Rich Szlosek: We’ve been silent too long on Cal Coolidge’s achievements
Calvin Coolidge Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Surfing the Web the other day, I learned that a new biography of Calvin Coolidge by Amity Shlaes was to be published this week. I was pleased to learn about “Coolidge” and I hope its publication leads to a renewed interest in our 30th president.
In just a decade, it will be the centennial anniversary of his ascending to the presidency and I trust there will be a major celebration in our city and state. The fact is that Coolidge has been little honored in this area. We have no civic buildings named for him in Northampton. There is not even a full-sized statue of him, merely that bust mounted on a pedestal on the courthouse lawn. Amherst College, his alma mater, is almost reluctant to admit he was a graduate.
I understand that his political stances, especially those of his presidential years, are no longer popular in the Valley. His unsmiling personality and natural taciturnity made him the butt of many jokes and I confess I have often relayed some of those stories to others.
But it is clearly time to re-evaluate the man. He was our mayor, state senator, governor, vice president and then president. In 1924, he was elected to the presidency in a landslide. As a state legislator, he was considered a progressive and supported women’s suffrage and a reduction in work hours for women and children. He also favored a cost-of-living increase for state employees. While his handling of the Boston police strike is often considered reactionary today, it was wildly popular at the time and propelled him into national prominence.
Coolidge, like many a politician today, believed it was the responsibility of the states to resolve political and financial questions and so was not an activist president. The early 1920s were boom times for the nation and Coolidge was good at defining that enthusiasm with his pro-business remarks.
Historians today agree that the 19th century did not fully end until the conclusion of World War I. Coolidge became president just five years after the Treaty of Versailles and is probably best seen as a transitional leader between the mores of the previous century and the demands of the new one.
He did embrace the new phenomenon of broadcast media and was the first president to speak to the nation on the radio. He was also the first one to give an interview on sound film and was accessible to more groups in the White House than any of his predecessors. Still, it is clear that he would have been more comfortable in the Gilded Age than in the Jazz Age. He seemed to have understood that, for he was reputed to have told one of his friends shortly before his death, “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”
Little is ever mentioned of Coolidge’s ideas on foreign affairs, but I would like to mention one that, in our age of unending war, stands in stark contrast to attitudes in Washington today. With Coolidge’s blessing, his secretary of state, Frank Kellogg, along with his French counterpart, Aristide Briand, drew up a proclamation that was agreed to by 14 nations renouncing war as a means of resolving conflicts.
Coolidge signed it, although he likely recognized its ethereal nature. Imagine. There was a moment when humanity could actually hope war was a thing of the past. It happened on Coolidge’s watch.
What then should be done to honor Coolidge? At the very least there should be a full-size statue of him and located in a prominent part of Northampton such as the library, the courthouse or Pulaski Park. And why not attempt to obtain a separate museum building for him also? For years City Hall has been seeking a project to place in the Roundhouse lot that would open up onto Pulaski Park. Why not build a parking garage there and make the top level the Coolidge Museum, with a statue right outside the front door?
Recently, there was a proposal to construct condos in that spot. If funding should emerge for that, why not include a museum and statue as part of the plan?
Not long ago there was a suggestion in this paper that the old Honda dealership building be converted into a center for performing arts. If possible, that would be another excellent idea and I would suggest incorporating a Coolidge museum in that building, if none of the other plans come to fruition. It could be called the Coolidge Center and would be an appropriate name since, according to local historian Susan Well, Coolidge briefly lived right across the street.
As to where some of these funds would come from, I suggest the city fathers and the trustees of Forbes Library hold discussions with the trustees of Amherst College to see if they are willing to donate something to the memory of their most famous graduate. Also, our representatives in Boston and Washington should find out what funds might be available for a Coolidge memorial.
Ten years may seem a long way down the road, but it would be nice to see momentum for the centennial begin now. I hope Northampton plans a boisterous observance for the presidency of Silent Cal.
Richard Szlosek is a retired attorney and lifelong resident of Northampton.