On Presidential Pedigree

45058v caboose of train 1925

“It is customary I suppose for those who are interested in those things to look into the possible inherited background of Presidents. Some one has dug out a tradition that my family, the Coolidges, came from a place in Normandy. The French spelling was Colynge. I have seen on the screen within a short time a picture of a castle in that town–I can’t tell the name of the town. Now I assume that that meant that we had a Norman background, which as I indicated yesterday was a Norse or a Norwegian background. I have got so many backgrounds of one kind or another that I am pretty purely American, having I believe a little tinge of Indian blood in me. I simply speak of the Norman background as of a little interest on account of the Norwegian gathering yesterday. I have got several others that I don’t need to dwell on–Scotch, and, Colonel [Michael] Hennessy says, Irish” — Calvin Coolidge, press conference on June 9, 1925 (The Talkative President, p.42).

Virtually since the beginning, people have been drawn to trace lineage to someone renowned and respected, especially in the last two hundred years when that someone is among our favorite Presidents. While family histories certainly make for fascinating discoveries, at times connecting us closer than first realized to the heroic, human nature seems driven to conclusively confirm that greatness exists through bloodlines instead of through traits of character. Still, it is telling that our nation’s heroes are known for their courage, hard work and service, from George Washington to folk figures like John Henry. They triumph over tragedy through discipline, perseverance, and sincerity. They stand as men and women not as petty, dependent victims. Coolidge, like most Americans, was entirely unashamed of his status as a “mutt” rather than a fancy purebred. Overemphasizing family heritage to bring us closer to what was noble and worthy, especially in America, is missing a very real opportunity. Each one of us can realize the regal inheritance we already possess as Americans under our system of liberty and responsibility. Yet, and even more importantly, partaking of the honor takes genuine effort because it is test in moral virtue not material status. This is why slavery has been the normal condition of human experience. It is easier than true freedom.

While Coolidge could just as readily be looking ahead and looking behind, he summarized America’s kind of nobility this way,

“Although all our Presidents have had back of them a good heritage of blood, very few have been born to the purple. Fortunately, they are not supported at public expense after leaving office, so they are not expected to set an example encouraging to a leisure class. They have only the same title to nobility that belongs to all our citizens, which is the one based on achievement and character, so they need not assume superiority. It is becoming for them to engage in some dignified employment where they can be of service as others are. Our country does not believe in idleness. It honors hard work.” Or, when he said, “There can be no national greatness which does not rest upon the personal integrity of the people.” What makes Americans noble is not found in their ancestry or genetic pedigree, but rests on the self-control, honesty, humility and sense of service each individual cultivates in the heart, the mind and in one’s actions. Coolidge never subscribed to the false premise that greatness is some unattainable birthright or gift from those in authority. Greatness resides in the small things, truth loved above pretense, a job well-done, sacrifice quietly rendered. “We need never fear,” Coolidge once observed, “that we shall not be called on to do great things in the future if we do small things well at present.” As it says somewhere else, “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings” and “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

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