On His Legacy

Interestingly, President Washington is due to have the first library and museum open this September at Mount Vernon. It is thanks to private benefactors for making this project succeed, like philanthropist Fred W. Smith, for whom the facility will be named. Falling outside the thirteen Presidential Libraries managed by the National Archives, it will be a long overdue way to preserve so much worth keeping about our first President.

Few modern Presidents conveyed so pronounced an indifference to the preservation of personal legacy as Calvin Coolidge. When Claude M. Fuess broached the matter of writing a biography of the man in the summer of 1932, Coolidge said, “Better wait till I’m dead,” before moving on Amherst and other more interesting topics. Richard Norton Smith has noted this ambivalence about what would be said of or done with his record. When most historians attempt to reconstruct Coolidge, they have either imposed a frame over which he is to conform or they come away from the experience with only a superficial understanding of him. Some give up too quickly and fabricate the narrative they prefer rather than going back to discover him on his own terms. He simply refuses to be neatly categorized, placed on the shelf and forgotten. It is perhaps his final challenge: to understand him and reckon with his ideas, one must work. The same commitment holds true for citizenship. Perhaps that was his intention all along.

It is interesting that while more than one who would follow him in the White House agonized in writing over how certain decisions would be perceived by future generations, Coolidge never did. Hoover would spend over thirty years brooding over his legacy while the man from Vermont was content to let his actions speak for themselves. He was not under any delusions of his own infallibility, he simply refused to indulge either vanity or his own sense of importance. The record would speak. Any future efforts to preserve the principles he articulated, not the greatness of one finite individual, would only succeed if established in the hearts and minds of informed and engaged citizens. Elaborate Presidential Libraries and Museums alone would not do this for us, ensuring principles passed to the next generation. The beauty of Coolidge’s legacy is in its simplicity. The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation has helped keep the simplicity of Coolidge’s world intact. For Coolidge, teaching a whole new generation, “to think the thoughts the Founders thought” can be done anywhere, anyplace, anytime. In that way, Coolidge ensured a far more resilient foundation for his legacy than perhaps he ever imagined. Image

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