Never one to miss an intriguing personality, young Calvin Coolidge once wrote his father in college about a remarkable athlete at Amherst known locally as William “Hamp” Lewis, who would go on to blaze trails not only in college football but also the legal profession. Coolidge would meet that class of ’91 graduate of their alma mater again later in life once Lewis had become a lawyer and Coolidge governor of the state. Though never in the same circle of friends, they were, nonetheless, men of Amherst who shared the training of that legendary professor, Charles Garman.
When James Weldon Johnson would mistakenly conclude after meeting with President Coolidge that the quiet man from Vermont had never seen an African-American in his life, Johnson had widely misjudged his President. Coolidge always knew far more than he divulged anyway. Johnson was too self-absorbed to see what was clear to anyone who bothered to spend any length of time around Cal. Coolidge had been governor of one of the most diverse states in the country and his advocacy for African-Americans was no secret to Lewis, Monroe Trotter, or anyone else paying attention to events in Massachusetts in the nineteen teens.
Lewis would meet with the governor and offer his perspective on the law more than once, a door through which many personalities walked to discover in Cal a leader always open to listening without the usual pandering politics of making promises with no intention of keeping them. Coolidge was different, he had the skill of open ears and closed mouth but quiet record of steady accomplishment. Diligent behind the scenes to accomplish much more without the self-promoting fanfare and posturing that usually accompanied office-holders, Coolidge won friends by doing not pledging or pleading. Lewis learned early that in Coolidge he could express his concerns without the manipulation or pressure that he was being used in exchange for the next election cycle.
This was simply Coolidge’s way with everyone, whoever they were. He sought justice not ethnic preference, equity not redistribution of the rewards of character and competence. Lewis could respect that even where they differed on policy. Policy was a matter of respectful opinion not wrongdoing. They both knew the law too well to confuse that distinction. And so, when we reflect on the pioneers of sportsmanship and law, we should not forget that it was men like “Cal” Coolidge and “Hamp” Lewis who built a solid foundation of respectful collaboration, selfless service, and genuine integrity that made the sport and the country which inspired it, great. We do the principles of both a costly disservice when we forget that patriotism and humble partnership forged them then and sustain them still.
Thanks go to Amherst graduate Alexandra Gunderson (Class of 1979) for inspiring this piece.
Dr. Tacoma has authored another excellent piece reminding us of that unjustly forgotten hero of constitutional leadership, Calvin Coolidge. On this Constitution Day, we can recall not only the men and women of all backgrounds who stood with him for (not merely against) the name at the front of the ticket because his actions remained consistent with his words. We can continue to learn a great deal from not-so-silent Cal.
When Calvin Coolidge spoke of work, and he spoke about it quite often, the dignity all work possessed was never far from his thoughts. He simply did not differentiate between white collar or blue collar or any collar at all. Nor was there a class or caste of the subservient in his eyes. Everything people could dream of doing, however menial or irrelevant it may appear to “the great” — so long as it was morally right and legally allowed, of course — was worthy and ennobling. If imaginations were allowed full ability to reach for the stars (enjoying the fullest possible rewards those ideas could call into being), he considered any kind of work a full-fledged partner in the beautiful kaleidoscope of human potential. There was no job people could do that was beneath them or fitted only to some social or economic underclass. In the effort of simply sweeping the floor, there was a dignity no regal authority could usurp. If we all did well in the small things, we could all be entrusted with greater (and still greater) things. At the same time, there was no fairness or rightness in entrusting those who had proven unfit for the little tasks to be given broad, sweeping power over vast decisions affecting many lives. Life itself required patience and self-government if we were ever to govern any one else. Coolidge had learned that lesson long ago as a boy. He would articulate that truth as a man even while responsible for decisions that could deploy fleets, decimate livelihoods, and redirect the course of entire nations with a single word.
Labor Day to Coolidge was not merely an excuse to relax in idleness, honoring some right to be lazy, but to celebrate the occasion through the exercise of what liberates everyone from the shackles of ignorance, ossification, and privation: Work. It was in creation, innovation, even service, but, also the determination to enact big dreams that we discovered something important about ourselves, perhaps even obvious, but absolutely irreplaceable. As he would say, “cynics do not create” and “savages do not work.” Without work, we can be sure of two outcomes: no achievements will ever defy the nay-sayer and no human being will ever transcend the low station others assign you. Coolidge dares you to prove them wrong. Take him up on it.