Calvin Coolidge: The President and the Scout

In July, 1924, tragedy struck America’s first family.

President Coolidge and Boy Scouts
President Coolidge and Boy Scouts

Calvin Jr., the son of President Calvin Coolidge, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 16 from blood poisoning. Coolidge was devastated, and the whole country mourned with him. At the same time, many people (especially his close supporters) wondered what would happen now.

Coolidge was in the middle of running for reelection as United States President, and many of his projects were in states of half-completion. He was a quiet man with a very reserved character. It was hard to predict how he would react. Would this heartbreak upset his plans and sap him of the energy and will to continue this uphill (and often thankless) job?

When he first became President, Coolidge wasn’t elected. He was the Vice President to President Harding when Harding died… leaving to Coolidge a massive work load and an administration tangled with scandals which Coolidge would have to unravel. Many didn’t think that quiet Coolidge could handle it, but Coolidge rose to the challenge. He set to work with vigor to carry out the reforms that he and Harding had campaigned for, and he turned out to be much more successful at this than Harding.

He wasn’t quiet and weak; he was steady and strong. He quickly captured the hearts of the American people through his constant toiling to cut back the government’s huge expenditures and give more freedom to the economy by lowering tax rates. Even those who didn’t like his policies couldn’t doubt his loyalty to his country and his earnestness in working for its benefit.

Now, just when he was starting to pick up some steam… just whenever he was going to run for President on his own and have a real chance to reform the government… personal tragedy strikes. Speaking of his son long afterward, Coolidge said: “when he died, the power and glory of the Presidency went with him.” Coolidge began to slip into depression.

Coolidge and Scouting

Coolidge and His Sons
Coolidge and His Sons

Calvin Jr. was a Boy Scout, and although he was the son of a President, he didn’t look down on the other guys in his Troop. They all knew him as a solid Scout with a high level of character just like his father. He was known to be a hard worker and didn’t look down on manual work. He studied hard and liked to read, but he also loved getting outdoors and doing stuff. He had a cheerful and active personality, and he was right at home in the Scouting brotherhood.

As a matter of fact, though Calvin’s father was born before Scouting, Coolidge himself had a lot of respect for this new youth organization. He often took time to send a message of encouragement or congratulations to the B.S.A. even when he was Vice President and before that when he was the Governor of Massachusetts. He saw to it that both of his sons were involved in Scouting.

The values of Scouting resonated with Coolidge. Scouting stood for the same spirit of service and responsibility that animated him during the many long, hard hours he worked as a public servant. If he had been anything less than service-minded, he surely would’ve given in to his depression when Calvin Jr. died. Instead, he set himself back to work. He was reelected and went on to succeed in implementing historic economic reforms and preside over some of the most prosperous years of that era in American history.

Why? Why did he continue on?

His other son later said of him that Calvin Jr.’s death produced a depression in Coolidge that never went away. In some ways, he blamed the Presidency for his son’s death – it was a fluke injury at the White House which caused Calvin Jr. to contract blood poisoning.

I think I know why he kept going. I believe that Coolidge was, at heart, a Scout. I believe that Coolidge, in the spirit of true Scouting, put aside his personal feelings for what he believed to be the good of his country.

The reason I think this is because of a very telling message he gave on July 25 – only 18 days after his son passed away. Coolidge, who often shunned the spotlight, was especially silent in the weeks following his son’s death. He turned down many personal appointments and opportunities to speak. However, he made an exception when he agreed to speak via telephone to a group of Boy Scouts who were leaving for a world Jamboree.

I was thinking about only including an abbreviated version of the message, but I couldn’t cut out any of it! The full message is copied below. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I did:

“There was no Boy Scout organization in my boyhood, but every boy who has the privilege of growing up on a farm learns instinctively the three fundamentals of Scouthood.

 

The first is a reverence for nature. Boys should never lose their love of the fields and the streams, the mountains and the plains, the open places and the forests. That love will be a priceless possession as your years lengthen out. There is an instructive myth about the giant Antaeus. Whenever in a contest he was thrown down, he drew fresh strength from his mother, the earth, and so was thought invincible. But Hercules lifted him away from the earth and so destroyed him. There is new life in the soil for every man. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer.

 

The second is a reverence for law. I remember the town meetings of my boyhood, when the citizens of our little town met to levy taxes on themselves, and to choose from their own number those who should be their officers. There is something in every town meeting, in every election, that approaches very near to the sublime. I am thrilled at the thought of my audience tonight, for I never address boys without thinking, among them may be a boy who will sit in this White House. Somewhere there are boys who will be presidents of our railroads, presidents of colleges, of banks, owners of splendid farms and useful industries, members of Congress, representatives of our people in foreign lands. That is the heritage of the American boy.

 

It was an act of magnificent courage when our ancestors set up a nation wherein any boy may aspire to anything. That great achievement was not wrought without blood and sacrifice. Make firm your resolution to carry on nobly what has been so nobly begun. Let this nation, under your influence, be a finer nation. Resolve that the sacrifices by which your great opportunities have been purchased will be matched by a sacrifice, on your part, that will give your children even a better chance.

 

The third is a reverence for God. It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.

 

These are not only some of the fundamentals of the teachings of the Boy Scouts, they are the fundamentals of our American institutions. If you will take them with you, if you will be living examples of them abroad, you will make a great contribution toward a better understanding of our country, and receive in return a better understanding of other countries; for you will find in foreign lands, to a very large extent, exactly what you carry there yourselves. I trust that you can show to your foreign associates in the great scout movement that you have a deep reverence for the truth and are determined to live by it; that you wish to protect and cherish your own country and contribute to the well being, right thinking and true living of the whole world.”

[N.B. Thank you for reading this article! If you like what you read, I would appreciate it if you would pass it along to Scouts and Scouters you know. If you haven’t already, you can subscribe by putting your email in the little box in the right-hand sidebar. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!]

References: Calvin’s Message, Coolidge’s Wikipedia Page, Boys’ Life Article, Scouting Magazine Article,

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2 Comments on "Calvin Coolidge: The President and the Scout"

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Stu Fischbeck
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Wow…in an age when “American Exceptionalism” is bandied about in both positive and negative ways, but rarely adequately defined or described, Coolidge’s words capture it wonderfully.

Thanks for the post and for all of the info on your website. I received your calendar for Christmas, and it hangs proudly on my office wall, by the way!

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