As Irish-Americans prepare to celebrate another St. Patrick’s Day, they can take pride in a rich heritage of distinction in the United States. For many Irish immigrants, the brawling world of politics became an avenue to advancement; unlike other groups, the Irish quickly took to political life, in part because they understood English. Eventually, the rise of the Kennedys became emblematic of Irish political achievement. Yet when Irish-Americans look back at their history, they would do well to remember a non-Irishman whose faith in meritocracy helped them gain their rightful place in American society. He was, of all things, a Congregationalist Yankee: Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States.
As a young politician in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge saw the hope that the American dream stirred in the “stout hearts” of Irish immigrants. Jim Lucey, a cobbler from County Kerry who befriended Coolidge when he was a student at Amherst College, helped him get out the vote of “Coolidge Irish Democrats,” who never voted Republican but made an exception for Silent Cal. After his razor-thin victory in the 1910 race for mayor in Northampton, Coolidge wrote to his father that at least 400 Democrats had voted for him and provided his margin of victory. Coolidge wrote, “They knew that I had done things for them, bless their honest Irish hearts.”
Indeed, Coolidge helped Irish-Americans, even Democratic ones, get elected to office. As a city councilman in 1898–99, he issued a resolution to honor a deceased Irish-American Democrat. As mayor, Coolidge would develop a lifelong friendship with Father Joseph Gordian Daley, with whom he shared a love of classic languages. Coolidge helped Father Daley build a mission church in a section of Northampton. The church’s dedication booklet ran a quarter-page ad, “compliments and good wishes of Calvin Coolidge.” Years later, after he had served as governor of Massachusetts, the Daily Hampshire Gazette noted his support for Irish Americans:
[Coolidge] said he never made any distinction between American citizens of different nationality [sic]. He had always found the Irish people good Americans and good citizens. He had appointed about 75 of them to responsible positions because he found them good Americans and well qualified for public service.
In 1919 alone, Governor Coolidge appointed 55 Catholics, seven Jews, two Swedes, three Italians, one Pole, and eight Frenchmen. In 1920, he named 42 Catholics, eight Jews, three Swedes, three Italians, one Portuguese, one Pole, and two Frenchmen. As president, too, Coolidge picked officials with deliberate care and lack of prejudice. He knew that a meritocratic system was far more attractive to most immigrants than the anarchy or Communism that radicals were offering. “Those who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America,” he said.
For those immigrants who did wish to join American life and share its presuppositions, Coolidge was welcoming, but he cautioned: “New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship.” Most Americans could agree, then as now, that the prudent thing to do was to assimilate immigrants slowly. Coolidge worried that cheap citizenship would produce a cheapened republic. A nation grounded on abstract truths needed limits on what was permissible under its laws. “We have certain standards of life that we believe are best for us. We do not ask other nations to discard theirs, but we do wish to preserve ours. Standards, government and culture under our free institutions are not so much a matter of constitutions and laws as of public opinion, ways of thought and methods of life of the people.”
Radicals, Coolidge warned at Holy Cross College in 1919, sought to influence immigrants by telling them that “men of their race and ideas had no hand in the making of our country, and that it was formed by those who were hostile to them and therefore they owe it no support.” Coolidge emphatically rejected this view, telling an audience of Irishmen that “whatever ignorance and bigotry may imagine, such arguments do not apply to those of the race and blood so prominent in this assemblage.” As proof, Coolidge offered that 11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Irish birth or lineage; that “on the roll of Washington’s generals were Sullivan, Knox, Wayne,” as well as Richard Montgomery; and that “a generous portion of the rank and file of the men who fought in the Revolution and supported those who framed our institutions was not alien to those who are represented [at Holy Cross].”
If the plaque outside of City Hall in Philadelphia honoring the Irish contribution to the Declaration of Independence is accurate, Coolidge missed a few signers. They include, in full: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, John Hancock, John Hart, Thomas Lynch, Thomas McKean, Thomas Nelson, Robert Treat Paine, George Read, Edward Rutledge, James Smith, George Taylor, Matthew Thornton, William Whipple, and Charles Thompson, who served as secretary. John Barry, the father of the American navy, and Jeremiah O’Brien, who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Machias, also deserve mention. “The whole Irish Nation favors America,” said William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham. “Ireland is with them to a man.” And Coolidge was with the Irish, throughout his political career.
Coolidge’s championing of the Irish contrasted sharply with that of one of his predecessors in the White House, Woodrow Wilson. While Wilson urged the right of self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference ending the First World War, he didn’t include Ireland in his formulation. Wilson resented Irish efforts to derail the Versailles negotiations, telling his personal aide, Cary Grayson, that “the Irish as a race are very hard to deal with owing to their inconsiderateness, their unreasonable demands and their jealousies.” He questioned Irish-Americans’ patriotism (especially given their reluctance to fight a war alongside Britain) and linked them with German-Americans for “show[ing] their hyphens” during the war. Wilson was even willing to encourage anti-Catholic bigotry among Protestants. “I have one weapon which I can use against them—one terrible weapon, which I shall not use unless I am driven to it,” he told a reporter, Ray Stannard Baker. “I have only to warn our people of the attempt of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to dominate our public opinion, and there is no doubt what America will do.”
While Wilson admonished the Irish to behave themselves, Coolidge continued to seek the support of the Irish and other immigrant groups. He spoke before Catholic organizations and defended the Church against its enemies in the revolutionary Mexican government. He rejected the view that Catholics were incompatible with American life. What they needed, he believed, was a better understanding of what was good about American institutions. Immigrants “are disposed and inclined to think our institutions partake of the same nature as these they have left behind,” Coolidge said. “They must be shown they are wrong.” His efforts to do so helped immigrant groups, and not just the Irish, assimilate to American life.
As Coolidge wrote in his first letter from the White House to Jim Lucey, the Irish cobbler who helped him win the mayoral election in Northampton: “I want you to know that, if it were not for you, I should not be here, and I want to tell you how much I love you.” The feeling was mutual.