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image of President Coolidge from the chest up
John Calvin Coolidge Jr. (1872-1933). Bain News Service, 1918

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

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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.

Comments (10)

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

  7. 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!


  8. Coolidge was not coining an ideology. He was describing a phenomenon. People tend toward bettering their lives by building wealth, and wealth is built through commerce.
    The Indians didn’t need to build wealth. They were hunter/gatherer or sustenance-agricultural civilizations, and there were few enough of them in a large and rich enough country. Wealth was all around them. When Europeans came in their millions, used to building wealth in large, dense, competitive populations to better their lives, the game changed to ptoduction and commerce.
    It’s a question of expediency, not morality. Makes no sense to frame it in moral terms. It’s reality.

  9. Thank you for clarifying this statement which never really rsounded much like Silent Cal. The actual statement makes much more sense from a man who was governor of a state founded for business interests to flourish.

  10. The formal nation of the United States was founded in the spirits of narcissistic rebellion and mammonism. These days we are reaping the inevitable fruits of that fact, and it may well be the proximal cause of the end of our “great experiment”.

    As with many things, it began with true grievances and (sometimes) good intentions. But we must remember that we are all animals and animal instincts will undergird all we do. We are more than just animals, we are animals with exceptional intellect and the manual means to further our desires. So expediency may be rather common, but it is not our prison, nor is it our personal destination.

    ALL people, of all times, and with ALL variations of strengths, weakness, and circumstances, are imbued at our very deepest identity, with a Calling to something far higher than ourselves, even more than our collective selves. And “clear” awareness and positive responses to that Call requires Outside Intervention. Capitalism is just another man-made contrivance, and not nearly as great as is made out in this nation (although I choose to remain, in part because of benefits capitalism has produced). This, too, shall pass. Those who have ears ought to hear.

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