Calvin Coolidge and the Boston Police Strike of 1919
The working conditions for the Boston police force were deplorable in 1919. They 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 permissions, and in some cases were required to sleep at their posts instead of their own beds. They had grievances.
In an effort to appeal to those public officials in charge, members of the Boston police force became interested in unionizing and developing affiliation with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Police Commissioner, Edwin Curtis, backed by a nation afraid of the potential Bolshevism in its worker-class because of the Soviet Revolution, took a strong stance against any unionization. It was also against the rules for the Boston police to so do as per their employment agreements. After the most prominent leaders of the unionization-effort were fired from their jobs, three-fourths of the police force left their posts and went on strike. The city was essentially lawless, with many petty crimes and acts of violence committed over several days.
The State Guard was called in and they helped to control the violence and deescalate the situation. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, in a voice of reason called for the workers to return to their jobs. The police respectfully agreed with Gompers and sought their old posts. Commissioner Curtis, backed by Governor Calvin Coolidge, refused their reinstatement. Nearly the entirety of the Boston police force was then out of work. A general strike was feared by the Mayor of Boston, but Coolidge and Curtis stayed the course, citing that a higher moral standard of order, honor, and service would prevail. A new police force was hired before the year’s end and they received higher pay, shorter hours, free uniforms, and vacations. 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.
There is a multitude of readily-available and easy to find sources concerning Calvin Coolidge, President and Vice President, but when it comes to his two terms as Governor of Massachusetts, there is significantly less. The Boston Police Strike of 1919 is often approached from a labor history perspective, rather than the perspective of the executive branch of the Commonwealth and its decisions in the matter. Many of the telegrams, addresses, and letters concerning the strike are contained in Coolidge’s 1919 Have Faith in Massachusetts, a collection of speeches and essays that Coolidge made and wrote. The topic is also addressed at some length in Coolidge’s The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge from 1929. Both of these primary sources along with other writings by Coolidge, provide insight as to the virtues that he wished to uphold, and why. What they lack in length is made up for in depth. The works complement the mass of newspaper articles that detail the strike as it unfolded.
Secondary sources typically are not solely about the gubernatorial role in the strike, though they do exist. Robert Sobel’s 1991 Coolidge devotes one chapter each to the topics of governorship and the strike, the plurality of the book obviously concerning the Presidency. Sobel praises Coolidge’s reaction to the strike and his dedication to the idea that the police are an organization that must never abandon their posts. He also points out that a hardline on a police commitment did not also mean that Coolidge was blind to the woes of worker conditions. In fact, Coolidge was very progressive in terms of sympathizing with the need for adequate compensation. William Allen White’s 1938 A Puritan in Babylon: The Story of Calvin Coolidge approaches Coolidge in a different way. It focuses on Coolidge’s personality and how shaped the events in which he was involved. This is useful to a researcher because of Coolidge’s famous private nature. The actual strike is explained from a labor history perspective in Philip S. Phoner’s 1988 History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 8. Other such works are also widely available. Further research can delve into various explorations of the individuals involved and their interaction with Coolidge, such as Bernard Mandel’s 1963 biography Samuel Gompers.
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. In a time when hearing the words “honest politician” seem like a fantasy, Coolidge represents a past worthy of study and a character deserving of our admiration.
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, 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.
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.