Book recommendation “City of Scoundrels”

(don’t click to look inside – link is below in the text)

This not really a book review, as I haven’t read the book yet myself – but if you’re anything like me and enjoy a fascinating historical narrative, I expect you won’t go wrong picking up City of Scoundrels.  With a title like that, and the subject matter of Chicago politics, you’d be excused for thinking this is about the early career of President Obama (just kidding!), but it actually is a riveting account of a number of dramatic events that took place in the Windy City in July 1919 (within a mere 12 days, in fact), highlighting  the metamorphosis of Chicago from a chaotic boom town into a modern and diverse city. The author, Gary Krist, weaves the diverse events (including a blimp crash over the Loop, race riots, and the abduction and murder of a six-year-old girl) into a captivating narrative set against the backdrop of the great and farsighted Burnham Plan for the city. There is a Coolidge connection: 1919 also was the year of the Boston Police Strike which propelled Coolidge to national prominence. The rivalry between Chicago mayor “Big Bill” William Hale Thompson and Illinois Governor Frank Lowden  (the latter was a leading candidate for the GOP nomination in 1920) resulted in Thompson denying Lowden the publicity that he would have received by quelling the riots with help of the state militia. This may have played a part in denying Lowden the insurmountable early lead he would have needed to secure the Republican nomination that ultimately went to Warren Harding and his running mate Calvin Coolidge. In another Coolidgean footnote, Thompson was among the second-tier candidates for the Republican nomination in 1928.

There is an interesting conversation with the author about the book on

A 1919 Coolidge cartoon

From November 1919, here’s a Grant Hamilton cartoon showing then-Governor of Massachusetts Calvin Coolidge riding a GOP pachyderm and stomping out the snake of “radicalism.”

It’s probably difficult for us today to understand the mood of the times and how fragile the post-war situation was. With the revolution in Russia, and upheaval across much of Europe, there also was widespread labor unrest in the U.S. Coolidge’s courageous stand during the Boston Police Strike was an early indicator that for the time being, normalcy was in and radicalism was out.

"Massachusetts did it" - 1919 cartoon of Calvin Coolidge

Coolidge on Law and Order

Not surprisingly, for the man who stood down the Boston police strike of 1919, Calvin Coolidge was a staunch defender of law and order, frequently stressing the supremacy of law in his speeches.

Accepting the Gold Medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences in January 1921, he said in part,

“It is no accident that the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts believe in law and order. It is their heritage. When the Pilgrim Fathers landed there in 1620 they brought ashore with them the Mayflower Compact which they had drawn up in the cabin of that little bark under the witness of the Almighty, in which they pledged themselves, one to another, to make just and equitable laws, and not only to make them but when they were made, to abide by them.”

And again later that same year when addressing the Convention of the American Legion in Kansas City, he noted,

“The sole guaranty of liberty is obedience to the law in the form of ordered government. The observance of law is the function of every private citizen, but the execution of the law is the function only of duly constituted public authorities.”

Edward E. Whiting felt that the theme of law and order was indeed one that constituted a thread of thought that appeared with great frequency throughout Coolidge’s speeches and writings: “Mr. Coolidge always counts upon the American respect for law. It has never failed him.”

Coolidge on big vs. small decisions

In an article for The American Review of Reviews, Bruce Barton quotes Calvin Coolidge reflecting on the 1919 Boston police strike:

“People think that a big decision like that is difficult. It isn’t. Big decisions are easy, because you can see so clearly what ought to be done. It’s the small decisions that make troubles, where there is so much right on both sides.”

90 years ago

Just a short note that today, Sep. 9,  marks the 90th anniversary of the Boston police strike, the seminal event of 1919 that thrust Calvin Coolidge into the national political spotlight and provided him with the opportunity to make a statement that is forever linked with his name, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

On Sep. 8, the police force of Boston had overwhelmingly voted to strike, and  a large majority of them walked off the job on the following day. With a situation that had been brewing for weeks rapidly deteriorating, governor Coolidge called out the state militia on Sep. 11, reacting to widespread, wanton unlawfulness. While Coolidge pledged to find work for policemen fired because of the strike, he also made sure that none of them were employed again in public safety positions, at least in Massachusetts.

It is worth noting that Coolidge initially expected his action to cost him any hope of re-election, let alone for higher office but acted as he felt he had to. While some have criticized his slowness to act, the episode is actually a fine example of his belief in delegating authority and having decisions and actions taken and carried out at the level closest to the people. Only when the resources and authority of the police commissioner and mayor had been found lacking, intervention from the state level was required and initiated without delay.

The SilentCal blog will feature posts by Amity Shlaes and Joe Thorndike on the subject of the police strike in the next few weeks, don’t miss them!