On Where “the Buck Stops”

Municipal law had been flagrantly disregarded. Upwards of one hundred thousand people were seriously inconvenienced by the city of Salem ignoring the law that prohibited the running of jitneys, the old term for bus taxis, on the streets. Driving street cars (which ran on rails) from usage, jitney operators were in violation of the law. Both the city and rail trustees were allowing the law to be fudged, bent and manipulated provision by provision as circumstances allowed.

The Governor, duly authorized by prior law to intervene in such circumstances, did so decisively. He instructed the directors of street car companies that the law was not ambiguous at all. Nor would he alter it to fit ever-changing circumstances. The law placed street cars in Salem, and forbade jitneys. To disobey the law, even by city officials, was wrong and needed to stop. The city of Salem would have to to amend city code by legislative council, not executive alteration. The Governor boldly told them so, adding that he would exercise his lawful authority to deploy State police to enforce the law if city officers failed to do their duty.

One man stood up, “If you do that,” he threatened, “the labor people will go into ever town of the State and crucify you politically.” The man went on, becoming even more explicit in what would happen to the Governor if he followed through with his words. Was the Governor cowed by the prospect of losing everything politically? Hennessy recounts what happened next. “The Governor patiently listened for a while, and then broke in, with a drawl that convulsed the listeners and embarrassed the speaker…” (Calvin Coolidge, pp.112-113).

He said, “Don’t let me deter you. Go right ahead.” The threat died in its tracks.

As the meeting dragged on longer and longer, another official complained, “well, about all we have done so far is pass the buck.” 

To that the Governor looked straight at the speaker and declared, “Try it on me. I won’t pass the buck.”

The Governor would not be intimidated by either electoral consequences or attempts to sidestep the law to get instant results. Nor would he concoct a fictional third person to whom he could pin all political liabilities and deficiencies if something went wrong. “I won’t pass the buck,” he announced. Not “we” or “my team” but “I won’t pass the back.” It was he alone who would uphold the law, even if no one else did. The responsibility of governing meant more than the outcome of any election. It was to be executed faithfully in obedience to the law, as that law is the duly enacted will of the people through their representatives.

The Governor had no more right to create new laws than did the city of Salem to rewrite by arbitrary action what the law allowed today, changing it to fit what may happen tomorrow. Our system, to remain free, must have continuity and reliability. If it is constantly transforming at the whim of executive power, it is no longer the law but lawlessness, a mockery of constitutional government. “The law,” as the Governor would say, “changed and changeable on slight provocation, loses its sanctity and authority.”

The Governor, Calvin Coolidge, could not be more right.



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