O abundant grace, trusting whom I presumed
To fix my gaze through the eternal light
Until I had seen all that I could see!
— Dante, Paradiso 33.82
A life-long reader, Calvin Coolidge inherited most of his 4,000-volume library from the generosity of friends and fans. He enjoyed literature and remained well-read in history, biography and policy throughout his public life. He translated Dante’s Italian as a young man and returned to its passages in later life, the Divine Comedy the inspiration for John Milton’s later epic. Both he and Mrs. Coolidge related very well to the fantastical journey down the rabbit hole Alice took to Wonderland, sympathizing with her in their own remarkable six years in the White House. But, there remained on his bedside table a few key volumes, the Bible, a collection of the speeches of Professor Garman and a small, twin-set edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Small enough to easily fit within his pocket, Coolidge took these two volumes with him when he traveled as a former President, usually on his train rides between New York and Northampton.
Milton’s correlation between obedience and liberty find expression many times in Coolidge’s thought. After all, before exaltation came the Cross. Without obedience and self-restraint first, the demand for rights and privileges loses all force and meaning.
Coolidge’s thoughts often turned to a contemplation of eternal things but it is fitting to reflect upon these lines from Milton as Christ surveys His own mission in the midst of temptation, rebuking Satan:
All things are best fulfilled in their due time,
And time there is for all things, truth hath said:
If of my reign prophetic writ hath told,
That it shall never end, so when begin
The Father in his purpose hath decreed,
He in whose hand all times and seasons roll.
What if he hath decreed that I shall first
Be tried in humble state, and things adverse,
By tribulations, injuries, insults,
Contempts, and scorns, and snares, and violence,
Suffering, abstaining, quietly expecting
Without distrust or doubt, that he may know
What I can suffer, how obey? who best
Can suffer, best can do; best reign, who first
Well hath obeyed; just trial ere I merit
My exaltation without change or end.
But what concerns it thee when I begin
My everlasting kingdom, why art thou
Solicitous, what moves thy inquisition?
Know’st thou not that my rising is thy fall,
And my promotion will be thy destruction?
— Milton, Paradise Regained III.180-202