On Andrew Jackson and America’s Pioneering Spirit

President Coolidge presenting a wreath at the Jackson Memorial in Lafayette Park, January 1924.

President Coolidge presenting a wreath at another landmark in honor of the General and 7th President, the Jackson Memorial in Lafayette Park, January 1924.

“One of the great sources of the strength of our country has been the pioneering spirit…Our people have ever been going forth into the forest and over the plain to establish themselves in the region of the unknown. They have sought new fields to conquer. They have been pioneers, however, not only in the physical world, but in the realm of ideas. The frontier has long since disappeared…but the ambition to enter uncharted regions of industry, of enterprise, of social relations, and of thought continues with increasing fervor.”

“We would miss much of the significance and meaning of the history of the United States unless we took into account this outstanding quality. Our whole outlook has been greatly influenced by it. It is the complete antithesis of all systems of class and caste…” Instead of finding that their place in life, and the way to think “had been previously ordained for them” America “came into existence” for the very “purpose of escaping from this doctrine…The people who came here were seeking freedom of action and freedom of mind. The great revelation of our country has been that men are not born to servitude and obscurity. They are born to all the possibilities of a glorious station which can be won by their own achieving.” Such is the essential difference between self-governed liberty and security by coercion and conformity. It resides in the confidence that we can be trusted with freedom and are born for great things, not the bureaucratic management of our mediocrity.

America’s history is something of which to we can yet find reason to admire and honor. The pioneers who lived and triumphed “by their own achieving” is not the rare exception, it is “our national epic…It is a record of untiring effort, undaunted courage, and persevering will, all of which have set an inextinguishable mark upon the history of our country.”

“One of the outstanding figures which so well represents this development of our national life is Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States…Thrown on his own resources as he was, he grew up proud and high tempered, oftentimes violent in his disposition, and considerably interested in the sports of the countryside…” From the study of law he went on to serve as Tennessee’s first Representative in the House. General Jackson would go on to defeat the attacking British in New Orleans on January 8, 1815, before word of peace had reached our shores. “New Orleans being under martial law, he was soon engaged in altercations with the civil authorities. He did not hesitate to arrest judges and the United States attorney when they interfered with his orders…When civil authority was resumed he submitted to a fine of $1,000 for contempt of court. ‘I have during the invasion,’ he said, ‘exerted every one of my facilities for the defense and preservation of the Constitution and the laws. Considering obedience to the laws, even when we think them unjustly applied, is the first duty of the citizen. I entreat you to remember the example I have given you of respectful submission to the administration of justice.’ Nearly 30 years later the Congress remitted the fine with interest.”

“This was a most significant statement. It might well have been pondered by those who were undertaking to argue away the Constitution after General Jackson became President. Here was a man who stood ready to fight a duel, if he thought the circumstances required it – of an impetuous nature and impatient of all restraint, yet clearly announcing the supremacy of law. More than that, he was acting upon that principle…He believed that at all times and in all places the duly constituted authority of law should be supreme.”

The statute of Andrew Jackson, given by the State of Tennessee and accepted by President Coolidge stands underneath the dome of the Capitol in Washington, where Coolidge, in 1928, delivered the address featured here.

The statute of Andrew Jackson, to which President Coolidge refers, stands underneath the dome of the Capitol in Washington.

Coolidge, finding much to admire about his predecessors, was not above the firm criticism or even the refrain of praise. Yet, when he identified closely with a frailty, he exemplified a remarkable measure of charity and understanding. Such was the case with President Jackson’s temper. Known for his outward calm, Coolidge could give vent to a fiery wrath of his own at times. Whereas some Presidents would look with hypocritical disdain, even withering contempt, for some of those who came before them, Coolidge practiced a humble forbearance, especially when it came to judging history. Being keenly aware of his own flaws, how could he harshly condemn others with all the benefits of hindsight while he shared in that lack of perfection too? He was no partisan hack either, taking cheap shots for their own sake, as his reflections on the Democrat Jackson make plain. In Coolidge, there was no double standard. For Calvin, treating others as we would be treated was not a trite phrase, it was his life. It is not the suppression of passionate conviction, it is sharing (regardless of party) a common fidelity to the supremacy of law and love for our exceptional foundations. It was simply what Americans, imbibing deeply the spirit of the pioneers, do.

As Coolidge surveyed the legacy of President Jackson, he revealed how profound an impact his predecessor had upon him, the Office and the Nation. “He was regarded as a President of the people, and in seeking to remove their burdens and improve their condition he favored economy and payment of the public debt. When this should be done, he favored dividing the surplus revenues among the States. He also criticized the United States Bank,” taking on (like Coolidge many years later) controversial issues which could easily have been deferred to others in the future.

Coolidge reminded his audience that Jackson, while not always consistent, held courageously to both the preservation of the Union and the obligations of the Executive. In the midst of Jackson’s historic battle with Calhoun over nullification in April 1833, he affirmed,

” ‘Our Federal Union – it must be preserved.’ ”

“Without reference to his former views on the tariff or States rights, when this ordinance was passed, President Jackson declared, ‘The duty of the Executive is a plain one. The laws will be executed and the Union preserved by all the constitutional and legal means he is invested with.’ He soon followed this with a proclamation denying the right of secession, refuting the power of a State to set aside an act of Congress, and asserting the supremacy of the Federal Constitution. This proclamation has been regarded as one of the best state papers of any American President…A service of this nature, rather at variance with some of the positions he had formerly taken and some of the policies strongly supported in his own party, could only have been performed by a great man.”

Tennessee Gentleman, portrait of Jackson from 1831. Part of the collection at The Hermitage, Nashville.

Tennessee Gentleman, portrait of Jackson from 1831. Part of the collection at The Hermitage, Nashville.

“His fight on the bank was not yet ended. His next move was an attempt to withdraw the public deposits…Of course, a violent change of this nature affecting the financial policies of the Nation, was bound to have an economic effect throughout the country. Government funds in local banks were used for speculation, which, as usual, brought the reaction of depression.” It is especially noteworthy that President Coolidge includes this concise illustration from history about speculation at a time coinciding with feckless investment in quick money on the market throughout 1928, the year of this speech. It was another occasion where President Coolidge gave sober warning to any who would heed. In this, and many other ways, his attempts to carefully “tap the brakes” (so as not to discourage sound growth) met with little notice at the time. “Opinions have differed,” just as they would over the causes and cures of the recession turned Great Depression of the 1930s, “but no one doubts the great courage of President Jackson in opposing it or the public approbation he received in support of his policy.” Jackson, contrary to Arthur Schlesinger’s wishful claim, was hardly the precursor of FDR, who spent while Jackson paid off the Nation’s entire debt and assumed greater supervision of individual freedoms while Jackson kept faith in the people to govern themselves.

No doubt anticipating his own retirement from public office in just less than eleven more months, President Coolidge turned to Jackson’s departure from Washington. “On the 7th of March, 1837, he set out for his old home, The Hermitage. He had triumphed over opponents who were considered then, and rank now, among the greatest statesmen of his day. Calhoun had gone down on nullification. The great figure of Daniel Webster had stood with the President on that issue, but had opposed his banking policies. Clay had compromised and lost…If at times he was high tempered and overbearing, there is no fairer story of chivalrous devotion and affectionate consideration than that which he lavished upon his wife. In her benign presence he was all submission.”

“History accords him one of the high positions among the great names of our country. He gave to the nationalist spirit through loyalty to the Union a new strength which was decisive for many years. His management of our foreign affairs was such as to secure a wholesome respect for our Government and the rights of its citizens. He left the Treasury without obligations and with a surplus. Coming up from the people, he demonstrated that there is sufficient substance in self-government to solve important public questions and rise superior to a perplexing crisis. Like a true pioneer, he broke through all the restraints and impediments into which he was born, and leaving behind the provincialisms and prejudices of his day pushed out toward a larger freedom and a sounder Government, carrying the country with him.”

“In recognition of the great qualities of her most illustrious son, the State of Tennessee has presented his statue to the National Government. In gratitude for the preeminent service which he rendered, I, as President of the United States, accept it, to stand here in the Hall of Fame so long as this Capitol shall endure.”

It was underneath this awesome scene that President Coolidge accepted the statute of Andrew Jackson, April 15, 1928.

It was underneath this stunning view that President Coolidge accepted the bronze statute of Andrew Jackson from the State of Tennessee, April 15, 1928.

On American Journalism

9b - Coolidge, cornerstone laying ceremony National Press Club 4-8-1926

The logo of the National Press Club features the owl, a symbol of wisdom and vigilance alongside the oil lamp, underscoring the burn of midnight oil to faithfully report truth.

The logo of the National Press Club features the owl, a symbol of wisdom and vigilance, sitting alongside the oil lamp, underscoring the burn of midnight oil to faithfully report truth.

It was on this day, April 8, in 1926 that President Coolidge would dedicate the cornerstone of the new National Press Club building, which was to span the entire distance of what had been known as “Newspaper Row” from the series of news offices and print shops that once identified 14th and F Streets NW in Washington. Completed in December 1927 and dedicated anew by the President in 1928, the fourteen-story structure became the largest private office building in the entire Washington area at that time. But it all started with this remarkable cornerstone dedication. A sizable copper box was prepared to mark the occasion and was to be placed into the cornerstone Coolidge would set on this day. The box remained in the Press Club President’s vault for several more months until financial backing was confirmed to begin construction. Filled with an impressive array of objects, this time capsule included:

Uncirculated 1, 5, and 10 cent silver pieces as well as newly minted $10 and $20 gold coins donated by Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon.

A copy of each Washington daily paper from April 8, 1926.

Photographs of old “Newspaper Row,” the Ebbitt Hotel demolished to make room for the Press Club site, President Harding (the only President to also be a former newspaper editor) casting his ballot at the annual Club elections, and other memories captured by photography.

A story from the National Intelligencer recounting the formation of the first Press Club in Washington, 1867.

Another story about “Newspaper Row” with an invitation to the cornerstone dedication.

Minutes from the first meeting of the National Press Club held on March 18, 1908, Club yearbooks from 1914 and 1924, and a full membership roster from 1926.

A specially-bound and embossed Congressional Directory from the first session of the 69th Congress, produced by George H. Carter, Public Printer.

A program from the First Pan-American Congress of Journalists held in Washington, and addressed by President Coolidge that same day.

And finally, a copy of the speech delivered by President Coolidge to dedicate the cornerstone.

President Coolidge reviews plans for the National Press Club Building, September 15, 1925.

President Coolidge reviews plans for the National Press Club Building, September 15, 1925.

Make no mistake, he had something very important to say. For Calvin Coolidge, the highlight of the observance was not that he was present but something far more fundamental. The stone being dedicated was not the only one honored that day. “The press” itself, Coolidge reminded his audience, “is one of the corner stones of liberty.” After all, a central principle of our country “guarantees a full and complete freedom in the publication and distribution of the truth. The right to have a fair and complete discussion of all problems is a necessary attribute of a free people. Without it the diffusion of such knowledge as is necessary to intelligent action in both private and public affairs would be impossible. Under American institutions a corner stone which is dedicated to the press is likewise dedicated to the Republic.”

Coolidge looked out beyond the platform where he stood to a press whose strength and influence rested in its independence. The press was not entirely free from accountability, however. On the contrary, the public press is charged with very high responsibilities. He would elaborate exactly what he meant, “It is my firm conviction that the press of this country,” being so robust, independent and influential, “should seek not to cater to a supposed low and degraded public opinion, but rather create a noble and inspired public opinion.” Instead of working against what is clean and wholesome, the purpose and might of public morality, it should be harmonizing efforts with it. Rather than championing ignorance and misinformation, the press is obligated to remind people that progress continues by revealing “the development of a Divine power” at work in contemporary history. This does not omit criticism toward current events, instead it directs it to constructive ends. As Coolidge pointed out, it “is to be remembered that criticism pursued merely for the sake of criticism is a barren operation, leaving no lasting results. True journalism must go far beyond this into the field of constructive effort. It is only in that direction that there will be found anything that is of lasting public benefit.”

President Coolidge would fill out, as on a canvas, the detailed responsibilities true journalists exercise in this country. First, “liberty is derived from law.” What established and continues to preserve the freedom of the press is not the mere courtesy accorded tradition nor the conditional privilege granted by those in power, it is guaranteed in our Constitution. “If that provision were struck out from our fundamental law, the press would not remain free for an hour. As an obligation, coupled with the very greatest self-interest, the press ought always to stand as a supporter of the Constitution and as the firmest advocate of a reign of law. On that principle there should be no weakness and no wavering. It should advocate resolutely, and at all times, the observance and the enforcement of the law.”

Second, “This is all one country.” There is a proper place for pride for one’s local region. It is even justifiable and helpful but it cannot take precedence to the fact that we are one, united people. “No part of our Nation is so perfect that it can look with any disdain on the imperfections of any other part, and, conversely, all of our different areas each have sufficient advantages to commend them to respect. It is enough to know that all can say, ‘This is a part of America,’ and ‘We are Americans.’ Under our institutions all are equal.”

Third, “Americans are all privileged.” For the same reasons that logic does not sustain pitting one section of the country against another, it is equally “untenable” attempting “to array class against class. Correctly speaking, we have no sections and we have no classes. The same unity that applies to our territory applies with even more force to our population.” The press shirks one of its greatest responsibilities when it abandons this fact to see people strictly through the lens of those artificial and non-essential differences in humanity. Coolidge sides with the progressive thought of the Founders, not the reactionary prejudices of those who place Americans in the midst of some perpetual struggle between fixed classes. “When we wisely decided not to create those artificial barriers which are represented by orders of nobility, but to let true worth create for all our inhabitants a universal class, we recognized one of the great truths of human existence which can not be too often emphasized.”

Page_064_Photo_sm CC dedicating cornerstone Natl Press Club

The press, just like the rest of us, is to meet these challenges in human relations not by defaulting to the easy path with least resistance but by exercising the “principle of toleration.” This does not mean a double standard along partisan lines, condoning “[r]ace hatred, class feeling, religious persecution, however these may be exhibited, whether under a form of law or through the force of public opinion, or even in defiance of law.” As Coolidge would remark on another occasion, tolerance is not an assent toward evil. Tolerance “means the adoption of a broad and generous spirit under which each may work out his own destiny in accordance with his own merits.” It is the acts of intolerance – racial hatred, class prejudice, and religious persecution – that “dwarf and destroy those who permit themselves to come under the domination of these motives. Toleration is not a passive quality. It does not mean simply receiving the benefits of the tolerance of others. It is distinctly an active quality which means bestowing upon others and thereby receiving ourselves the benefits of our own tolerance.”

Where does the press fit in all of this? Coolidge answers, “No one can criticize journalistic efforts directed to the promotion of particular interests, but all that can be done without raising bitter antagonisms against other interests…Rank partisanship very quickly falls into a distortion or a complete misstatement of the facts, accompanied by arguments which lead to illogical and unsound conclusions.” Even a cursory look at history would remind us that “there has been sufficient good in both our political parties, especially when they have been in power, to require a large amount of printer’s ink in its portrayal.” While the situation in Coolidge’s time was hardly free of gross incivility and brutal partisanship, it was easier for some to “find fault with what was being done” than to “suggest what ought to be done.” Just as, in our day, it is easier to run against those in power (even if you are the ones in power) than it is to hold fast to principled solutions, taking a position that serves all Americans, not merely one party or petitioner. “It is very difficult to reconcile a narrow and bitter partisanship with real patriotism.”

President Coolidge then ventured into the great responsibilities the American press continues to carry in the field of foreign relations. Coolidge knew that most of our information of the world comes not through direct experience but in reliance upon honest reporting by the America’s journalists. To complain that the press in this country represented America “as having the best of institutions” is absurd and needless. Our institutions are what is best for us while what other countries decide to adopt is up to them. We need neither apologize for or jettison a defense of what America is and what America has done in our news coverage around the world. Racial hatreds, class resentment and religious bigotry are not only incompatible with domestic journalism, they are also inconsistent with how we treat the rest of the world. We have to appeal to higher principles than base human nature, a prejudice that had manifested itself throughout the First World War against anything German. “International friendship and good will…can not be promoted by misrepresentation and caricature of foreign people. The cultivation also of such an attitude of mind on the part of our people is an exhibition of hostility. It is sowing the seeds of war…No basis for harmony, tranquility, honorable dealing, and peace has ever been better expressed than that which is contained in the golden rule.”

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Of course, Coolidge knew, there were limits to even the best of good intentions. They had to be reinforced and enacted by “proper instruments and institutions.” This is why participating in the World Court while abstaining from the League of Nations was an important and reconcilable distinction. “It is useless to love liberty unless we establish laws. It is futile to cherish justice unless we provide courts.” By insisting on reservations that safeguarded America’s sovereign rights, the universal sanctity of what is just and fair, apart from any nation’s political affairs, was advanced without embroiling the country in a countless array of foreign commitments and vague obligations. By refusing to become involved in the politics of other nations — “because they are none of our affair” — America set the scope of its participation, lending “a great influence in establishing the principle of a reign of international law” based in reason not mere military expenditures. Coolidge also knew that before a limitation of weaponry could proceed, there must first be “an intellectual and moral disarmament.” The West, thanks to President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Thatcher, accomplished this through his direct conversations with Gorbachev, insisting on ending the MAD stalemate and encouraging the expansion of glasnost. This is where the press comes in. “To create a better understanding in this direction we are almost entirely dependent on our editors and publishers. The good they can do in promoting better understanding by supporting faith and good will and peace can not be estimated.”

Coolidge could summarize without hyperbole, that “[n]o other journalists ever had a like opportunity” to perform so large a service for humanity as the American press. “In financial resources, in absolute independence, in the reaction of an enlightened public opinion to right and truth and justice, the position which they occupy in this country stands unrivaled in all history.” However, American journalism could not overlook the most important side of all in what they do, Coolidge concluded. “No enterprise can obtain a success which is worth anything unless it appeals to the spiritual nature of mankind. No matter how secular the efforts may be of a publication, it will fail of the largest attainments, will not meet the highest requirements, will not secure the widest influence unless it is moved by a reverence for religion. Our country is a reverent country and our people are a reverent people. Our institutions must rest on that foundation. The press must minister to that spirit. Their great work must go on like all other great works, in reliance upon a divine purpose. If the corner stone which we are laying to-day is to endure, it must represent these principles. ‘Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ “


The Coolidges at White Pine Camp, Adirondacks, New York, summer 1926

The Coolidges at White Pine Camp, Adirondacks, New York, summer 1926

Do you have a license for that dog?

In fact, yes.

The application for license to possess Rob Roy on park grounds. Yes, the President filled out the application himself.

The application for license to possess Rob Roy on the park grounds. Notice that the President filled out the application himself.

The cottage where Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge -- and the dogs -- stayed that summer.

The cottage where Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge — and the dogs — stayed that summer, located 2 miles north of Paul Smith’s hotel. Courtesy of Lynn Newman.

Coolidge stands with hotel owner Phelps Smith, in front of Glover Cottage at Paul Smith's famous hotel, where Executive Offices were established during the 10 weeks they stayed in the Adirondacks.

Coolidge stands with hotel owner Phelps Smith, in front of Glover Cottage near his father Paul’s famous hotel, where Executive Offices were established during the 10 weeks the Coolidges stayed in the Adirondacks. It appears that Ted Clark, the President’s private secretary, is pausing at the top of the stairs. Sadly the hotel would burn to the ground four years later. Photo courtesy of Adirondack Collection, Saranac Lake Free Library.

The Coolidges at Gabriels Station. Courtesy of Lynn Newman.

The Coolidges at Gabriels Station. Courtesy of Lynn Newman.