Final Coolidge Research Paper

 

 

“They sailed up out of the infinite”:

Calvin Coolidge and the Boston Police Strike of 1919

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Calvin Coolidge valued hard work and commitment. When Plymouth Rock was being unearthed shortly before Coolidge became the Vice President of the United States, he took the opportunity to reflect on where America had come from and where it was going. The Pilgrims, he believed, had been the true example of how Americans in the 1920’s should persevere and better themselves. Like the Pilgrims seeking religious freecom, America had just emerged from war and was in the midst of progressive politics and debt that would deeply change the country. The Pilgrims sought their old lives in a new land, and so too did Coolidge and the Republicans seek a return to “Normalcy.”[1] At the unearthing ceremony Coolidge exclaimed, of the Pilgrims, “They sailed up out of the infinite.”[2] His words were also a plea to those listening that what America needed was not drastic change, but a return to the ideals of American Republicanism—individuality, integrity, and frugality. That is why, after the Boston Police Strike of 1919, then-Governor Coolidge refused to reinstate striking police officers. To Coolidge, they were deserters. The hardline to which Coolidge stuck resonated with the nation and propelled him to the Republican nomination for the office of Vice President, alongside the party’s Presidential nominee, Warren Harding. It also made him a conservative hero, loved by those who admire small government and law and order at any cost, and detested by those who hold no such views.

At the end of the First World War, the United States was in a position that demanded reduced government spending. The people of the nation were also worried about the rise of Bolshevism and the potential of the progressive movement to run amok. Amid this backdrop, the Boston Police, against their department rules, had become affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in August of 1919. In September, the police were threatening to strike if their demands for better pay and improved working conditions were not met. They were working in quite deplorable conditions, so their complaints were not unjustified. The police worked longer hours and were paid less than the average wage-earner in the country. Recruits were paid two dollars a day in a time when the average salary was a little over 25 dollars a week, had little to no vacation time during their seven-day work week (up to 90 hours), were refused the opportunity to leave the city without special permission, and in some cases were required to sleep at their posts instead of in their own beds.[3] The 19 police officers who headed the unionization movement, led by the senior John McInnes, were suspended by the police commissioner, Edwin Curtis after a judicial review. The following day, about three-quarters of the Boston Police left their posts and joined the strike, leaving the city undefended. Riots, rapes, and looting ensued. Militias were called in and order was soon restored, but not after considerable property damage had already taken place and a number of people had been killed.[4]

After the strike, the head of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, called for sensibility by having the striking officers restored to their positions.[5] Curtis said no. Coolidge, while Governor of Massachusetts in 1919, showed the people of the United States what leadership meant in the face of crisis by defending Curtis’ decision. Like President Grover Cleveland dealing with the Pullman Strike in 1894, a strike that required Cleveland to order in the U.S. Army against the strikers, Governor Calvin Coolidge was in a tough position concerning how to deal with a striking police force. He, understanding that the policemen leaving their posts was not only irresponsible, but indefensible, said, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”[6] None of the striking police officers were reinstated. President Woodrow Wilson, dealing with national strike issues but still sympathetic towards the governor, agreed with Coolidge’s hardline and said, “In my judgement…the obligation of a policeman is as sacred as the obligation of the soldier…I hope that that lesson will be burned in so that it will never again be forgotten.”[7] The people of Boston, afraid of a general strike such as what had happened in Seattle, were relieved. The American people also stood by Coolidge’s side.

Coolidge’s actions, however, have not eluded criticism from those who side with unions against public safety. Indeed, today Coolidge is not seen as a good leader either while governor, or during his term as President of the United States. Historian and Marxist, Eric Foner wrote an article for The Washington Post called “He’s the Worst Ever,” in which Foner declares that Coolidge was as corrupt as they come, not an honorable man.[8] Coolidge’s decision during the strike, a pro-public safety stance, has been spun into cold-heartedness.

This view is false. Coolidge actually had a history of dealing with labor unions and agreeing to their demands. He raised the pay of telephone operators who threatened to strike earlier in 1919. But as already mentioned, Massachusetts and the nation were deeply in debt. The war had exhausted much—so much so that Coolidge at this time was engaged in a process of cutting government spending. Everyone had to tighten their belts. Coolidge himself lived well below his means,[9] much to the ire of his political opponents who thought it unfit that the governor did not live in luxury. Historian Amity Shlaes, in her book Coolidge, described Coolidge as “a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts” and went on to say that “Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate.”[10] Coolidge’s own view of the office of governor was that it was “held in the highest honor by the people of the Commonwealth.”[11] Indeed, his inaugural address “dwelt on the need of promoting the public health, education, and the opportunity for employment at fair wages in accordance with the right of the people to be well born, well reared, well educated, well employed and well paid.”[12] Coolidge’s record certainly shows that he cared about the public welfare and the condition of workers across the state; but he was no “rabble-rouser.”[13]

However, after the strike, this view was not shared by the American people, who were notoriously changeable. “[Coolidge] became the champion of the anti-Marxists… [And] hero of antilabor forces.”[14] Actually, Coolidge’s entire political history was one of change. When Coolidge first entered politics, Theodore Roosevelt was the ideal Republican, and acting according to TR’s philosophy was celebrated. Coolidge’s politics were arguably a reaction to the progressive movement, but it was reality that shaped Coolidge’s views, not idealism. Above all, Coolidge proved himself to be a pragmatist. Progressivism did not appeal to Coolidge when all around him he saw the need for restraint, not expansion. This pattern held true for the Boston Police Strike. Before, Coolidge was willing to negotiate with striking workers and come to an agreement, but the events of the strike forced his hand. Coolidge became a conservative. It is true that he already had been, but now the nation could see the development. Coolidge was a public official who reminded the nation that, as Grover Cleveland had defined it, “A public office is a public trust.”[15] The striking police were no less than culprits in a conspiracy to disrupt public safety, and all because their working conditions were not quickly relieved—a selfish decision to some.

This national attitude towards Coolidge boded well for the Republican Party, who were seeking names for the 1920 presidential election. After the strike Coolidge was “easily the most popular figure in the state [of Massachusetts].”[16] This was news for Coolidge, who expected to wake up the morning after the strike very unpopular. Clearly there was a different attitude towards the labor movement amongst the American population than what exists today. Alexis Walker writes that “In the midst of the 1919 Red Scare, conciliation and compromise in a strike by public servants was deeply unpopular.”[17] Even the Los Angeles Times published that “No man’s house, no man’s wife, no man’s children will be safe if the police force is unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses.”[18] Indeed, Coolidge’s popularity after the strike is widely documented. Robert Ferrell, in his 1998 book The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, writes that Coolidge’s “nomination for the vice presidency was in fair part a result of his prominence after the police strike.”[19] There was, also, no small part played by Coolidge publishing a collection of his speeches in 1919 titled Have Faith in Massachusetts,[20] which was widely popular. Nevertheless, his nomination was not assured.[21] Coolidge failed to get first place on the ticket and would not be the Republican nominee for presidency. Eventually, however, Coolidge was declared the running mate of Harding, which suited Coolidge and his family just fine. Upon receipt of this news, Coolidge had a conversation with his wife, Grace. She asked Coolidge if he planned on accepting the nomination, to which he responded, “I suppose I shall have to.”[22] His decision later in life to not run for reelection in 1928 evidences the possibility that he acted out of humility and was quite humble. His autobiography states that he never sought the nomination, but allowed others to seek it for him if they should so choose. The election went favorably for the GOP: “Tennessee…voted for a Republican over a democrat in the presidential election for the first time since 1868. Coolidge’s actions during the police strike were often cited as the reason for the GOP success. ‘The people not only beat Gompers and Cox [the Democrat nominee]. They were at particular pains to rub it in,’ gloated The Wall Street Journal.”[23] The strike was the main reason that Coolidge was nominated to the vice presidency, no other reason trumps it.[24]

There does exist some criticism of Coolidge’s actions during the strike that is aimed at his response time to it. This criticism insists that Coolidge purposefully responded slowly so as to allow time for the city to fall into disorder, the ultimate goal of which being to sway public opinion against the police. This criticism comes from labor historian, Philip Foner, who argued that Coolidge acted in this way to propel him to popularity when he did finally crush the strike.[25] This is a serious accusation. It is mentioned in William Allen White’s A Puritan in Babylon, too, but not evidenced or expanded upon. However, Foner slips up by revealing that the reason that it took more than a night to respond to the strike is because of issues of jurisdiction. A volunteer force of temporary-police was called in. Foner writes, a page before his condemnation, “[Commissioner] Curtis had instructed the volunteer force to report the following morning”[26] thereby taking the responsibility off of Coolidge. This criticism, then, can be put to rest.

But it cannot be ignored. These two historians (the Foners) do represent a part of the general literature on Coolidge and directly oppose Shlaes’ work. While Shales is a self-identified conservative who works for multiple right-wing foundations, the Foners, in their respective times, were Marxists.[27] It comes as no surprise then that the Foners dislike Coolidge while Shales calls him a hero. If anything, the evidence does not back up the Foners. The older literature on Coolidge is quite favorable of Coolidge in their coverage. This is odd, because Coolidge is still not widely admired by current historians. Perhaps the political leanings of today have created a feeling of hostility towards those presidents who sought less government interference, the same reason that Grover Cleveland is forgotten. In his time, Coolidge was loved by the nation for his hardline against the striking policemen: “The centrality of the strike in creating Coolidge’s national reputation as a firm, uncompromising defender of law and order was evident in conservative responses to his reelection as governor in 1919.”[28] Another conservative historian, Thomas Silver, recognizes this disdain for Coolidge and writes that “Coolidge’s policies are regarded by most historians as beneath contempt.”[29] Silver argues that what historians are doing is offering the view that was once offered by Coolidge’s political enemies.[30] Everyone writes with a bias, says Silver; actually, it is a historian’s job. White’s biography of Coolidge is a prime example. Of Coolidge’s decision, White wrote: “It was a great day for the simple mind of democracy when a fairy tale—featuring a real Jack the Giant Killer—came true.”[31]  This is a fair way to write that includes admiration. It is unmistakable and opinionated. But to write with a bias while feigning neutrality is the real wrong.

As in the political cartoon that is the cover page of this essay, Coolidge stood strong in the storm of progressive change, riding the elephant of the Republican party to trample on wrong, unsure that he would emerge from the situation victorious or popular. He stomped on radicalism, not as a means to put down the labor class, but to argue for a higher moral standard that must be held by the men who took the charge to defend Boston from anarchy. It is a sad fact that the policemen deserted their posts, and the property damage and death that they allowed will forever haunt the image of the Boston Police. Commissioner Curtis hired an entirely new police force for Boston after the strike, and furnished them with new equipment and better conditions. He stood with Coolidge against anarchy, and should be remembered for his bravery in making an unsure decision. Likewise, the Mayor, Ole Hanson, stood firm with law and order, saying “Any man who attempts to take over the control of municipal government functions here will be shot on sight.”[32] It was Coolidge’s straightforward approach to law and order that made him a great governor and admired politician. These traits, along with his incorruptibility and Grover Cleveland-like ethics, brought him to the vice presidency of the United States. Coolidge had honored the Pilgrims who sailed to the City-on-the-Hill by defending that city for the greater good.

 

 

 

Works Consulted Bibliography

“A Return to Normalcy.” Teaching American History. Accessed April 6, 2016.

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/return-to-normalcy/.

 

Buchanan, Patrick J. “To Strike a Nation.” American Conservative 6, no. 24 (December 17, 2007).

 

Coolidge, Calvin. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929.

 

———-.Have Faith in Massachusetts; a Collection of Speeches and Messages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919.

 

———-.The Price of Freedom; Speeches and Addresses. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1924.

 

Farmer, Brian. “The Boston Police Strike of 1919.” The New American. July 15, 2011. Accessed February 14, 2016. http://www.thenewamerican.com/culture/history/item/4829-the-boston-police-strike-of-1919.

 

Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

 

Foner, Eric. “He’s the Worst Ever.” The Washington Post. December 3, 2006.

 

Foner, Philip Sheldon. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 8. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

 

Greenberg, David. Calvin Coolidge. New York: Times Books, 2007.

 

Lathem, Edward Connery. Meet Calvin Coolidge. Stephen Green Pr., 1960.

 

Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press, 1963.

 

McCoy, Donald R. Calvin Coolidge; the Quiet President. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

 

Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1932.

 

Russell, Francis. A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

 

Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013.

 

———-. “Just This Once.” Forbes, November 2, 2009.

 

Silver, Thomas B. “Coolidge and the Historians.” The American Scholar, 2001.

 

Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub., 1998.

 

Soukup, Bryan J. “From Coolidge to Christie: Historical Antecedents of Current Government Officials Dealing with Public Sector Labor Unions.” Labor Law Journal, 2013.

 

“The Ultimate Guide to the Presidents.” In The Changing of the Guard. History Channel. January 17, 2013.

 

“The Way to Deal with Police Strikes.” The New York Times, September 12, 1919.

 

Walker, Alexis N. “The Historical Presidency “The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made”: Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016.

 

White, William Allen. A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge. Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1986.

 

 

 

Cover image:

 

Digital image. The Importance of the Obvious: A Blog on the Political Philosophy of Calvin Coolidge. August 14, 2014. http://crackerpilgrim.com/2014/08/14/on-criticism-lawlessness-and-public-order/.

 

[1] “A Return to Normalcy.” Teaching American History. Accessed April 6, 2016. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/return-to-normalcy/ Normalcy refers to the campaign promise of Warren Harding in 1920 which promised a return to pre-war government standards of spending—reduction of the budget—and a general ‘ease’ on the country. Harding said, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

[2] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. (New York: Harper, 2013), 210.

 

[3] Philip Sheldon Foner. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 8. New York: International Publishers, 1988. 92-101.

[4] Donald R. McCoy Calvin Coolidge; the Quiet President. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 83-87.

[5] Calvin Coolidge. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 134.

[6] Robert Sobel. Coolidge: An American Enigma. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub., 1998), 144.

[7] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. (New York: Harper, 2013), 168.

[8] Eric Foner. “He’s the Worst Ever.” The Washington Post. December 3, 2006.

[9] Calvin Coolidge. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 125. Coolidge, in fact, lived in the Adam’s House, for which he paid $3.50 in rent a day.

[10] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. (New York: Harper, 2013), 7.

[11] Calvin Coolidge. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 124.

[12] Ibid. 125.

[13] Donald R. McCoy Calvin Coolidge; the Quiet President. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 94.

[14] Ibid. 94.

[15] Allan Nevins. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1932).

[16] Donald R. McCoy Calvin Coolidge; the Quiet President. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 98.

[17] Walker, Alexis N. “The Historical Presidency “The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made”: Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016. 200.

[18] Soukup, Bryan J. “From Coolidge to Christie: Historical Antecedents of Current Government Officials Dealing with Public Sector Labor Unions.” Labor Law Journal, 2013. 177.

[19] Robert H. Ferrell. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 15.

[20] Calvin Coolidge. Have Faith in Massachusetts; a Collection of Speeches and Messages. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919).

[21] Robert H. Ferrell. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 15.

[22] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. (New York: Harper, 2013), 202.

[23] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. (New York: Harper, 2013), 209.

[24] Walker, Alexis N. “The Historical Presidency “The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made”: Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016. 200.

[25] Philip Sheldon Foner. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 8. (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 96. Interestingly, P.S. Foner is the uncle of Eric Foner, who is cited in this paper, and also condemns Coolidge. Both are Marxist historians.

[26] Ibid. 95.

[27] Only Eric Foner is alive at the time of this writing.

[28] Walker, Alexis N. “The Historical Presidency “The Fibre of Which Presidents Ought to Be Made”: Union Busting from Rutherford Hayes to Scott Walker.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2016. 200.

[29] Silver, Thomas B. “Coolidge and the Historians.” The American Scholar, 2001. 504.

[30] Ibid. 506.

 

[31] William Allen White. A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge. (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1986), 166.

[32] Ibid. 150.