New essays on Coolidge at the CCMF website

I hope everyone has already checked out the refurbished and spiffy website of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation… there is always something new to discover there! And for those who rightly feel that the contents of this blog have been a little shallow lately (or ever), they are much encouraged to read and ponder two new footnote-laden essays by Bob Kirby and Jerry Wallace on two areas that are contentious – the alleged culpability of the Coolidge administration in causing, not preventing, or laying the groundwork for (you take your pick) the Great Depression (Kirby), and the question of how the Coolidge administration reacted to the activities of the Ku Klux Klan (Wallace). Not to spoil the fun for you, but I’d say our man comes out looking pretty good after all the evidence has been presented – as if there was ever any doubt about that!

And (in the hope that Jerry won’t mind), I’ll add an anecdote from the footnotes that was new to me – Jerry Wallace, who calls this one of his favorite stories and I must agree,  includes it to illustrate Calvin Coolidge’s good relations with the Jewish community. The story is told by Representative Sol Bloom, a good friend of the president’s:

“With my wife and daughter, I once had the pleasure of taking David Belasco to the White House to meet the President. The great producer, then past seventy, was as shy and nervous as a schoolboy, and when I presented him he almost whispered as he said, “Mr. President, I am deeply honored…” “No, Mr. Belasco,” interrupted Calvin Coolidge. “I am deeply honored. There have been many Presidents of the United States, but there is only one David Belasco.”

Coolidge on tolerance

As I have stated in a previous post, Coolidge was an unequivocal foe of the Ku Klux Klan. Here is a little more background on the 1925 Klan parade in Washington, D.C. and Coolidge’s reaction to it.

In the mid-20s, the Klan was active in many regions of the country, fairly recently also in New England. In the summer of 1925 the Klan announced it was planning a grand parade in the capital and that they wanted the president to review it. Coolidge was able to get out of this invitation, as he was spending the summer in Swampscott. At the same time, pressure to speak out clearly against the Klan mounted.

Coolidge did so, using the occasion of his October 6 speech in Omaha before the American Legion Convention. He denounced the Klan, he asked his audience to think before going off on an anti-foreigner binge, and he warned of racial and religious disorder. He noted,

“But among some of the varying racial, religious and social groups of our people, there have been manifestations of an intolerance of opinion, a narrowness of outlook, a fixity of judgment, against which we may well be warned. (…) Whether one traces his Americanism back three centuries to the Mayflower or three years to the steerage is not half so important as whether his Americanism of today is real and genuine. No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.”

Noting the tendency among some Americans to feel superior, the president cautioned:

“We can make little contribution to the welfare of humanity on the theory that we are a superior people and all others are an inferior people. We do not need to be too loud in the assertion of our righteousness. It is true that we live under most favorable circumstances. But before we come to the final and irrevocable decision that we are better than everybody else we need to consider what we might do if we had their provocations and their difficulties.”

Ultimately, Coolidge was an idealist when it came to humanity. Speaking to Congress in 1925, he said,

“Bigotry is another name for slavery. It reduces to serfdom not only those against whom it is directed, but also those who seek to apply it. An enlarged freedom can be secured by the application of the Golden Rule.”

John W. Davis, a worthy opponent

John W. Davis, 1873 - 1955

It has been remarked that 1924 was the last time both major U.S. parties nominated a true and undisputed conservative for president. This may be true, and it very likely also was Davis’ undoing as a candidate.

Anathema to most progressive Democrats because of his work as a lawyer for J.P. Morgan, the former Congressman, Solicitor General of the U.S., and Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s had been nominated at the conclusion of a notably chaotic and divisive Democratic convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden. More than 100 ballots were needed at this longest-running convention in U.S. history, as the overwhelmingly “dry”, rural, Protestant and Southern and Midwestern supporters of Williams Gibbs McAdoo battled the mostly “wet”, ethnic and religious minority, urban Eastern supporters of New York Governor Al Smith. Only after the two contenders mutually withdrew was the convention able to settle on a compromise candidate. To give the ticket a little rural flavor, Nebraska Governor Charles W. Bryan, younger brother of the legendary William Jennings Bryan, was nominated for Vice President.

The elder Bryan had previously articulated what many liberals in the Democratic party felt – “This convention must not nominate a Wall Street man!”, even more damningly adding later: “I have no personal objection of any kind to Mr. Davis. He is a man of high character. So is Mr. Coolidge. There is no difference between them.” Swallowing these disagreements, Bryan endorsed Davis after the nomination and campaigned extensively for him.

The choice of Davis also may have played a part in precipitating the Progressive Party candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, who had bolted from the Republicans to form the Progressive Party of Wisconsin. Dismayed that the two major parties offered a choice of two conservatives, La Follette went ahead and accepted the Progressives’ nomination, with Montana Senator Burton Wheeler as running mate.

Continue reading

Coolidge and the Klan

One of the more vexing slanders that somehow persist in unmoderated internet forums is the totally baseless falsehood that Calvin Coolidge was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not going to increase traffic to those sites by putting links here, but anyone who googles “Coolidge” and “KKK” gets to those pages where someone states this nonsense as fact; sometimes a History Channel documentation is cited as the source. This post is one more attempt to set the record straight.

President Coolidge shaking hands with Mississippi river hero Thomas Lee, 1925

Not only does not one of Coolidge’s biographers mention this, but the very idea runs counter to everything in Coolidge’s upbringing and indeed his actions as president. While some may wish that Coolidge had spoken out more forcefully against racism from the “bully pulpit”, he was never silent on the question of religious and racial intolerance, and his public statements are numerous. Coolidge biographer McCoy opines that Coolidge viewed the Klan as an organization that would shrivel and die when denied publicity. He therefore seldom denounced it by name, but consistently chose venues where he could demonstrate his sympathy for and solidarity with the Klan’s intended victims. Dedicating a hospital for African-American veterans in the heart of the South – Tuskegee, Alabama – the president closed his remarks by saying,

“Those who stir up animosities, those who create any kind of hatred and enmity are not ministering to the public welfare. We have come out of the war with a desire and a determination to live at peace with all the world. Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in good will, not seeking an advantage over each other but all trying to serve each other.”

Similarly, in 1924, Coolidge reprimanded a man complaining by letter from New York about the Republican Party having nominated an African American for Congress:

“During the war five hundred thousand colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it,” and reminded the correspondent that the Constitution “guarantees equal rights to all (…) citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color.”

During that same campaign, Coolidge’s running mate Charles G. Dawes spoke out forcefully against the Klan while in Augusta, Maine, expressly against the wishes of local Republican Party officials, but apparently with the backing and approval of the president.

All in all, it must be admitted that Coolidge’s response on civil rights was not vigorous, although it was as good as Harding’s and certainly better than Wilson’s. He requested Congress on several occasions to use its power to punish lynchings, he referred complaints of voting rights violations to the Department of Justice, and he did secure some increases in appropriations for the education of African Americans. While stopping short of ending segregation in government offices as a matter of policy, he did intervene in  individual cases and issued directives to stop segregation. He often was in touch with a number of African American leaders, particularly Dr. Robert R. Moton, the principal of the Tuskegee Institute, and James Weldon Johnson, secretary of the NAACP, but only rarely followed up on their concrete suggestions. It has been suggested that inaction by Republican presidents in the 1920s was a factor in the abandonment of the GOP by blacks in favor of the Democrats, which has endured to this day.

I have mentioned before my understanding that Coolidge was a leader of the “hedgehog” type, focusing on a very few big things he wanted to accomplish. It is possible that his interest in matters such as antilynching legislation had to be sidetracked in order to focus on the central themes of efficiency in government, debt reduction and tax reduction.

More on Coolidge and his views on tolerance h e r e.