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.