Literature Review

The Boston Police Strike of 1919 first terrorized the people of Boston and then terrorized the nation. The reason for fear amongst the population of Boston was obvious—a desertion of police officers left the city in a virtually lawless state where rioting, looting, rape, and other crimes ran rampant. The reason for the nation’s fear, however, was slightly more complex. A general strike in Seattle and President Woodrow Wilson’s fears of a nationwide steel strike stoked the fires of anxiety. The possibility of more and more workers walking out of their jobs in protest were legitimate concerns to the American people in 1919. The dread of Bolshevism was on the rise. 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. While the Pullman Strike did not have the same type of civic disruption, Coolidge in Boston was particularly at a disadvantage. The very people who had promised to defend the city from anarchy were now the cause of it. Because of Coolidge’s reaction to the strike, which included an effective firing of all striking police with no chance of being reinstated, Coolidge became a national hero and was eventually nominated to the Vice-Presidency, on the ticket with Warren G. Harding.

What literature that can be found on Coolidge typically deals with his presidency, which is understandable. There is a lack of secondary information specifically regarding Coolidge and the strike, but it does exist. The literature concerning Coolidge’s involvement in the strike has changed over time, but is ultimately split between those historians who appreciate the politics of Coolidge and those who condemn him for them. The change over time, though it exists, is not the biggest marker of the evolution of Coolidge literature, but it is nevertheless interesting and should be mentioned.

One of the most noteworthy secondary sources that shows appreciation for Coolidge and his political positions is William Allen White’s A Puritan in Babylon from 1938. White says that Coolidge’s entire time from leaving the University in Amherst to when he succeeded Warren G Harding was political preparation.[1] White, a progressive newspaper editor and 1923 Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote that “after the police strike…Calvin Coolidge became a national figure.” White is typically praiseful of Coolidge’s response, or at least that is how White reports the nation to feel: “It was a great day for the simple mind of democracy when a fairy tale—featuring a real Jack the Giant Killer—came true.” Even the title of White’s book reveals something of admiration for Coolidge, as did Allan Nevins’ biography of Grover Cleveland, A Study in Courage.[2] The praise of a President is not unusual in a biography, and it does not make the writings held within any less historical. Robert Sobel, in his 1998 Coolidge, also takes a positive approach to Coolidge and his actions, writing that “Coolidge knew exactly what he was doing.”[3]

This kind of praise is questioned in many of the other books that deal with Coolidge and the strike. A biography of Samuel Gompers (called Samuel Gompers), head of the American Federation of Labor at the time of the Boston strike, written by Bernard Mandel in 1963, contains information and attitudes towards the situation that reveal a disdain for Coolidge and those on the governor’s team that crushed the strike. Mandel dismisses, out of hand, the fear of Bolshevism by saying that “the hysteria fostered by the ‘red scare’” resulted in “the arbitrary firing of nineteen policemen because they had a formed a union.”[4] Similarly, in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States vol. 8 from 1988, Philip S. Foner writes that Coolidge waited to act so that the public opinion would be swayed against the strikers. [5]

Criticism also comes from those not directly writing about the labor movement. Donald McCoy’s The Quiet President from 1967 points out that Governor Coolidge did in fact increase the wages of telephone workers who went on strike earlier in 1919, dispelling some notions that Coolidge was unaware of the plight of the worker. In fact, Coolidge was operating amid the frustrating reality of war debt. Not everyone was going to get what they wanted, and whoever was the head executive would have to budget. McCoy also reveals that Coolidge did try to alleviate the conditions of the Boston Police, but had trouble getting it to work with lawmakers on Beacon Hill. Later, before the strike, Coolidge eventually managed to raise the pay of the policemen, which was one of their demands. McCoy, however, asserts that this was not enough.[6] The police must have agreed because they struck anyway. Robert H. Ferrell’s 1998 The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge touches on the strike as well, agreeing with McCoy’s points. What Ferrell concedes, though, is that Coolidge acted in the way he did, not for political fame, but out of an honest desire to do good. He cites Coolidge as saying, because of his response to the strike, that “I have just committed political suicide.”[7]

The praise of Coolidge and his efforts in dealing with the 1919 strike has also appeared in articles. Patrick Buchanan, in a 2007 article in the American Conservative called “To Strike a Nation,” writes that the strike awarded Coolidge “thunderous approval from Middle America and won Coolidge the nomination for vice president on the 1920 ticket of Warren Harding.” Naturally, Buchanan is in favor of Coolidge.[8] There are, however, also articles that condemn Coolidge, such as Eric Foner’s 2006 article in The Washington Post called “He’s the Worst Ever.” Foner writes that until George W. Bush, there had never been a more corrupt and pro-business president than Coolidge.[9] Admittedly, the article is only in a small part about Coolidge and has nothing to do with the strike. However, because of its stance on Coolidge’s character, it suggests he was anti-union. This is sometimes the atmosphere in which research on Coolidge is conducted. Foner, though an awarded historian, is hardly a fair source on this topic, himself a member of the editorial boards of The Nation and the Marxist publication Past and Present.

The most recent book involved in this research is Amity Shlaes’ 2013 biography called Coolidge. In it she portrays Coolidge in a way in which he is rarely seen—a good president and a hero. Shlaes approaches Coolidge understanding that he was a man who was forced to budget because of the debt accrued from the recent world war. She examines the ways in which the nation was having similar crises to Boston. Interestingly, Shlaes also writes that Coolidge received support from Woodrow Wilson, who is quoted about Coolidge’s reaction to the strike as saying “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.”[10] Very importantly, she also reveals a fact that is seldom brought up in the negative approaches to the strike-breakers: The police commissioner “was planning raises for junior policemen” before the strike.[11]

The change over time in the approach to literature on Coolidge that was mentioned in the beginning of this essay is an interesting topic. Shlaes calls Coolidge “Our great refrainer.” While Shlaes writes about Coolidge as if he were a war hero—“Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism, harder to appreciate”[12]— other writers take issue with Coolidge’s conservative approach to government. Eric Foner is an example an author that writes what has been regarded recently as acceptable history. Foner writes from a Marxist perspective, clearly a position from which Shlaes is not writing. This brings up a very important question about American history and the study of Coolidge from different perspectives. What goes into history is often what the author writing it wants, regardless of facts, and designed to please either academia or customers. Certain areas of literature cannot be dismissed simply because they do not agree with what prejudices the reader already has.

 

Bibliography

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.

“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.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Amity Shlaes. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013. 168.

[11] Ibid., 170.

[12] Ibid., 7.