Happy Birthday, Cal and America!

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No people can look forward who do not look backward. The strongest guarantee of the future is the past. Unless that which has been built shall stand with an assured security, the motive for further building is destroyed, and all our structures will go down in ruins. 

We need not only the story but the symbols of past history. We can best preserve our institutions by preserving our confidence in the men who did so much to establish them. It is only when men begin to worship that they begin to grow.  A wholesome regard for the memory of the great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall still be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great…

This is the course of that inspiration which has moved different organizations to gather up the traditions of the past, to mark the location of historic events, to restore and preserve ancient habitations and buildings. It is all intensely American, it is done in the knowledge that where men have worked and wrought righteousness, there is holy ground. 

— Calvin Coolidge, excerpt from a speech called “The Great Virginians,” July 6, 1922

Happy 244th Year of Independence, America, and Happy 148th Birthday, Calvin Coolidge!

On Massachusetts, Slavery, and Freedom

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“Signing the Mayflower Compact” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

How far the people of the Commonwealth has advanced between 1620 and the days of the Revolution is indicated by the difference between the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Rights and the Frame of Government, which is the title of the Constitution adopted in 1780. The Declaration sets out with great precision the fundamental principles of liberty established by law.

Article I declares that all men are born free and equal.

Article II guarantees religious freedom.

Article X asserts the right of protection of life, liberty, and property by the government, and as a corollary the necessity of serving and supporting the government. 

Article XVIII enjoins “a constant adherence to piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality” as necessary to preserve liberty and maintain a free government. 

Article XXIX proclaims “the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial, and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.” 

Article XXX decrees a complete separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial departments, “to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.” 

In between is asserted the sovereignty of the people, the liberty of speech and of the press, the right of trial by jury, and the duty of providing education, together with the other guarantees of freedom. 

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Mural of John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin laboring over the drafting of the Massachusetts constitution adopted in 1780 through the votes of town meetings. Its vision and quality are attested by the fact that it became one of the oldest working constitutions in the world. It would exercise a significant influence on the form of the U. S. Constitution seven years later.

We have come to think of all these principles as natural and self-evident. It is well to remember that we are in the enjoyment of them by reason of age-old effort and the constant sacrifice of treasure and blood finally wrought into standing law. There is no other process by which they can be maintained. 

All of this has been the inevitable outcome of the belief of the Puritans in the rights of the individual. This required education, and the first public school was opened in Boston in 1635. 

In 1647 the general court enjoined each town of fifty householders to have a primary school, and each of one hundred families a grammar-school. 

In 1839 a State Normal School was opened, and Massachusetts was the first to have a State Board of Education. 

The same ideal that educated the mind protected the health and regulated industrial conditions. In 1836 the first Child Labor Law was passed. In 1842 combinations of workmen made for the purpose of improving their conditions were declared lawful. In 1867 factory inspection was begun. The year 1869 saw the first Railroad Commission and the beginnings of a State Board of Arbitration. It was here that there was established the first State Board of Health, the first State Board of Charities, the first State Department of Insurance, the first Minimum Wage Law for women and children, and the first State sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. 

Massachusetts has been the location of a an enormous industrial development. It is claimed that the first agricultural show was held there. Certainly it was the home of the Baldwin apple and the Concord grape. There the first railroad was built.

Four inventions, most important in modern life, are represented by the telephone, which Bell invented there, the telegraph, the sewing-machine, and the cotton-gin of Morse, Howe, and Whitney, three of her native sons, while inoculation was first used there by Boylston, and the first practical demonstration of the discovery of ether was made in one of her hospitals…

Massachusetts has contributed men of great eminence to all the learned professions. Jonathan Edwards preached there, Benjamin Franklin was born there. It has had such scientists as Agassiz and Gray, such preachers as Channing, Parker, Brooks, and Moody.

In literature it carries such names as Emerson, Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, Everett, Phillips, and Julia Ward Howe; in art Sargent, Whistler, Stuart, Bulfinch, Copley, and Hunt; among its lawyers are Story, Cushing, Shaw, Choate, Webster, and Parsons.

Among its statesmen have been the Adamses, Webster, Sumner, Wilson, and Hoar. It has been the abiding-place of strong common sense, illustrated by Samuel Adams, master of the town meeting, and Jonathan Smith, the farmer from Lanesboro, who with Adams swung a hostile convention to the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Another clergyman, from Ipswich, was Manasseh Cutler, who drafted the Ordinance of 1787 which Representative Dane of Beverly presented to Congress, thus dedicating a sufficient area to freedom to insure the ultimate extinction of human slavery.

The Commonwealth has furnished pioneers who have gone everywhere. They are represented by such men as General Rufus Putnam, who planned the settlement of southern Ohio; Marshall Field, the great merchant of Chicago; the five students of Williams College who laid the foundation of American foreign missions at the memorable haystack prayer-meeting; Peter Parker, who established the first hospital in China; while in another field of pioneering were Garrison, the abolitionist; Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross; Mary Lyon, who led the way at Mount Holyoke to higher education of women; Horace Mann, who was foremost in the training of teachers for the public schools.

For more than three hundred years there has gone out an influence from Massachusetts that has touched all shores, influenced all modes of thought, and modified all governments. How broad it has been is disclosed when it is remembered that Garfield and Lincoln came of Massachusetts stock.

From the earliest days the people have exhibited a high capacity both for civil and religious government…What an important influence the churches and clergymen were in this early life is apparent wherever we turn. To Robinson, who remained at home, were joined others equally prominent who led their flocks to these shores. As Hooker, the early clergyman of Cambridge who, passing on with his congregation to Hartford, set the inextinguishable mark of freedom and local independence under the representative system upon government, so Shepard, who succeeded to his pulpit and was one of the committee of six magistrates and six clergymen chosen to establish the college, set the same inextinguishable mark upon education. It was in their town that the first book ever printed in America came from the press. Wherever a town meeting is held, wherever a legislature convenes, wherever a schoolhouse is opened, the moral power of these two men is felt. The Puritan was ever intent upon supporting democracy by learning, and the authority of the State by righteousness…

While there has come to the sons of the Puritans that progress which results from science and great material resources, their supreme choice is still made in favor of a greater power. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, which enjoys a reputation for sound opinions and which makes its decisions more often cited than those of any other court, save the Supreme Court of the United States, recently announced the faith that is dominant still. “Mere intellectual power,” the decision runs, “and scientific achievement without uprightness of character may be more harmful than ignorance. Highly trained intelligence, combined with disregard of fundamental virtues, is a menace.” Above all else, the people still put their faith in character.

They do not suppose that all virtue landed at Plymouth Rock, that all patriotism defended Bunker Hill. From every people and from every faith there have come Puritans. Every town and countryside has bred devoted patriots…In that faith Massachusetts still lives.

— Calvin Coolidge, excerpts of address “Massachusetts and the Nation” delivered before the National Geographic Society meeting at Washington, February 2, 1923

Monument to pilgrims in Plymouth

The National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth, Massachusetts, designed by Boston artist and designer Hammatt Billings, who drew the original illustrations for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, stands in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Here President and Mrs. Coolidge look up at the enormous 81-foot granite structure dedicated almost 40 years before. Since 1989 the back panel has been inscribed with lines from Governor William Bradford’s account, Of Plymouth Plantation: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing and gives being to all things that are; and as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all praise.”

On John Greenleaf Whittier

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John Greenleaf Whittier in his study at Amesbury, engraving from The Illustrated London News, No 2787, September 17, 1892. Photo credit: DEA / ICAS94 / Getty Images.

The vandalism, back in mid-June, of John Greenleaf Whittier’s statue in the California city that bears his name is yet another profoundly ironic and sadly misplaced affront to history’s worthy examples and advocates of genuine justice. The statues of General Grant and Francis Scott Key in San Francisco among others around the country make more than an isolated crusade of ignorance. They are now a destructive pattern of what happens when ignorance runs rampant. Vandalism is fast overtaking those historical figures who were, in life, the most tolerant champions of fair dealing and faithful allies in the fight for that day when shackles would be broken not only on millions enslaved in body but for millions more enslaved in mind, heart, and soul. In an era of many luminaries of all kinds (the nineteenth century), few were as resolute and steadfast when it came to the end of slavery and the advance of justice between all races as the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

While it may be symptomatic of the failures in education, descending as they do too often into poorly informed activism, it is much more a demonstration of taking the cultural wrecking ball to everything and everyone — even the best — with no discernment for good or bad in the wreckage. When we remove the best friends of justice, we can expect only deeper, more insidious injustice to follow. Ditching or defacing those with courage and conviction for commendable reasons in the past will hardly inspire more courage or conviction on behalf of causes which deserve them in our time let alone for future generations. We are left in the terrifying position of having enabled fear not fortitude, moral cowardice not moral courage, and ultimately, more exploitation by those who appropriate even the greatest symbols of good to control others instead of liberate minds and free lives.

Whittier, furthermore, inspired countless readers to defy the “way things are” as the way they should be. He urged others not to be fooled by the moral contortions of what people rationalize and justify as the equivalent of what is right and praiseworthy. He did all this without telegraphing his righteousness but by living with the humility he preached, the tolerance he praised, and the decency he cherished for everyone. Among those he inspired was President Calvin Coolidge, who committed his poetry to memory but also revered his home as the site of a truly great muse, a fountainhead of brave deeds and needed ideals.

You better get a copy of Whittier and read Snowbound before you go there [Whittier’s old home in Amesbury, Massachusetts]. It is fine piece of work and it is the piece that brought Whittier into prominent notice. You will see there the old home in which he was living the time that the theme of Snowbound took place… — Coolidge, press conference, June 23, 1925

So, before we throw out another moral hero and deserving friend with the too often irrational, emotionally-laden charge of “racist,” we would do well to look up the name and join not only Coolidge in the revolutionary task of opening our minds but also Whittier in matching them with our actions.

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Calvin Coolidge, Boston (1920). Photo credit: John H. Garo studio.