One of the less successful endeavors of Coolidge’s post-presidential years was a unique yet ill-fated writing project that related to the Mt. Rushmore site. Coolidge had met Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor and driving force behind the project, while vacationing in South Dakota in the summer of 1927. Borglum apparently campaigned hard to get Coolidge to dedicate the site. When the dedication day came, August 10, 1927, Coolidge made a speech that read in part:
“We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty. …The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting Black Hills of South Dakota … will be distinctly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning. … No one can look upon it without realizing it is a picture of hope fulfilled.
“Its location will be significant. Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially loved by Roosevelt.”
He then presented Borglum with six steel drill bits with which the artist would start carving the hill. Borglum, in response, invited Coolidge to write the explanatory inscription Borglum envisioned for an “entablature” (or tablet) to accompany the portraits on Rushmore.
Coolidge’s goodwill was helpful in the effort to raise funds for the monument; he signed the first large appropriation bill for the project just days before the end of his presidency. As an ex-president, he remained on decent terms with Borglum until the affair of the Entablature turned into a fiasco. After the unwanted publicity, Coolidge didn’t want anything to do with the artist again.
Read on after the cut to find out what happened (ain’t I a tease?)
Among Borglum’s first ideas about carving Mt. Rushmore into the likenesses of American presidents was the concept of an explanatory inscription, which he called the Entablature. Without it, he felt, the heads of Rushmore would mean as much to future historians as the unexplained heads of Easter Island: “You might as well drop a letter in the postal system without an address or signature as to send that carved mountain in to the future without identification.”
The Entablature was to tell the history of the United States in the space where Lincoln’s head would later be situated, a space that would accommodate about 500 words. (This provoked journalistic snickers from Europe — the history of a nation in 500 words?)
At the dedication ceremony, Borglum addressed the most important person in his audience, the President:
“Mr. Coolidge! As the first president who has taken part in this great undertaking, please write the inscription to be carved on that mountain! We want your connection with it shown in some other way than just by your presence! I want the name of Coolidge on that mountain!”
In the last days of his presidency, Coolidge signed Public Law 805 of the 70th Congress, which would establish a commission. “The commission is to complete the carving of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, to consist of heroic figures of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, together with an entablature upon which shall be cut a suitable inscription to be indited by Calvin Coolidge.” The bill also provided a quarter million dollars for the project.
In January 1930, an announcement was made:
“Calvin Coolidge is to write a history of the United States which is expected to endure for 5,000 centuries (… ) It is to be as bried and terse as the former President’s conversation, and although Mr. Coolidge is one of the highest-paid writers per word (this probably in reference to his newspaper column), he will not receive a cent for the narrative(…)”
In April of 1930, Borglum released Coolidge’s first two paragraphs, relating to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to the public. Or rather, he released edited versions of Coolidge’s words to the public. It was promptly pointed out and widely publicized that the texts contained errors of historical fact. When Borglum admitted publicly that he had changed Coolidge’s words, he simply fueled more jibes — perhaps Coolidge should edit Borglum’s designs for Rushmore? When the facts became known, Borglum was much criticized, and Coolidge angrily withdrew from the enterprise. But this was not to be the end of the story.
In 1934, a year after Coolidge’s death, Borglum took a different tack with the Entablature text. He went to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and asked him to publicize a contest to write the text. Hearst agreed, and also provided cash and scholarships as prizes. The Rushmore Commission, however, was nervous about the legality of the contest. Although he was now dead, the law explicitly required the Entablature be written by Coolidge. Before they could act, however, the contest was announced in the Hearst papers. The Commissioners decided to keep the legal issue quiet and deal with the problem if it came up.
Meanwhile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted Borglum’s invitation to head a judging committee to include First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and other VIPs. The contest was extremely popular — sources say that more than 100,000 entries were submitted — and Rushmore was national news. Winners were announced in several age groups, including grade school, high school, and college. There was one overall winner, John Edward Bradley. The college edition winner was William Burkett of Nebraska. His scholarship allowed him to go to college and he later became a successful businessman in California. Burkett told one historian that he owed his success to the Rushmore Entablature Contest and wished to be buried near the monument.
As it happened, Borglum read the winning essays, and rejected them all. He had no desire to carve any of them on his monument, and would write another text himself.
As the Depression wore on, and then the country prepared to arm itself for the Second World War, Congress could find no justification in paying for any extraneous elements of the monument that were not already begun. The Entablature was written out of Rushmore’s budget.
In 1975, William Burkett was present to see his winning contest entry written on a bronze plaque and installed at the site of Borglum’s original studio. Burkett died in 1999 and was buried in Monterey, California.