En route back to the Homestead at Plymouth, the President and Mrs. Coolidge are reconnecting with family roots, leaving most of the artificial world of Washington behind and keeping closer to realities, where the country lives, works, worships and creates. Here rested the body of his father, recently buried in March, his youngest son, who passed two years before, his stepmother, sister and mother, surrounded by the generations who preceded them of the Coolidge family. Here was a wholesome relief from the political mentality of the District to the comfort of hearth, surrounded by the family he loved, the hills he cherished and the tasks awaiting solutions on the farm.
As much they desired to the contrary, they ceased to be “ordinary” citizens and could no longer “use the regular trains which are open to the public.” Looking back on the years, he once wrote, “While the facilities of a private car have always been offered, I think they have only been used once, when one was needed for the better comfort of Mrs. Coolidge during her illness. Although I have not been given to much travel during my term of office, it has been sufficient, so that I am convinced the government should own a private car for the use of the President when he leaves Washington. The pressure on him is so great, the responsibilities are so heavy, that it is a wise policy in order to secure his best services to provide him with such ample facilities that he will be relieved as far as possible from all physical inconveniences. It is not generally understood how much detail is involved in any journey of the President” (Autobiography pp.217-8). These intricate arrangements meant expense to the rest of the country, costs of going long distances with the Presidential retinue which made it prohibitive in Calvin’s high sense of propriety and moral obligation to the people for his office. It was not simply okay that gratuitous travel was chargeable to the public Treasury, even when prosperous times could have handled the burden. It was enough to escape from the National Capital every summer, to get away to Plymouth as often as possible and to keep other travel limited to specific destinations instead of the flagrant spending of continual cross-country tours or incessant vacations to luxurious places. It is telling that the Coolidges, who wanted to travel more, would not take that coast-to-coast trip until in retirement as private citizens again.
However, there is something more compelling than the singular dimension of a President morally committed to economy at its most practical, personal and ideal. What prompts him to support a government-owned private car for Presidential use is not to enhance official dignity, endorse government ownership in general nor is it to live grander than the hoi polloi, but it is to “secure his best services.” We have, after all, hired him to accomplish a task of leadership, we have delegated power for a limited time with specific ends, contractually obligating ourselves and the President to obtain the best within him while we exercise the best within us as citizens. It is for this reason he is compensated with such means of private travel, not to abuse it but in pouring it back into better and better public service, he is upholding the terms of that sacred agreement. By obtaining “the best of his ability” he upholds his oath to God and man and justifies the public faith entrusted to his care.
Leaving the social dramas and political flurries of Washington for the comfort of being at home surrounded by America’s people and countryside, is it any wonder that they are smiling?
The Coolidges arrive in Hammond, Indiana, on Flag Day, June 14, 1927.
Arriving in Hammond, the Coolidges pause respectfully for the National Anthem at Wicker Park
The Coolidges at the rear of their train
When the enormous delegation from Hammond, Indiana, stepped off the train and went to make their request at the White House on March 11, 1927, little would anyone realize the significance their visit would have on the future or the power of the statement it represented. They had not come to request money, propose an appropriation or even lobby for Federal patronage. They had come with something far more altruistic and responsible in mind. Instead of what they could get from Washington, they were inspired by what they could give, how they could promote, not themselves, but the efficacy of solvent local governments, civic-minded neighborhoods and proactive citizenship. Ever determined to pay their own way, they arrived not with the expectation of political or monetary reimbursement but to approach the President as their equal in citizenship. Quietly honoring the sovereign balance between states, the people and their national government, the Hammond delegation invited President Coolidge, as their guest, to dedicate a 225-acre park they had already acquired, paid for and provisioned so that posterity, memorializing the veterans of World War I, would be able to enjoy both the beauty of the outdoors and the rejuvenation afforded by its opportunities for wholesome recreation.
Of course, the President’s travel would cost just as would the attendant expenses of his stay. However, they knew in Mr. Coolidge there was someone who could masterfully save public money, finding ways not only in avoiding debts but amassing surpluses on even the cheapest of trips. A negotiation ensued. Perhaps he could give the speech that morning and “save…the trouble of going out there,” Coolidge offered. Well, that would curtail their time to speak now on the merits of their park, their neighborhoods and their people. They were here to underscore the strength of local civic participation after all. Ever respectful of that sovereign principle, Cal deferred and as the plan for his visit to their town took shape in the coming months, he would endorse their example in word as well as deed.
By stopping in Hammond only two hours en route to his famous stay in the Black Hills that summer, leaving immediately after the simple ceremony, Coolidge avoided the costs of accommodations, food, and the endless parade of elaborate outlay expected to accompany a Presidential visit. He detested ostentatious displays, especially at the hands of government officeholders, in part because of his own self-effacing nature but also because it always exacted a tax for which people had to work longer hours for fewer wages, seeing less a reward for themselves and more for those who have not earned it. Even on the road, Coolidge would practice economy. He would stay in unassuming places, attend rural church services rather than the grand churches of the nearest city and exercise the powers of his office to serve, not be served.
The story is told of the strenuous efforts to provide a pristine washroom for the President during one of his stops on the road. Newly supplied with soap and clean, white towels, every corner of the room was ready for his arrival. Moments before being shown these facilities, however, a hot and dusty aide hurried to the room, drying his hands on one of those towels. Claude Fuess recounts what happened next, “When the President was escorted to the washroom, his companion noticed that one of the towels was streaked with dirt, and proffered him the remaining one, but Coolidge waved him aside, saying, ‘Why soil it? There’s one that’s been used. That’s clean enough.’ ” As Fuess aptly summarizes, the account would “hardly be worth relating” if not for the light that it sheds on Coolidge’s consistent sense of humility and economy (Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont, pp.487-8).
The President faces his audience – 150,000 strong – at the dedication of Wicker Memorial Park, Hammond, Indiana
Looking out across the crowds past the baseball field, walking trails, tennis courts and 18-hole golf course, Coolidge saw something more as he began,
“This section represents a phase of life which is typically American. A few short years ago it was an uninhabited area of sand and plain. To-day it is a great industrial metropolis. The people of this region have been creating one of the most fascinating epics. The fame of it, reaching to almost every quarter of the globe, has drawn hither the energetic pioneer spirits of many different races all eager to contribute their share and to receive in return the abundant rewards which advancing enterprise can give…Here are communities inspired with a strong civic spirit moving majestically forward, serving themselves and their fellow men. Here is life and light and liberty. Here is a common purpose – working, organizing, thinking, building for eternity.” This vibrant collaboration was not instituted by government mandate, it flowered under the care of the people themselves. Moreover, it was a structure built by all races, a legacy on which everyone had left an impression and contributed a part. Such is the nature of liberty. Coolidge could easily have said the converse is equally as possible: Without a constantly replenished civic spirit, a community soon experiences death, darkness and slavery.
As Coolidge kept his commitment to speak at the dedication of Wicker Memorial Park, the visit of that large delegation stuck with him. He likely saw many of those familiar faces among the 150,000 who were there that day. He was not there to honor himself, he was there to commemorate the sacrifice of those who, not unlike the engaged citizens of Hammond, had done more than simply talk about what needs to be done, they got busy and did what needed doing. The veterans of the World War took up the full burden of American citizenship. It is only fitting that they were in turn honored by those ready to partake in that higher kind of devotion. “Not the visionary variety,” Coolidge observes, “which talks of love of country but makes no sacrifices for it, but the higher, sterner kind, which does and dares, defending assaults upon its firesides and intrusion upon its liberty with a musket in its hands.” The men and women of Hammond were not lawless anarchists or violent deviants, but “orderly, peaceable people, neither arrogant nor quarrelsome, seeking only those advantages which come from the well-earned rewards of enterprise and industry.” As a result, the people of Hammond, like Americans all across the country, were simply demonstrating what it means to responsibly exercise American citizenship.
As he stepped to the podium, Coolidge’s mind would turn again to the astounding achievements of this region of Indiana, he would reflect on the rapid but substantial rise from wilderness to thriving neighborhoods, towns and metropolises. These were not developments over which to mourn, they exemplified the strength and progress of men and women engaged in their own communities, free to direct their own destinies and make their own decisions. They embodied self-government at its finest. With local obligations being met so proficiently, it made the intervention of national authority unnecessary, redundant and destructive. The better local institutions work, as the citizens of Hammond proved, the less room there remains for central government to justify its presence. This exemplary success of civic participation was not from some coincidental combination of factors in history, as if it were all by accident, it was directly a result of the daring spirit of Americans themselves. It came from the character they possessed. As the President would remark on that occasion, “It is inconceivable that it could take place in any land but America.” The very ground on which they stood was testament to that truth. It had once been a dry, sandy plain. Now it was a garden appealing not only to the mind but to the spirit of man. It was conceived and carried out not by the votes of politicians but through the effort and perseverance of citizens who recognized they had an obligation to give, not merely to take. Men like George Hammond, whose packing plant helped establish the town; or the 16 men of North Township who joined together to bequeath this large property to posterity for its practical usage in bettering people.
“Such a people always respond when there is need for military service.” The service Hammond was rendering was hardly the first time that area had known sacrifice. Every war down to the latest World War had seen Hammond give of its own to something greater than accolades or recognition. It had helped decide the “chief issue” of the Great War: “whether an autocratic form or a republican form of government was to be predominant among the great nations of the earth. It was fought to a considerable extent to decide whether the people were to rule, or whether they were to be ruled; whether self-government or autocracy should prevail. Victory finally rested on the side of the people…This park is a real memorial to World War service because it distinctly recognizes the sovereignty and materially enlarges the dominion of the people. It is a true emblem of our Republic.”
The President elaborated on this concept by looking back through history. Ancient gardens and Old World parks “had little to do with the public. Parks were private affairs for the benefit of royalty and the nobility.” Recent past had seen an outpouring of interest and investment “in our country…for these important functions.” But here, in stark difference from antiquity, these places of recreation are as important as where people work and live. They are just as essential as homes and workplaces in rearing a people “who are fit to rule.” It was uniquely and “triumphantly American” that places like Wicker Park take on such importance in the community. Since, Coolidge explains, “[i]in this country the sciences, the arts, the humanities, are not reserved for a supposed aristocracy, but for the whole of the people. Here we do not extend privilege to a few, we extend privilege to everybody. That which was only provided for kings and nobles in former days, bestow freely on the people at large. The destiny of America is to give the people still more royal powers, to strengthen their hand for a more effective grasp upon the scepter.”
The children of the Carmelite Orphanage enthusiastically receive the Coolidges.
Even with all the progress America has brought, “we are still a great distance from what we would like to be.” Education, religious devotion and economic opportunities need further improvement. Recognizing that we are far from perfection, these all deserve the best we can render to close that distance and “work toward…elimination” of our shortcomings in regard to God and man. “But we should not be discouraged because we are surrounded by human limitations and handicapped by human weakness. We are also possessors of human strength, intelligence, courage, fidelity, character – these, also, are our heritage and our mark of the Divine image.” We neglect that truth to our peril. “The conclusion that our institutions are sound, that our social system is correct, has been demonstrated beyond question by our experience. It is necessary that this should be known and properly appreciated.” The President then predicted what would happen should this fail to be done. “Unless it continues to be the public conviction, we are likely to fall a more easy prey to the advocates of false economic, political, and social doctrines. It is always very easy to promise everything. It is sometimes difficult to deliver anything. In our political and economic life there will always be those who are lavish with unwanted criticism and well supplied with false hopes. It is always well to remember that American institutions have stood the test of experience. They do not profess to promise everything, but to communities and to individuals who have been content to live by them they have never failed in their satisfactions and rewards. Here industry can find employment, thrift can amass a competency, and square dealing is assured of justice.”
Loretta Jablowski, age 6, welcomes the President and First Lady to Hammond
As Coolidge neared the end of his dedicatory message, he returned to the importance of what was not merely being said over the microphone, but what was being lived in the deeds of communities like Hammond and the people of North Township but in places all across America. It had to continue. Civic participation — the substance of an active, engaged citizenship — had to be nurtured and continually developed or else stagnation and decay would result. Crucial to the strength of that civic spirit are the unseen realities: the ideals of this country. “Amid all her prosperity, America has not forgotten her ideals,” the President testified. He saw their vigor and life at every stop along the tracks to South Dakota that summer. He saw them in the accomplishments of young men like Charles Lindbergh. He also saw them in the simple acts of kindness shown by the children the Coolidges met on that trip. Calvin would joyfully take up one of them, a little girl of six years, in his arms in appreciation for the bouquet she had for Mrs. Coolidge. It was Cal, welcoming all the children who had come with flags, flowers and tokens of their patriotism, dismissed the Secret Service’s well-intentioned efforts to prevent them. The love those children had for America was not something to shame and disparage but to keep kindled and encouraged. It was, after all, the seed of a greater and greater civic involvement that would preserve communities’ soundness and self-sufficiency by keeping governance nearest to those it concerned. “It is but a passing glance that we bestow upon wealth and place,” Cal would say as he closed his message at Wicker Park, “compared with that which we pour out upon courage, patriotism, holiness, and character. We dedicate no monuments to merely financial and economic success, while our country is filled with memorials to those who have done some service for their fellow men. This park stands as a fitting example of these principles. It is a memorial to those who defended their country in its time of peril. Through the benefits that it will bestow upon this community, it is an example of practical idealism.”
As Coolidge surveyed the hundreds of thousands of Americans who filled the park that day, he saw in our future not a sapping despair or delusion of cynicism but one bright with better things in store, a future resplendent with the potential of a free and actively engaged citizenry. That future, however, was conditional. If our country was to lead the way toward realizing “a world fit for the abode of heroes,” as Coolidge sincerely wanted, “it can only be through the industry, the devotion, and the character of the people themselves. The Government can help to provide opportunity, but the people must take advantage of it. As the inhabitants of the North Township repair to this park in the years to come, as they are reinvigorated in body and mind by its use, as they are moved by the memory of the heroic deeds of those to whom it is dedicated, may they become the partakers and promoters of a more noble, more exalted, more inspired American life.” He knew Americans, taking responsibility themselves rather than waiting for government to act, were more than up to this challenge. It remains for us to prove we are now.
It matters not what era or generation we find ourselves, there is an irrepressible impulse to search for and take pride in exceptional deeds, heroic achievements and great examples of character, courage and competence. As Americans we especially prize the opportunity to honor noble men and women. It reminds us that good is still rewarded and it renews our faith. Such was the occasion eighty-seven years ago, when young Charles Lindbergh completed the first ever solo transatlantic flight, a 3,600 mile, 33 and a half-hour feat, from Roosevelt Field in New York to Le Bourge Field, outside Paris, on May 20-21, 1927.
Returning to his homeland, Colonel Lindbergh found a nation ready to recognize what he had done not only for its contributions to aviation but to a much larger degree how he furnished a front-page opportunity to take stock of what was really good and worthwhile about America. Not unlike today, Americans had heard enough negativity and criticism of their ways, their institutions, their shortcomings. Too little regard had been given to her accomplishments, to the things that were genuinely wholesome, admirable and worthy of praise when it came to America. Americans, then as now, loved their country and wanted others to better understand why that love remained justified. It was more than a chance to display scientific acumen, to gloat at what others had failed to do, it was a time to manifest good will, charity and service, especially as the people of France mourned the loss of the two pilots (Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli) sent westward to complete the same challenge just 13 days before Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris. It was not a time to flaunt greatness for its own sake, it was a time to commend bravery and ingenuity in the midst of tangible danger. It was a celebration of what was best about America, not with militaristic nationalism, but with humble circumspection and joy at reaching a human goal that had been years in the striving.
The occasion that bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal signed into existence by President Coolidge the summer before, on Colonel Lindbergh was not the result of one man or one city, it was the product of some of America’s finest engineers and innovators, like Fred Rohr, whose design of the fuel system for The Spirit of St. Louis made greater distances reachable for the first time. It was the people of San Diego and the determined folks of Ryan Airlines, who turned a tuna cannery into the creator of one of the most exceptional planes ever constructed. They met Lindbergh’s sixty day deadline, spending hundreds of thousands less than the forest of competitors rushing to build the plane that would make the crossing. It was creative minds like those of Donald Hall, the chief engineer for Lindy’s plane, who devised a way to furnish enough lift despite a fuel load heavier than the aircraft itself. On and on the list could go, recounting the great deeds of those who dreamed big dreams, dared to test the bounds of the possible, and finally reaped the rewards and the risks of what had never been done before but now could be thanks in no small part to America’s freedoms and opportunities.
Welcoming this young American home, President Coolidge addressed the 100,000 gathered on this day on the north side of the Washington monument:
“My Fellow Countrymen:
“It was in America that the modern art of flying heavier-than-air machines was first developed. As the experiments became successful, the airplane was devoted to practical purposes. It has been adapted to commerce in the transportation of passengers and mail and used for national defense by our land and sea forces. Beginning with a limited flying radius, its length has been gradually extended. We have made many flying records. Our Army flyers have circumnavigated the globe. One of our Navy men started from California and flew far enough to have reached Hawaii, but being off his course landed in the water. Another officer of the Navy has flown to the North Pole. Our own country has been traversed from shore to shore in a single flight.
“It had been apparent for some time that the next great feat in the air would be a continuous flight from the mainland of America to the mainland of Europe. Two courageous Frenchmen made the reverse attempt and passed to a fate that is as yet unknown. Others were speeding their preparations to make the trial, but it remained for an unknown youth to tempt the elements and win. It is the same story of valor and victory by a son of the people that shines through every page of American history.
“The absence of self-acclaim, the refusal to become commercialized, which has marked the conduct of this sincere and genuine exemplar of fine and noble virtues, has endeared him to everyone. He has returned unspoiled. Particularly has it been delightful to have him refer to his airplane as somehow possessing a personality and being equally entitled to credit with himself, for we are proud that in every particular this silent partner represented American genius and industry. I am told that more than 100 separate companies furnished materials, parts, or service in its construction.
“And now, my fellow citizens, this young man has returned. He is here. He has brought his unsullied fame home. It is our great privilege to welcome back to his native land, on behalf of his own people, who have a deep affection for him and have been thrilled by this splendid achievement, a colonel of the United States Officers’ Reserve Corps, an illustrious citizen of our Republic, a conqueror of the air and strengthener of the ties which bind us to our sister nations across the sea, and, as President of the United States, I bestow the distinguished flying cross, as a symbol of appreciation for what he is and what he has done, upon Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh.”
Created from section 12 of the Air Corps Act on July 2, 1926, the eventual design was completed by Miss Elizabeth Will and A. E. DuBois of the Army’s Heraldic Section (now called the Institute of Heraldry), who integrated the symbolism of a cross for sacrifice, superimposed with four propellers and completed by five sun rays in each angle of the cross to denote the greatness of the deeds for which it would be bestowed. Finally the red, white and blue drawn from our national colors completes the distinctive yet simple appearance of the medal. Despite criticism of the design by those who did more than most to champion its creation, the rank and file soldier, Marine, sailor and airman always had a strong affection for it. Consequently, despite pressure to alter it, the original design has remained unchanged since its inception eighty-eight years ago.
While Lindbergh was the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross in medal form on June 11, he was not the first to receive the citation, as the ten pilots of the Pan-American Goodwill flight of 1926 were, seen here. Lindbergh would join a vast assembly of aviators, inventors and entrepreneurs, before and after him, who would take on the unknown and leave their mark on the development of flight. As Coolidge would recount, from the earliest efforts of Wilbur and Orville Wright, along the shores of Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, to the circumnavigation of the globe by Major Frederick L. Martin in 1924, the effort to make flight attainable came through much trial and error, failure and success. Commander John Rodgers would begin a transpacific crossing in 1925 and be rescued after ten days at sea off the coast of Hawaii. Commander Richard E. Byrd, joined by Warrant Officer Floyd Bennett, would fly over the North Pole on May 9, 1926. The first shore to shore non-stop flight would be done by Lieutenants John A. Macready and Oakley Kelly from New York to San Diego in May 1923. After signing the legislation that created the Distinguished Flying Cross, President Coolidge would recognize upwards of fifty-eight aviators between 1927 and 1929 whose “act of heroism or extraordinary achievement” merited the honor.
President Coolidge gave the Distinguished Flying Cross certificate for the first time just over a month before the Lindbergh ceremony. Here, at Bolling Field in Washington, Major Herbert A. Dargue accepts one of the ten awards bestowed that day, May 2, 1927. Two would be given posthumously in recognition of Captain Clinton Woolsey and Lieutenant John Benton, who tragically died from collision with another of the 5 ships participating in the Pan-American Goodwill Flight, February 26, 1927.
The pilots of the Pan-American Goodwill Flight, 21 December 1926-2 May 1927
Here is a working list of the 56 individuals who were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Coolidge years. Many are not on this list including those who flew operations during this time period but were recognized after Coolidge’s term of office ended and certain civilians to whom the award was granted prior to revision of section 12 of the Air Commerce Act by Coolidge’s Executive Order 4601 effective March 1, 1927. As best research confirms the names are in chronological order by date of award, with a second list noting known recipients by year only. The name at the bottom is one whom the President tried unsuccessfully to have approved for the medal by Congress. Mr. Chamberlin declined the requirement of qualification: joining either the Air Corps or Navy as an aviator. As such he was never awarded the DFC. Also absent from this list are the tanker crews who collaborated in the endurance tests of Question Mark but failed to receive official recognition until 1976.
Lieutenant John W. Benton’s Distinguished Flying Cross citation, May 2, 1927, representative of what was given by President Coolidge to the aviators of the Goodwill flight that day.
As pointed out by the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, the law contained three fascinating elements in awarding the DFC:
1. The medal could be bestowed retroactively, as would be done by Coolidge for the Wright brothers, who were recognized on December 18, 1928. Wilbur received it posthumously, having died in 1912. Orville, still alive, would meet Lindbergh and take an active part in the Civil Aeronautics Conference in 1928. Many would carry out their work in aviation during the early 1920s but not be honored until after Coolidge’s time.
2. The medal was not predicated upon combat heroism, it placed an equal esteem for heroism in peacetime. Of the fifty-six given under the Coolidge administration, the vast majority would be for actions done outside of hostilities. James Doolittle would earn his first two Flying Crosses for the first cross-country flight in 1922 and work with acceleration in 1924 but not be officially recognized until August 1, 1929. For the first endurance record, logging 150 hours in air, all five crewmen of the Question Mark would be given the Flying Cross as one of Coolidge’s last official acts in January 1929. Even aviators of other countries were recognized with the medal for their pioneering work, such as Captains Hermann Koehl and James Fitzmaurice with Baron von Hunefeld, who were the first to cross the Atlantic from Europe to America eleven months after Lindbergh landed in Paris.
Captain James Fitzmaurice of Ireland being presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross by President Calvin Coolidge, at noon on May 2, 1928.
Coolidge also recognized Captain Koehl of Germany and the owner of the Bremer, Baron von Hunefeld (between Koehl and Fitzmaurice), with Flying Crosses for making the trek jointly thereby becoming the first to successfully cross the Atlantic from east to west and proving that in spite of stiffer wind patterns travel could go both ways by air.
3. The medal was the first to be universal to all branches of the service. Up to then, medals were distinct to the specific part of the military to which one was attached. The Distinguished Flying Cross, representing sacrifice and flight, is not only the oldest military aviation medal but, perhaps more than any other, encapsulates America. In a unique way the medal brought down artificial barriers and reminded us of our obligations to others, celebrating what is best about our country and most noble in human nature itself. Maybe that is why Coolidge liked it so much. He understood more enduring good could be secured not by fixating on her imperfections but by reflecting on the reasons America inspires and remains worthy of respect and admiration. If our nation was to improve, it remained with us not to tear down but build up, not nurse old hatreds and envies but contribute by first being better people, better neighbors, and better citizens ourselves.
Lindbergh and his mother hosted by the Coolidges at DuPont Circle, where the President and his wife stayed during repairs to the White House roof that spring of 1927. Notice how everyone is cheerful except the unexpectedly sober figure on the right. Lindbergh, about to appear in a light suit, was corrected by Coolidge who chose a dark suit for him as better befitting the formality of the occasion. Even returning heroes need to take care of the way they dress. They set a deeper example than even they may realize. It is one that should not be treated flippantly.