The Strike That Made A President

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William Allen White in A Puritan in Babylon tells the story of Calvin Coolidge as a student at Black River Academy. Calvin was in bed one evening in the dormitory while several other boys of more prankish disposition pitched an old stove downstairs. He remained in bed. When one of the masters asked him next day if he had heard the noise, he said that he had. When the master asked further why he had not done anything, Calvin replied, “It wa’n’t my stove.” The looming police strike “wa’n’t” his strike: the Commissioner and the Mayor should resolve it as best they could. Since he had not appointed Curtis, he felt no responsibility for him. If a strike should occur it was up to them to safeguard the city. The attempts of the Committee of Thirty--Four to get Coolidge to intervene were in vain. As events moved to their climax over that first weekend in September, the Governor left for the western part of the state. No one in Boston knew where he was. He made sure of that.

Calvin Coolidge was the product of the Republican escalator system that worked for decades in Massachusetts with great smoothness until the Depression years destroyed its mechanism. Up the escalator went the more astute and adaptable local politicians under the benevolent surveillance of Boss Murray Crane and the general staff of the Republican state committee. Typically, Coolidge rose from mayor of Northampton to become, successively, state representative, state senator, president of the Senate, lieutenant governor, and then governor. Though patricians like Henry Cabot Lodge might be scornful of his bucolicisms, his nasal Vermont accent, and his two-family house on Massasoit Street in Northampton, Coolidge meshed into the machine. After two one-year terms as governor he would be eligible for a sinecure: a directorship in some life insurance company or the peace of the First National Bank.

Storrow and the members of the Citizens’ Committee spent a baffling weekend trying to locate the Governor. They themselves wanted no open break with the police. Their compromise plan, approved by Mayor Peters, would have allowed an unaffiliated union. If the men would call off their strike there would be no disciplinary action taken against the leaders, and the various other grievances would be submitted to an impartial board. The counsel for the union urged the membership to accept. If the Governor and the Commissioner had agreed, they would undoubtedly have done so. But Curtis declined to accept any solution “that might be construed as a pardon of the men on trial.” On Monday morning he suspended the nineteen police leaders.

Peters, as fluttery and ineffectual as ever, scurried about trying to find some last-minute solution, although by now he was convinced that the strike was unavoidable. As mayor he had the right in an emergency to call out the units of the State Guard within the Boston area. Characteristically, he was not aware of this.

Coolidge returned suddenly to his office on Monday afternoon in a testy mood; at about the same time the police were voting, 1,134 to 2, to strike on the following day at five o’clock. Monday evening Coolidge had dinner with Storrow, Peters, and several members of the Citizens’ Committee in a private room of the Union Club. Before the dinner Storrow and Peters begged the Governor to sponsor the compromise plan as the last hope of averting the strike. He refused. Finally they asked him to mobilize three or four thousand troops of the State Guard. He maintained that the situation could be left safely in Curtis’ hands. In spite of the overwhelming vote to strike, Curtis still felt that the majority of the police would remain loyal to him.

Meanwhile, after a series of calls from Peters, the adjutant general, Jesse Stevens, decided that a certain amount of preparation might be wise after all and sent out verbal orders for the State Guard’s only mounted squadron to assemble at the Commonwealth Armory. Coolidge learned of this minor mobilization several hours after the Union Club dinner. Knowing by politician’s instinct that to call out the militia prematurely is political suicide, he telephoned Curtis and angrily started for the Armory.

With a pale and silent Curtis just behind him, Coolidge strode through the Armory arch. A hundred or so troopers were standing about on the lower floor and stared in surprise at their irate Governor, who quacked at the commanding officer, Major Dana Gallup, “Who told you people to come here? Go home!” With that he stalked petulantly up the stairs to the orderly room, followed by Gallup and Curtis.

Then occurred one of the most dramatic, if hitherto unrecorded, minor episodes of the strike. Peters, repulsed and desperate, had set out in frantic pursuit of Coolidge. Ten minutes after the Governor arrived, the rumpled and excited Mayor burst through the Armory door demanding to see him. At that very moment Coolidge was coming down the stairs. The two men faced each other, Peters stammering accusations until Coolidge cut him short with a waspish, “You have no business here.”