Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography was published in 1929, shortly after Coolidge left the White House. He wrote the book in long hand completely by himself. Sales at the time were great but some commentators panned it as being too short and simplistic with little new information or juicy tidbits. In Amity Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge she notes, “Not every reader appreciated its sparse language, but the short book would stand up well to the self-centered narratives other statesmen produced, especially those who relied on dictation and, in their vanity, failed to revise.” Those who read it will find the writing style impressively clear and will easily comprehend the deep well of conservatism which shaped Coolidge’s thought.
Coolidge devoted a number of pages in his autobiography to the positive influence he received from some of his professors at Amherst College. Much of the praise was given to Charles Garman, Coolidge’s favorite professor. Garman, an alumnus of Amherst, was a professor of moral philosophy and metaphysics. Garman also studied theology at Yale and offered a high degree of religious instruction in his courses. He cultivated critical thinking and class discussion. A short overview on the Amherst College website of the Garman years, reads in part: “Garman’s teaching was considered subversive by some for he encouraged his students not to memorize or parrot what they had heard, but to think through the issues for themselves and come to their own conclusions.” In his autobiography, Coolidge said Garman “was one of the most remarkable men,” and he “truly drew men out.” Throughout his life, Coolidge leaves little doubt of the positive influence Garman had in shaping his thought and character. In this excerpt from Coolidge’s autobiography, he describes the spiritual learning that went on inside Garman’s class. It also serves as a pronounced contrast to the kind of instruction that occurs in most contemporary philosophy classes across colleges and universities in America today:
Our investigation revealed that man is endowed with reason, that the human mind has the power to weigh evidence, to distinguish between right and wrong and to know the truth. I should call this the central theme of his philosophy. While the quantity of the truth we know may be small it is the quality that is important. If we really know one truth the quality of our knowledge could not be surpassed by the Infinite.
We looked upon Garman as a man who walked with God. His course was a demonstration of the existence of a personal God, of our power to know Him, of the Divine immanence, and of the complete dependance of all the universe on Him as Creator and Father “in whom we live and move have our being.” Every reaction in the universe is a manifestation of His presence. Man was revealed as His son, and nature as the hem of His garment, while through a common Fatherhood we are all embraced in a common brotherhood. The spiritual appeal of music, sculpture, painting and all other art lies in the revelation it affords of the Divine beauty.
The conclusion which followed from this position were logical and inescapable. It sets man off in a separate kingdom from all the other creatures in the universe, and makes him a true son of God and the partaker of the Divine nature. This is the warrant for his freedom and the demonstration of his equality. It does not assume all are equal in degree but all are equal in kind. On the precept rests a foundation for democracy that cannon be shaken. It justifies faith in the people.
No doubt there are those who think they can demonstrate that this teaching was not correct. With them I have no argument. I know that in experience it has worked. In time of crisis my belief that people can know the truth, that when it is presented to them they must accept it, has saved me from many of the counsels of expediency. The spiritual nature of men has a power of its own that is manifest in every great emergency from Runnymede to Marston Moor, from the Declaration of Independence to the abolition of slavery.
In ethics he taught us that there is a standard of righteousness, that might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means and that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationships is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in larger service.