On Thankfulness

coolidges-thanksgiving-1919

Thanksgiving Day at the Coolidge home, 1919.

“Thanksgiving is not only a holiday, it is holy day. It is by no means enough to make it an occasion for recreation and feasting. Thanks are not to be returned merely to ourselves and to each other. The day is without significance unless it has a spiritual meaning. For more than three centuries our people have felt the need of celebrating the harvest time as a religious rite by offering thanks to the Creator for all their earthly blessings. There can be no true Thanksgiving without prayer.

     “If at any time our rewards have seemed meager, we shall find our justification for Thanksgiving by carefully comparing what we have with what we deserve. The little band of Pilgrims who first established this institution on the shore by Plymouth Rock had no doubts. If their little colony of devoted souls, when exiled to a foreign wilderness by persecution, cut in half by disease, surrounded by hostility and threatened with famine, could give thanks how much more should this great nation, less deserving than the Pilgrims yet abounding in freedom, peace, security and plenty, now have the faith to return thanks to the author of all good and perfect gifts”

— Calvin Coolidge, November 28, 1930

On the Educated Mind and Political Science

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“For it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probably conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator. Again, each man judges correctly those matters with which he is acquainted; it is of these that he is a competent critic. To criticize a particular subject, therefore, a man must have been trained in that subject: to be a good critic generally, he must have had an all-around education. Hence the young are not fit to be students of Political Science. For they have no experience of life and conduct, and it is these that supply the premises and subject matter of this branch of philosophy. And moreover they are led by their feelings; so that they will study the subject to no purpose or advantage, since the end of this science is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether they are young in years or of time, it is because their life and its various aims are guided by feeling; for to such persons their knowledge is of no use, any more than it is to persons of defective self-restraint. But Moral Science may be of great value to those who guide their desires and actions by principle” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.3.5-7.
 
Notice Aristotle uses the word “admits” (epidechetai) when approaching each subject according to its nature and kind – the action of receiving or accepting part and place as many of us are about to do with our Thanksgiving guests. It hardly means we have agreed with everything they ever did, said, or will in the future.
 
Aristotle is arguing that each specific subject has a legitimate place and that to impose a single expectation that all conform to the same degree of scientific precision is not the result of an educated mind but quite the opposite. To bar admission of those studies that seek truth for only those that regurgitate knowledge is many things but it is not an education. Aristotle is describing a truly liberating education understands that philosophy has an indispensable part and all that a student needs to learn cannot be reduced to only what is measurable with vial, ruler or level. In short, STEM is not enough.
 
Hearing something outside our familiarity does not mean our will has instantly been overpowered and the idea enthroned over us without our consent. To react with the fear that hearing equates to agreement – an emotion of the inexperienced and immature – is the strongest demonstration that we lack an educated mind.
 
We do the young no favors to award them power before first teaching them self-restraint. This is where political science cannot blindly bequeath its potency for children (in heart and head not merely age) to freely wield it. The series of fads sweeping through education, since John Dewey, keep swapping the foci of resources with increasingly disintegrating results. One after another robs students of what they most need, erodes basic competence for living circumspectly, and all the while astonishes “the experts” when the situation only keeps getting worse. A moral training is the garden where the souls of our children must first be brought. Moral education has not brought us to this point. The space allowed for its demonstration has diminished in proportion to an increase of social turmoil. The shootings, the behavioral problems, the abuse issues, the plethora of dysfunction at all levels will not find a cure through mastering the arrangement of chemical compounds or effectively experimenting with electrical current. Man does not live by technology alone. Without the things of the spirit coming first – the purposes and precepts that make the machines we daily use possible at all – it will (as Calvin Coolidge once said) become a barren scepter in our grasp. We may hold symbols of immense, unprecedented might but without the ability to govern ourselves, we will remain vulnerable and lost before anything or anyone promising quick relief and material answers.

On American Unity and the End of the Great War

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President Coolidge, Secretary of War Weeks and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr., placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1923. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

“To get a few days’ rest I went to Maine the next Friday after the election. It was there that I was awakened in the middle of Sunday night to be told that the Armistice had been signed. I returned to Boston the following day to take part in the celebration. What the end of the four years of carnage meant those who remember it will never forget and those who do not can never be told. The universal joy, the enormous relief, found expression from all the people in a spontaneous outburst of thanksgiving.” — Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography p.123.

Looking back 10 years later in 1928 in Washington, D.C., President Coolidge observed:

“We are able to participate in this celebration because our country had the resources, the character, and the spirit to raise, equip, and support with adequate supplies an Army and a Navy, which, by placing more than 2,000,000 men on the battle fields of Europe contributed to the making of the armistice on the 11th day of November, 1918.

“Our first thought, then, is to acknowledge the obligation which the Nation owes to those who served in our forces afloat and ashore, which contributed the indispensable factor to the final victory. Although all our people became engaged in this great conflict, some in furnishing money, some in producing food and clothing, some in making munitions, some in administering our Government, the place of honor will always be accorded to the men and the women who wore the uniform of our country – the living and the dead.

“As we contemplate the past 10 years, there is every reason to be encouraged. It has been a period in which human freedom has been greatly extended, in which the right of self-government has come to be more widely recognized. Strong foundations have been laid for the support of these principles. We should by no means be discouraged because practice lags behind principle. We make progress slowly and over a course which can tolerate no open spaces. It is a long distance from a world that walks by force to a world that walks by faith. The united States has been so placed that it could advance with little interruption along the road of freedom and faith.

“It is befitting that we should pursue our course without exultation, with due humility, and with due gratitude for the important contributions of the more ancient nations which have helped to make possible our present progress and our future hope. The gravest responsibilities that can come to a people in this world have come to us. We must not fail to meet them in accordance with the requirements of conscience and righteousness.”

From 1927 in the White House:

By the President of the United States of America
A Proclamation“Whereas, the 11th of November, 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary and far-reaching war in human annals; and Whereas, it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this day should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer, and by exercises designed to further the cause of permanent peace through the maintenance of good will and friendly relations between nations; and Whereas, by concurrent resolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives, in 1926, the President was requested to issue a proclamation for the observance of Armistice Day:

Now, Therefore, I, Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States of America, in pursuance of the said concurrent resolution, do hereby order that the flag of the United States be displayed on all Government buildings on November 11, 1927, and do invite the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, and other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies, giving expression to our gratitude that peace exists and to our sincere desire that such amicable relations with all other peoples may continue…”

From 1926 at Kansas City before the Liberty Memorial:

“No one can doubt that our country was exalted and inspired by its war experience. It attained a conscious national unity which it never before possessed. That unity ought always to be cherished as one of our choicest possessions. In this broad land of ours there is enough for everybody. We ought not to regret our diversification, but rather rejoice in it. The seashore should not be distressed because it is not the inlands, and the fertile plains ought not to distracted because they are not the mountain tops. These differences which seem to separate us are not real. The products of the shore, the inlands, the plain, and the mountain reach into every home. This is all one country. It all belongs to us. It is all our America.

“We had revealed to us in our time of peril not only the geographical unity of our country, but, what was of even more importance, the unity of the spirit of our people. They might speak with different tongues, come from most divergent quarters of the globe, but in the essentials of the hour they were moved by a common purpose, devoted to a common cause, and loyal to a common country. We should not permit that spirit which was such a source of strength in our time of trial to be dissipated in the more easy days of peace. We needed it then and we need it now. But we ought to maintain it, not so much because it is to our advantage as because it is just and human and right.

“Our population is a composite of many different racial strains. All of them have their points of weakness; all of them have their points of strength. We shall not make the most progress by undertaking to rely upon the sufficiency of any one of them, but rather by using the combination of the power which can be derived from all of them. The policy which was adopted during the war of selective service through the compulsory Government intervention is the same policy which we should carry out in peace through voluntary personal action. Our armies could not be said to partake of any distinct racial characteristic; many of our soldiers were foreigners by birth, but they were all Americans in the defense of our common interests. There was ample opportunity for every nationality and every talent. The same condition should prevail in our peace-time social and economic organization. We recognize no artificial distinctions, no hereditary titles, but leave each individual free to assume and enjoy the rank to which his own services to society entitle him. This great lesson in democracy, this great example of equality which came to us as the experience of the war, ought never to be forgotten. It was a resurgence of the true American spirit which combined our people through a common purpose into one harmonious whole. When armistice day came in 1918, America had reached a higher and truer national spirit than it ever before possessed. We at last realized in a new vision that we were all one people…”

From 1925, giving his views on the observance of Armistice Day, which he believed kept its most potent and personal meaning when the occasion was honored individually and voluntarily. He observed the day with the custom of laying a wreath upon the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (1925 being the seventh year since the end of what was then the Great War). In his press conference on November 3, 1925, he expressed the importance of personal (as opposed to Congressionally mandated) observance this way:

“My feeling about it is rather to the effect that it ought to be left to the disposition of different localities, I was going to say different individuals. The Congress has not, as it is stated here, made that a national holiday, but its observance has been quite universal I think in past years, and I should imagine that the best rule to follow as far as any standard that I could lay out would be for each individual or each industry or each locality to make such observance of the day as they think is fitting. I believe it has been my practice to go over on that day and put a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and I am planning to carry out that practice this year. Then I think they usually have meetings of one kind or another in the usual places of assemblage. Probably there is some observance of it in the public schools, some observance in places of public worship sometimes during the day and sometimes during the evening. I think those are all appropriate.”

To Coolidge, marking the end of that universally sanguine yet horrific war, brought Americans of all communities together because it was fought and won by everyone sacrificing and serving side-by-side. It left a profound demonstration of what mighty good comes when Americans unify around the principles and common purpose we share instead of fueling a thousand antagonisms that keep us apart, feed the animus to one another, and tear down when what we need most is building up. Yet, November 11th retained something very personal to each individual. Coolidge understood it might lose that personal regard if it were to become just another nationalized day off. For Coolidge, the Day meant the most when its meaning was kept alive through individual and voluntary remembrance. Whose service do you remember on this Day?

It has always been easier to destroy and tear apart, to vilify and divide. There have always been those trying to uproot and supplant, seeking to forge some short-cut past the slow, difficult task of living up to that high calling: American citizenship. Their impatience toward and disrespect for the source of law and self-government only worsen the situation. Forcing “them” into generalized camps against “us” only thrives when the same prejudice and bigotry attributed to others is lived by their accusers. It enslaves the mind and poisons the heart and, in the end, thwarts what good rests in the power of each person to choose. We often miss the opportunity in our reach because of a fixation on what we deem to be others’ imperfections.

As Coolidge knew, there is no quick route, no magic law or public ordinance that can improve upon what 1776 discovered about humanity, government, and each one’s part on this side of eternity. Like the aftermath of the war that ended one hundred years ago, we would better use the time to edify and build up each other and by so doing, find a more rewarding outcome in the end. It will prove a service worthy of the generations of hardy pioneers and humble innovators who bequeathed the best they had to this exceptional idea called America.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Armistice Day, 1924 11-11-1924

President Coolidge, Secretary of War Davis and Secretary of the Navy Wilbur present the wreath at Arlington, 1924. Photo credit: Library of Congress.