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When a quote is not (exactly) a quote: The Business of America is Business Edition

Portrait of Calvin Coolidge

John Calvin Coolidge Jr. (1872-1933). (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2017) 1918
//www.loc.gov/item/2014707314/

Many people have likely heard a quote attributed to President Calvin Coolidge,  “The business of America is business,” but this is a misquote. The real quote is a little bit different and the context in which it was said is not likely what most would expect.

The actual quote wasn’t necessarily a simple, catchy line. It wasn’t in a Big Business Speech or an answer to a business related question.  It was spoken during an address President Calvin Coolidge gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1925. Given that the speech was before a news trade group, Coolidge was talking about the role of the press in a modern, democratic America and included warnings about the evils of propaganda.  But  more specifically, he was talking the role of the press in free-market America. After speaking for a bit he eventually said:

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.

While the quotes themselves may differ, for many, the sentiment behind both may not differ all that much.

The next day, Washington’s Evening Star ran a short piece on Coolidge’s speech and even included a transcript (the American Presidency Project also has a transcript). If you want to find out more about Calvin Coolidge, the Library has developed a guide with a number of resources.

7 Comments

  1. Michael Wrenn
    July 3, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    Trade is the builder and destroyer of civilizations. Capitalism is the way business is done in a country of, by, and for the people. The concept of fair business practices is the commercial version of the golden rule. It preserves freedom-to-choose. To the extent it is practiced, is the extent of the life of a civilization.

  2. Leonard Friedman, M.D.
    October 18, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Bernard Bailyn describes the Atlantic Civilization as the overview of the meanings of America. Simply John Winthrop was a prototype merchant who plied trade with his sons at today’s Winthrop Bay in Antigua as well as his family in Engalnd. With the English Civil War Massahcusetts men returned to England to fight the King. One Independent Regiment was under the leadership of Sir Thomas Rainsborough. Spoken of as Levelers Rainsborough offered an Agreement of the People in 1647 which was turned down by Oliver Cromwell. The Levelers cried for Peace and Profit and the equality of man with the fulfullment of the first issues.
    Another way to express this is the rise of the Middle Class which was the nature of American Exceptualism. Another more sdophisticaated term is the Commonwealth-man. Now Thomas Jeffeson wrote part of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Constitution. Benjamin Franklin wrote the Commonwealth of Pennsylvanias Constitution and John Adams wrote the Commonwealth Constitution of Massachusetts. No secret here as these members of the Commigttee to write the Declaration of Independence were the original Commonwealth-men. Now Thomas Jefferson admired John Locke and Thomas Paine and wrote a first draft of the Constitution. Now the former newspaper publisher Ben Franklin was the editor of the Declaration. One suspects he used his protege from England Thomas Paine to help edit the Declaration. This second draft was reedited at Independence Hall by the signers as a whole committee. Both Franklin and Adams would consider themselves middle class as well as Jeffersons asperations for America. These three men then became Amberia’s Ambassadors or propagandists to the world of gthe goals of the new merchant and tradesmen middle class to the world.
    GThe nature of equality was further explained in the Northwest Territorial Ordinaces, the first act of the First Fdederal Congress as necessary elements of state constitutions. The Federal Republic protected the boarders of America with liited powers. The democratic state constitutions dealt with social, political and economic interests of equality.
    All the above is subsumed under a misstated quote that the business of America is business. Calvin Coolidge said, “After all the chief business of America is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.” That qote taeke us back gto the founding of the Atlantic Civilization.
    Now since the small businessman and trader found himself burnt out of 4o cotores thios summer, is this not an attempt at thd destruction of the middle class and an arrow at those supporters of the constitutions of the United States.

  3. The Social Capitalist
    February 1, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    Capitalism is the exploitation of labor and resources.Ideally, it is at labor’s choice but doesn’t have to be, i.e. servitude, slavery, fascism etc. It is never the resource’s choice to be polluted, dredged, burned, sucked, drilled, deforested and devalued.

    Choosing to prosper is fine, defining prosperity only in terms of production and consumption is limited. See Mark 8:36. The problem with government promoting business is that it puts the rights of corporations above the rights of man. Ultimately, resources fade and fail. Then so too, does the business.

  4. Doogan
    February 11, 2021 at 10:20 am

    @The Social Capitalist –

    Thankfully America didn’t much heed your philosophy or it would’ve remained a bum nation. American Indians were very much into nature and natural resources, much less into production and productivity. Were they better off, dying at a young age?

    Government shouldn’t “promote” business; it should just get out of its way as much as reasonably possible. That was Coolidge’s view, and mine. In a largely free market, the rights of corporations ARE determined by the rights of man. It is the consuming man who decides which corporations prosper and which don’t. Those who serve the people rake in that profit; those who don’t don’t.

    Romantic ideas about natural resources don’t build civilization. Innovation, economic efficiency, and mass production do.

  5. Doogan
    February 11, 2021 at 10:24 am

    I don’t know why the author of this post is trying to explain away Coolidge’s quote. The president clearly meant that Americans were very much into business and economic activity. And I don’t see what’s wrong with that. It’s obviously not the only thing, but definitely in the top 3 of ‘What America Does.’

  6. J. A.
    February 20, 2021 at 11:50 am

    The bottom line remains the essence of the statement, “The business of America is business”.

  7. John Q Public
    July 14, 2021 at 7:01 pm

    I wish there was no place to comment ever after articles on the internet. Everybody’s an expert, everybody’s got something to say, everybody knows best. You know what they say about opinions; they all stink, they’re like a certain part of the human body!

    READ BOOKS

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