A Democrat Views Coolidge

John Karol

If anyone had suggested, three years ago, that I would be addressing the 29th Annual Meeting of The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, I would have replied: "Unlikely." To family and friends I might have been less charitable. At the time, my knowledge of Coolidge was limited to the popular clichés and anecdotes which you have heard all too often. I was perfectly willing to accept the polls of noted historians concluding that Calvin Coolidge was one of our least effective presidents.

But an opportunity to produce the first biographical film on an American President doesn't often arise. Could a project of that significance transcend political preference? After all, the business of a filmmaker is filmmaking. If nothing else, a Coolidge documentary would require some interesting reading and archival film research. I had a lot to learn -- about Coolidge, about historians, about archives and about film preservation.

I started off on an easy tack by reading Calvin Coolidge's Autobiography -- two hundred and fifty pages, large print. It generally is dismissed by historians as "unrevealing." The moment I read it I knew I was on to something. It was as if Coolidge had written the script for expository sections of the film. For example, how could I improve on Coolidge's description of his father? Over black and white photographs of the old Vermonter, the narrator need only quote from the son's Autobiography:

My father, John Calvin Coolidge, ran the country store. He was successful... He trusted nearly everybody, but lost a surprisingly small amount... In addition to his business ability my father was very skillful with his hands... He had a complete set of tools, ample to do all kinds of building and carpenter work. He knew how to lay bricks and was an excellent stone mason... The lines he laid out were true and straight, and the curves regular. The work he did endured.

And over photographs of his mother and her winter grave, this from the son's Autobiography:

It seems impossible that any man could adequately describe his mother. I can not describe mine... There was a touch of mysticism and poetry in her nature which made her love to gaze at the purple sunsets and watch the evening stars.

Whatever was grand and beautiful in form and color attracted her. It seemed as though the rich green tints of the foliage and the blossoms of the flowers came for her in the springtime, and in the autumn it was for her that the mountain sides were struck with crimson and with gold.

When she knew that her end was near she called us children to her bedside, where we knelt down to receive her final parting blessing. In an hour she was gone. It was her thirty-ninth birthday. I was twelve years old. We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me. Life was never to seem the same again.

"Unrevealing" say the historians. So began two years of research into the events and images of Calvin Coolidge's life and times.

Among other things, it has been a political education. For example, the events surrounding the 1919 Boston Police Strike, during Coolidge's first term as Massachusetts Governor, taught me to distinguish between a "do nothing" executive and an executive who knows when it's best to do nothing.

Consider the context. The end of World War I brought economic turmoil and civil unrest to America. Two million American servicemen returned from Europe to a shortage of jobs and housing. Two million more were demobilized at home. War industries employing a quarter of the labor force were shutting down. These difficulties were compounded by what was called "the high cost of living" -- an extraordinary inflation which doubled prices while earnings rose just six percent. Wartime industry and government regulations were replaced by unemployment, inflation, race riots and strikes. During the first post-war year alone there were thirty-six hundred walk-outs involving four million workers.

The year 1919 saw the birth of both the American Communist Party (advocating the downfall of capitalism) and the American Legion (advocating one hundred percent Americanism). The lines were being drawn. In February, three months after the Armistice, something new and alarming happened in America -- the shutdown of an entire city by a general strike in Seattle. Thirty-five thousand ship workers were joined by the Seattle Labor Council in a sympathy strike totaling sixty thousand. Mayor Ole Hansen, a former Progressive, declared the strike nothing less than the flame of Soviet revolution in America. He brought in the state militia. Although there was no violence and there were no arrests during the six day Seattle strike, Hansen was hailed as America's answer to the Communist menace. He later resigned, wrote a book, and toured the country with his account of victory over Bolshevism.

Public attention quickly focused on domestic radicals -- and they gave Americans plenty to look at. Thirty-four postal bombs were discovered just before their scheduled May Day delivery to prominent citizens including J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and President Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer, with an eye to the 1920 Democratic nomination, maintained that the blaze of revolution was sweeping over America, "eating its way into the homes of the American workman, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat...licking at the alters of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school hall, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society."

Governor Coolidge's handling of the Boston Police Strike in September 1919 is often viewed at best simply as an exercise in firmness and resolve. Viewed in larger context, it is as much an example of executive restraint, consistent with Coolidge's entire political philosophy.

Everyone, including Coolidge, recognized the merits of demands by Boston police for better pay and working conditions. But these were not the issues with which the Governor had to deal. The trouble arose over a proposal of the policemen, who had long been permitted to maintain a local organization, to form a union and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. That was contrary to rules of the Department which had the effect of law. Coolidge thought it wrong to arbitrate authority of law or obedience to rules. In supporting Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis on this, Coolidge fully expected defeat in his campaign for reelection as Governor in November.

A different kind of politician might simply have invoked red scare rhetoric and violent over-reaction. Instead, Coolidge chose no such talk and minimal confrontation. Although he later felt that he should have called out the State Guard as soon as the police left their posts -- as requested by Mayor Andrew Peters -- Coolidge accepted the Commissioner's view that it would not be needed. After the first night of looting and disorder, Mayor Peters called out the Guard units stationed in Boston, over which he had control. He then asked Coolidge to furnish more troops which the Governor did by calling substantially the entire State Guard to report at once.

With the State Guard in place and order restored, Commissioner Curtis held that the striking policemen had abandoned their sworn duty. Accordingly, he declared their places vacant. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, telegraphed Coolidge that the rights of the striking policemen had been denied. He asked for their reinstatement. Coolidge quickly replied with a lengthy but carefully worded telegram. In it he stated, "Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded... There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." In remaining true to his principles, Coolidge thought he had committed political suicide. Massachusetts and the nation thought otherwise.

Others may disagree, but I can't imagine Coolidge rising to the political bait of issues like flag burning, the Pledge of Allegiance, or school prayer. In my opinion, he would have viewed these issues as having nothing to do with the business of government. He would have "bravely done nothing" -- the advice President Reagan's former Solicitor General gave Congress on proposed flag burning legislation. As anyone reading Coolidge's speeches knows, he was a God-loving patriot. But nowhere in his countless public addresses do I find a hint of political opportunism. If I had to fashion a "sound bite" to characterize his politics, I would call Coolidge a political minimalist who wanted the least possible interference by government in the affairs of citizens. He chose to guide rather than legislate.

Typical was a speech President Coolidge gave on "Toleration and Liberalism" before the Annual Convention of the American Legion in Omaha on October 6, 1925. "Progress depends very largely on the encouragement of variety," the President said:

Whatever tends to standardize the community, to establish fixed and rigid modes of thought, tends to fossilize society. If we all believed the same thing and thought the same thoughts and applied the same valuations to all the occurrences about us, we should reach a state of equilibrium closely akin to an intellectual and spiritual paralysis. It is the ferment of ideas, the clash of disagreeing judgments, the privilege of the individual to develop his own thoughts and shape his own character, that makes progress possible. It is not possible to learn much from those who uniformly agree with us. But many useful things are learned from those who disagree with us; and even when we can gain nothing our differences are likely to do us no harm.

The address was remarkable in view of the event which preceded it and the audience before whom it was given. Just two months earlier, while the President was vacationing in Swampscott, Massachusetts, the Ku Klux Klan had held its largest display of national power. More that 40,000 Klansmen paraded down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, rallying at the Washington Monument before 200,000 spectators. Coolidge's address before the American Legion was his first major appearance following that event. Although the President did not mention the Klan by name, it must have been on the mind of everyone present. Referring to the Legion's popular motto, Coolidge continued:

I recognize the full and complete necessity of 100 percent Americanism, but 100 percent Americanism may be made up of many elements... We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character... Whether one traces his Americanisms back three centuries to the Mayflower, or three years to the steerage...we are now all in the same boat... Let us cast off our hatreds.

The rhetoric of White House wordsmiths? Hardly. As one witness here today can attest, Coolidge wrote his own speeches. A master at delegating duties, he was not one to delegate beliefs.

I'm not the first to marvel at Coolidge's many speeches. They were the equal opposite of his inability to make small talk. Upon arrival in Washington as Harding's Vice President, Coolidge undertook his duties as the administration's official "diner-out." Coolidge took it in stride. "Got to eat somewhere," he explained. But Washington hostesses were stymied. As journalist Edward Lowry observed in the fall of 1921:

The elections of 1920 imported into the City of Conversation, as one of its necessary consequences, perhaps the oddest and most singular apparition this vocal and articulate settlement has ever known: a politician who does not, who will not, who seemingly cannot talk. A well of silence. A center of stillness...

He has been described and observed as intently as was possible under the circumstances in the crush preceding the largest and gayest of dinner parties, standing quite still and saying not a blessed word, though all about him were babble and laughter and conversation. He didn't seem ill at ease or embarrassed or tongue-tied. He was just still... He gave no appearance of being about to say something presently. It was an absolute calm...

He is a type entirely new to Washington.

In such soil the myth of "Silent Cal" blossomed in countless tales, true and apocryphal. But even in that early year Lowry went on to observe:

What may be termed Mr. Coolidge's "short game" with our common tongue is worthy of all the admiring comments that can be bestowed upon it. But his lightness and delicacy of touch in sinking his short putts when he has got the English language on the green approaches the marvelous.

By 1928, columnist Heywood Broun was convinced that Coolidge was "one hundred percent wooden." He went on to say that Coolidge was "the least gifted author the White House has known in many generations." Journalist Charles Willis Thompson disagreed, writing that Coolidge was, "in fact, one of the very few Presidents who can be thought of as literary men." For Thompson the difference between Coolidge and a stylist such as Woodrow Wilson was that Coolidge "used his style only as a tool and not as an ornament; he only used it when there would be some advantage in using it." Thompson went on:

The Attic style is not popular now and has no masters except Coolidge... His weapon is the short sentence...the distillation of a long process of thought. What another man might need a page to express can be set forth by Coolidge in a sentence of a dozen words and set forth completely, so that it does not need another syllable...

As for the prevalent belief among the Intellectuals that Coolidge does not read, the evidences of his wide and thorough reading are abundant. He does not talk about it -- he only uses it. What misleads the Intellectuals is that he does not quote, if he can possibly avoid it.

With that, let me simply press upon you the three principal volumes of Coolidge addresses: Have Faith in Massachusetts, a collection of early speeches; The Price of Freedom, a collection of Vice Presidential speeches; and Foundations of the Republic containing many of his Presidential addresses. In contrast, the informal, spontaneous Coolidge awaits your discovery in the transcripts of his twice weekly press conferences, edited by Howard Quint and Robert Ferrell in their appropriately titled book, The Talkative President.

As to historians, the ones I could trust usually were the ones I had never heard of. After reading their books I knew nothing more about them than I had gleaned from the dust jacket. They were invisible in their text. Other more celebrated historians had annoying habits of appearing amid their pages. It was as if they set their historical cameras on tripods, then ran around in front and waved. Their political preferences were obvious and annoying -- whether or not I shared their views.

Litmus tests seem to be in vogue these days. Here's one you can apply. Any historian or commentator who quotes Coolidge as saying "the business of America is business," either is ill informed or has a hidden agenda. That misquote comes from an address President Coolidge gave before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925. Speaking on "The Press Under a Free Government," Coolidge noted that American newspapers serve a double purpose. They bring knowledge and information to the electorate and, at the same time, play an important role in the business community through their news and advertising departments. Is there cause for alarm in this dual relationship?

After analysis of possible conflicts and compromises, Coolidge concluded that we probably are better served by a press which has a working acquaintance with commerce. "After all," he said, "the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world."

But there was a more important point. The President went on to observe that:

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... I could not truly criticize the vast importance of the counting room, but my ultimate faith I would place in the idealism of the editorial room of the American newspaper.

Historians who misquote the lesser point, usually are trying to prove Coolidge a Babbitt. In doing so we learn more about the historian than we do about Coolidge.

Once behind political facades, I found it fascinating to discover accomplishments of both the Harding and Coolidge Administrations that most Democrats would give their eye teeth to claim their own. For example, one aspect of Warren Harding's boring and immensely popular return to "normalcy" was his belief that "too much has been said about Bolshevism in America." Harding had never been swept off his feet by the post-war Red Scare. During the 1920 campaign he referred to wartime political prisoners on several occasions, indicating his willingness to review their cases.

High on the list was sixty-five year old Eugene Victor Debs, five times Socialist candidate for President of the United States. Debs was serving a ten-year sentence in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. In 1918, while addressing the Ohio State Socialist Convention, Debs had advocated freedom of speech for those like himself who opposed our entry into the First World War. He was promptly indicted and convicted under the Wilson Administration's new Sedition Act. Recommendations for pardon were dismissed by President Wilson with a single word: "Denied." In private Wilson was heard to say: "This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."

Two weeks before his inauguration, Harding told his Attorney General designate that he wished to free Debs and asked him to investigate the matter. Soon the new Attorney General advised President Harding that with some political risk Debs might be freed. A flurry of opposition to Debs' quick release arose from the American Legion and fearful Republican leaders. The New York Times in its editorial wisdom said curtly: "He is where he belongs. He should stay there." Over opposing voices of several cabinet members and Mrs. Harding, the President had a commutation of sentence drafted for Debs and twenty-three other political prisoners. The draft set Debs's release for December 31, 1921. Harding changed it to December 24, saying, "I want him to eat Christmas dinner with his wife."

Debs would have preferred to go directly home to Terre Haute, Indiana, but Harding asked him to stop by the White House. When the two met in the President's office, Harding bounded out of his chair and exclaimed: "Well, I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally." Scores of reporters awaited a statement from the gaunt Socialist leader when he emerged. Said Debs: "Mr. Harding appears to me to be a kind gentleman... We understand each other perfectly." Although the New York Times warned that "the majority of the American people will not approve of this commutation," the nation watched more in relief than anger as Debs and other political prisoners returned home. Buried in archives on deteriorating nitrate film, I have found newsreel footage of Debs's release in Atlanta, his visit to the White House, and his return to Terre Haute.

Upon Harding's death in August 1923, thirty-one other political prisoners were still in jail for violations of Wilson's Sedition Act. Although congressional advocates had not yet pressed the matter, President Coolidge started the machinery for their release. During a November press conference Coolidge reported:

An inquiry...about extending clemency to the remaining political prisoners. I don't exactly like the term political prisoners, because I hope we do not have any such thing in this country, but I use that term because you know what it means, I know what it means, and the public knows. I am having an investigation made, and when I get the results of the investigation I am going to act upon it. I think I may be able to get a report on it within a short time.

Less than two months later, all thirty-one prisoners were free.

More far-reaching was the outcome of the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference called by President Harding and his Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes in 1921. The resulting treaties halted the post-war arms race between Great Britain, Japan, and the United States. During the decade which followed, billions of taxpayers' dollars which would have been spent on armament went toward ends other than war. Granted, Harding and Coolidge did not establish eternal peace, but at least they maintained and fostered peace in their time. Coolidge's misadventures in Nicaragua began when he withdrew our Marine legation guard in 1925. The Marines had been stationed in Nicaragua since 1912, through the Taft, Wilson and Harding Administrations. Civil war broke out the moment they left. Reading of the ensuing events is to relive the present. The outstanding difference was Coolidge's dispatch of Henry Stimson to Nicaragua in a genuine effort to mediate the civil war.

It is on economic matters that Coolidge is most remembered. World War I and its aftermath saw the national debt rise from $1.3 billion in March 1917 to $26.6 billion in August 1919. Presidents Harding and Coolidge sought to reduce it. Both ran surpluses in all their annual budgets. By the time Coolidge left office, the national debt had been cut by one-third. I'm not sure that could ever be done again. But Harding and Coolidge did it.

Coolidge advocated "rigid economy in government" and dramatic reductions in taxes. Historians continually state that the tax cuts of the 1920's reversed the progressive policies of Woodrow Wilson. Far from it. Exemptions increased so much that by 1927 almost 98 percent of the American people paid no income tax whatsoever. By the time Coolidge left office in March 1929, wealthy people earning over $25,000 a year -- a handsome salary then -- paid 93 percent of the tax load. During Wilson's last year in office they had paid only 59 percent.

It is easy now to fault Coolidge for his unwillingness to seek control of expanding credit or regulation of the securities industry prior to the stock market crash of October 1929. But even if he had chosen to translate his private qualms into public action, it is doubtful that he would have been able to gather necessary support from Congress or the American people for enactment of regulations and reforms adequate to stem the speculative tide. And, in the unlikely event that Coolidge had secured congressional enactment of the necessary machinery, it is even less likely that the Supreme Court would have upheld its constitutionality in the legal context of the pre-depression period. Franklin Roosevelt had a hard enough time of it five years later in the midst of the depression.

The prosperity of the 1920's was genuine. It was shared by a large majority of Americans. The nation's economy employed virtually all its available resources. Nevertheless Coolidge cautioned the nation at the conclusion of his last State of the Union message, shortly before leaving office:

The country is in the midst of an era of prosperity more extensive and of peace more permanent than it has ever before experienced. But, having reached this position, we should not fail to comprehend that it can easily be lost...

The end of government is to keep open the opportunity for a more abundant life. Peace and prosperity are not finalities; they are only methods. It is easy under their influence for a nation to become selfish and degenerate. This test has come to the United States. Our country has been provided with the resources with which it can enlarge its intellectual, moral, and spiritual life. The issue is in the hands of the people.

As a Democrat, how would I fault Coolidge? Somewhat sadly, for his unswerving idealism. Central to Coolidge's political philosophy since college was an underlying faith in the goodness of man and the belief that once abuses or inequities were revealed to an enlightened citizenship, its natural inclination to do right would bring correction through personal and local reform.

Nowhere can this be more easily seen than in Coolidge's 1922 address to the American Bar Association. The Vice President spoke on the limitations of the law in seeking "some short cut to perfection." Coolidge observed:

It is conceived that there can be a horizontal elevation of the standards of the nation, immediate and perceptible, by the simple device of new laws. This has never been the case in human experience. Progress is slow and the result of a long and arduous process of self-discipline... Real reform does not begin with a law, it ends with a law. The attempt to dragoon the body when the need is to convince the soul will end only in revolt.

Under the attempt to perform the impossible there sets in a general disintegration. When legislation fails, those who look upon it as a sovereign remedy simply cry out for more legislation. A sound and wise statesmanship which recognizes and attempts to abide by its limitations will undoubtedly find itself displaced by that type of public official who promises much, talks much, legislates much, expends much, but accomplishes little. The deliberate, sound judgment of the country is likely to find it has been superseded by a popular whim...

It is time to supplement the appeal to law, which is limited, with an appeal to the spirit of the people, which is unlimited.

In my heart, I believe it entirely. But in my head I know that if reform had not begun with a law, Blacks would still ride in the back of buses, people in wheelchairs would not go to libraries, and toxic waste would mount unchecked. These realities do not diminish my respect for the beauty and clarity of Coolidge's ideals. They simply affect the way I vote. Throughout his political life Calvin Coolidge was essentially a moral force. As such, the place we give him in history reflects as much on us as it does on him.

[This address was presented by John Karol at the Annual Meeting of The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, August 6, 1988 -- prior to initial fundraising and subsequent production of "Things of the Spirit." Minor revisions were made in 1998.] Copyright © 1998, 1988 by John Karol.

 

 

John Karol, Producer
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