A Review of L. John Van Til’s “Thinking Cal Coolidge: An Inquiry into the Roots of His Intellectual Life”

VanTil

It is unfortunate that there are so few intellectual histories (the history of the development of worldviews and thinking processes) on the Presidents. Study of any of them in this light would be rewarding, even for those regarded as the worst Chief Executives.

Calvin Coolidge is not among that ignominious group but stands as one of the most profound, consistent, and creative thinkers among America’s Presidents. Mr. Van Til explores where this came from and how it continued to develop over Coolidge’s lifetime. This quality as a thinker (well-known to his contemporaries) has become a severely under-examined, if not deliberately disregarded, aspect of contemporary study. In part, this is due to its rigor and difficulty. It is not easy to map, let alone navigate, a person’s intellectual roots and modes of thought. The history of ideas is complex and intimidating to even practiced hands. Mr. Van Til has not chosen an easy topic to tackle but it remains no less important. He begins by covering the biographical high points of Coolidge’s life.

It is certainly known and appreciated in many places that Cal was a thinker who thought internally, working out solutions and building his responses not on the page, as some Presidents do — seemingly in search of a thought or in defense of a legacy. Cal worked it all out in his mind and then launched it on the world. He was no less a quick thinker, whose rapid-fire wit and incisive observation skills were fundamental to his rise as a leader of the highest caliber. His press conferences, his daily meetings, his speeches, his participation in countless situations official and commonplace reveal a high intelligence, a set of skills not evident in the “front window” but packed in rooms all readily accessible to his organized and attentive mind.

Van Til next introduces us to the setting and the preeminent influences of Coolidge’s education: Amherst College, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, under Julius H. Seelye and Charles E. Garman. We all have a Seelye and Garman who inspired and shaped us in ways we may not even realize. Coolidge, ever the astute thinker, did comprehend these intellectual debts and honors his influences throughout life. It is a welcome feature of Van Til’s work that not only do we sojourn through the methods and perspectives of Seelye and Garman in their own words but we also enjoy an expedition through Coolidge’s speech collections published in Have Faith in Massachusetts (1919), The Price of Freedom (1924), and Foundations of the Republic (1926) as well as his Autobiography (1929) and some of his other post-presidential writing. Professor Van Til answers vital questions over what Coolidge should or should not have done as President, issues that continue to unfairly mar what Cal did accomplish and obscure a study of the era’s problem points with historical context. He, like Dr. Thomas Silver in Coolidge and the Historians, weighs in on the hostility of one-too-many “historians” who seemed more concerned with justifying their own political present than with an honest appraisal of historical perspective. Professor Van Til concludes with Coolidge’s speech in Philadelphia on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, given in 1926. It is provided in full as the best representative of Coolidge’s thinking encapsulated in any one speech. A summary of the books Van Til used and those relating to Coolidge (biographical and otherwise) up to 2015 completes this 182-page study.

Professor Van Til’s work has its small shortcomings (the formatting of the book being one of them, the one office Coolidge lost early in his career being another – which was school board, having just married Grace Goodhue, not because he violated any third term precedent) and other minor technicalities like Coolidge biographer Donald McCoy (who died in 1996) being quoted as writing in 1998. Confusing the newer edition of McCoy’s 1967 biography, The Quiet President, is a small error of attention to detail compared to Mr. Van Til’s overall achievement in Thinking Cal Coolidge. Taken together, the book is an excellent resource and merits a place alongside the growing Coolidge collection of materials setting the record straight after so many years of unwarranted mischaracterization by those who should know better. Contempt often clouds an honest study and Coolidge was subject to that enmity early. But, it is refreshing that scholarship is returning to both the 1920s and the life and legacy of President Coolidge.

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The Coolidges at William Wrigley’s home on Santa Catalina Island, California, spring 1930.

5 thoughts on “A Review of L. John Van Til’s “Thinking Cal Coolidge: An Inquiry into the Roots of His Intellectual Life”

  1. Thank you very much kind Sir. Your previous referencing stimulated me to get hold of the book on Amazon, and the passages on Garman gave me goose-bumps, particularly his very careful, ‘constructive’ [but devastating]criticism of the naturalistic mind-set. Boy, if I was the Secretary for Education, I would re-arrange the national syllabus according to the one Coolidge received at Amherst! My main criticism is that Van Til ignores the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (James’s godfather) in 19th century New England thought, which is a bit like ignoring the influence of Martin Luther when discussing German Protestantism in the 16th century. As an ‘orthodox’ Christian apologist, Garman’s reticence to acknowledge him is understandable, but for a modern scholar to do likewise is not really acceptable (Robert Sobel does not fall into this trap), Best regards –

    • First of all, thank you for your welcome observations and comments. It is true that Professor Van Til does not deal with Emerson’s thinking but I postulate that this is due primarily to his focus upon the thought of Calvin Coolidge as opposed to New England thought overall (p.10). Coolidge biographer Claude M. Fuess (in Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont. [1940], 4-5) certainly understood the variety of perspectives within New England itself, as different as the Back Bay Adamses or Cabots were from Longfellow’s Cambridge, or as Emerson’s Concord was from “cold roast Boston” not to mention W. Murray Crane’s Dalton. Even so, Fuess recounts Emerson’s visit to young Amherst in 1823, when it was barely two years old, coming to it long before Seelye and Garman arrived but back in the founding days of Williams College transfers through Moore and Humphrey (see Fuess, Amherst: The Story of a New England College. [1935], 54-55). Emerson considered the Amherst of that day “an infant Hercules” and it is unlikely the College, even with the changes and challenges faced in the second half of the 19th century, forfeited completely Emerson’s valuation of its work and sense of purpose. No one would claim Amherst in the 1820s or 1870s (when Seelye and Garman began there) was transcendentalist but the school had early on earned Emerson’s respect. Perhaps you can shed further light on Emerson’s views of Amherst, though (since he died in 1882) he never got to weigh in on the Amherst of the 1890s, when Coolidge studied there. Coolidge certainly regards Emerson among those who rose to a distinguished place among the many contributions of Massachusetts to the nation (1923 speech) but, while they spoke in similar vocabulary at times, Coolidge himself remains firmly in the idealist Garman-Amherst tradition and not in the transcendentalist Emerson one. Thank you again for your great observations! Keep Cool and please keep reading!

      • Thank you once again for taking the trouble to respond to my amateur hunches. I will have to defer to your better insights concerning Coolidge and Emerson and I certainly have no idea of what Emerson thought of Amherst. The points I would like to make are threefold. 1) Garman, in summary, is the belief in Independent Moral Agency, that the categories of right and wrong should not be dictated to, but should be decided on by philosophically trained and well-exercised human conscience. This admirable stance gained less and less traction as the 20th century unfolded (with Prohibition, fascism, American isolationism and undue Protectionism – both Harding and Hoover were guilty of hugely raising tariffs) and so Coolidge was ‘up against it’, as it were, being a recipient of an earlier wisdom that was fast disappearing. I don’t think one can attribute his famous reserve purely to his character. 2) There is an inescapable sense of mystery and intrigue concerning the main actors; Garman with his ‘pamphlet system’ and having to fend off accusations of Christian impropriety (surely these are related?) and the taciturn Coolidge, who (I THINK – I cannot find the reference, so please correct me if I am wrong) ordered his papers to be burnt posthumously. I think it is appropriate to throw out the hypothesis that he was a closet moral relativist in an age of crass moral absolutism (the latter being the main accusation against Emerson). What do I have to substantiate this? Take the tale of his going to church and coming back to Grace, who asks: ‘What was the sermon about?’ Cal (typically) says: ‘Sin’. Grace persists: ‘What did he have to say about it?’ Cal (typically) says: ‘He was against it,’ This is an extraordinary humour for the time, and in my opinion it identifies Coolidge as a moral relativist. 3) I know this wasn’t Van Til’s intention, but the impression you get is that his subject was a product of a specific collegiate system. This isn’t accurate, because everybody was influencing everybody else, and it appears to be odd that a central figure such as Emerson is left out of the equation. I hope you don’t think of me as being over-opinionated, but I would value your feedback here, particularly the topic of the burning papers, which is now bugging me.

      • Thank you again for some great questions and interesting points. It was Ted Clark, Coolidge’s personal secretary (who stayed alongside him through the V.P and Presidential years) who saved most of what we have today in the Library of Congress as Coolidge’s Presidential Papers. Clark noted then that Cal destroyed lots of personal correspondence and it was only Clark’s snatching items from that fiery fate that preserved as much as there is today in that collection. I would caution against reading too much into the joke about the preacher especially since it is apocryphal and when it made its way back to Coolidge (as stories sometimes did…he dismissed it, saying it would be funnier if it were true). While he was skeptical of the kind of reform by simple declaration that movements such as Prohibition represented (as he put it, any law that encourages more lawlessness is a bad law), I would not equate that with being morally relativistic anymore than Lincoln could be classified as anti-slavery because he had no love for abolitionists. Cal believed truth most certainly existed and that obedience to law (even those bad ones) was paramount. His advocacy for people being free to make their own mistakes (as well as enjoy the rewards of their successes) was not from a motive that truth was whatever anyone could justify but rather because liberty was so precious, a position shared with the Framers (including pious and unorthodox alike). They were not denying truth, they were denying legitimacy to movements that would attempt to harness government authority in the fantastical quest to cure man of vices and perfect his nature by decree. They knew, as Cal did, this would fail and carry with it unintended consequences including the loss of wholesome virtues in the process of eradicating those vices, including those “sins” that man, often imposing a stricter code than God, condemned without discretion between the abuse of otherwise benign things and the things themselves. Thank you for such excellent discussion.

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