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.

Library of Congress Completes Digitization of Coolidge Papers!

The culmination of more than twenty years of effort, the marvelous staff at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress have completed the digitization of 3.3 million pages of documents, speeches, messages, correspondence, appointment books, and other materials from 23 Presidential collections, including 179,000 documents from the papers of President Coolidge. This represents the largest collection of original Coolidge documents in the world. Coolidge’s public papers, now available on the web for the first time, along with those of 22 other Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, W. H. Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Pierce, Lincoln, A. Johnson, Grant, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, B. Harrison, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson), can be accessed here.

Cal, who was the last to precede the Presidential Library system (under the auspices of the National Archives) and thus does not have a Presidential Library, left his personal papers in one of the most unprecedented of places: the innocuous Forbes Library in quiet Northampton, his adopted hometown.

It is welcome news to see that Coolidge’s papers can now be studied by researchers and citizens alike from the convenience of a small computer. While he may question all the attention that this means toward a legacy he usually neglected, he would be impressed by what this says about America’s technical ingenuity and the quality of her citizenship. He was not ashamed to love his country for all she had done across history and this achievement – one of both historical appreciation and scholarly precision – would join many others that would make Cal proud that America, in characteristic excellence, rose to the occasion yet again. She could add this gift to so many others given despite all the difficulties and all the pressures of such a year. It would likely prompt deserved praise from Coolidge that out of so much discouragement, suffering, and loss, that America is still exceeding expectations.

President Coolidge greeting a young American, August 24, 1925. Photo credit: Calvin Coolidge Papers from the Library of Congress.

On Application Over Annihilation

“As we can make progress in science not by the disregard, but by the application of the laws of mathematics, so in my firm conviction we can make progress politically and socially, not by a disregard of those fundamental principles which are the recognized, ratified and established American institutions, but by their scrupulous support and observance. American ideals do not require to be changed so much as they require to be understood and applied…

“Merely to state the American ideal is to perceive not only how far we still are from its realization, but to comprehend with what patience we must view many seeming failures, while we contemplate with great satisfaction much assured success…

“Our country is in process of development. Its physical elements are incomplete. Its institutions have been declared, but they are very far from being adopted and applied. We have not yet arrived at perfection. A scientific investigation of child life has been begun, but yet remains to be finished. There is a vast amount of ignorance and misunderstanding, of envy, hatred, and jealousy, with their attendant train of vice and crime. We are not yet free, but we are struggling to become free economically, socially, politically, spiritually…” — Calvin Coolidge, July 4, 1924

We too often quake with discontent while forgetting how far humans truly, authentically, genuinely have come thanks to the principles (and courage behind them) outlined (and lived) long before we were even a thought to our parents. We engage in too much vapid, empty gesture – the great symbolic act – calling for the latest version of reform and too little of either personal introspection or thoughtful application.  We are too ready as “joiners” of one movement upon another to condemn any currently deemed deviation of the ideal, railing against or joining in the mindless attack and ignorant vilification of values we simply do not understand with any mature judgment. We would do better to expend greater energy to an application of justice to those we know, along an individual and practical measure, jettisoning the crushing weight of building a universe of abstractions others so casually impose as our burden to bear. 

Coolidge had it right, our failure is not in the realm of ideals but in the practice of doing, the call each of us is tasked with to apply what is needed with courage not merely accuse others for falling short. Nor is it to concede principle for what is easiest. Ultimately, we are to realize that we are not in a boat where some are supposed to row for us while we give orders but rather we are all in the same vulnerable place, subject to fundamental truths that require greater application from us all.