The vexatious wave of de facto strikes by absentee Wisconsin public school teachers and Illinois-bound state legislators that has greeted newly-elected Badger State Governor Scott Walker’s vigorous attempts to rein in unsustainable public spending inevitably summons to mind the case of a once-obscure, first-term Massachusetts governor and a more overt public employee strike of nine decades ago.
The governor in question: the famously taciturn Silent Cal Coolidge.
The work stoppage in question: The Boston Police Strike of 1919.
Chronically underpaid, Boston police officers had organized into a union. They possessed, it must be said, their grievances. Their minimum pay was just $1,100—even for the times, pitifully small. They worked 12-hour shifts, had to supply and maintain their own uniforms, and even buy their own bullets. Stations houses were deplorable—overcrowded, dirty, vermin-infested. Coolidge himself publicly admitted that “I do not approve of any strike. But can you blame the police for feeling as they do when they get less than a street car conductor?” In September 1919, Boston Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis disciplined union leaders, and police voted 1,134-to-2 to strike; 1,177 of the city’s 1,544 police walked off the job, leaving the city unprotected. Violence and lawlessness followed. Store windows were smashed, and their contents looted. Hooligans stoned city streetcars. Staid Boston Common witnessed open gambling.
“A firemen’s strike in sympathy with the police was strongly urged,” recalled journalist William Allen White, “Sentiment for the firemen’s strike seemed to be gaining headway. The streetcar men threatened to join the firemen and the police. A revival of the telephone strike was attempted. A general strike of all trades unions evidently became more than a menace. It seemed imminent . . . The technique of revolution was beginning to move; the paralysis of the police, the invitation to arson, the threat against transportation and communication. . . . The general strike brooding in Boston threatened New England. Street car men, firemen, telephone and telegraph operators all had grievances.”
Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters illegally removed Curtis from office (the police commissioner’s appointment was a gubernatorial not a mayoral prerogative). Coolidge reinstated Curtis and called out the full State Guard, issuing these orders:
The entire State Guard of Massachusetts has been called out. Under the Constitution, the Governor is Commander-in-Chief thereof, by an authority of which he could not, if he chose, divest himself. That command I must and will exercise. Under the law I hereby call on all the police of Boston who have loyally and in a never-to-be-forgotten way remained on duty to aid me in the performance of my duty of the restoration and maintenance of order in the City of Boston, and each of such officers is required to act in obedience to such orders as I may hereafter issue or cause to be issued. I call on every citizen to aid me in the maintenance of law and order.
Some have said Coolidge should have acted earlier. Coolidge himself often pondered that question. But as William Allen White also noted, “If [Coolidge] had called the National Guard earlier . . . the violence of the strike might have been averted. But its violence was the dramatization required to make the people understand the principle which the Governor felt was involved, that a policeman does not strike; he deserts. The policeman’s status is not that of a laborer but a defender of peace and order.”
American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers telegraphed Coolidge, demanding that the strikers be allowed to return to the positions they had abandoned. Coolidge responded:
BOSTON, MASS., Sept. 14, 1919
MR. SAMUEL GOMPERS
President American Federation of Labor, New York City, N.Y.
Replying to your telegram, I have already refused to remove the Police Commissioner of Boston. I did not appoint him. He can assume no position which the courts would uphold except what the people have by the authority of their law vested in him. He speaks only with their voice.
The right of the police of Boston to affiliate has always been questioned, never granted, is now prohibited. The suggestion of President Wilson to Washington does not apply to Boston. There the police have remained on duty. Here the Policemen’s Union left their duty, an action which President Wilson characterized as a crime against civilization. Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity, the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time. You ask that the public safety again be placed in the hands of these same policemen while they continue in disobedience to the laws of Massachusetts and in their refusal to obey the orders of the Police Department.
Nineteen men have been tried and removed. Others having abandoned their duty, their places have, under the law, been declared vacant on the opinion of the Attorney-General. I can suggest no authority outside the courts to take further action. I wish to join and assist in taking a broad view of every situation. A grave responsibility rests on all of us. You can depend on me to support you in every legal action and sound policy. I am equally determined to defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts and to maintain the authority and jurisdiction over her public officers where it has been placed by the Constitution and law of her people.
CALVIN COOLIDGE Governor of Massachusetts
Coolidge’s advisers thought his actions would alienate labor support and cost him re-election. He thought so too. He didn’t care. “It does not matter whether I am elected or not,” he replied matter-of-factly.
He followed up his telegram to Gompers with an official proclamation, perhaps even more forceful in tone and perhaps of even greater political risk:
“There appears to be a misapprehension as to the position of the police of Boston. In the deliberate intention to intimidate and coerce the government of this Commonwealth a large body of policemen, urging all others to join them, deserted their posts of duty, letting in the enemy. This act of theirs was voluntary, against the advice of their well-wishers, long discussed and premeditated, and with the purpose of obstructing the power of the government to protect its citizens or even to maintain its own existence. Its success meant anarchy. By this act, through the operation of the law they dispossessed themselves. They went out of office. They stand as though they had never been appointed.
“Other police remained on duty. They are the real heroes of this crisis. The State Guard responded most efficiently. Thousands have volunteered for the Guard and the Militia. Money has been contributed from every walk of life by the hundreds of thousands for the encouragement and relief of these loyal men. These acts have been spontaneous, significant, and decisive. I propose to support all those who are supporting their own government with every power which the people have entrusted to me.
“There is an obligation, inescapable, no less solemn, to resist all those who do not support the government. The authority of the Commonwealth cannot be intimidated or coerced. It cannot be compromised. To place the maintenance of the public security in the hands of a body of men who have attempted to destroy it would be to flout the sovereignty of the laws the people have made. It is my duty to resist any such proposal. Those who would counsel it join hands with those whose acts have threatened to destroy the government. There is no middle ground. Every attempt to prevent the formation of a new police force is a blow at the government. That way treason lies. No man has a right to place his own ease or convenience or the opportunity of making money above his duty to the State.
“This is the cause of all the people. I call on every citizen to stand by me in executing the oath of my office by supporting the authority of the government and resisting all assaults upon it.”
Coolidge’s responses—one sentence of them, really, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time”—caught the imagination of the American public, electrifying the nation, stamping him as its no-nonsense champion of post-war law-and order. Over 70,000 letters and telegrams—overwhelmingly in his support—flooded his Beacon Hill office. He swamped his Democratic opponent that November, winning 62 percent of the vote. Even Democratic President Woodrow Wilson wired him: “I congratulate you upon your election as a victory for law and order. When that is the issue, all Americans must stand together.”
A modest Coolidge favorite-son boomlet ensued, and at the 1920 Republican National Convention delegates stampeded to present Silent Cal with their party’s vice-presidential nomination. In August 1923 Coolidge ascended to the presidency on Warren Harding’s death. A year later Coolidge won the White House in his own right in yet another landslide victory.
Calvin Coolidge may have summarized it best when shortly following his departure from public life he reflected on the wave of public goodwill that greeted his actions of September 1919, deeds and words that instantly elevated him from a hitherto largely-unknown provincial official to the status of genuine national phenomenon.
“The people,” Calvin Coolidge tersely noted, “decided in favor of the integrity of their own government.”
Even in the Twenty-First Century, we might agree, that a government with integrity is not such a bad thing.
David Pietrusza (davidpietrusza.com), is the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents and Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Homespun Wit & Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge.
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