Investigating Liquor at Amherst

May 2, 2014

Will my child get in trouble at college? And how can I stop it?

Those are the questions parents ask themselves when their children set out for university. President Coolidge was no different — as evidenced by a telegram recently uncovered in the Library of Congress by researcher Sim Smiley. The wire was from Attorney General Harlan Stone, Amherst Class of 1894, to a federal agent.

Stone wrote about the president:

HE IS CONCERNED ABOUT REPORTS ON BOOTLEGGING IN HIS FRATERNITY [STOP] WILL YOU MAKE QUIET INVESTIGATION AND ASCERTAIN IF POSSIBLE THE NAME OF PARTIES SUPPLYING STUDENTS WITH LIQUOR AND LET ME HAVE THE FACTS.

The fraternity Stone referenced was Phi Gamma Delta, which President Coolidge, Amherst ‘95, had joined in his senior year.

But why should Coolidge care?

In 1924, Prohibition was the law of the land. Coolidge hadn’t led the dry movement, but he always believed in upholding the law.  Reports were that bootleggers were selling liquor to the campus.

What’s interesting about this letter is the direct approach. Unlike many other presidents, Coolidge understood that the presidency was no throne. His job, as chief executive was to serve the office and restore the country’s trust in it. He was loath to take advantage of his status to get help for a personal issue.

This aversion played out even his personal life. Theodore Roosevelt’s children had treated the White House like it was their own. Coolidge however made sure that his sons moved with respect through the rooms on Pennsylvania Ave. One night when John Coolidge, the President’s son, returned late from a party and in casual clothes, he asked his father if he might come to dinner. Coolidge told him he must dress up because he was dining with the president.

The answer to the mystery of the uncharacteristic intervention lies in the date. The telegram went, on “official business,” on June 20 1924. That was the June before John would enter Amherst. Coolidge was worried John would drink in college. The president cared so much about John that he would breach his own rules. In this one moment Coolidge reminds us that presidents are like the rest of us.

A full investigation into this matter ensued. Even J. Edgar Hoover, then acting director of the Bureau of Investigation, got involved. To read the investigation’s correspondences, click here.

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