Voice of the Past: Calvin Coolidge on Persistence

Ex-Pres. Coolidge as private citizen in Boston

In 2013, Amity Shlaes released her comprehensive biography of a forgotten American president of the 20th century, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge is a bit overshadowed in the annals of contemporary US history. Like Clinton in the 1990’s, he presided over a period of rapid economic growth–the “Roaring 20’s.” Tired of war, the American people turned to dancing the Charleston, and to reading “The Great Gatsby” for escapism in the “Jazz Age.”

Coolidge is also forgettable because he wanted to be. Nicknamed “Silent Cal,” he employed his Yankee restraint in his dress, personality and conversation. A famous anecdote about the President goes something like this:

“There is a story that Coolidge was approached at social function by a chirpy Washington socialite who told him, “That man over there bet me I couldn’t get more than two words out of you.”  To which Coolidge replied, “You lose.'”

Imagine if a modern politician was able to have that level of wit, restraint and economy in two words! You can see his modern appeal. That frugality and zen-like ability to withhold action has found champions in modern political circles. Libertarians and conservatives adore his fiscal restraint. Ronald Reagan kept a portrait of him in the Oval Office. While his critics in the past (Dorothy Parker, Upton Sinclair) and the present are quick to point out his seeming lack of consequence while holding the presidency, conservative-minded budget hawks in politics have come to revere Coolidge for his hands-off business approach, and his surgical lancing of the federal budget. He was for them, the Ur-Republican. And yet, his reticence toward bombast and self-promotion makes his an unlikely model for the modern politico.

The Coolidge of history then, is a man of unusual serenity with what the modern American might take for ennui.

Another famous quote, illustrates another trait–his persistence:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Intriguingly, the quote is merely attributed to Coolidge. Scholars have argued for most of the century over the authenticity of the quote. According to Shlaes, the quote appeared in the prospectus of the New York Life Insurance Company, of which Coolidge sat as a director post-presidency. A piece of advertising, the language was likely re-purposed from the pen of  an anonymous editor of some newspaper, who may have used the blurb to fill out a column of space in the want-ads. Pulp philosophy perhaps, but the words resonate.

For a guy who used such precision in his speech, the lines seem a bit long-winded. Yet the simple message captures Calvin’s ethos, of unyielding perseverance.

Most people have been in that sort of rut at some point in their lives–the rut that feels defeated by the Joneses, the envy of the seemingly easy success of another. This bit of Yankee wisdom seems to tidy up that sour-puss, whiny, self-loathing pretty well, I think.

Silent Cal Photo credit: Boston Public Library / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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