By CARREN KASTON
The often underestimated "Silent Cal," better known as President Calvin Coolidge, was the subject of a recent symposium held at the Library.
The Oct. 5-7 symposium looked at the political, economic, social and cultural history of the 1920s. "Calvin Coolidge and the Coolidge Era" was made possible by the generosity of Madison Council member Laurance S. Rockefeller.
Noted British historian Paul Johnson's talk, "Calvin Coolidge and the Last Arcadia," helped refocus consideration of a president often fondly underestimated as "Silent Cal." Mr. Johnson's talk placed Coolidge's "minimalist" style of governing in the context of his contemporaries.
"Of those who came to power at the same time as Coolidge, all the most notable were dedicated to expanding the role of the state. Mussolini, supreme in Italy from 1922 ... Stalin, in power from 1923 ... Kemal Ataturk, president of Turkey from 1923, Chiang Kai-shek, ruler of China from 1925, Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (1926) and Reza Shah of Persia (1925)," said Mr. Johnson.
"No one in the 20th century defined more elegantly the limitations of government and the need for individual endeavor, which necessarily involves inequalities, to advance human happiness," he said.
A noted commentator and essayist on history, culture and politics in print, radio and television journalism, Mr. Johnson has also served as editor of such respected British journals as The New Statesman and The Spectator. Among Mr. Johnson's works are A History of Christianity (1976), Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (1983) and The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830 (1991). He will soon publish a book on man's relation to God, to be followed by a history of the American nation, which will join his already published histories of the people of England, Ireland and Egypt.
The keynote address was preceded by a dinner during which actor Jim Cooke performed selections from his one-man show, "Calvin Coolidge: More than Two Words."
According to symposium architect John Haynes, the Manuscript Division specialist in 20th century political history, "mainstream historical understanding of the 1920s has tended to understate the tremendous economic, technological and cultural dynamism of this decade, and ... historical scholarship has tended to leave the 1920s in the shadows, as attention has focused either earlier, on the calamity of World War I, or later, on the travail of the Great Depression of the 1930s."
For three days, six panels and three special events helped fill in the historical record. Participating historians presented insights into changing perspectives on the 1920s; Coolidge as man and as president; Coolidge's enigmatic relationship to his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover; new conclusions on economic growth and income levels during the 1920s; and American foreign policy.
Three panels on American society and culture ranged from talks on women's suffrage and on Will Hays and movie morality to such topics as "Mass Culture and the Americanization of Working Class Ethnics in the Coolidge Era" and "White Protestant Nation: The Birth of Modern Right-Wing Populism during the 1920s."
Symposium panelists represented a mix of senior and junior scholars. Participants included Michael Bernstein (University of California, San Diego), Kathleen M. Blee (University of Kentucky), John Braeman (University of Nebraska), Thomas Buckley (University of Tulsa), Warren I. Cohen (University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus), Lynn Dumenil (Occidental College), Ronald Edsforth (Dartmouth College), Paula S. Fass (University of California, Berkeley), Robert H. Ferrell (Emeritus, Indiana University), Burton Folsom (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Midland, Mich.), Michael J. Hogan (Ohio State University), Dan Leab (Seton Hall University), Nancy MacLean (Northwestern University), Lary May (University of Minnesota), Leonard J. Moore (McGill University), George Nash (an independent scholar), Michael Parrish (University of California, San Diego), Elisabeth I. Perry (Sarah Lawrence College), Michael Platt (University of Wyoming, Casper), Stephen Schuker (University of Virginia), Thomas Silver (an independent scholar), Gene Smiley (Marquette University), Peter Temin (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Robert Zeiger (University of Florida).
The second night of the symposium featured the screening of a work in progress Coolidge documentary, also made possible by the Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller. Filmmaker and producer John Karol of Orford, N.H., invited comments and suggestions from the audience that he plans to use in completing the editing of the two-hour film.
The last day of the symposium included a demonstration in the Digital Library Visitors' Center of "The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-29." The Library plans to make the electronic collection available on the Internet in 1996.
American Memory Program Coordinator Carl Fleischhauer and senior researcher Carren Kaston previewed a Coolidge speech on advertising preserved in the papers of Everett Sanders, the president's private secretary, which concludes on a characteristically transcendental note: "Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade"; and a case file called "Advertising Exploitation" from Calvin Coolidge's own papers, which gives a sense of business during the '20s. The case file includes a letter sent to the White House by a clothier requesting permission to name an overcoat "The Coolidge."
Permission was denied.
Carren Kaston is working on assignment in the Manuscript Division.