Thursday, July 5, 2018

Past Words For Current Times

The 1920’s. A time variously nicknamed “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Jazz Age.” Coming after the end of WW I – “The Great War to end all wars” – it was a time characterized by excess. The destructiveness of the War shocked many of the American doughboys who went to Europe to fight in the stalemate trenches. It was a Valley of Death that broke the “can do” spirit of many, and/or infused a “live for today” attitude in others. The experience made for a time ripe for unbridled responses to take hold in America, not all of them good ones.

During the Roaring Twenties, the corporate barons that emerged in the 1880s were still running the economy, if not government itself. Getting rich was the order of the day, pursued with gusto by financial barons, corporate giants, and, increasingly, everyday Joes alike. But it was not just economic excess. Women had finally won the right to vote, which stoked not only a new sense of legal freedoms but also social ones – it was the age of the independently-spirited “flapper girl.” Prohibition ended the people’s access to alcoholic drink – except that it didn’t. Booze flowed freely in speakeasies and private homes, supplied by organized crime and moonshiners. It was one big party time, danced appropriately to the frenzied moves of the Charleston.

But there was also a darker underside to this national party. The American borders had become porous with immigrants coming in. During 1900-1920, it was Southern and Eastern Europeans knocking on America’s door, most all passing through the processing station at Ellis Island. Many Americans felt vulnerable to all these “non-English” people who seemed to threaten the cultural and economic landscape – if not the very security – of the country. Calls for tighter immigration limits grew ever louder as many felt that their government was not doing enough to stem this flow. Growing numbers of people looked for an alternative force to speak for them and push back – forcibly if necessary – on these open doors. They found that alternative in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The Klan had originally risen from the collapse of the South after the Civil War. In the 1870s and 1880s, it had terrorized the newly freed ex-slaves. It promoted the role of White Southerners by reinstalling de facto slavery through economic servitude, “legal” disenfranchisement, and systematic killings with impunity. By the end of the 19th century, the Klan’s influence had faded. But the replacement cultural and legal structures it had created endured, set firmly and inalterably in place. Its resurrection always stood ready to be recalled to active duty.

The 1920s was a time of fear of the immigrant, fear of the loss of one’s cultural identity, fear of an impotent government sworn to protect its citizens and keep them safe, and fear of attack on “America’s religion” (i.e. Christian Protestantism) by competing religions, scientific reasoning and discovery, and the forsaking of traditional infallible religious teachings. In such times, a substantial number of Americans turned to a reborn Ku Klux Klan. This time the Klan was not just contained within the South; it became a national organization. Guided by the tactics, hate literature and “social theories” of its predecessor, this new Klan offered itself as the balance against “these undesirables” who they characterized as dangerous enemies, criminals, lesser human beings, immoral people intent on subverting True Americans. To expand their message and recruitment, they combined this new hate with the Klan’s historical prejudices against African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Great numbers of followers across the country, estimated at over four million, were drawn into this new KKK, including Congressional politicians seeking money and (re-)election. The strength of the Klan was graphically exemplified in August 1925 when a march on Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue attracted more than 35,000 thousands of white-robed but bare-faced Klansmen.

Yet many people chose to fight back by speaking up against this national travesty: principled politicians, journalists and writers, members of the judiciary, religious leaders. Congress investigated the Klan in 1921, producing no great conclusions or restraints; the ensuing publicity both advanced and hindered the Klan’s popularity. In these times, when American values, principles, and the traditions of our Founding documents seemed in danger of being lost, someone was clearly needed to remind us of who America – and Americans – truly are.

Republican Calvin Coolidge was born in the simple rural countryside of Vermont. He made a political name for himself as mayor in Northampton in western Massachusetts, subsequently as governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Coolidge became our 30th President upon the sudden death of Warren Harding. The thoughtful but taciturn Coolidge – nicknamed “Silent Cal” – was decidedly pro-business, most famously remembered as saying “the business of America is business.” He is less frequently quoted for his follow-on qualifying words: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

As America’s national hate and fear of “others” grew during the 1920s, it was the quiet Coolidge who used his infrequent public words to remind the country of a most important lesson. As historian Jon Meacham relates in his excellent book “The Soul of America,” a man had written to Coolidge that, “It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country.” Recalling that half a million black men had served in the recent War, Coolidge spoke in response:

“The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all of our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race.”

Subsequently, Coolidge told an American Legion convention in 1925:

“If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.”

Sometimes in the midst of hatred, prejudice or fear, it takes great courage to speak clearly against the popular tide. Calvin Coolidge was a President who knew the value of not speaking often, but making one’s words count for something worthwhile. It is leading not by the quantity of words issued daily, but by their quality and substance. These messages from almost 100 years ago, in times similar to our own, warrant being repeated today.

©   2018   Randy Bell     


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Randy. A good read contrasting the leadership of today with true leadership with wisdom from yesterday.

Anonymous said...

WELL researched and expertly written, as usual. On a lighter note, a reporter once approached Silent Cal at a dinner and told him he had a bet with another reporter that he couldn’t get Coolidge to say more than two words. “You lose” came the reply.

Anonymous said...

I have had the good fortune of knowing Randy Bell for just shy of 3 years. He is a thoughtful, researched, meticulous, balanced writer on topics of the day. In the short time of our acquaintanceship, I've read more than 3 years' worth of his writings. And I'm the better for it.