Following Coolidge’s lead to preserve our foundational principles from neglect and misuse, the Calvin Coolidge Institute is performing a vital work in the state of Nevada. They are setting an example for what is desperately needed all across America: to encourage and elect candidates with Cal’s integrity, courage and conviction. In fact, a Coolidge Coalition is forming in our area of Gulf Coast Florida. How about where you live? In studying Coolidge for some time, the more I have learned the more I come to respect and admire what he accomplished through a genuine leadership grounded on moral consistency, political wisdom, and personal resolve. While he would not have wanted any institution to bear his name, he would have taken great satisfaction in those who shoulder the high demands, not merely the blessings, of citizenship and public service. He praised those who kept our institutions true to the ideals of limited government, economic freedom, religious liberty, and individual responsibility. Anchored by the Golden Rule, progress is measured not by cutting ties with the past but by doing what is right not what is expedient, upholding the good of all not favoring the benefit of a few. Hardly outmoded, these ideals are downright indispensable. Party platforms and campaign pledges are not things to be cast aside on victory night, they furnish the direction of leadership and are the substance of a voter’s voice. This is why party cohesion is so crucial to sound government. He also understood that principles mean nothing if not kept practiced and practical, requiring brave and involved citizens prepared to govern their own government. The government, as he often paraphrased President Cleveland, works for the people, not the people for the government. In this way, we grow worthy of America. The Calvin Coolidge Institute deserves every encouragement and support.
While we could venture to decipher the degrees of separation between Calvin Coolidge and Nicholas Cage, who, it is rumored, will reprise his role as Ben Gates next year in the third National Treasure film, we find that reality is both more interesting and more instructive. The original manuscripts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence spent much of our nation’s history en route to somewhere more permanent and protected. The Declaration, being of course the older of the two, followed Congress through Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and back again before coming to Washington in 1800 at the direction of President Adams. These two National treasures would move again when the British threatened the Capital and once more when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor but 1921 found them in the papers of the State Department, under the responsibility of the new Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes. It was Hughes who quickly recognized the urgent need of securing those invaluable documents in a place befitting their importance. After many years of travel and duplication, especially after the “wet transfer” method inflicted on the Declaration by William J. Stone (authorized by then Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) in 1820, the documents needed protection from light, moisture and fire. Keeping them in facilities that were anything but fireproof was unthinkable to Hughes or his chief, President Harding.
The Secretary went to Harding with an executive order approving transfer of these historic charters to the custody and care of competent archivists at the Library of Congress, where they could be displayed inside specially-designed frames in a secure yet dignified setting. The Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, eagerly prepared to receive and display both manuscripts. To sell the Budget Bureau on the idea, Librarian Putnam explained how he envisioned the display would look, “There is a way…we could construct, say, on the second floor on the western side in that long open gallery a railed inclosure, material of bronze, where these documents, with one or two auxiliary documents leading up to them, could be placed, where they need not be touched by anybody but where a mere passer-by could see them, where they could be set in permanent bronze frames and where they could be protected from the natural light, lighted only by soft incandescent lamps. The result could be achieved and you would have something every visitor to Washington would wish to tell about when he returned…” A special mail truck delivered them and even before plans could be drawn up for their resting place, $12,000 in appropriations had been secured just before final estimates of the year were submitted by the Bureau in 1922.
Francis H. Bacon began drawing a design for what journalists dubbed at the time, a “sort of shrine” to the great principles articulated in these two documents. It would be Bacon’s brother, Henry, who conceived the Lincoln Memorial which was dedicated in May that same year. It would not be until early 1924, however, before what was to be a suitable final resting place was ready for the Constitution and Declaration. Bronze frames with double-paned glass would house each manuscript. Between each pane of glass was placed a layer of gelatin film to block out any damage inflicted by light. Marble carefully selected from New York, Tennessee and, of course, Vermont, surrounded and supported the two bronze frames. Greek and Italian marble comprised the display’s flooring and ballustrade to match the materials in the rest of the Library. American materials only would have the closest contact with each document, however. A 24-hour guard would be placed to ensure the site remained protected. Gold-plated bronze doors would open to present the Declaration above the glass and marble case containing the Constitution. At last complete, the site would be dedicated by none other than President Calvin Coolidge, joined by Mrs. Coolidge, Secretary Hughes, Librarian of Congress Putnam, and numerous other dignitaries on February 28, 1924.
What struck everyone, and would distinguish that occasion from later dedication ceremonies, was its quiet simplicity. Unlike the 1952 move of that same historic pair of treasures to their current home at the National Archives, there were no elaborate ceremonies, no speeches, no troops, no Marine Corps Band. Those gathered witnessed a much humbler scene in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress on that February day in 1924. Two Library policemen held flags lowered in salute on either side of the display, raising them at the crucial moment to reveal the Declaration and Constitution viewable together at last. All remained silent as the Librarian of Congress, red-headed Herbert Putnam, stepped forward to place both documents into their respective bronze fittings. Finally a small choir of Library employees took up the familiar lines of Samuel Smith’s 1832 anthem, America. Attended by our red-headed President and Mrs. Coolidge, it was not long before many in the audience were singing along. No doubt Grace’s melodic voice stirred many present to join in that spontaneous expression of their love for America’s ideals. Together the crowd sang two stanzas and the ceremony was over. It was altogether a fitting tribute to the two greatest charters of liberty humanity has ever known.
My country, ’tis of Thee,
Sweet Land of Liberty
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountain side
Let Freedom ring.
…Our fathers’ God to Thee,
Author of Liberty,
To thee we sing,
Long may our land be bright
With Freedom’s holy light,
Protect us by thy might
Great God, our King.
For further reading see also:
John Y. Cole, “The Library and the Declaration: LC Has Long History with Founding Document,” The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9708/declare.html (accessed June 4, 2014).
A comic strip narrating the 1924 dedication and subsequent history at the National Archives can be found in “Flashbacks” by Patrick M. Reynolds at http://www.redrosestudio.com/Natl%20Archives.html.
“Friends and Fellow Citizens:
“It is one of the glories of our country that we all have the privilege of being Americans. Some of us were born here of an ancestry that has lived here for generations. Others of us were born abroad and brought here at a tender age, or have come to these shores as a result of mature choice. But when once our feet have touched this soil, when once we have made this land our home, wherever our place of birth, whatever our race, we are all blended in one common country. All artificial distinctions of lineage and rank are cast aside. We all rejoice in the title of Americans. But this is not done by discarding the teachings and beliefs or the character which have contributed to the strength and progress of the peoples from which our various strains derived their origin, but rather from the acceptance of all their good qualities and their adaptation to the requirements of our institutions. None of those who come here are required to leave any good qualities behind, but they are rather required to strengthen and fortify them and supplement them with such additional good qualities as they find among us.
“While it is eminently proper for us to glory in our origin and to cherish with pride the contributions which our race has made to the common progress of humanity, we can not put too much emphasis on the fact that in this country we are all bound together in a common destiny. We must all be united as one people. This principle works both ways. As we do not recognize any inferior races, so we do not recognize any superior races. We all stand on an equality of rights and of opportunity, each deriving just honor from their own worth and accomplishments. It is not, then, for the purpose of setting one people above another that we assemble here to-day to do reverence to the memory of a great son of Sweden, but rather to glory in the name of John Ericsson and his race as a preeminent example of the superb contribution which has been made by many different nationalities to the cause of our country. We honor him most of all because we can truly say he was a great American.
“Great men are the product of a great people. They are the result of many generations of effort, toil, and discipline. They do not stand by themselves; they are more than an individual. They are the incarnation of the spirit of a people. We should fail in our understanding of Ericsson unless we first understand the Swedish people both as they have developed in the land of their origin and as they have matured in the land of their adoption.”
Coolidge proceeded to recount precisely that development of the Swedish people. From the rugged terrain under the Arctic these hardy people have demonstrated “independence, courage and resourcefulness” since ancient time, taking to the seas, defending greater and greater religious freedom and leaving a fixed imprint on the growth and success of America. Establishing a colony here in 1638, they “laid the basis for a religious structure, built the first flour mills, the first ships, the first brickyards, and made the first roads, while they introduced horticulture and scientific forestry into the Delaware region.”
They not only cleared and cultivated the forests and prairies but they built churches and charities, established schools and businesses. Despite being “few in numbers…they supported the Colonial cause and it has been said that King Gustavus III, writing to a friend, declared, ‘If I were not King I would proceed to America and offer my sword on behalf of the brave Colonies.’ “ John Mortenson was among the Signers of the Declaration and John Hanson among those to hold the office of “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” It would be Sweden to become the “first European power which voluntarily and without solicitation tendered its friendship to the young Republic” in 1783. But also, with the removal in 1843 of restrictions in their native land, the large number of Swedish immigrants began their move to America and greater liberty.
“As these Americans of Swedish blood have increased in numbers and taken up the duties of citizenship, they have been prominent in all ranks of public life.” They have served with equal distinction not only as governors and mayors, generals and admirals but also painters and musicians. Yet, Coolidge took the occasion to name one of many who exemplified that “old Norse spirit, a true American,” Irvine L. Lenroot of Wisconsin. While it is ironic that Senator Lenroot was supposed to be the Vice Presidential choice alongside candidate Harding at the 1920 Republican convention, the rank and file delegates had very different ideas of who was best qualified. Of course, we know their choice fell enthusiastically and spontaneously upon Calvin Coolidge. It is noteworthy that now as President in his own right, Coolidge exacts no political gloating or grandstanding. Instead, Mr. Coolidge recognizes his earliest national rival with respect and selfless praise, making his point of American exceptionalism even stronger.
“…Such is the background and greatness of the Swedish people in the country of their origin and in America that gave to the world John Ericsson. They have been characterized by that courage which is the foundation of industry and thrift, that endurance which is the foundation of military achievement, that devotion to the home which is the foundation of patriotism, and that reverence for religion which is the foundation of moral power. They are representative of the process which has been going on for centuries in many quartered of the globe to develop a strain of pioneers ready to make their contribution to the enlightened civilization of America.” The strength of America is not in its multicultural diversity, the non-essentials that keep us divided, but in its ability to attract and assimilate so many good qualities around a shared identity, a common set of principles, creating a new union of peoples called Americans.
John Ericsson validates that long-proven tradition. “The life of this great man is the classic story of the immigrant,” Coolidge reminds us, “the early struggle with adversity, the home in a new country, the final success.” Ericsson’s focus and fascination with engineering made possible the accomplishment of the Princeton, “which was the first man-of-war equipped with a screw propeller and with machinery below the water line out of reach of shot.” Ericsson did not stop there, however. His next great achievement “steamed into Hampton Roads late after dark on the day of March 8, 1862. It arrived none too soon, for that morning the Confederate ironclad Virginia, reconstructed from the Merrimac, began a work of destruction among the 16 Federal vessels, carrying 298 guns, located at that point.” The Cumberland had been pummeled to submission, the Congress was grounded and aflame, and the Roanoke and Minnesota were “damaged and run ashore.” Europe watched and stood ready to recognize the Confederacy with the next swift victory. Yet, the unprecedented success of the Merrimac would be matched with an equally “new and extraordinary naval innovation” in the Monitor. As Admiral Luce would observe years later, it was the Monitor which “exhibited in a singular manner the old Norse element in the American Navy,” since it was Ericsson “who built her,” Dahlgren “who armed her,” and Worden “who fought her.”
“After a battle lasting four hours in which the Monitor suffered no material damage, except for one shell which hit the observation opening in the pilot house, temporarily blinding Lieutenant Worden, the commanding officer, the Merrimac, later reported to have been badly crippled, withdrew, never to venture out again to meet her conqueror. The old spirit of the Vikings, becoming American, had again triumphed in a victory no less decisive of future events than when it had hovered over the banner of William the Conqueror…That engagement revealed that in the future all wooden navies would be of little avail…The great genius of Ericsson had brought about a new era in naval construction…Great as were these achievements, they are scarcely greater than those which marked the engineering and inventive abilities of this great man, which were to benefit the industry, commerce, and transportation of the country. He was a lover of peace, not war. He was devoted to justice and freedom and was moved by an abiding love of America, of which he had become a citizen in 1848.”
“Ericsson continued his labors in his profession with great diligence, even into his eighty-sixth year, when he passed away at his home in New York City on the 8th of March, 1889, the anniversary of the arrival of Monitor in Hampton Roads. At the request of the Royal United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, all that was mortal of the great engineer was restored to his native land during the following year.” In debt to what we owed to Sweden for what Admiral Schley called “the gift of Ericsson,” his body was returned to “his native country.” “Crowned with honor” by not only the land in which he was born but also America, “the land of his adoption, he sleeps among the mountains he had loved so well as a boy. But his memory abides here.”
It was this occasion that rejoined both America and Sweden in the dedication of “another memorial to the memory of this illustrious man.” President Coolidge would stand with Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Louise “to be present…and join with us in paying tribute to a patriot who belongs to two countries. It is significant that as Ericsson when he was a young soldier had the friendship and favor of the Crown Prince of that day, so his memory has the marked honor of the Crown Prince of to-day.”
“As the ceaseless throng of our citizens of various races shall come and go,” Coolidge concluded, “as they enter and leave our Capital City in the years to come, as they look upon their monument and upon his and recall that though he and they differed in blood and race they were yet bound together by the tie that surpasses race and blood in the communion of a common spirit, and as they pause and contemplate that communion, may they not fail to say in their hearts, ‘Of such is the greatness of America.’ “