Memorial Day Address at Arlington National Cemetery

Image: John W. Weeks and Calvin Coolidge at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
President Coolidge warned against increasing reliance on federal grants-in-aid, which he viewed as an “insidious practice” that “may become disastrous” by leading to overspending and inequality. “When the national Treasury contributes half, there is temptation to extravagance by the state,” and when “we take something from one group of states and give it to another group, there is grave danger that we do an economic injustice on one side and a political injury on the other.” Have his concerns and predictions about reliance on federal grants-in-aid proved prescient? What are the advantages of federal grant programs?
Compare President Coolidge’s argument that “the reason for increasing demands on the federal government is that the states have not discharged their full duties” and his recommended response to this state of affairs with the arguments and recommendations of President Theodore Roosevelt (President Theodore Roosevelt, Address at the Dedication Ceremony of the New State Capitol Building and Elihu Root How to Preserve the Local Self-Government of the States , in response to similar concerns that states had not been fulfilling their responsibilities. How do Coolidge’s recommendations differ from Roosevelt’s and Root’s recommendations?

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Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), who served as president from 1923 to 1929, frequently touted the virtues of the American federal system, in which governing authority is distributed among the federal government and the states. In this 1925 Memorial Day address delivered at Arlington National Cemetery, Coolidge recognized a growing imbalance in that relationship, with the federal government taking on more of the responsibilities. He identified states’ failure to discharge “their full duties” as among the reasons for the current expansion of federal responsibilities. One particularly “insidious practice” was states’ growing reliance on federal grants. Unlike officials and writers who viewed the growth of federal authority as inexorable and beneficial (See Root’s How to Preserve the Local Self-Government of the States), Coolidge believed that the trend could and should be reversed. America, he argued, needed “not more federal government, but better local government.”

—John Dinan

Source: Calvin Coolidge, Memorial Day Address at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, -national-cemetery-arlington-virginia

... Our generation has recently lived through times still so vivid as to seem but as yesterday, which have taught us deeply to appreciate the value of union in purpose and effort. We have come to see as through a crystal that in the national variety of talents and resources, of cultures and capacities, of climates and of soils, of occupations and of interests, lies the guaranty of both our power and our authority. More than that, they have taught us how heavy and important is our responsibility in the world.

Conscious of a strength which removes us from either fear or truculence, satisfied with dominions and resources which free us from lust of territory or empire, we see that our highest interest will be promoted by the prosperity and progress of our neighbors. We recognize that what has been accomplished here has largely been due to the capacity of our people for efficient cooperation. We shall continue prosperous at home and helpful abroad, about as we shall maintain and continually adapt to changing conditions the system under which we have come thus far. I mean our federal system, distributing powers and responsibilities between the states and the national government. For that is the greatest American contribution to the organization of government over great populations and wide areas. It is the essence of practical administration for a nation placed as ours is. It has become so commonplace to us, and a pattern by so many other peoples, that we do not always realize how great an innovation it was when first formulated, or how great the practical problems which its operation involves. Because of my conviction that some of these problems are at this time in need of deeper consideration, I shall take this occasion to try to turn the public mind in that direction....

All these problems constantly come in the work of political and social development. But they stand for a vast progression toward better conditions, a better society, a better economic system. In approaching them, we need to have in mind the Federalist’s analysis of our constitutional system:

The powers delegated to the federal government are few and defined; those to remain in the hands of the state government are numerous and indefinite.1

That statement cannot be too much emphasized. The country’s growth has compelled the federal establishment to exceed by far the government plants of even the greatest states. With this growth in physical extent, in revenue, in personnel, there has inevitably been the suggestion that the federal government was overshadowing the states. Yet the state governments deal with far more various and more intimate concerns of the people than does the national government. All the operations of the minor civil divisions, parishes, wards, school districts, towns, cities, counties, and the like, are dependencies of the state. The maintenance of order through police, the general business of enforcing law, is left to the states. So is education. Property is held and transferred on terms fixed by the states. In short, the structure of social and business relationship is built chiefly about the laws of the states. It depends upon the exercise by the states of that vastly greater share of government power which resides in them, to the exclusion of the federal government.  In ordinary times nearly the entire burden of taxation represents state and local demands. Even now, despite the enormous increase of federal taxes from pre-war years, state and local taxes far exceed the federal requirements. Moreover, the national burden is being continually reduced, while that of the local units is growing and likely to continue to grow.

Such is the real distribution of duties, responsibilities, and expenses. Yet people are given to thinking and speaking of the national government as “the Government.” They demand more from it than it was ever intended to provide; and yet in the same breath they complain that federal authority is stretching itself over areas which do not concern it. On one side, there are demands for more amendments to the Constitution. On the other, there is too much opposition to those that already exist.

Without doubt, the reason for increasing demands on the federal government is that the states have not discharged their full duties. Some have done better and some worse, but as a whole they have not done all they should. So demand has grown up for a greater concentration of powers in the federal government. If we will fairly consider it, we must conclude that the remedy would be worse than the disease. What we need is not more federal government, but better local government. Yet many people who would agree to this have large responsibility for the lapses of local authority.

From every position of consistency with our system, more centralization ought to be avoided. The states would protest, promptly enough, anything savoring of federal usurpation. Their protection will lie in discharging the full obligations that have been imposed on them. Once the evasion of local responsibilities becomes a habit, there is no knowing how far the consequences may reach. Every step in such a progression will be unfortunate alike for states and nation. The country needs, in grappling with the manifold problems of these times, all the courage, intelligence, training, and skill that can be enlisted in both state and national administrations.

One insidious practice which sugar-coats the dose of federal intrusion is the division of expense for public improvements or services between state and national treasuries. The ardent states-rights advocate sees in this practice a vicious weakening of the state system. The extreme federalist is apt to look upon it in cynical fashion as bribing the states into subordination. The average American, believing in our dual sovereignty system, must feel that the policy of national doles to the states is bad and may become disastrous. We may go on yet for a time with the easy assumption that “if the states will not, the nation must.” But that way lies trouble. When the national Treasury contributes half, there is temptation to extravagance by the state. We have seen some examples in connection with the federal contributions to road building. Yet there are constant demands for more federal contributions. Whenever by that plan we take something from one group of states and give it to another group, there is grave danger that we do an economic injustice on one side and a political injury on the other. We impose unfairly on the strength of the strong, and we encourage the weak to indulge their weakness.

When the local government unit evades its responsibility in one direction, it is started in the vicious way of disregard of law and laxity of living. The police force which is administered on the assumption that the violation of some laws may be ignored has started toward demoralization. The community which approves such administration is making dangerous concessions. There is no use disguising the fact that as a nation our attitude toward the prevention and punishment of crime needs more serious attention. I read the other day a survey which showed that in proportion to population we have eight times as many murders as Great Britain, and five times as many as France. Murder rarely goes unpunished in Britain or France; here the reverse is true. The same survey reports many times as many burglaries in parts of America as in all England; and, whereas a very high percent of burglars in England are caught and punished, in parts of our country only a very low percent are finally punished. The comparison cannot fail to be disturbing. The conclusion is inescapable that laxity of administration reacts upon public opinion, causing cynicism and loss of confidence in both law and its enforcement and therefore in its observance. The failure of local government has demoralizing effect in every direction.

These are vital issues, in which the nation greatly needs a revival of interest and concern. It is senseless to boast of our liberty when we find that to so shocking an extent it is merely the liberty to go ill-governed. It is time to take warning that neither the liberties we prize nor the system under which we claim them are safe while such conditions exist.

We shall not correct admitted and grave defects if we hesitate to recognize them. We must be frank with ourselves. We ought to be our own harshest critics. We can afford to be, for in spite of everything we still have a balance of prosperity, of general welfare, of secure freedom, and of righteous purpose, that gives us assurance of leadership among the nations.

What America needs is to hold to its ancient and well-charted course.

Our country was conceived in the theory of local self-government. It has been dedicated by long practice to that wise and beneficent policy. It is the foundation principle of our system of liberty. It makes the largest promise to the freedom and development of the individual. Its preservation is worth all the effort and all the sacrifice that it may cost.

It cannot be denied that the present tendency is not in harmony with this spirit. The individual, instead of working out his own salvation and securing his own freedom by establishing his own economic and moral independence by his own industry and his own self-mastery, tends to throw himself on some vague influence which he denominates society and to hold that in some way responsible for the sufficiency of his support and the morality of his actions. The local political units likewise look to the states, the states look to the nation, and nations are beginning to look to some vague organization, some nebulous concourse of humanity, to pay their bills and tell them what to do. This is not local self-government. It is not American. It is not the method which has made this country what it is. We cannot maintain the western standard of civilization on that theory. If it is supported at all, it will have to be supported on the principle of individual responsibility. If that principle be maintained, the result which I believe America wishes to see produced inevitably will follow.

There is no other foundation on which freedom has ever found a permanent abiding place. We shall have to make our decision whether we wish to maintain our present institutions, or whether we wish to exchange them for something else. If we permit someone to come to support us, we cannot prevent someone coming to govern us. If we are too weak to take charge of our own morality, we shall not be strong enough to take charge of our own liberty. If we cannot govern ourselves, if we cannot observe the law, nothing remains but to have someone else govern us, to have the law enforced against us, and to step down from the honorable abiding place of freedom to the ignominious abode of servitude.

If these principles are sound, two conclusions follow. The individual and the local, state, and national political units ought to be permitted to assume their own responsibilities. Any other course in the end will be subversive both of character and liberty. But it is equally clear that they in their turn must meet their obligations. If there is to be a continuation of individual and local self-government and of state sovereignty, the individual and locality must govern themselves and the state must assert its sovereignty. Otherwise these rights and privileges will be confiscated under the all-compelling pressure of public necessity for a better maintenance of order and morality. The whole world has reached a stage in which, if we do not set ourselves right, we may be perfectly sure that an authority will be asserted by others for the purpose of setting us right....

Our gathering here today is in testimony of supreme obligation to those who have given most to make and preserve the nation. They established it upon the dual system of state government and federal government, each supreme in its own sphere. But they left to the states the main powers and functions of determining the form and course of society. We have demonstrated in the time of war that under the Constitution we possess an indestructible Union. We must not fail to demonstrate in the time of peace that we are likewise determined to possess and maintain indestructible states. This policy can be greatly advanced by individual observance of the law. It can be strongly supplemented by a vigorous enforcement of the law. The war which established Memorial Day had for its main purpose the enforcement of the Constitution. The peace which followed that war rests upon the universal observance of the Constitution. This Union can only be preserved, the states can only be maintained, under a reign of national, local, and moral law, under the Constitution established by Washington, under the peace provided by Lincoln.

  1. 1. Federalist 45 (Document 5).
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