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.

Continuing in the Steps of Calvin Coolidge

Roads had begun filling for miles around since that morning. Keeping in mind that roads then were not what they are now, which, at that time were principally gravel and dirt trails. Some seventy-five thousand people descended on the area that February 1, 1929, to attend the dedication. Whole towns ran out of food and gas and traffic came to a standstill.

The parking lots on Dedication Day, February 1, 1929

The parking lots on Dedication Day, February 1, 1929

Driving in as close as possible, families trudged through the mud with what food and water they could carry to see Edward Bok’s Singing Tower and hear the bells firsthand. They were especially drawn to this dedication because the President — Calvin Coolidge — would be there to speak. It was going to be one of his last major Presidential addresses as he would be leaving office in just over a month.

Masterful carillonneur Anton Brees sitting at the 60-bell carillon in the Tower.

Masterful carillonneur Anton Brees sitting at the 60-bell carillon in the Tower.

The Great Bell, the largest of sixty bells housed in Bok Tower from a picture taken in 1928 in England, where it was cast to be transported across the Atlantic and over rails to its place as the centerpiece of Bok's musical assembly.

The Great Bell, the largest of sixty bells housed in Bok Tower from a picture taken in 1928 in England, where it was originally cast to be transported across the Atlantic and over rails to its place as the centerpiece of Bok’s musical assembly.

The President and Mrs. Coolidge arrived for their first visit to Florida on an Atlantic Coast Railway special out of Washington. Deboarding from the Mountain Lake Station in Lake Wales, they would be escorted the short drive around Mountain Lake to the Tower grounds that afternoon. The Coolidges took their seats in the temporary pine platform specially put up for the dedication on the Tower’s south side and listened as carillonneur Anton Brees played “America” inside the Tower and the six hundred voices of the United Singing Societies of Polk County performed “The Glory of God in Nature” and “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah. Introduced by Mr. Bok, creator of the Tower and its lush gardens, President Coolidge took to the podium to dedicate what the site meant to America and all who were there that day.

The United Singing Societies of Polk County, positioned opposite of the President and platform, on the south side of the Tower, February 1, 1929.

The United Singing Societies of Polk County, positioned opposite of the President, February 1, 1929.

The bells, played by Anton Brees, would resume as they chimed out “Onward, Christian Soldier” and other music to the silent amazement of all those present. The largest silk flag in the South up to that time, would be raised near the pinnacle of the Tower as a completion of the day’s events and the President and Mrs. Coolidge would be led around to see more of the grounds and the inside of the Tower. Grace Coolidge would even plant a palm tree beside the trail leading up to the Tower. Mistakenly attributed to the President, it was the First Lady who did the honors. It remains quietly standing there beside the creek with a weathered plaque to commemorate the 1929 dedication. Coolidge would even reappear from the lower balconies on the south and west so that he could be better seen by those who had come so far.

Cover of the Dedication Program printed for the event, February 1, 1929.

Cover of the Dedication Program printed for the event, February 1, 1929.

He likely remembered on this occasion the first time he saw a President, when as a teenager he heard Benjamin Harrison address the crowds at Bennington, Vermont. “As I looked on him and realized that he personally represented the glory and dignity of the United States I wondered how it felt to bear so much responsibility and little thought I should ever know” (The Autobiography, p.52). He always made a point of making himself accessible to young people in order to inspire them with a sense of both personal potential and faith in our republican system of government. The President was not some distant, aloof ruler but one of them. Coolidge recognized that any one of those youngsters might themselves be inspired to take up public service as President some day.

Invited to Mr. and Mrs. Bok’s home for that evening’s supper, the Coolidges sat with Governor Carlton and those who served in Florida’s state government at the time. The President and First Lady then boarded the train and returned to Washington that night. The words dedicating this Tower can be found today carved into the coquina and marble below the sundial. It is a fitting tribute not only to the majestic beauty of the site but also to the vision of men like Edward Bok and Calvin Coolidge to imagine great things, put them into being and call us to reflect on God’s work both around and in us.

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These orange groves met us on the way to Bok Tower. It reminds us of the drive through the oranges on Dedication Day told by Horace Herndon.

These orange groves met us on the way to Bok Tower. It reminds us of the drive through the oranges on Dedication Day told by Horace Herndon.

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The carillon played by Anton Brees at the Dedication by President Coolidge

The carillon played by Anton Brees at the Dedication by President Coolidge

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The Golden Door on the north side of the Tower, depicting the Creation and Fall of Man. Mr. Bok's grave lies at the foot of the stairs, surrounded by white flowers.

The Golden Door on the north side of the Tower, depicting the Creation and Fall of Man. Mr. Bok’s grave lies at the foot of the stairs, surrounded by white flowers.

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Entrance to Pinewood Estate across from Bok Tower through the Gardens.

Entrance to Pinewood Estate across from Bok Tower through the Gardens.

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Dedication of Bok Tower, February 1, 1929

President Coolidge standing beside Edward Bok. Is that the President smiling? Perhaps he is reading that mentions smiling at the absurdity of engendering class envy in this country.

President Coolidge standing beside Edward Bok. Is that the President smiling? Perhaps he is reading that phrase in the Dedication Address which mentions smiling at the absurdity of those who engender class envy in this country.

On their first visit to Florida near the close of his presidency, Calvin and Grace Coolidge came to Lake Wales to dedicate the Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Bok Singing Tower to the American people. Some of his reflections on that occasion are given here,

“These grounds which we are dedicating to-day are another extension of this rapidly developing movement: It has been designated as a sanctuary because within it people may temporarily escape from the pressure and affliction of the affairs of life and find that quiet and repose which comes from a closer communion with the beauties of nature. We have not secured the benefits which I have enumerated without being obliged to pay a price. The multiplicity and the swiftness of the events with which we are surrounded exhaust our nervous energy. The constant impact upon us of great throngs of people of itself produces a deadening fatigue. We have a special need for a sanctuary like this to which we can retreat for a time from the daily turmoil and have a place to rest and think under the quieting influence of nature and of nature’s God.

“It is not only through action, but through contemplation that people come to understand themselves. Man does not live by bread alone. This thought is expressed in the motto of the sanctuary in the words of John Burroughs: ‘I come here to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world.’ We are so thickly crowded with the forest of events that there is not only danger that we can not see the trees, but that we may lose our sense of direction. Under the influence of these beautiful surroundings we can pause unhampered while we find out where we are and whither we are going. Those who come here report the feeling of peace which they have experienced. In the expression of an ancient writer, it is a place to which to invite one’s soul, where one may see in the landscape and foliage, not what man has done, but what God has done…

L to R: First Lady Grace Coolidge, President Coolidge, Mrs. Mary Curtis Bok and Mr. Edward William Bok, February 1, 1929.

L to R: First Lady Grace Coolidge, President Coolidge, Mrs. Mary Louise Curtis Bok and Mr. Edward William Bok, February 1, 1929.

“The main purpose of this sanctuary and tower is to preach the gospel of beauty. Although they have been made possible through the generosity of Mr. Edward W. Bok, he does not wish them to be considered as a memorial or a monument. While it has been his purpose to give some expression here to his own love of the beautiful, in form, in color, and in sound, he has also sought to preserve the quiet majesty of the trees, increase the display of coloring in the flowers, and combine stone and marble in the graceful lines of the tower, all in a setting surrounded by green foliage and reflected in. sparkling waters over which the song of the nightingale will mingle with the music of the bells…

“This sanctuary and tower are not only endowed with a beauty of their own, but they are a representation of the beneficent spirit of the giver. They are another illustration that the men of wealth of the United States are not bent on the accumulation of money merely for its own sake, or that they may use it in selfish and ostentatious display. A most cursory examination of the facts would soon disclose that our country leads the world in its charities and endowments. It would be difficult to recall any line of endeavor capable of ministering to human welfare, not only in our own country but in many places abroad, which is not being helped by the generosity of our people of wealth. Not only that, but the charities of this Nation stand on a plane which is occupied by them alone. They have never been tainted with any effort to hold back the rising tide of a demand for the abolition of privilege and the establishment of equality, but have rather been the result of a sincere philanthropy. They have not come from any class consciousness; certainly, not from any class fear. They represent in all its beauty and purity the love of man and the desire to benefit the human race. We have a strong sense of trusteeship. While giving every credit to the genius of management, and holding strongly to the right of individual possessions, we realize that to a considerable extent, wealth is the creation of the people, and it is fitting; as in this case, that it should be expended for their material, intellectual, and moral development..

Dutch-born, Mr. Bok came to America at the age of six and worked his way up from a New York bakery to editor of the Ladies Home Journal for thirty years. The man had a life-long fascination with natural beauty and artistic expression. He accomplished much and gave much in return. Bok Singing Tower bequeaths that love for color, use of light and an appreciation for the artistic to all Americans.

Dutch-born, Mr. Bok came to America at the age of six and worked his way up from a New York bakery to editor of the Ladies Home Journal, where he served  for thirty years. The man had a life-long fascination with natural beauty and artistic expression. He accomplished much and gave much in return. Bok Singing Tower bequeaths that love for color, use of light and an appreciation for the artistic to all Americans.

“Gradually, for complete revolutions do not occur in a day, we have transferred our allegiance to the people. It is for them that our songs are made, our books are published, our pictures are painted, our public squares are adorned, our park systems are developed, and the art of the stage and the screen is created. While these things are done by individuals, this movement is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ It is no accident that this superb creation, which we are dedicating to-day, is the conception of a man whose only heritage was that of good breeding, an American by adoption, not by birth, who has felt the pinch of poverty, who has experienced the thrill of hard manual labor, and who has triumphed over many difficulties. Edward W. Bok is making this contribution in recognition of his loyalty to his sovereign, the people. It is another demonstration that when they are given the opportunity the people have the innate power to provide themselves with the wealth, the culture, the art, and the refinements that support an enlightened civilization. Now, therefore, in a spirit of thankfulness for the success of our institutions, which is here attested, and appreciation of the munificent generosity, which is here exhibited, in my capacity as President of the United States, I hereby dedicate this Mountain Lake Sanctuary and its Singing Tower and present them for visitation to the American people.” 

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For more information, including a superb video about the Tower and Gardens, Coolidge’s dedication of it — and the importance of preserving it — at the Bok Tower website, under the “legacy” tab (https://boktowergardens.org/legacy/).