Presidents and Political Leaders

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Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover
Presidents and the coal strikes of the 1920's

Following the end of the World War political attention turned back to domestic matters including economic growth and union organizing. Two areas of frequent union activity involved coal and rail disputes. The three post-war Republican presidents were caught between wanting labor peace without interfering with private businesses and concern about inflation following wage increases. These letters offer an intriguing glimpse of three perspectives on politics and policy to a common challenge of the coal strikes of the 1920’s. The Coolidge and Hoover letters are especially nice because they are on official mourning stationery honoring Harding.

Warren Harding – LS, The White House, August 1, 1922 to Robert Underwood Johnson on the threat of railway strikes. While the nation was facing violence and great inconvenience by the rail strikes this is a revealing letter on the political strategy of dealing with coal strikes. Harding tells Johnson in part: “I much prefer to adjust the present railway controversy because the impaired transportation is very greatly menacing the country at large and making much more difficult the solution of the coal problem….” Harding counted on localized coal strikes being managed simply by backfilling shortages with supplies from other parts of the country. A national transportation strike served to make that supply strategy less effective. Johnson was a noted author and for a short while Ambassador to Italy under both Wilson and Harding. $900

Calvin Coolidge – LS to Mass. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, August 28, 1923 just weeks after Harding’s death. Coolidge takes credit for pushing Pennsylvania Governor Pinchot to take action in addressing the anthracite coal strikes in Pennsylvania. Faced with his first domestic crisis and public doubts about his leadership the new president was torn between public pressure and his own political beliefs of light interference in commerce. By shifting the focus back on the Governor he sidestepped national pressure and avoided the inevitable backlash that hit Pinchot on driving fuel costs up as part of a labor resolution. There is an interesting backstory as to whether Pinchot, an emerging political rival to Coolidge, saw an opportunity in the absence of Coolidge’s leadership or if Coolidge convinced him to act. Coolidge is positioning himself as the strong leader who persuaded the Governor to do his job. A copy of Lodge’s long response to Coolidge is included. One of the most interesting and revealing Coolidge letters about his first challenge as the new president. $1,500

Herbert Hoover – two pages LS, on black bordered Sec. of Commerce mourning stationery to the Federal Fuel Distributor. Written just days apart from the above Coolidge letter, Hoover discusses a proposal offered from the National Coal Association representing the bituminous coal companies. He commends them for not exploiting the anthracite strike but rejects their suggestion that the government bring stability by fixing prices higher than the current market rate. In some detail Hoover reviews the government’s limited authority and the impact on free markets and competition from setting prices. He maintains that the federal government’s best role is to act as a neutral market facilitator by coordinating transportation systems which allowed supplies from one region to compensate for shortages from strikes in another region. A wonderful example of Hoover’s philosophy of political restraint in economic markets. It may not have served him so well during the Depression. $900