Date: September 3, 1919
Location: Westfield, MA
Context: In September 1919, Governor Coolidge confronted the greatest challenge of his career, the violent Boston Police strike. Just days before the strike erupted, and perhaps anticipating the tense conflict, Governor Coolidge delivered this speech in Westfield, Mass., an area where, in another period—that of Shays’ Rebellion—Americans had also taken arms against one another. The speech cites the farmer Jonathan Smith, who voiced support for the rule of law, and expressed doubts about the merits of class warfare.
We come here on this occasion to honor the past, and in that honor render more secure the present. It was by such men as settled Westfield, and two hundred and fifty years ago established by law a chartered and ordered government, that the foundations of Massachusetts were laid. And it was on the foundations of Massachusetts that there began that training of the people for the great days that were to come, when they were prepared to endorse and support the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Here were planted the same seeds of righteousness victorious which later flourished with such abundance at Saratoga, at Gettysburg, and at the second battle of the Marne. Stupendous results, the product of a people working with an everlasting purpose.
While celebrating the history of Westfield, this day has been set apart to the memory of one of her most illustrious sons, General William Shepard. To others are assigned the history of your town and the biography of your soldier. Into those particulars I shall not enter. But the principles of government and of citizenship which they so well represent, and nobly illustrate, will never be untimely or unworthy of reiteration.
The political history of Westfield has seen the success of a great forward movement, to which it contributed its part, in establishing the principle, that the individual in his rights is supreme, and that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is the establishment of liberty, under an ordered form of government, in this ancient town, by the people themselves, that today draws us here in admiration of her achievements. When we turn to the life of her patriot son we see that he no less grandly illustrated the principle, that to such government, so established, the people owe an allegiance which has the binding power of the most solemn obligation.
There is such a disposition in these days to deny that our Government was formed by, or is now in control of, the people, that a glance at the history of the days of General Shepard is peculiarly pertinent and instructive.
The Constitution of Massachusetts, with its noble Declaration of Rights was adopted in 1780. Under it we still live with scarce any changes that affect the rights of the people. The end of the Revolutionary War was 1783. Shay’s Rebellion was in 1787. The American Constitution was ratified and adopted in 1788. These dates tell us what the form of government was in this period.
If there are any who doubt that our institutions, formed in those days, did not establish a peoples’ government, let them study the action of the Massachusetts Convention which ratified the Federal Constitution in 1788. Presiding over it was the popular patriot Governor John Hancock. On the floor sat Samuel Adams, who had been the father of the Revolution, preeminent champion of the liberty of the people. Such an influence had he, that his assertion of satisfaction, was enough to carry the delegates. Like a majority of the members he came opposed to ratification. Having totally thrown off the authority of foreign power, they came suspicious of all outside authority. Besides there were eighteen members who had taken part in Shays’ Rebellion, so hostile were they to the execution of all law. Mr. Adams was finally convinced by a gathering of the workingmen among his constituents, who exercised their constitutional right of instructing their representatives. Their opinion was presented to him by Paul Revere. “How many mechanics were at the Green Dragon when these resolutions were passed?” asked Mr. Adams. “More, sir, than the Green Dragon could hold.” “And where were the rest?” “In the streets, sir.” “And how many were in the streets?” “More than there are stars in the sky.” This is supposed to have convinced the great Massachusetts tribune that it was his duty to support ratification.
There were those, however, who distrusted the Constitution and distrusted its proponents. They viewed lawyers and men of means with great jealousy. Amos Singletary expressed their sentiments in the form of an argument that has not ceased to be repeated in the discussion of all public affairs. “These lawyers,” said he, “and men of learning and moneyed men that talk so finely and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterates swallow the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves. They mean to be managers of the Constitution. They mean to get all the money into their hands and then they will swallow up us little folk, like the great Leviathan, Mr. President: yes, just like the whale swallowed up Jonah.” In the convention sat Jonathan Smith, a farmer from Lanesboro. He had seen Shays’ Rebellion in Berkshire. There had been no better example of a man of the people desiring the common good.
“I am a plain man,” said Mr. Smith, “and am not used to speak in public, but I am going to show the effects of anarchy, that you may see why I wish for good government. Last winter people took up arms, and then, if you went to speak to them, you had the musket of death presented to your breast. They would rob you of your property, threaten to burn your houses, oblige you to be on your guard night and day. Alarms spread from town to town, families were broken up; the tender mother would-cry, ‘Oh, my son is among them! What shall I do for my child?’ Some were taken captive; children taken out of their schools and carried away…. How dreadful was this! Our distress was so great that we should have been glad to snatch at anything that looked like a government. Now, Mr. President, when I saw this Constitution, I found that it was a cure for these disorders. I got a copy of it, and read it over and over. I did not go to any lawyer, to ask his opinion; we have no lawyer in our town, and we do well enough without. My honorable old daddy there, pointing to Mr. Singletary, won’t think that I expect to be a Congressman, and swallow up the liberties of the people. I never had any post, nor do I want one. But I don’t think the worse of the Constitution because lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men are fond of it. I am not of such a jealous make. They that are honest men themselves are not apt to suspect other people. Brother farmers, let us suppose a case, now. Suppose you had a farm of 50 acres, and your title was disputed, and there was a farm of 50 acres joined to you that belonged to a man of learning, and his title was involved in the same difficulty; would you not be glad to have him for your friend, rather than to stand alone in the dispute? Well, the case is the same. These lawyers, these moneyed men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must all sink or swim together. Shall we throw the Constitution overboard because it does not please us all alike? Suppose two or three of you had been at the pains to break up a piece of rough land and sow it with wheat: would you let it lie waste because you could not agree what sort of a fence to make? Would it not be better to put up a fence that did not please every one’s fancy, rather than keep disputing about it until the wild beasts came in and devoured the crop? Some gentlemen say, Don’t be in a hurry; take time to consider. I say, There is a time to sow and a time to reap. We sowed our seed when we sent men to the Federal Convention, now is the time to reap the fruit of our labor; and if we do not do it now, I am afraid we shall never have another opportunity.”
There spoke the common sense of the common man of the Commonwealth. The counsel of the farmer from the country, joined with the resolutions of the working men from the city, carried the convention and the Constitution was ratified. In the light of succeeding history, who shall say, that it was not the voice of the people, speaking with the voice of Infinite authority?
The attitude of Samuel Adams, William Shepard, Jonathan Smith and the working men of Boston toward government, is worthy of our constant emulation. They had not hesitated to take up arms against tyranny in the revolution, but having established a government of the people they were equally determined to defend and support it. They hated the usurper whether king, or Parliament, or mob, but they bowed before the duly constituted authority of the people.
When the question of pardoning the convicted leaders of the rebellion came up, Adams opposed it. “In monarchies,” he said, “the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished; but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” We are all glad mercy prevailed and pardon was granted. But the calm judgment of Samuel Adams, the lover of liberty, “the man of the town meeting” whose clear vision, taught by bitter experience, saw that all usurpation is tyranny, must not go unheeded now. The authority of a just government derived from the consent of the governed, has back of it a power that does not fail.
All wars bring in their trail great hard ships. They existed in the day of General Shepard. They exist now. Having set up a sound government in Massachusetts, having secured their independence, as the result of a victorious war, the people expected a season of easy prosperity. In that they were temporarily disappointed. Some rebelling, were overthrown. The adoption of the Federal Constitution brought relief and prosperity.
Success has attended the establishment here of a government of the people. We of this day have just finished a victorious war that has added new glory to American arms. We are facing some hardships, but they are not serious. Private obligations are not so large as to be burdensome. Taxes can be paid. Prosperity abounds. But the great promise of the future lies in the loyalty and devotion of the people to their own Government. They are firm in the conviction of the fathers, that liberty is increased only by increasing the determination to support a government of the people, as established in this ancient town, and defended by its patriotic sons.
Calvin Coolidge, Have Faith in Massachusetts: A Collection of Speeches and Messages, 2nd ed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919