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The Strike That Made A President
When Boston’s police walked out, a great city erupted in violence. By doggedly doing nothing, Governor Coolidge emerged as a national hero
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
Had it not been for the Boston police strike of September, 1919, Calvin Coolidge probably would have become just another in the succession of Republican governors of Massachusetts, his name no more remembered than that of his predecessor, Samuel McCall, or his successor, Channing Cox. But the curious and chance circumstances of that event suddenly made him known all over America. To the rest of the country Coolidge became a courageous Yankee figure of the minuteman stamp who had defied and defeated the violence that had threatened the seventh city of the United States.
For two days the central core of Boston with its more than 700,000 inhabitants was without police protection, and the mob ruled the streets. Ordinary Bostonians were as shocked by this savagery as they were dismayed to find how thin was the veneer of legal restraint by which they had ordered their lives. Conservatives like Henry Cabot Lodge saw the strike as a first step toward sovietizing the country. The striking policemen, most of whom were Irish and Catholic by descent, would have been astonished at any such notion. They were ordinary Americans with an immediate grievance so engrossing that they gave little thought to the consequences of their protest.
In the larger analysis the strike was part of the general pattern of industrial unrest that accompanied the dislocations of the postwar period; 1919 was a year of strikes—the great steel strike, the Seattle general strike, railways and transit strikes, a coal strike, longshoremen’s strikes, strikes of actors in New York, even a buyers’ strike. Their immediate common cause was inflation and the failure of wages to keep up with the high cost of living. The underlying cause was, however, that anti-climactic restlessness that runs through every society following the artificial unity of a war.
As for the policemen’s grievances, they were real enough. In spite of a slight raise their minimum pay was $1,100 a year—less than half what many a war worker had been earning—and out of this they had to buy their uniforms. Beyond the question of pay was an even larger grievance: a two-platoon system that kept the men on twelve-hour shifts. Station houses were old, crowded, and dirty. To the ordinary Boston patrolman a union seemed the answer. Not only had the Boston firemen formed one without causing any comment or protest, but police in thirty-seven other American cities already had unions.
The Boston police strike was not unique. Many other police strikes before and since have been passed over and forgotten. In Boston, though, there was no one to replace the police when they struck. That the city was left without protection was the fault of Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis. Indirectly Mayor Andrew J. Peters and Governor Coolidge also shared the responsibility. Ironically enough, Coolidge, who did the least, received the final credit for doing everything.
Twenty-four years before becoming police commissioner, Curtis had been at the age of thirty-four the youngest mayor the city of Boston had ever had. He came from an established and wealthy family, and he felt that in taking public office again he was doing his duty to the community and to his country. His position as commissioner was anomalous. A generation before, when he was mayor, the old-line Bostonians who had governed the city since the Revolution still controlled the city they considered theirs by inheritance. But even then they were being pushed by the Irish offspring of the famine years. When it became obvious that Irish Democrats would take over Boston politically, the Republican state legislature engineered a law to place the appointment of the Boston police commissioner in the hands of the governor. Thus, while the Jim Curleys might possess City Hall, they would not be able to get their fingers on the police department.
Curtis in his middle age had become an autocratic Puritan with supercilious eyes and a puffy, disdainful face. His attitude toward the police was that of a general toward his troops. They were “his” men, and in the hierarchy of command his orders were to be obeyed cheerfully and without question. At the core of Curtis’ unbending personality was a sense of insecurity occasioned by the social changes on the Boston scene. He despised and feared the newly emerging Irish, with their alien religion and their eye for political plunder. In his heart he was convinced that Boston would never again be a decent city until the ephemeral Honey Fitzes and Jim Curleys and Dan Coakleys had been replaced by Curtises. That was why in the period of Boston’s political decline he had accepted the office of police commissioner from Governor McCall.
During the early summer months of 1919 the policemen began organizing themselves into an unofficial union, the Boston Social Club. Curtis countered with a general order slating that for a police officer union membership was inconsistent with the performance of his sworn duty. In spite of this warning the Boston Social Club applied for a charter from the American Federation of Labor.
Curtis at once announced an addition to his departmental rules and regulations. From then on, stated Section 19, Rule 35: “No members of the force shall join or belong to any organization, club or body outside the department.”