A Polish Tribute to America

Prepared ahead of the United States’ sesquicentennial in July 1926, the people of Poland marked the “sacred” occasion with a unique gift of 111 volumes of signed tributes to America. For the Polish, July 4th deserved celebration for liberty, equality, and justice around the world, not merely in the United States. The Polish people recognized the longstanding friendship that first bonded patriots American and Polish with the contributions of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski, both in their early thirties, through our fight for independence but also the more recent deeds of courage and principle that helped liberate Poland after World War I.

Hearing of America’s cause,  Kosciuszko and Pulaski separately made the treacherous journey from their homelands in 1776 and 1777 (respectively), knowing firsthand the contempt for freedom held by the nations that surrounded them. Even more so, because of their own resolute devotion to the same ideals their counterparts across the Atlantic were fighting to attain, these two men were undergoing the sentence of exile imposed on them for life. They could never again return to their native lands.

Pulaski, offering everything he could give, would write to General Washington, “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”

Kosciuszko devoted his talents as an engineer in designing enduring fortifications, most notably the victory at Saratoga and the design of the defenses at West Point, that marveled the commanding General. Becoming a lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson, Kosciuszko would compose his final will and testament naming Jefferson his executor. Koscuiszko would instruct Jefferson to use his estate for the liberating and educating of slaves to “which may make them good neighbours, good fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, and in their duties as citizens, teaching them to be defenders of their liberty and country, and of the good order of society, and in whatsoever may make them happy and useful.” Koscuiszko invested himself entirely in seeing the ideals of the Declaration come to fruition.

Pulaski transformed America’s cavalry forces into the equal of the best in the world. Encouraged to come to America by Benjamin Franklin, then at Paris, Pulaski would fight alongside Washington at Brandywine, endure Valley Forge, and lead the charge at the Battle of Savannah, where he would receive the wounds that would take his life.

These men embodied the spirit of America and claiming them as our own, we honor them in dozens of location names across this nation. We find these Polish brother-patriots along streets, in towns and villages, on our ships, in our counties and in the millions of Polish immigrants who have come here to help continue the work of liberty and self-government. Yet, the connection between the Polish people and Americans hardly ends there, we returned again to Europe in World War II to help liberate the nation of Pulaski and Kosciuszko.

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Leopold Kotnowski delivering his speech before the Polish government and U. S. minister to Poland, John B. Stetson, Jr. (seated foreground at right), regarding the tribute project in honor of America’s Sesquicentennial. Notice the volumes rest on display before those gathered. July 4, 1926. Courtesy of the Stetson Family Collection, Stetson University, duPont-Ball Library, Photograph Collection.

While a second conflagration was yet future for the people who lived in 1926, our firm friendship would find reaffirmation and renewal with time. The sentiments gathered that summer of ’26 in an incredible 111-volume tribute to America by the Polish speaks something for all times and all places. It recognizes something that America herself is in danger of forgetting permanently, especially by those who have never known the perspective of generations who could only see the true greatness of her ideals from outside it.

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L to R: Leopold Kotnowski, President Coolidge, Professor Iwanowski, and Jan Ciechanowski, October 14, 1926. From the Decatur Herald (IL), October 22, 1926. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.

Presented to President Coolidge on October 14, 1926, after the July celebrations had ended and the historic year was soon to close, a small delegation arrived at the White House at last ready to present the beautiful dedications and decorated offerings of 5.5 million Poles, one-sixth of that nation’s population at the time. From individuals and government institutions, elementary and secondary schools, academies and universities, this record of the sincere and deep love the Polish people have for America is now fully digitized in partnership with the Library of Congress, the Polish Library of Washington, D. C., the American-Polish Chamber of Commerce, Industry in Poland, and the Polish-American Society, completing a project that began in 2005. Receiving them ninety-one years ago, President Coolidge would in turn place these loving gifts in the care of the Library of Congress in November 1926.

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Library of Congress manuscript historian Sahr Conway-Lanz examines one of the 111 volumes presented to President Coolidge and the United States in 1926. Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post.

These ornate and gorgeously assembled books, the first six of which are enormous, make some of the most stirring reminders of what, as Coolidge would say just the year before, “America is and what America has done.” This July 4th, as we enjoy time with family and relish the festivities, take a moment to read the words of some who see our ideals clearer than perhaps even we do ourselves. By doing so, we may find a devotion that honors the sacrifices of patriots from all nations who gave all they had for the principles of the Declaration so that these United States of America would endure.

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Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States, volume 1. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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A secondary school in Warsaw, volume 7. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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An elementary school, Warsaw. Volume 84. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Tlumacz tribute, volume 94. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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From the Guide, volume 111. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Dress Up: What We Lost in the Casual Revolution” by G. Bruce Boyer

The Coolidge Family

While there are elements of the 1920s that baffle and even offend today’s hypersensitive climate, the fashion of that era remains as popular and alluring as ever. People across all spectra find the suits, dresses, hats, and accouterments of those Roaring Twenties (wherever they are seen) sends a vivid and powerful statement. It demonstrates the careful investment in personal improvement that drove much of that decade’s attitudes about appearance.  Of course, every generation has vanity and covetousness but it was with a thought to those with whom we associate and interact that gave dressing up its place of importance in the social sphere. It exhibited a level of respect for others and the humble recognition that individual expression was not the fulfilling or all-encompassing virtue that it so often pretends to be nowadays.

It is again cool to dress up because of the clarity of place and purpose it inseparably provides. It shows you are worthy of being taking seriously enough for me to dress up, to invest quality in you not just the “gift” of my presence.

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President and Mrs. Coolidge welcoming Charles Lindbergh and his mother, upon his historic return to the United States following his solo crossing of the Atlantic, June 12, 1927. Lindbergh, no fan of formal clothes, wore the suit picked out for him by the President during those public appearances.

Calvin Coolidge, born in one of the most remote corners of the country – Plymouth Notch, Vermont – understood this exceedingly well. He understood the care which one shows for one’s appearance corresponds to the care one demonstrates for other people, especially the lowest and weakest among us. In defiance of every social convention, we console ourselves in the illusion that we are freer than our ancestors only to discover that our “freedom of expression” conveys both our contempt for other “free” individuals and also our indifference to that fact.

Some, when they learn that Calvin Coolidge selected what his teenage boys would wear each day, are horrified at so invasive a repression of personal freedom. While it is easy to fault this father for his severity at times, the importance he placed on one’s dress is missed in the shuffle. True, he was President of the United States, a role we still feel warrants formality, at least during “working hours.” Yet, when it came to his appearance, Coolidge made no such separation between the highest office in the land and his lifestyle. He refused to go anywhere (even as a younger man) not dressed at least one notch above the occasion. After the White House years, he even forgot his hat once and had to coordinate with his secretary to retrieve it, too embarrassed to step out of the car minus a complete outfit.

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Wearing his grandfather’s frock as he worked on the family farm was as much an honor he felt due to its original owner as it was an expression that clothes declared role and purpose. It was the natural and suitable attire at work on the farm. When the press misunderstood the gesture and wrongly attributed it to a public pose, he would not wear the garment again but ever after wore what was not suited to chores but had been his chosen outfit all of his life: a daily rotation of formal dress shirts, suits, shoes, and ties. He would even appear with the gift of a headdress in South Dakota and ride in ten gallon hat on horseback without ever shedding the full suit.

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We may laugh at what seems so absurd now about these instances but our cavalier disregard for public obligations and utter callousness for what is socially appropriate is no less ridiculous today.

His boys, John and Calvin Jr., would be expected to demonstrate that same courtesy and regard for others wherever they went, whatever the occasion. They were the children of the President of the United States. To the Coolidges, this had nothing to do with the specific people who occupied the office at any given time. This was not about making the boys’ parents look good. It was about the social debt the whole family owed the Office, the people of the country, and a standard of excellence in life as a whole. They were dressed up not to impress but to serve. It was for others not for themselves or some absolute right of expression that guided their care for appearance.

The Casual Revolution has certainly transformed society but as Mr. Boyer observes at First Things, with liberation does not come fulfillment. We are finding what Coolidge knew (and was obvious to most of his generation) had merit all along. Every time my family and I go in our 20s garb to introduce Coolidge, we see the electric response dressing up still means today.

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Absorbed by the shattering of anything outside the ever-expanding scope of individual rights, the weakest and smallest are being crowded out at every turn. Some insecurely attack anyone who faults one’s appearance as if it were a fascistic intrusion on one’s very being. What this rock of offense exposes is the right of the strong to trample the weak without social consequence, no guilt imputed or redress due. This says, in effect: My comfort is paramount without a thought given or needed to anyone else, anywhere. A culture that has embraced complete moral egalitarianism has arrived at the brutal destination that no one is deserving of any respect or consideration. I owe nothing to anyone, we scream, so why not advertise (by my appearance) my indifference to that fact before all the world? I am more important than both you and this occasion.

When we rediscover that each of us lives not to him or herself alone, however, but has public and private responsibilities to others, we dress not to selfishly fulfill a god of absolute personal expression, who remains blindly unconcerned about the impact of our actions or the message of our appearance. Dressing up repays that honor befitting the occasion and due humanity. We dress to meet the one debt we owe more than any other: to love one another. We dress in recognition of the God who made us all in His image and calls us out of our indifference and indulgence to empty self, as Christ did, for our neighbor.

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“Exploiting the Presidency” by Cal Thomas

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A session from the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon at Yorba Linda, California, 1977. Photo courtesy of http://www.pophistorydig.com.

Cal Thomas, over at Townhall, reflects on how our newest arrival to the “Ex-President’s Club” is already perpetuating the disturbing trend of Richard Nixon (as Joe McGuinness put it in his 1968 book) of “selling the presidency.” Nixon’s $1 million interview with David Frost in 1977 simply built upon what his old boss had initiated in 1958. That was when “Ike” Eisenhower signed the Former Presidents Act, granting the nucleus of benefits that would begin to accumulate around Presidents in retirement. Even so, Nixon never took speaker’s fees beyond that recorded interview. Once he sold the interview to Frost, he did not charge audiences the privilege of hearing him talk in person. He spoke for free.

While “Ike” found the Secret Service detail at his Gettysburg farm unnecessary, and spoke publicly on occasion, the real precedent was set in 1977 by Gerald Ford who took up the plush speaker’s circuit that would continue with Reagan (who gave two speeches in Japan for $2 million) and would become almost a trademark industry under the Bushes and Clintons.

What to do with our former Presidents is not a new question. It has been a concern long before this trend started. However, this precedent – like a growing parasite – demands greater and greater resources simply to sustain more and more privileges from its host. The $200,000 plus pensions, lucrative speaker’s fees, transition staff, stipends, lifetime Secret Service protection for entire families, the increasing extravagance of presidential libraries all point to something far beyond the dignity accorded a statesman. Rather, this exploitation of the Presidential office illustrates a measure of contempt for it and, even more, for the people who will be paying these expenditures long after every one of us is gone. Already yoked to a $20 trillion debt, this helps destroy the Office and the selfless service it was originally intended to embody.

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William Howard Taft

Former President Taft once joked to the literary Lotos Club in New York that there would be less a burden to the country if the post-White House life involved chloroform and the lotos fruit (a reference to Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” applied by Taft to mean Presidents should surrender to perpetual sleep, drifting into dreams from which they “return no more”).

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Former President Harry Truman

Eisenhower’s predecessor, Harry Truman, was clear: “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”

Ironically, he would agree with Calvin Coolidge, who quietly retired to his $32-dollar a month duplex on Massasoit Street in Northampton in 1929. In fact, the Coolidges would be compelled to move simply to get away from the unremitting attentions they now had pressing upon them from the public. When the media reported that their new $40,000 home, The Beeches, had 16 rooms, Grace (knowing there were only 12) wryly retorted, “There are four rooms we can’t find.” When filling out a membership card to the Washington Press Club in 1932, for “Occupation” Cal put “Retired.” Then, in characteristic fashion, under “Comments,” elaborated, “And glad of it.” He refused to take money for public speaking and delivered the few speeches he did give at his own expense. Agreeing reluctantly to work with private news syndicates, he conscientiously composed a daily column for a time, and wrote articles, carefully tallying the word counts and readily returning funds if articles did not “make the cut.” The Coolidges simply would not exploit the Office for their own benefit.

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The Coolidges at the July 4th festivities in Plymouth Notch, Vermont in 1931. Photo courtesy of the Alton H. Blackington Collection (PH 061). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

Coolidge was observing the standard befitting all former Presidents, when he wrote, “It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people…” With relief, he would continue, “Fortunately, they are not supported at public expense after leaving office, so they are not expected to set an example encouraging to a leisure class.” Instead, he would say, “It is becoming for them to engage in some dignified employment where they can be of service as others are.” The Coolidges, with no pension, no Secret Service, no transition staff, no circuit fees, lived as they always had: modestly and simply. It is likely that Cal often remembered his father’s admonition, reiterated since his boyhood, on the humiliation of chickens, trying to roost higher than one’s station, who are eventually corrected by the pecking order.

Perhaps Americans should reassess whether they are supporting a burgeoning series of royal families at unlimited cost or whether we intend to keep a Republic any longer.