It sounds odd to say in Boston on the Fourth of July, but our capital city doesn’t fully honor Massachusetts’s history. What’s missing? Just three men who once led the nation.
They would be John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, and Calvin Coolidge.
We have statues of many lesser notables. A visitor to Boston can, say, sit with rascally James Michael Curley, match strides with kinetic Kevin White, or pat legendary Celtics coach/general manager Red Auerbach on his bronze back. But he or she can’t look upon the owlish countenance of John Adams or the lugubrious features of John Quincy Adams or the rectitudinous face of Calvin Coolidge.
The one Massachusetts president who is ballyhooed in Boston is John F. Kennedy, whose Columbia Point presidential library is a major attraction. Still, since the age of terror dawned in 2001, sculptor Isabel McIlvain’s bronze statue of JFK has been locked in not-so-splendid isolation on the State House’s west wing plaza, accessible only as part of a guided tour.
Although none ranks among the nation’s greatest leaders, they were all important figures.
The “atlas of independence,” John Adams was one of the most learned, able, and determined of the founding fathers; as president, he wisely chose negotiations over outright conflict during the Quasi-War with France, though a declaration of war might well have proved his rally-round-the-flag route to reelection.
His son John Quincy Adams, though often frustrated as president, counts among his pre-presidential accomplishments the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine. A child prodigy, he served this country from his days as a 14-year-old diplomatic aide and interpreter until, at 81, he suffered a fatal stroke on the floor of the House.
President Coolidge, son of a storekeeper, climbed the ranks from Northampton city councilor to mayor to state senator to lieutenant governor to governor, before he was propelled to the vice presidency after his brook-no-nonsense stand during the Boston Police strike. Assuming the presidency upon the death of Warren Harding, Coolidge restored integrity to the government — and established a set of economic policies some Republicans still pine for.
In addition to being noteworthy figures, the neglected trio are also fascinating as personalities: the principled, prolix, splenetic Adams; his cool, reserved, cerebral son; and the taciturn, upright, stoical Coolidge.
Having four presidents who called Massachusetts home is nothing to scoff at. State presidential tallies vary depending on the criteria used, but it’s safe to say our list at least ties us for fourth (with Texas), behind Virginia, Ohio, and New York.
Yet the Bay Staters who have led the nation is a part of our history we don’t celebrate.
So why not a Promenade of the Presidents or a Presidential Trail? Pedestrian-level stone or bronze likenesses of John Adams and John Quincy Adams could stand near the entrance to the State House. They could even replace the massive statue of Civil War General Joseph Hooker. The Hadley-born Hooker, after all, was at best a mediocre military leader. And because it’s far too high for the area’s sight lines, mostly what the towering statue offers is an opportunity to contemplate the underside of Hooker’s horse. (That said, some female visitors delight in striking sassy poses near the sign proclaiming “General Hooker Entrance.”)
Hooker had nothing to do with the State House. Adams, of course, counts among his many achievements authorship of the Massachusetts constitution, the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. John Quincy, meanwhile, actually served a year in the state Senate before moving on to the US Senate.
JFK could be relocated down near the federal building that bears his name. And for Coolidge, perhaps a perch on plain, unassuming City Hall Plaza, where Silent Cal could stare vigilantly in the direction of the nearby police station.
Yes, it would take some funds. The Kevin White statue cost around $750,000, the JFK likeness around $400,000. But even in tight times, that’s hardly big money; word of the statuary endeavor would probably be worth a couple million in free publicity. And the three underappreciated pillars of Massachusetts’ presidential past, plus a liberated JFK, would add an eye-catching new dimension to Boston’s many attractions.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at email@example.com.