On the Campaign Tour, 1920

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Much study has yet to be done where Calvin Coolidge is concerned. Studying his life and outlook is akin to the work of a dedicated archaeologist uncovering some long-forgotten artifact or historic site that reconnects perspective that should not have been forgotten in the first place. Cal is like a dinosaur skeleton being freed from the rock only partially which has yet to be fully examined, holding many surprises when we encounter some new piece that challenges the assumptions we have made about the whole picture. We think we know where each piece belongs only to discover we have more to learn and he astonishes us yet again with another mistaken impression. We go back to the source of things to appreciate the enduring reminder that we too often assemble the “facts” in the wrong sequence, leading to mistaken conclusions.

While it is typical that most of the attention is paid to the Presidential years, 1923-1929, one of the most neglected time periods remains the transition from wartime Governor to Vice President, 1920-1922. The campaign of 1920 (and Coolidge’s part in it) remains one of the most neglected antechambers of this under-examined treasure house. In October of 1920, Governor Coolidge was on the campaign trail for his party. President Wilson remained stricken after an exhausting nationwide tour to secure support for the Versailles Treaty, his Fourteen Points, and the entry of the United States into the League of Nations. It seemed he was entirely losing the issue with the American people. The country needed a leadership that would understand its outlook and enact its will, not govern in spite of it. Coolidge resonated, at least in part, because he represented this sentiment in the eyes of many voters. Some may not like that today but it should not be discounted or the people who thought that way maligned.

 

Coolidge would join Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden (who had been in the running for the Republican nomination for President that summer), Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen, and Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow, accompanied also by New Yorker Job E. Hedges, the humorous and talented man Mark Twain would once describe as “the best extempore speaker he had heard.” Together Coolidge and company covered 12 states in 6 days, including a tour of the South, Cal making 56 speeches along the way. Perfect weather followed the tour and made the journey smooth and turnout successful. He established a strong rapport at every stop, listeners actually remaining quietly attentive and never heckling him once, while they did do so to the unfortunate Governor Morrow. It was a pivotal campaign and an important step, though Coolidge (nor anyone else) could not have seen that it would strengthen his support four years later in 1924, when he became only the second Vice President in American history to win election in his own right. He would win resoundingly in what historically had been unwinnable conditions: a three-way race. In part, he helped forge that victory right here during this tour.

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Coolidge (Photo credit: Boston Globe)

At Richmond, Governor Coolidge addressed a packed auditorium, filled beyond capacity with some 4,000 people, on the evening of October 22, 1920. Among his remarks that night, he said:

“Whenever Massachusetts and Virginia have stood together they have advanced the welfare of America and the world by their example. Your statesmen have been the guiding influence which we have sought to follow. We shall never forget that it was your greatest son, the first American, George Washington, who came to take command of the Colonial troops under the elm still standing in Cambridge, and drove the last foreign invader from the soil of Massachusetts.

“We shall never forget that when the war was done he presided over the convention which drafted the Constitution of the Union, and that it was the prestige of his support that secured its ratification by the States. We shall never forget that what he was to the Nation as a soldier and an Executive John Marshall was as a lawyer and a judge. Washington gave us a Constitution, but Marshall gave us a government. What they gave it is ours to preserve.

The histories of both Massachusetts and Virginia had found “stern rebuttal” to the charge of “provincialism” laid against their citizens, Coolidge would declare. They opposed the League not because they were unsophisticated hicks from the boondocks but out of a principled and informed patriotism, a love for something far greater than themselves and worthy of every admiration. “Your whole history shows that the idea of isolation is repugnant to the genius of America. But your whole history shows that it is the purpose of America to remain forever free and independent. You do not shut yourselves in nor shut the world out; but you are determined that only an American Government shall govern America.”

Coolidge’s thoughts then turned to the stricken President then in seclusion at the White House. “Should anyone be condemned here for upholding the views of Washington and Jefferson, instead of those of President Wilson? Allow me here, in the State that gave him birth and that has added his name as the eighth of her sons to attain the Presidency, to express the sympathy of Massachusetts and the sympathy of the party of which I am a member to President Wilson in his illness, and to express the hope of his speedy and complete recovery.

“Political contests often beget bitterness and partisanship, which too frequently lead to misrepresentation and denunciation. We can abhor courts and abolish kings, but we must not banish courtesy nor forget to be gentlemen. There is too much involved in the contest in which we are now engaged; America means too much to us and to the world to misrepresent the issues or indulge in abusive personalities.

“The welfare of our people in the immediate future and the destiny of our country for countless years depend upon the solution of the problems presented by this election. Let us meet them in the spirit of the Virginia patriots who preferred war and death to injustice and to tyranny. Let us meet them in the spirit of your fathers who, for love of Virginia, poured out their blood on all your battlefields from the Potomac River to the James, from Fredericksburg to Richmond, as a precious oblation to home and native State, aye, as a sacrifice to a ‘more perfect union.’

“Yes, let us meet them in the spirit of that broad and divine patriotism that places the welfare of our country above every other consideration.”

 

 

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