home in Vermont when, at 2:30 AM on August 3, 1923, he received word that President Harding had died. Coolidge took the oath of office again in Washington, D.C., two weeks later.
- Despite his nickname of "Silent Cal," Coolidge was an active president who gave many press conferences and radio broadcasts and who was even willing to pose for silly photographs, dressed in cowboy or farmer costumes.
- Coolidge's reputation suffered somewhat in the years following his administration, but he was greatly admired by the nation's fortieth president, Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89). In fact, Reagan took down a portrait of President Harry Truman that hung in the White House and replaced it with one of Coolidge. Like Coolidge, Reagan believed in what has been called "trickle-down economics": the idea that relieving the tax burden on the wealthy frees them to put more money into investments, with benefits eventually "trickling down" to the rest of the population.
Consider the following …
- In another speech, Coolidge suggested that business was a temple at which U.S. citizens worshipped. Do you think that Coolidge believed that business was the best thing about the United States? Find evidence in the excerpt to support your answer.
- First, find a place in this speech where Coolidge addresses the issue of corruption. Then think about why Coolidge was reelected in 1928.
For More Information
Abels, Jules. In the Time of Silent Cal. New York: Putnam, 1989.
Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Haynes, John Earl. Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era: Essays on the History of the 1920s. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998.
McCoy, Donald R. Calvin Coolidge: The Quiet President. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery, 1998.
"Calvin Coolidge: 30th President of the United States." The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. Available online at . Accessed on June 20, 2005.
"Calvin Coolidge." The White House. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/cc30.html. Accessed on June 20, 2005.