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.
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:
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.
photographs of his mother and her winter grave, this from the
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.
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.
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.
say the historians. So began two years of research into the events
and images of Calvin Coolidge's life and times.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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...
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...
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:
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
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:
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...
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.
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
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.
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
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."
was a more important point. The President went on to observe that:
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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:
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.
two months later, all thirty-one prisoners were free.
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.
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.
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
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...
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.
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
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.
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...
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.
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.