'Silent Cal' Was Not Silent on Race
Earlier this century, an American president told his country how it might best heal racial divisions. His name was Calvin Coolidge.
That's right. Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United Sates.
Coolidge's commitment to improved relations among the races will surprise most Americans. "Silent Cal" was the butt of many a joke by the chattering classes of his day. After the Will Rogerses, H.L. Menckens, and their ilk were through with him, the historians went to work. They were even less kind. In their attempt to discredit Coolidge's philosophy of government (the less is better, low tax, high growth school), they disparaged his person. Coolidge's critics all but obliterated his sense of fair play and racial justice.
Born on the Fourth of July, Calvin Coolidge revered the Declaration of Independence. He thought its greatness was in its ideals. He ascribed a spiritual quality to intangibles such as equal treatment of individuals and self government. Concepts such as these allowed for no distinctions of color. Coolidge liked that.
The Civil War was still a recent memory during Coolidge's formative years. He talked with veterans of that conflict and admired the valor African-Americans (more than 200,000 in all) displayed in the Union's cause.
Coolidge succeeded to the presidency after the disruptions and disillusionment of World War I and the ensuing Teapot Dome scandals. His presidency brought national healing and cleansing.
His tenure in office coincided with increasing nativist sentiment and rising racial and religious hatreds. Coolidge confronted these prejudices with eloquence.
In a speech at Howard University, he recounted the advances African-Americans had made since emancipation in business and educational attainment. That a people who had been so denied could advance so far in so short a time he saw as proof of the exceptional American spirit.
In the summer of 1924, Coolidge received a letter from a man in New York State, protesting the possibility of an African-American receiving the Republican Party's nomination to Congress. The president fired back: "Leaving out of consideration the manifest impropriety of the president intruding himself in a local contest I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the [1917-18] war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it.
"The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political participation to such a great group of our population as the colored people is one which could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to and maintaining the traditions of the Republican Party."
He said that the Constitution allowed no discrimination on account of race and that he had taken an oath to support it.
The tone Coolidge took and his making public his reply were extraordinary acts of courage. His actions were hardly designed to win votes. As the standard bearer of the "party of Lincoln," Coolidge already had the allegiance of the majority of African-American voters. The stand he took could have cost him white support.
Here was a president articulating a vision for America. Coolidge would not pull back from what he said at Tuskegee Institute when he dedicated a hospital to treat veterans of World War I: "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."
These words of hope, optimism, and wisdom do not appear in the standard books of quotations or on the walls of monuments in the nation's capital. Coolidge's dream was not realized in his day. It could be in ours if we act as he hoped.
Not bad advice from the penny-pinching, taciturn New Englander who Alice Roosevelt Longworth said must have been weaned on a pickle.
* Alvin S. Felzenberg has lectured on the American presidency at Princeton University and at other institutions.