A Legacy of Leadership: How Vermont's Presidents Overcame the Challenges of Their Times
Story by: BENJAMIN LERNER
Photography courtesy: STATE OF VERMONT, DIVISION OF HISTORIC PRESERVATION
Written on the Vermont state flag, these words serve as a timeless tribute to the independent and resourceful spirit that lives in the hearts of Vermonters from Burlington to Brattleboro. Since Vermont’s official admission and incorporation into the United States of America in 1791, two presidents born in the Green Mountain State (Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge) have graced the hallowed halls of the White House. Rising from the rolling hills and verdant forests of Vermont to the most prestigious levels of political office, their formative years left a lasting impact on their lives.
Although the exact details surrounding Chester A. Arthur’s birth still remain fairly mysterious, the consensus among most biographers and historians remains that he was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. His father, William Arthur, was born in Ireland to a family of modest means. After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to pursue a career as an aspiring lawyer in Eastern Canada, he met Chester’s mother Malvina Stone when he was working in Dunham, Quebec as a teacher.
Malvina was a native Vermonter whose family had been established in New England for several generations. After marrying William in 1821, the two of them moved across the border to Burlington, Vermont in 1824. Once there, William abandoned the conventional strictures of his blossoming law career after experiencing a moment of divine inspiration at a local religious revival meeting. He subsequently became ordained as a Free Baptist minister in 1828, and then moved to Fairfield to pursue an employment opportunity at a church there. As a fervent abolitionist, William gained a unique reputation as a spellbinding “fire-and-brimstone” preacher who peppered his rousing sermons with politically-energized rhetoric.
As William’s congregation continued to grow, his lively and candid speeches provoked the ire of many church deacons and parishioners in the area. His willingness to remain frank about his political convictions in the face of continued institutional opposition eventually cost him his job in Fairfield. After William was run out of town by clashing parochial powers, he went on to preach in the Northwestern Vermont towns of Williston and Hinesburg. In 1833, young Chester A. Arthur’s childhood years in Vermont came to an end when William and Malvina made the decision to migrate across the state border to Perry, New York.
After spending the next few years moving from town to town dodging the increasingly confrontational wrath of anti-abolitionist community members in upstate New York, the Arthur family eventually settled in Schenectady. After graduating high school, Chester enrolled at nearby Union College, where he majored in Greek and Latin classics.
Chester was a sociable and confident young man, who possessed the same firebrand charisma as his father. A perpetual prankster, Chester was well-liked by his classmates and peers. Following his graduation from Union College, he took a job as a teacher to pay for his tuition at law school while preparing for the New York Bar Exam. After passing the Bar in 1854, he left for New York City to work for the high-profile law firm of Erastus D. Culver.
He started as a legal clerk, but rapidly rose through the ranks of the firm to assist in several key cases at both local city courts and state courts in Albany. One such case concerned a tragic incident where a young African-American woman by the name of Elizabeth Jennings was assaulted while being forcefully removed from the segregated section of a public streetcar. 100 years before Rosa Parks’ landmark case, Arthur helped Jennings to achieve an unprecedented legal victory against New York City’s racially-biased public transportation system.
After the court ruled in her favor, Jennings secured compensatory payments from the streetcar company and the city government. The case was the first step in the eventual racial integration of the New York City rail system.
The Jennings case helped to accelerate Arthur’s transition into public service. When he left his job at the law firm to serve in the Civil War, he was appointed as a Quartermaster General Engineer-in-Chief with the New York State Volunteers. He was then promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. He gained a reputation for efficiency and dependability during the wartime years, and subsequently returned to his law practice where he achieved considerable success.
Arthur made many powerful political allies in his time as a New York City lawman, including Senator Roscoe Conkling, who later played an instrumental part in the development of Arthur’s political career. Riding the momentum of his flourishing law career, Arthur went on to serve as the Chief Counsel to the New York City Tax Commission.
In 1871, President Ulysses Grant appointed Arthur as a Tax Collector for the Port of New York. Once established, Arthur used his ability to augment customs taxes to financially benefit his politically-influential friends. He ingratiated himself further with New York Republican Party Boss Roscoe Conkling and became a fully functional cog in the New York State system of monetarily incentivized “Machine Politics”.
Many of the campaigns of the high-ranking public officials who were part of the New York State Republican political structure at the time were funded through a corrupted mélange of tax augmentation and unethical public service appointments. Through a system of opportunistic nepotism known as the “Spoils System”, wealthy and powerful donors and friends of the party were nominated for influential local political positions in exchange for their financial pledges and campaign support. Though Chester was an active participant in this flawed and unprincipled system in the early years of his political career, his allegiances dramatically shifted when he ascended to the presidency.
Arthur clinched a surprise nomination as President Garfield’s Vice President in 1880. A year later, Arthur was catapulted to center stage in the halls of Washingtonian power when President Garfield was assassinated in September of 1881. Many were skeptical of Arthur’s ability to competently lead the nation in the advent of the untimely transition. Leading conservative moderates expected him to play the part of a servile crony and buckle to the demands of New York Republican Party bosses such as Roscoe Conkling. Arthur surprised all of his critics and detractors when he signed off on the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883.
In a move that brazenly defied the wishes of his former political associates, the bill banned salary kickbacks for all state politicians and created a merit-based system of closely monitored political appointments at multiple levels of state government. Though the bill did little to address the past dishonest dealings of incumbent politicians, it was nevertheless a major step forward in the fight against political bribery and profiteering that was present at all levels of the political system at the time.
Building on his father’s legacy as an outspoken and celebrated Green Mountain preacher, Arthur took a powerful and courageous stand against oppressive and Machiavellian party tactics. He channeled the iconoclastically-candid tendencies of his father into his policy decisions and changed the future trajectory of the Republican Party.
In the introductory paragraphs of the 2017 Chester A. Arthur autobiography The Unexpected President, author Scott S. Greenberger notes that “We frequently dissect and rehash the events of the Civil War (and rightly so), but we often ignore the crucial decades immediately following the war. We shouldn’t. The social, political, and economic changes that shook America during the 1870s and 1880s were the birth pangs of the society we have today.”
While Chester A. Arthur was busy climbing up the political ladder, future president John Calvin Coolidge Jr. was born on July 4th, 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Though his parents’ original intention was to name him after his father, John, the name was dropped after the first few years of his life due to the fact that everyone in his family called him Calvin. Calvin Coolidge lived the first four years of his life in a small cottage that was attached to the back of a general store and post office that his father owned and operated. His family then moved across the street from the post office to a large white house, where he remained through the duration of his boyhood. This house is known to this day as the “Coolidge Homestead.”
Coolidge’s father John Calvin Coolidge Sr. was a well-respected community figure in Plymouth who was actively involved in Vermont Politics. In the early years of Coolidge’s childhood, John Sr. served in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1872 to 1878, and the Vermont State Senate from 1910 to 1912. He also dabbled in an eclectic assortment of private professions that ranged from woodcutting and blacksmithing to store ownership and insurance brokerage.
When John Sr. held court at local community meetings, he would often bring his young son Calvin along. Calvin played the part of the silent observer at the town meetings, osmotically absorbing the cool and composed demeanor with which his father dealt with his peers. Coolidge emulated his father’s calm and collected mannerisms in his later years. He became known as “Silent Cal” for the steely and tight-lipped comportment with which he handled all of his dealings with his political colleagues.
Coolidge’s mother Victoria Josephine Moor Coolidge was a frail, thoughtful, and introspective woman whose beauty was matched only by her tragic infirmity. She passed away when Calvin was 12 years old after a long battle with tuberculosis in 1885. Calvin’s sheltered childhood worldview was shattered by the untimely tragedy, which was followed only five years later by the equally devastating death of his sister, Abbie.
Although Coolidge inherited a considerable share of his mother’s physical frailty and bashfulness, he was an industrious and disciplined boy who idolized the stoic nature of his stalwart and upstanding father. Throughout the course of his boyhood, Coolidge took pride in his household tasks and chores as a family farmhand. At the age of thirteen, he followed in his father’s academic footsteps when enrolled in the Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont.
Coolidge was only an average student in his formative years in grade school, but he took full advantage of the educational opportunities he was provided at Black River Academy. He channeled the sadness and angst he felt in the wake of his mother’s passing into his schoolwork and found solace and stability in the pursuit of his studies. In his later years at Black River Academy, Coolidge took the first steps on his path towards politics when he became wholeheartedly enamored with the United States Constitution. He remained continuously fixated on the historical document for the duration of his lifetime, which he considered an impeccable and masterful work of legislative genius.
After graduating from Black River Academy, Coolidge attended a speech given by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 at the dedication ceremony of the Bennington Battle Monument. There, Coolidge felt a sense of deep connection and admiration for President Harrison. As the words of the ceremonious speech echoed in Coolidge’s ears with resounding gravitas, his deep-seated passion for politics grew even stronger than before.
Coolidge subsequently enrolled at Amherst College, where he joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and honed his oratory and writing skills through a series of public speaking engagements and a nationwide essay contest, in which he won first prize. After graduating, Coolidge entered into a law apprenticeship in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1895. He subsequently passed the Massachusetts Bar exam in 1897, and opened his own independent office in 1898. During the course of Coolidge’s apprenticeship at the Hammond & Field law office in Northampton, he made his first foray into the political arena when he got involved with local Republican party politics and subsequently served as a city solicitor in Northampton.
Though Coolidge never had any qualms with proclaiming himself to be a staunch Republican, he never hesitated to make an alliance across party lines. Early in his political career, he developed a close friendship in Northampton with an outspoken Democrat by the name of James Lucey. Years later, Coolidge would pen a letter from his desk at the White House thanking Lucey for the inspiring political conversations they had that helped to further motivate his career in politics. “Were it not for you”, Coolidge wrote, “I should not be here.”
According to the Regional Historic Site Administrator for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation William Jenney, Coolidge “made an effort to approach everyone whom he dealt with personally in a bipartisan way. He was very conscious of the value of working with the opposite party. He knew that oftentimes their support would be necessary to help him pass legislation. He was certainly an old-fashioned Vermont Republican, but he was open to cooperation nonetheless.”
After spending years gradually growing his emerging law practice into a successful and stable operation, Coolidge eventually made the full-time transition into the field of public service. From the years of 1899 to 1919, he worked his way up from local city council positions to the office of State Governor. Coolidge won over the trust of Massachusetts voters at every rung of the state political ladder through his ability to carefully listen to his constituents and act on their demands.
In 1918, an international flu pandemic swept through Massachusetts when Coolidge was serving as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. As death and infection rates continued to climb, Massachusetts’ state government remained ill-equipped to deal with the torrential influx of incurable patients. Over a century before COVID-19 tested the limits of the American medical system, Coolidge took the initiative to send a telegram to nearby states requesting additional resources and medical staffing. During a time of nationwide chaos and uncertainty, Coolidge’s level-headed and metered approach allowed the state of Massachusetts to work cooperatively with other states and the Federal government to better manage the influenza crisis.
Shortly after the peak of the flu pandemic, Coolidge encountered the defining challenge of his political career. After being elected to the office of Massachusetts State Governor, he oversaw the tumultuous resolution of the Boston Police Strike of 1919. When the city’s police force refused to work due to low wages and unsanitary working conditions, Coolidge called in the Massachusetts state militia in an attempt to pacify the growing group of pro-union protestors.
During the course of the subsequent protests, militiamen fired upon a large gathering of protestors, killing two civilians who were present in the crowd. After the ensuing clash resulted in citywide chaos, a total of nine lives were lost. Coolidge subsequently faced a great deal of local public backlash for his failure to negotiate a timely resolution between Boston Police Chief Edwin Curtis and the emergent Boston Police Union.
Many notable politicians across the country continued to support Coolidge’s actions, however, including President Woodrow Wilson. As the protests continued, many conservative-leaning newspapers used the deadly mayhem that had occurred during the crisis in Boston as a platform to take a partisan stance on labor union policy. In one such example, the Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote that “Bolshevism in the United States is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance.”
While the Boston Mayor and Chief of Police argued over the fate of the striking police workers, Coolidge spoke out in favor of the officers’ reinstatement in a telegram sent to a labor convention. The telegram seemed to have little effect, as Commissioner Curtis fired all 1,100 of the police workers who went on strike and hired 1,574 new workers at a higher salary to the immense chagrin of the mayor. After the dust had settled, Coolidge was praised by President Woodrow Wilson and many of his Republican political allies for helping to restore lawful order to the Bay State Capital.
In the wake of the police strike, Coolidge gained a national reputation among the conservative electorate as a dedicated arbiter of public safety who had the ability to successfully diffuse volatile situations. This reputation helped Coolidge to rise through the ranks of the Republican party.
Many historians believe it to be the deciding factor behind his nomination for Vice President. After Warren G. Harding was elected president in 1920, Vice President Coolidge became president when Harding passed away in 1923. He was sworn in by his father—who was a certified public notary— at the family compound in Plymouth Notch. It was the only time in history a president has ever been sworn in in the state of Vermont.
Although Coolidge’s ascension to the presidency came on the heels of his controversial involvement in a nationally publicized municipal crisis, he refrained from participating in many of the partisan political skirmishes that occurred during the years he spent in the Oval Office. Coolidge opted instead to focus on a concentrated fiscal campaign of “Constructive Economics” and used his time as President to tirelessly advocate for financial reform. By the time he left office in 1929, he had reduced the national debt from $22.3 billion to $16.9 billion. Industrial production grew by 70%, overall wages rose by 22%, and unemployment fell by 3%.
In the same way that Chester A. Arthur’s presidency was defined by the passage of the Pendleton Act, Coolidge’s presidency was arguably defined by the passage of his finance reform legislation and his balancing of the federal budget. Through the passage of the Revenue Acts of 1921, 1924, and 1926, the Coolidge Administration oversaw the complete restructuring of the American tax system. Coolidge’s policies created a prosperous economic climate that peaked before the stock market crashed in 1929 under President Herbert Hoover.
Coolidge is also remembered for his anti-isolationist stance on Post-World War I international peacemaking efforts and his epic battle with Congress concerning the funding of the 1927 Mississippi River flood relief campaign. In the aftermath of another cataclysmic flood that occurred during the same year in Vermont, Coolidge left a permanent mark on the Green Mountain State’s political history with his pivotal “Brave Little State of Vermont” speech.
Record rainfall in Vermont during the months of October and November of 1927 created river floods that wreaked devastating destruction in many communities across the state. While Vermonters everywhere struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of the disaster, Coolidge returned home and embarked on a statewide tour to assess the extent of the damage in 1928. In the face of heart-wrenching adversity, Coolidge managed to capture the indefatigable spirit of his home state in a stirring and poignant address he delivered to a crowd in Bennington 37 years after he heard President Harrison speak at the dedication of the Bennington Battle Monument. In the closing remarks of his speech, Coolidge stated the following:
“I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
Even in Vermont’s darkest hour, Coolidge knew that the citizens of his beloved home state were resilient enough to face any seemingly insurmountable challenge and emerge triumphantly. Nearly a century later, his words ring just as true as the day he first spoke them at Bennington.
As polling stations open this election season, Vermont’s state credo of “Freedom and Unity” continues to resoundingly echo through the same storied mountains and verdurous clearings that bore some of American history’s most memorable political figures. The strong and proud residents of the Green Mountain State stand ready to face the defining issues of our time with the same fearless and enterprising spirit that Calvin Coolidge referenced in his celebrated speech. As long as Vermonters remain willing to learn from the examples set by their past presidents, they can utilize the historical lessons from their mistakes and victories to better face the challenges of the future.