Coolidge and Mt. Rushmore


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.

7 thoughts on “Coolidge and Mt. Rushmore

  1. Kai

    I have been wondering when your Post on the Mount would appear because anyone reading Coolidge will sooner or later stumble into Borglum. You presented it well. Have you visited the Mount? It’s very impressive.

    But I will be a teaser with you on Borglum on another project by him. If you are familiar with it please tell me to go away but otherwise try to Google “Borglum Georgia Stone Mountain Carvings’ and see what you come up with.

    Borglum was a bit of a shadowy personality.

    Happy reading.

    • Ike,
      look like you can read my mind, such as it is. Sorry I couldn’t really surprise you with the Borglum story! No, I have never been to Mt. Rushmore; but I have been to Stone Mountain (up on top of it, even) – very impressive! I don’t know if I would characterize Borglum as shadowy, but he certainly appears to have been very volatile, opinionated and stubborn; and his political allegiances were questionable. Artists – what can you say? Again, thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Hi Kia

    Thanks for your gracious compliment though I don’t deserve it; mind reading is not one of my traits. It is just normal for anyone as you are doing when reading Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain that you will meet the character Borglum.

    I haven’t been up on top of Stone Mountain but I attended the “laser Show” at the Borglum site one evening way back. Mount Rushmore is spectacular for its skyline view. Borglum’s carvings on Stone Mountain is at the base of the rock in a curve on the Northern side and not as impressive as Mount Rushmore during daylight but it comes alive at night during the Laser Show. The light and sound effects are brilliant and the music will blow your mind.

    Have you come across any reading on the matters of The Two Americas, or of America of the 57 States? It goes back a long time but has become more prominent lately; very interesting stuff.

    Happy Blogging.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Coolidge and Mt. Rushmore « Kai's Coolidge Blog --

  4. Good morning Kai

    I hope I am not intruding on a Saturday morning but I came across something that maybe of interest to you.

    It is a link to something that I once archived and then forgot about and I came upon it almost by accident a few minutes ago whilst hunting for something else that I still haven’t found. I hope that the link still works because I found it in an old place.

    I had copied this piece from it and kept it because it was so striking like I had heard so often about the President.

    “More than twenty years later and towards the end of his life, on hearing the name of the artist again, it is said that Coolidge asked a visitor, “About how far would y’say ’tis from here to the Black Hills?”
    “Oh, I don’t know, Mr. President,” was the reply. “I’d guess maybe fifteen hundred miles.”
    “Well, y’know … that’s about as close t’Mr. Borglum as I care to be.”

    Enjoy your weekend.

    • Ike,
      thanks! This embarrasses me a little, for I have cribbed much of the Borglum storyline from PBS 🙂 If you check out their first two paragraphs (with the anecdote you quote), it must contain some error… if Borglum indeed talked president Coolidge into some scheme for commemorative coins, it couldn’t be true that Coolidge ruefully remembered that “more than twenty years later and toward the end of his life”, for Coolidge died just 4 years after leaving office. And if Borglum met Coolidge more than 20 years before the latter’s death in 1933, it would have been 1913 or thereabouts, when Coolidge was just making his way through the ranks of Massachusetts politics. That would make me sceptical toward the anecdote, although it does sound nicely Coolidgean. By the way, as far as I know, noe of Coolidge’s biographers make a particular point of his dealings with Borglum.
      Best, ~Kai

      • Oh my Kai

        I feel like anyone should feel having missed such a glaring error; it is so obviously wrong and I accept your explanation on the 20 years period. So, no defense; it stands out but I was excited by the wording and didn’t think; meeting another Coolidge fan is exciting.

        The link had reached from one of my regular contributors in my “New York Island” Post and three of us, him and another person who actually lives in NY City and I got involved about Dutch people and ended up in South Dakota. This fellow, named Cheech is from Iowa and he started sending me things on the Black Hills from his biking days and that took us to President Coolidge.

        The same link takes you to a fair number of other links if you follow it around and around and I just picked the few words because it was a nice Coolidge experience. I have a feeling that if you simply Google ‘Coolidge South Dakota’ you will have more reading than you can handle for a while.

        So, hoping that I don’t look as big a fool after this, here is another one that I picked up from some Black Hills advertising source. “We are proud to be able to say that the only President ever to take a three months summer vacation, Former President Calvin Coolidge, picked us. We named him the man who came for three weeks and stayed three months. South Dakota honors President Coolidge.” That is another bit of exaggeration but Americans mean no harm in this sort of thing. They are actually wonderful people.

        Happy Coolidge Blogging.

        PS if you think that I talk a lot you haven’t met my friend Cheech from the Hawkeye State. I will pass this link on to him, with your kind permission.

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