On Where Duty Rests

Governor (and soon-to-become Vice President) Coolidge (second from left) with state elected officials and entrepreneurial leaders present at the Southern Tariff congress, January 27. 1921.

“To the gracious invitation of this Conference to join them in this hospitable city and this proud and prosperous state, I respond not as an alien or a stranger but as a fellow citizen and a friend…The just pride of the North and the South, the East and the West is everywhere submerged in the overmastering sentiment of a yet greater pride that we are all Americans.

“We have recently held an election…Those who, as a result of that election, are to be charged with the responsibility of administering national affairs…ought to come into office hostile to no section, subservient to no section, but influenced solely by the requirements of national welfare, without reprisals, and without rewards, seek at all times and for all places the public advantage…

“…It must be as Americans that we face the problems of our Nation and seek their fair and just solution. We have not been given a mandate of omnipotence. We have not been entrusted with world sponsorship. But we have an inheritance of obligation, of responsibility, of duty to the United States.

“This conception of our paramount responsibility is in no sense a denial of international relationships, for international relationship implies primarily a recognition of national entity and national duty. We recognize the broad, universal claims of our common humanity. We subscribe to the creed of world brotherhood, but we recognize that we can serve the world best by serving America first. We cannot go to the rescue of a starving and stricken world if we sink the ship that bears the cargo of relief and friendship. We cannot raise a bankrupt world to solvency if we permit America to become bankrupt…

“Our great danger is that we may be led into more inflation and the seeking of relief in unsound remedies. We must all work out our own destiny. The government can and must help, but it is necessary for the people to remember that in America they are the government. Little is gained by shifting burdens from those who have been unwise and improvident to those who are innocent of such a course. We shall have to take some losses and begin anew on a sound basis. And the sooner we can arrive at a sound and stable basis, the better. But on that basis we shall all work for America first. We ought all to realize that the welfare of every one of us is bound up in the welfare of the tillers of the soil, and that the place to begin national prosperity is on the farm. That course must be followed which will reestablish agricultural prosperity…

“…The real concern of the nation is not merely in the erecting of great factories. It is in the building of manhood and womanhood. The interest of the government in industrial policies is primarily in national revenue, national defence and the welfare of the people. The greatest revenue comes from the greatest production, not the greatest imports. National defence depends upon the skill of our people and the diversity of our industries. The welfare of the people depends upon opportunities for employment and our ability to pay good wages.

“These are the objects toward which the Nation should direct its industrial policy.”

— Calvin Coolidge, soon-to-be Vice President of the United States, before the Southern Tariff Conference, in Atlanta, January 27, 1921

Addressing an African-American audience about 1,000-strong in Atlanta’s First Congregational Church, future Vice President Coolidge found a colder reception two nights later, who volubly dissented as he sought to explain that Massachusetts had not done more than the neighbors of Atlanta’s residents:

“I come from the commonwealth of Massachusetts where there are many interested in your welfare, who have contributed money, without end to the upbuilding of those institutions that you are interested in, in order that you might profit by the very best that they have…But as great as all that maybe, all that the commonwealth of Massachusetts and your friends there have done for you, does not compare with that which the people around you have done for you…And if you want to make good for the work that has been done by the men and women of Massachusetts, then continue in your well doing; continue to cooperate with the people around you here; continue in your industry, in your work day by day…

“I want, as an American, to see you increase in your character; to see you progress in your material welfare; to see you continue to exemplify, as you have done the very best there is in the character of men and women, and, in the devotion always–whatever your temptations may be–that which you have exemplified from time to time to America, to its flag, to its institutions and to its preservation – forever.”

Accepting an interview with the Associated Negro Press in May of that year, Vice President Coolidge continued to squarely face the heat of criticism for that speech:

“Without hesitation, the Vice President declared that his viewpoint had not been changed, and that he is just as anxious now, as ever, to be fair to all, and to see that all get a square deal. He regretted the protests of the Atlanta speech, but he did not offer an apology for it…It seems to be the desire of Vice-President Coolidge to have justice administered by example rather than by precept. He seems to be of the opinion that one upstanding act of justice will do farther towards helping the cause of racial adjustment than many discourses…”

It seems very clear that Governor Coolidge, soon-to-be Vice President of the United States, had a lot to learn about Southern motivations and outlooks on both sides of the racial conflict. But, this did not make him hypocritical or unworthy of our regard for his sincere desire for justice or the courage it took to express his respect for what Americans everywhere were doing to expand opportunity. For all the human foibles and shortcomings, the opportunities under America’s system of government still excelled the norm of historical experience. Opportunities for all irrespective of color would not grow by burning down the framework that still makes it possible. It would do much more harm than simply torching the one section – the South, it would close the doors to escaping to other parts of the country, especially points North, as many had already begun to do. He will make the point more than once that Americans are still in the same boat together and they will not reach any safe shore if they sink the soundest ship carrying them there. He would learn a great deal in the months and years ahead but, through it all, he believed that humans rose to better things not by stewing in bitterness and disappointment but by reflecting on the inspirations of the good wherever it can be sought. The latter provided far richer motivation for improvement than any other method.

Coolidge had then and has now his detractors and critics but there are two things no one can fault Coolidge for: a lack of courage or a politician’s habit of rhetorical pandering. Cal understood a plethora of words would never and could not substitute for one single act of principle, integrity, or justice due the human being right next to you.

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