On the Rock

What follows is a speech delivered by Governor and Vice President-elect Calvin Coolidge at the exercises on the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December 21, 1920. Thanks go to Coolidge scholar Jerry Wallace for sharing the text of this speech.

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Mayflower commemorative stamp, 2020, designed by Greg Breeding from beautiful artwork by Greg Harlin. The Photo credit: UPI.com and the U.S. Postal Service.

Three centuries ago to-day the pilgrims of the Mayflower made final landing at Plymouth Rock. They came not merely from the shores of the old world. it will be in vain to search among recorded maps and history for their origin. They sailed up out of the infinite.

There was among them small trace of the vanities of life. They came undecked with orders of nobility. They were not children of fortune but of tribulation. Persecution, not preference, brought them hither; but it was a persecution in which they found a stern satisfaction. They cared little for titles; still less for the goods of this earth; but for an idea they would die. Measured by the standards of men of their time, they were the humble of the earth. Measured by later accomplishments, they were the mighty. In appearance weak and persecuted they came—rejected, despised—an insignificant band; in reality strong and independent, a mighty host of whom the world was not worthy, destined to free mankind. No captain ever led his forces to such a conquest. Oblivious to rank, yet men trace to them their lineage as to a royal house.

Forces not ruled by man had laid their unwilling course. As they landed, a sentinel of Providence, humbler, nearer to nature than themselves, welcomed them in their own tongue. They came seeking only an abiding-place on earth, “but lifted up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country,” says Governor Bradford, “where God hath prepared for them a city.” On that abiding faith has been reared an empire, magnificent beyond their dreams of Paradise.

Amid the solitude they set up hearthstone and altar; the home and the church. With arms in their hands they wrung from the soil their bread. With arms they gathered in the congregation to worship Almighty God. But they were armed, that in peace they might seek divine guidance in righteousness; not that they might prevail by force, but that they might do right though they perished.

What an increase, material and spiritual, three hundred years has brought that little company is known to all the earth. No like body ever cast so great an influence on human history. Civilization has made of their landing-place a shrine. Unto the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been intrusted the keeping of that shrine. To her has come the precious heritage. It will be kept as it was created, or it will perish, not with an earthly pride but with a heavenly vision.

Plymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end. It marks a revelation of that which is without beginning and without end—a purpose, shining through eternity with a resplendent light, undimmed even by the imperfections of men; and a response, an answering purpose, from those who, oblivious, disdainful of all else, sailed hither seeking only for an avenue for the immortal soul.

— Calvin Coolidge, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

On “Colonel” Stearns

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The Coolidges with Mr. & Mrs. Stearns standing beyond. Despite the watermark and formatting lines for news publication, this snapshot from HistoricImages captures it all.

Today marks the birthday of Frank Waterman Stearns. This name and the selfless gentleman who wore it are virtually forgotten today but he remains very much alive for us here. He demonstrates that behind our best leaders are men and women just like Mr. Stearns, those who give everything but ask nothing, those who advocate and campaign for because the candidates they support are worthy of our every effort. He was there early in Mr. Coolidge’s career having realized that this man was genuinely different from the rest, that he really merited all the backing possible, and that he was not just qualified to be a leading name in state government, Congress, or in the Cabinet, but nothing short of the Presidency itself. Some mocked this short, bespectacled man at the time, the owner of a department store for ladies’ garments and some even deride his efforts today, asserting ignorantly that Cal had, at most, two votes at the Convention in 1920, that Judge from Washington state and some other person, whoever that was. It was Mr. Stearns who paid for and distributed – on his own – a modest, pocket-sized book of Coolidge’s speeches and statements sent to each and every delegate chosen for the nominating convention. It enabled the participants to read something worthwhile and which fit easily inside every jacket or purse during those many delays, breaks, and interruptions in the process. It was that little book that helped pave the way, whatever authors claim to the contrary, for the insurgency by delegates to storm the floor and back Coolidge on the 1920 Republican ticket. It has often been said, history turns on these seemingly insignificant events.

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Frank W. Stearns, taken by photographer Alton H. Blackington, 1926. Photo credit: Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.

Behind every worthwhile and, ultimately, successful campaign is a Mr. Stearns. He never wanted the limelight, never held an important post in government, and certainly never exercised any unseen power “behind the throne” but he achieved his goal because he loved what America represents, knew that Coolidge was fitted for the highest role of leadership, and would serve her well. Through all the frustration, uncertainty, and turmoil of being friends with such an independent, honest, and dutiful President, he was rewarded with honors that no office or title can bestow. Stearns’ example of persistent and selfless citizenship can and should inspires us.

It remained a mystery to many who this Mr. Stearns was and what his “real” angle might be. It defied every cynical assumption that he truly had none. The press, whom he befriended, could not quite figure it out either. Was he an inner, unofficial adviser to the President like Colonel House had been to President Wilson? Was he exerting some invisible force on decisions and policy? Or was he truly just tagging along like everyone else, as much at the mercy of discovering what President Coolidge would decide and do next as the rest of Washington and the country. The latter was much closer the truth. Though no poker player, Cal always did play his cards close to his chest and actually did outplay others in the virtual game continually unfolding in D. C.

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The status of Mr. Stearns, often a regular guest at the White House, puzzled many who were used to pinpointing exactly who held this or that sway on any given elected official. They would never quite figure it out and Coolidge, as much as Stearns, remained an enigma they simply could not crack. Cal and Stearns knew it and shared the inside joke on this day in 1928, when Mr. Stearns marked his seventy-second birthday. He received from the President the perfect gift: the recently published set of The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. Just inside, it contained this characteristically laconic inscription in Coolidge’s own hand:

“To Frank W. Stearns, with Best Wishes for His Birthday”

As usual, Coolidge had the last laugh. Happy Birthday, Mr. Stearns!

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The Coolidges and the Stearns, Grove Park Inn, Asheville, North Carolina

 

Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1928

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The Coolidges spend their final Thanksgiving in office with the people of Charlottesville, Virginia, 1928.

     The season again approaches when it has been the custom for generations to set apart a day of thanksgiving for the blessings which the giver of all good and perfect gifts has bestowed upon us during the year. It is most becoming that we should do this, for the goodness and mercy of God which have followed us through the year deserve our grateful recognition and acknowledgment.

     Through His Divine favor peace and tranquillity have reigned throughout the land; He has protected our country as a whole against pestilence and disaster and has directed us in the ways of National prosperity. Our fields have been abundantly productive; our industries have flourished; our commerce has increased; wages have been lucrative, and comfort and contentment have followed the undisturbed pursuit of honest toil.

     As we have prospered in material things, so have we also grown and expanded in things spiritual. Through divine inspiration we have enlarged our charities and our missions; we have been imbued with high ideals which have operated for the benefit of the world and the promotion of the brotherhood of man through peace and good will.

     Wherefore, I, Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, do hereby set apart Thursday, the twenty-ninth day of November next as a day of general thanksgiving and prayer, and I recommend that on that day the people shall cease from their daily work, and in their homes and in their accustomed places of worship, devoutly give thanks to the Almighty for the many and great blessings they have received, and seek His guidance that they may deserve a continuance of His favor.

     In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

      Done at the City of Washington, this 23d day of October, in the year of our Lord One thousand Nine Hundred and Twenty-eight, and of the Independence of the United States, the One Hundred and Fifty-third.

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