Address to the Annual Convention of the American Red Cross
Introduction to the Address
In Calvin Coolidge’s day, before the advent of welfare state, when Jefferson’s concept of limited national government still lived, the American Red Cross served as the nation’s principal relief organization. In 1926, the year of this speech, the organization’s membership stood at 3,012,055. With 3,537 chapters, its presence was felt countrywide.
President Coolidge was staunch admirer of the American National Red Cross. He undoubtedly looked upon it, as did many Americans, as a monument to the progress of civilization. More specifically, the organization represented to him American “idealism applied in a sensible, practical, sound way to the real problems of relief.”
Mr. Coolidge had a long association with the Red Cross. Before coming to the presidency, he had become familiar with its work while an office holder in Massachusetts and then as Vice President. Pursuant to the Red Cross’s by-laws, as President of the United States, Mr. Coolidge served as the organization’s president from 1923-29. As its public face, he led its annual fund drives, running from Armistice Day through Thanksgiving, and addressed its annual conventions in Washington. Indeed, Mr. Coolidge chose to make his first formal address as President at the opening session of the Red Cross convention on September 25, 1923. On occasions, when funds were needed to meet emergencies, he would make special appeals for donations, sometime using the new medium of radio for the purpose. Later, in retirement, as a sign of his continuing support, he agreed to serve as vice president of the organization.
The U.S. Congress had chartered the American Red Cross in 1900 and again in 1905 to act as a quasi-official arm of the national government. The Red Cross’s mission was to offer assistance to military personnel and families, particularly in times of war, and to provide aid to the public during those “great national calamities” that befell the nation from time to time. Having something of a “non-nationalist character,” it was also responsible for international aid when disaster struck abroad, a notable example being the relief rendered to Japan following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.
The Red Cross was supported by private donations and manned by volunteers and a small paid staff. (It was a boast of the Red Cross that every penny given for relief when for relief—not administration.) Yet, the national government stood behind it, overseeing and, when necessary, assisting it in its operations. In major national disasters—by far the most notable example in the 1920s being the Great Mississippi Flood—the national government joined with the Red Cross in a grand cooperative relief and reconstruction effort.
To understand this unique relationship between the Red Cross and the national government, one must consider how Calvin Coolidge and most Americans of his time looked upon the role government. The common view was that the national government had no direct role to play in disaster relief. Dealing with disasters was thought of as a local affair to be met by local governments and the communities involved. After all, local officials knew the situation best and local residents were ready and able to help their neighbors. Coolidge himself had direct experience of this as a municipal and later a State official. Most importantly, however, it was considered wrong for the national government to use money, gathered from all the people, for the benefit of a particular group or class of citizens.
As an example of this thinking, in 1887, President Grover Cleveland famously vetoed a Texas seed corn bill, which was intended to provide seed corn to Texas farmers hard hit by drought. He did so on the grounds that it would be an improper expenditure of government money. In justifying his veto, Cleveland argued:
“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. Prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
Cleveland went on to say, “The friendliness and charity of our fellow countrymen can always be relied on to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune.” Indeed, these Texas farmers eventually received from private sources more than 10 times what the vetoed bill would have provided.
Although of different political parties, Mr. Coolidge largely shared Grover Cleveland’s limited, Jeffersonian view of the national government. Nonetheless, he was willing to use the government’s resources when a great disaster necessitated it, as was well demonstrated in the case of the Great Mississippi Flood, which brought unprecedented devastation with it. Still, for him, self-government meant self-support. He expected local citizens and their government officials to do their part in relief and rebuilding, with no pushing off local obligations onto the national government. His famous extemporaneous speech, “Vermont is a State that I Love,” delivered at Bennington in September 1928 was evoked by his admiration for the vigorous, self-help response of Vermonters—an “indomitable people”—to the destructive New England floods of 1927.
By the early Twentieth Century, with the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurgency, and the China Relief Expedition still a recent memory, the national government had come to realize the need for an organization to provide service to the military. It also sought an organization capable of responding to disasters and special needs situations at home and abroad. To achieve this, the government was now ready to give its backing and support to a “semigovernmental institution”—the Red Cross—that could mobilize the American people’s spirit of generosity and voluntarism in times of crisis. Under this arrangement, the government achieved its aims without its direct funding or involvement, except in exceptional instances. In away, the government succeeded in having its cake and eating it, too.
It was not long after receiving its Charter that the Red Cross faced one of its greatest challenges, the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The national government, though its military departments, joined with Red Cross in the relief effort, providing tents and blankets to stricken citizens, as well as sending in troops to maintain order.
The following points make clear the Red Cross’s “semi-governmental” relationship with the national government:
- The President of the United States was designated its official head, with a central committee to oversee day-to-day operations.
- The President appointed one-third of the members of its central committee, who were responsible for representing the government’s interests.
- The Treasury Department acted as its banker.
- The War Department was charged with auditing annually its financial accounts.
- Each year it was required to report to the Congress on its affairs.
- The national government proved half the funds for the construction of its impressive national headquarters, along with the land, located one block from the White House, on which it sits.
The relationship between the national government and the Red Cross grew much closer during the World War I. The two entities worked hand-in-hand, as the Red Cross mobilized to assist in the war effort. As an example of this cooperation, certain Red Cross officials and doctors were granted military rank to facilitate their work. This close working relationship would continue into the 1920s. Because of the war, the Red Cross greatly expanded its membership and activities and branches sprung up all over the country, which permitted national headquarters to do more by placing more responsibilities onto local groups. Its overseas work to assist the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) received considerable public praise.
With War’s end, the Red Cross, like the country itself, had to make the transition to peacetime. This involved downsizing and refocusing its work under the competent guidance of John Barton Payne, the new chairman of the central committee. During the 1920’s, the organization recruited thousands of nurses into its public heath-nursing program, which had as its goal bringing better health and hygiene to needy people living in rural America. Part of their work included bringing needed health care to Indian reservations. There was also a large increase in the number of Red Cross instructors, who taught their neighbors in first aid, nursing skills, and water safety. And, of course, the organization continued to provide relief in a number of major disasters that befell the country. In this area, the organization developed and implemented its comprehensive disaster response manual, which was to play such an important role in its successful relief efforts. Overseas, the Red Cross was active in aiding victims of the war, especially refugees in Eastern Europe and in the Fair East. Also, Cuba and other islands of the West Indies received assistance following devastating hurricanes. When needed, President Coolidge and the members of his Administration were always willing to join with the Red Cross to do their part. Near the end of his presidency, reflecting on the actions of his Administration, he observed, “In times of great disaster [the government] opened the doors of its Treasury.”
What follows is a description of the Red Cross’s work in 1926, taken from the Americana Annual for 1927:
“The year 1926 was one of the worst for disasters in the history of the American Red Cross. Fires, winds, and floods concentrated their fury in a way that set new records. Approximately 700 person were killed in the United States and hundreds injured. Two months—September and October—witnessed unparalleled outbursts of nature’s wrath. During this period occurred the Florida hurricane, the worst disaster in Red Cross annals since the San Francisco fire and earthquake; the Illinois River Valley flood; the Kansas flood; the Iowa flood; two fires in Alaska which destroyed whole villages; floods in Oklahoma; a tornado in Sandusky, Ohio; the Cuban hurricane, as destructive as the Florida storm; a flood in Mexico and hurricanes in the West Indies.”
In this 1926 speech, Calvin Coolidge reviews the work agency and spells out his vision of the Red Cross, which includes the prevention of disasters.
Jerry L. Wallace
The Americana Annual: An Encyclopedia of Current Events: 1927 (New York: Americana Corp., 1927)
The Americana Annual: An Encyclopedia of Current Events: 1929 (New York: Americana Corp., 1929)
Haskin, Frederic J. The American Government. Washington, DC: Frederic J. Haskin, 1924.
———————-, The American Government. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941.
The Almanac and Book of Facts: 1927. New York: The New York World, 1927.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Historical Importance of the American Red Cross”: retrieved August 2009 from http://history1900s.about.com/od/medicaladvancesissues/p/redcross.htm
Fritz, Joanne. “The American Red Cross–From the Johnstown Flood to Hurricane Katrina”: retrieved August 2009 from nonprofit.about.com
“Government Should Not Support the People.” Mackinac Center for Public Policy: retrieved August 2009 from www.mackinac.org
Address to the Annual Convention of the American Red Cross
Washington, D.C. | October 4, 1926
Members of the Convention:
The annual convention of the American Red Cross is an occasion for reemphasizing the fact that the world is not yet perfect, and rededicating ourselves to continuing sacrifices for its redemption. Such a conception in its entirety is not simple but very complex. It is not narrow and restricted, but very broad and comprehensive. It brings into consideration the whole field of human relationship. The main purpose of this organization is charity, but charity is not something that can exist of self, apart from all else. It is very complete demonstration of the fact that we live in world that is interrelated and interdependent. Charity depends not only on a benevolent spirit but upon the material resources by means of which such sentiment can manifest self.
It is the realization of this principle that helps to sanctify the realm of business. The people of this country are engaged in their various daily occupations in order that they may meet their wide and comprehensive obligations. No doubt their first thought is to be self-supporting and independent, maintaining themselves and their families in comfort, supplying the needs of their declining years, and passing on to posterity the means of a broader existence and a more comprehensive life. It is with this in view that they have given heed to the scriptural injunction to be diligent in business, and under the inspiration of this motive America has become rich and prosperous. But our obligation does not end there. Although there is no doubt that we have surpassed every other people in that direction we have not yet attained, and perhaps it is not possible for finite beings to attain, to a complete economic justice. The limitations of humanity and the results of unforeseen and unforeseeable contingencies constantly leave some of our people, oftentimes without any fault on their part, in a condition of want and distress which they are enable of themselves to alleviate. Nothing is clearer than the requirement which is laid on society to use its resources for the relief and restoration of such conditions. The success and completeness with which these obligations are discharged measure the moral rank of a people.
In a country as extended and diversified as our own which recognizes its obligation not only to itself but to humanity at large, such charity can not be left to the chance impulse of the occasion. It requires trained skill and thorough organization for its effective operation. It is to meet this broad purpose that the American Red Cross has been organized and maintained.
More and more each year it has become a symbol and expression of the divine sympathy which exists in every human being. It takes the heart beats of humanity and transforms them into concrete acts for the alleviation of misery and suffering. Begun as an agency of mercy to relieve those stricken in battle, it soon developed into a service to heal the scars of those broken in body and spirit by such combats. This work is still vitally necessary. We can only hope that some day there will be found a way to prevent these appalling conflicts between nations, which bring such a harvest of physically maimed and mentally wrecked, with the resultant destruction of man power and material resources.
But to-day there is much more in our Red Cross. Wonderful advances have been made in developing and organizing its peace-time activities. One of the purposes written into its charter, granted by Congress in 1905, is: “. . . . to continue and carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace, and to apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great national calamities, and “—I desire to lay particular stress on this—” to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same.”
This a broad grant for service! In recent years we have come to realize more fully the great value of prevention. As this idea progresses and is carried out with increasing success, need for alleviation, for healing, and reconstruction inevitably will be lessened. This incalculable benefit to humanity is the goal to set for ourselves!
Never in the history of mankind have benevolence and beneficence been applied so widely and effectively. Modern business methods and the results of scientific research have been adopted and put into operation. A sympathetic disposition, a desire to be helpful—these may be the marks of a find nature, but they can not be of maximum benefit to others without an organization such as the Red Cross. Not only has our work been developed to a high degree of efficiency, but in and by that development has been set an example of virtues worthy of emulation by individuals, groups, and nations.
One of our best-known services is that of disaster relief. It was first brought into large use under powers of the 1905 charter when the great emergency arose in San Francisco the following year. This agency has been perfected until now the supervision of relief in times of calamity, without any question, and with the utmost confidence and by common consent, it placed in the hands of the Red Cross. Preparedness and promptness are among its cardinal principles. Its forces and resources are organized so there may be no delay in securing immediate action when catastrophe strikes with sudden and destructive hand. Relief quickly given is doubly beneficial. We have recently had an example of its swiftness and efficiency in the emergency caused by the Florida storm. The relief agencies were put in motion upon receipt of the first news. Within 24 hours of the issuance of my appeal for financial assistance subscriptions amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars were reported to national headquarters in Washington. That was only the beginning.
The public has come to realize the superlative ability of this organization to cope with such situations. There is faith that all contributions will be wisely, economically, and honestly spent for the benefit of the sufferers—none being used for purposes of administration. Another virtue of this society is that it “follows through.” Once having entered a devastated area, the Red Cross does not leave until there has been complete rehabilitation. It does not withdraw after the acute physical ills have been alleviated. Help is continued until every person affected has been restored to full powers of efficiency and the community has been reconstructed. Such work took a full year after the tri-State tornado in the mid-west in March, 1925; and a total of $3,000,000 was expended.
Aid is given freely, necessity being the only requirement, and in such a way that the benefactor does not feel himself an object of charity. He does not lose his self-respect. Rather is he inspired by a fine example to a better and more efficient life, that he in turn may render service to others.
While the Red Cross comes strikingly before the public eye at times of great emergency, reported extensively in the newspapers, it is in the less well-known and unspectacular services where constant and most important benefits are rendered. Not only are our active soldiers and sailors ministered to, but encouragement and assistance are being given to our war veterans, wherever they may be. In the broad field of prevention, destined to play an increasingly valuable role in the progress of civilization, already an excellent start has been made. Among the services now being supported by the Red Cross are: Home hygiene and care of the sick, public health and nursing, nutrition, first aid, and life-saving. It is not intended that local committees shall be superseded in their privilege and duty to carry on health preservation and social service work. But we undertake to start such activities wherever needed and to arouse public sentiment to the necessity of maintenance by the local authorities.
One of the most promising of the recent developments is the Junior Red Cross, organized among the young of high-school age. The aim is to inspire in the youth the fine spirit of service and self-sacrifice which is so characteristic of the senior organization. These junior groups are kept in touch with similar groups in foreign lands, and evidences of good will are frequently exchanged. Who can doubt that this spirit of friendliness fostered among the young people of the different nations will bring a harvest of better international understanding and of mutual respect in the years to come? Among the choicest treasures of my bookshelves are thousands upon thousands of bound personal letters written by the school children of Japan expressing the gratitude of that exceedingly courteous nation for the millions of relief which was afforded them by the American Red Cross at the time of the devastating earthquake and flood which overwhelmed Tokyo and the surrounding territory in 1923. Out of the spirit of those who gave and the gratitude of those who received a better understanding and more enduring ties of friendship have certainly been wrought.
Suffering and sorrow are universal. Sympathy and a desire to help those in distress are characteristics not confined to any one nation. Already the American Red Cross has established a comprehensive sphere of influence throughout these United States. It as more than 3,000,000 senior and over 5,500,000 junior members. There are 3,537 chapters, nearly 500 in excess of the total number of counties in our States. We are cooperating with other countries through the Pan American Red Cross and through the League of Red Cross Societies, composed of 54 independent national organizations. We have time and again given freely in aid of stricken communities in foreign lands.
All of this represents a tremendous organizing ability, embracing vast resources, and including an enormous number of people. There was never any other like charity in the world. It represents idealism applied in a sensible, practical, sound way to the real problems of relief.
What the Red Cross is doing is only one example of the innumerable results of American idealism. While there is no more moving spectacle than that of the poor, out of their meager substance, extending relief to their fellow beings in time of distress, such relief would be entirely inadequate to meet the needs of modern society. To extend medical aid, to give the necessary food, clothing, and shelter to the victims of disaster in the crowded areas of the world, either in war or peace, require great outlays of money and large aggregates of personal service. This can only be furnished from the resources of wealth and prosperity. The fact that these charities are supplied not only for the Red Cross but in innumerable other directions is one of the most complete demonstrations that our people in their effort to accumulate property are moved by a righteous purpose. Their success has not been turned to greed, avarice, or selfishness, but has been productive of generosity, benevolence, and charity.
In this country we have no permanent class requiring charity. We have been remarkably free from the havoc of war, with its accompanying results of the maimed and the dependent, but even only under the hazards of peace 115,000,000 people can not exist without temporary emergencies constantly arising which need charitable relief. When we consider the rest of the world the requirements are endless and stupendous.
While America has been and is surpassingly great in its charities, it looks upon those ministrations to our inhabitants as temporary and accidental. The normal state of the American people, the standard toward which all efforts are bent for attainment, usually with success, is that of a self-supporting, self-governing, independent people. That represents to us a condition of health and soundness which it is exceedingly desirable to maintain. After all the ideal charity is to place in the hands of the people the means of satisfying their own requirements through their own efforts.
It is for these reasons that it is necessary to rely so largely upon the economic condition of the country to minister to the idealism of the country. We may be moved ever so strongly with benevolent impulses; but if we are without means to afford relief, such sentiments are of little practical value. Even where generosity and wealth both exist we can not say that even these are sufficient. After all, human nature does not want permanent charity but permanent independence through the opportunity to work out its own destiny. It is at this point that the economic well-being and prosperity of a nation passes over into the ideal. Great wealth belonging to a few is not a condition that we seek in this country, but rather a system of production and distribution where the great mass of people shall be contributors to the process and shall share in the rewards. Under this system, toward which we are constantly advancing in America, prosperity and idealism merge, and the cause of economics serves the cause of humanity. The higher idealism, the true philanthropy, is not that which comes to the rescue after the catastrophe, but rather that which through obedience to sound economic laws creates a prosperity among the people that anticipates and prevents the need of charity.