On Our Time for Choosing

Governor Coolidge at formal ceremonies on Boston Common, 1919. Courtesy of Leslie Jones Photography.

Governor Coolidge at formal ceremonies on Boston Common, 1919. Courtesy of Leslie Jones Photography.

It was on this day in 1919 that Governor Calvin Coolidge stood before voters and framed the central principles at issue in the election the following Tuesday. His ability to both identify and distill down the essential components of public problems was renowned. He possessed a talent for cutting through the peripheral and inconsequential minutiae to isolate the material facts in otherwise complicated political conflicts. As he humbly put it in his Autobiography, no doubt with this particular address on his mind, “The issue was nothing less than whether the law which the people had made through their duly authorized agencies should be supreme. This issue I took to the people in my campaign for reelection as Governor…I felt at the time that the speeches I made and the statements I issued had a clearness of thought and revealed a power I had not before been able to express, which confirmed my belief that, when a duty comes to us, with it a power comes to enable us to perform it…My faith that the people would respond to the truth was justified.”

On the evening of November 1, 1919, before those gathered at Tremont Temple in downtown Boston, the Governor spoke these most timely words, not only to the people of Massachusetts but for the people of all the States. It is important to keep in mind that when Coolidge refers to government, his first thought is not to Washington but foremost to the governance of the States and our authority at its most local, and personal, level. Living under the Wilson-Palmer regime, however, Coolidge understood that the truth of his observations reached even to those residing in the Nation’s Capital lured in by the President’s false notions of progress. He said,

“Revelation has not ceased. The strength of a righteous cause has not grown less. The people of Massachusetts are patriotic before they are partisan, they are not for men but for measures, not for selfishness but for duty, and they will support their Government. Revelation has not ceased and faith in men has not failed. They cannot be intimidated, they cannot be coerced, they cannot be deceived, and their sovereignty is not for sale.

“When this campaign is over it will be a rash man who will again attempt to further his selfish interests by dragging a great party name in the mire and seeking to gain the honor of office by trafficking with disorder. The conduct of public affairs is not a game. Responsible office does not go to the crafty. Governments are not founded upon an association for public plunder but on the cooperation of men wherein each is seeking to do his duty.

“The past five years have been like an earthquake. They have shaken the institutions of men to their very foundations. It has been a time searchings and questionings. It has been a time of great awakenings. There has been an overpowering resolution among men to make things better…We have a deep conviction that ‘resistance to tyranny is obedience to law.’ And on that conviction we have stood for three centuries. Time and experience have but strengthened our belief that it is sound.

“But like all rules of action it only applies to the conditions it describes. All authority is not usurped authority. Any government is not tyranny. These are the counterfeits. There are no counterfeits of the unreal. It is only of the real and true that men seek to pass spurious imitations.

“There are among us a great mass of people who have been reared for generations under a government of tyranny and oppression. It is ingrained in their blood that there is no other form of government. They are disposed and inclined to think our institutions partake of the same nature as these they have left behind. We know they are wrong. They must be shown they are wrong.

“There is a just government. There are righteous laws. We know the formula by which they are produced. The principle is best stated in the immortal Declaration of Independence to be ‘the consent of the governed.’ It is from that source our Government derives its just powers and promulgates its righteous laws. They are the will of the people, the settled conviction derived from orderly deliberation, that take on the sanctity ascribed to the people’s voice. Along with the binding obligation to resist tyranny goes the other admonition, that ‘obedience to law is liberty’ — such law and so derived.

“These principles, which I have but lightly sketched, are the foundation of American institutions, the source of American freedom and the faith of any party entitled to call itself American. It constitutes truly the rule of the people. It justifies and sanctifies the authority of our laws and the obligation to support our Government. It is democracy administered through representation.

“There are only two other choices, anarchy and despotism–Russia, present and past. For the most part human existence has been under the one or the other of these. Both have failed to minister to the highest welfare of the people. Unless American institutions can provide for that welfare the cause of humanity is hopeless. Unless the blessings of prosperity, the rewards of industry, justice and liberty, the satisfaction of duty well done, can come under a rule of the people, they cannot come at all. We may as well abandon hope and, yielding to the demands of selfishness, each take what he can.

“We had hoped these questions were settled. But nothing is settled that evil and selfish men can find advantage for themselves in overthrowing. We must eternally smite the rock of public conscience if the waters of patriotism are to pour forth. We must ever be ready to point out the success of our country as justification of our determination to support it…

“Will men realize their blessing and exhibit the resolution to support and defend the foundation on which they rest? Having saved Europe are we ready to surrender America? Having beaten the foe from without are we to fall victim to the foe from within? All of this is put in question by the issue of this campaign. That one fundamental issue is the support of the Government in its determination to maintain order. On that all of these opportunities depend.

“There can be no material prosperity without order. Stores and banks could not open. Factories could not run, railways could not operate. What was the value of plate glass and goods, the value of real estate in Boston at three o’clock, A.M., September 10? Unless the people vote to sustain order that value is gone entirely. Business is ended. On order depends all intellectual progress. Without it all schools close, libraries are empty, education stops. Disorder was the forerunner of the Dark Ages.

“Without order the moral progress of the people would be lost. With the schools would go the churches. There could be no assemblages for worship, no services even for the departed, piety would be swallowed up in viciousness.

“I have understated the result of disorder. Man has not the imagination, the ability to overstate it. There are those who aim to bring about exactly this result. I propose at all times to resist them with all the power at the command of the Chief Executive of Massachusetts.

“Naturally the question arises, what shall we do to defend our birthright? In the first place everybody must take a more active part in public affairs. It will not do for men to send, they must go. It is not enough to draw a check. Good government cannot be bought, it has to be given. Office has great opportunities for doing wrong, but equal chance for doing right. Unless good citizens hold office bad citizens will. People see the office-holder rather than the Government. Let the worth of the office-holder speak the worth of the government. The voice of the people speaks by the voice of the individual. Duty is not collective, it is personal. Let every inhabitant make known his determination to support law and order. That duty is supreme.

“That the supremacy of the law, the preservation of the Government itself by the maintenance of order, should be the issue of this campaign was entirely due to circumstances beyond my control. That anyone should dare to put in jeopardy the stability of our Government for the purpose of securing office was to me inconceivable. That any one should attempt to substitute the will of any outside organization for the authority conferred by law upon the representatives of the people had never occurred to me. But the issue arose by action of some of the police of Boston and it was my duty to meet it. I shall continue to administer the law of all the people…

“Those who are attempting to wrench the scepter of authority from the representatives of the people, to subvert the jurisdiction of her laws, are the enemies not only of progress, but of all present achievement, not only of what we hope for, but of what we have.

“This is the cause of all the people, especially of the weak and defenseless. Their only refuge is the protection of the law. The people have come to understand this. They are taking the deciding of this election into their own hands regardless of party. If the people win who can lose? They are awake to the words of Daniel Webster, ‘nothing will ruin the country if the people themselves will undertake its safety; and nothing can save it if they leave that safety in any hands but their own.’

“My fellow citizens of Massachusetts, to you I commend this cause. To you who have added the glory of the hills and plains of France to the glory of Concord and Bunker Hill, to you who have led when others faltered, to you again is given the leadership. Grasp it. Secure it. Make it decisive. Make the discharge of the great trust you now hold an example of hope for righteousness everywhere, a new guarantee that the Government of America shall endure.”

Governor Coolidge marches past the State House, Boston, June 14, 1919. Courtesy of Leslie Jones Photography.

Governor Coolidge marches past the State House, Boston, June 14, 1919. Courtesy of Leslie Jones Photography.

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