A Dedication to Calvin Coolidge
President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center Dedication
August 7, 2010
Plymouth, Vermont –more accurately, Plymouth Notch, Vermont –is an important place for at least two primary reasons. One of those reasons is known to just about everyone: Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States was born and raised here.
The second reason is the fact that Plymouth was and is emblematic of small-town Vermont. And that had a lot to do with Calvin Coolidge and has a lot to do with the Vermont we live in today.
When Calvin Coolidge lived here, it was very nearly a complete, self-sufficient social unit. I say, “very nearly,” because Plymouth, even 19th Century Plymouth, was not independent, but inter-dependent. It was connected to the larger world in many ways.
But given that qualification, it is fair to say that Plymouth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was independent in a way that very few communities are today. “The Notch” had its own store, its own industries – its dairies and its cheese factory — its own social and religious institutions, and its own inhabitants to bring all of it to life and make it work. A person could be born, grow up, live a good and productive life, and hardly ever leave Plymouth at all – unless it was to go over the mountain to the Vermont State Fair in Rutland, or to Woodstock to do some trading. That person could spend his or her whole life in Plymouth, could die here, and then be buried in the little cemetery just down the road. Many expected to, 100 years ago. And many did.
Calvin Coolidge, of course, went far beyond Plymouth. First to Black River Academy in Ludlow, then to a series of ever-greater public posts in Massachusetts, and finally to Washington, D.C., and the White House.
And the fascinating thing about Coolidge is that, high as he rose, he never forgot Plymouth or the lessons about life he had learned here as a boy. Plymouth put its stamp on Calvin Coolidge and when he became President, upon the untimely death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge was just about the perfect person to assume the Presidency.
Harding, it should be remembered, was one of the worst presidents the United States ever had. Corrupt, inept, fatally unengaged, and intellectually dull, he allowed his associates, the so-called “Ohio Gang,” free rein in Washington and the result was the Teapot Dome scandal – which remains a byword for government corruption to this day.
When Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, was vacationing with his wife at his family home here in Plymouth. And you all know the wonderful story of how Coolidge was roused from his bed in the middle of the night and was sworn in as President by his father, John Coolidge, by lamplight – that would be kerosene lamplight because Plymouth did not, in 1923, have electricity. (You can see the kerosene lamp that he was sworn in by in the Coolidge home, just down the street.)
It’s a great story, but even more interesting to me is the fact that Coolidge became a very good chief executive who accomplished an enormously important and difficult task: he restored America’s faith in the Presidency. His virtue and probity were unassailable. He was an honest, straightforward man (mostly silent) and he was what America needed at that time. Coolidge knew it and responded with both insight and humor.
“I think the American people want a solemn ass as President,” he once told the actress Ethyl Barrymore. “And I think I shall go along with them.”
The other thing about the swearing –in story that I find notable is this: he was a President on vacation with his wife, and where did he choose to vacation? In Plymouth, at his boyhood family home.
It is obvious that Coolidge dearly loved his hometown. He returned here when he could, did farm chores in a farmer’s smock, went fishing as any country lad might go fishing – and was shrewd enough to make sure there were newspaper photographers on hand to record those homey acts.
(A farmer’s smock, by the way, was a long woolen shirt-like garment that a farmer would wear when haying to keep chaff and dirt off his everyday clothing. Coolidge liked to wear his grandfather, John Galusha Coolidge’s smock, but when he was photographed in it, people assumed he was putting it on as a sort of costume, and so Coolidge grudgingly put it aside, grumbling: “In public life, it is sometimes necessary, in order to appear really natural, to be actually artificial…”)
But anyway, here’s my point: it was in Plymouth, under the guidance of his beloved father John Coolidge, that Calvin learned the values that America most needed at the moment in history when he was called on to assume the Presidency.
Listen to the way Coolidge described the town he grew up in…I’m stringing together selected quotations from his Autobiography (which, incidentally, I recommend to you, if you’d like to read what a literate President can do with the English language. His prose is a model of clarity and restrained elegance.)
This is Coolidge:
“…This locality was known as The Notch, being situated at the head of a valley in an irregular bowl of hills. The scene was of much natural beauty, of which I think the inhabitants had little realization, though they all loved it because it was their home and were always ready to contend that it surpassed all the surrounding communities and compared favorably with any other place on earth.”
“…My father, John Coolidge, ran the country store. He was successful….He trusted nearly everybody, but lost a surprisingly small amount. Sometimes people he had not seen for years would return and pay him the whole bill…He was a good business man, a very hard worker, and did not like to see things wasted…(also very good with his hands)…He worked with a carriage maker for a short time when he was young, and the best buggy he had for twenty years was one he made himself…He knew how to lay bricks and was an excellent stone mason.
(Note that Calvin got his sense of public service from his father, who was notary, justice of the peace and held other positions in Plymouth.)
“…The neighborhood around the Notch was made up of people of exemplary habits. Their speech was clean and their lives were above reproach. … they were without exception a people of faith and charity and of good works.”
“…They drew no class distinctions except toward those who assumed superior airs. Those they held in contempt. They held strongly to the doctrine of equality…”
(Even in tiny, rural Plymouth Notch, education was important)…Coolidge wrote:
“…We had some books but not many…My education began with a set of blocks which had on them the Roman numerals and the letters of the alphabet. It is not yet finished.”
“…They all taught me to be faithful over a few things. If they had any idea that such training might some day make me a ruler over many things, it was not disclosed to me. “
“…It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. As I look back on it, I constantly think how clean it was. There was little about it that was artificial. It was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. The streams ran clear. The roads, the woods, the fields, the people – all were clean. Even when I try to divest it of the halo which I know always surrounds the past, I am unable to create any impression other than that it was fresh and clean.”
“Country life does not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities.”
What we have in Plymouth Notch today is not the 19th century village that Calvin Coolidge grew up in. What we have here today is a memory – a very accurate memory—of that village and the life that was lived here then.
We are extremely fortunate that the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation has kept the buildings in this place as accurate and true to their day as can be. The same is true of the landscape in which the village buildings are situated. The fields are still mown for hay, and you can still walk through them, just as young Calvin might have. The surrounding hills have been kept undeveloped.
This is not the case throughout all of Vermont. So it is fortunate that here, in this place, we have an accurate memory of what a small Vermont town looked like in the early years of the last century.
Memories –visual memories included — are important because they help define the present – and the people who live in the present. Plymouth Notch – this place – is important today because it gives us an understanding of Calvin Coolidge, his world and his values. It teaches us without teaching how those values were created by the small community that existed in this place.
Can a place actually create values? I don’t honestly know. But I strongly believe that good values can be created by people living in a place like this –a beautiful, coherent place, small and close to nature, where people work cooperatively together and know and generally like one another. And I trust those values – the values implicit in what Coolidge writes about this place – more than values created in the mass media, the movies, television, or the Internet – a non-place if ever there was one!
Places like Plymouth Notch are hard to find these days. But they are important because they remind us not only of where Calvin Coolidge came from, but also where we came from, and where our beliefs and values came from.
It is important that Vermont preserve and maintain places like this that remind us not only of our past, but also of the best of that past that lives on with us in Vermont today. It is important that Vermont not lose such places – or the small town virtues and values that they inspired.