Calvin Coolidge’s Prize Essay
by Hendrik Booraem V.
Hendrik Booraem V was born in New York City and grew up in South Carolina. A social and political historian, he was educated at the University of Virginia and The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the State University of New York, College at Purchase; Rutgers University at Camden; and Lehigh University. His previous books include The Formation of the Republican Party in New York and The Road to Respectability: James A. Garfield and His World, 1844-1852. His special interest is in the early lives of American presidents viewed as fragments of American social history.
As Calvin Coolidge approached his senior year at Amherst College, in the fall of 1894, he was still not sure what kind of career he wanted. Part of him wanted to spend the rest of his life quietly in his home town of Plymouth, Vermont, operating the general store and working to improve the community; part of him was beginning to imagine the excitement of a big-city legal career, matching wits with some of the best minds in law. The courses he had been taking at Amherst offered no guide to a profession. They were all rather general humanities courses (Coolidge had little ability at math and science): English, philosophy, French, and Italian. One of his favorite subjects was history, taught by Professor Anson G. Morse.
At the beginning of senior year, Professor Morse had a suggestion for Coolidge. The Sons of the American Revolution was offering a prize for the best essay by an undergraduate at an American college. The topic was “The principles fought for in the American Revolution.” Coolidge had studied with Morse for a year. He had gradually acquired a reputation among faculty and students as an unusually good writer and speaker, who could state a case clearly and convincingly. Morse urged him to go for the prizes: a silver medal for the best essay by an Amherst student, a gold medal for the best essay from all American colleges.
Coolidge set to work, and produced a two-thousand-word essay on time. No primary research was required; he simply used his notes from Morse’s class, and distilled them into a concise statement. He stressed the themes that Morse had taught his students for instance, the idea, popular in the 1890s, that people of Anglo-Saxon heritage had a special devotion to political freedom, and the American Revolution was only one in a series of uprisings by Anglo-Saxons who felt themselves oppressed. Coolidge began with “the genius for freedom that has led the race from the primeval forests of Germany.”
The Revolution was more than a mere uprising of oppressed people, he went on. It was a deeply conservative struggle of a free people trying to hold on to their freedom against “Parliamentary encroachments.” George III, by nature a despot who wanted absolute rule, forced a policy upon the colonies “that he could not, and dared not, force upon England.” In resisting him, the American patriots fought for the liberty of Englishmen as well as their own.
Conservative even at twenty-two, Coolidge chose to downplay the notion that the Revolution was justifiable as a tax revolt against an oppressive government. “The fact is,” he wrote, “it is a duty to the state to pay taxes. The real principle was not one of the right of the state or the duty of citizens; it was a question of government, a question of form and method.”
The summer after graduation, at home in Plymouth, Coolidge learned that his essay had won first prize in the Amherst competition. Professor Morse congratulated him on obtaining the silver medal. John Coolidge, Calvin’s father, was less impressed, remarking that a college prize “would buy no bread and butter.”
Coolidge’s essay went on to the national contest. In December 1895, six months later, Coolidge, who was now a law student in Northampton, Mass., learned that it had been awarded the gold medal for first place. Henry Field, his employer, congratulated him, and so did the Northampton newspaper. Coolidge said nothing to his father about it, letting him learn through the newspaper, as he explained later, “I had no reason to suppose you were interested in my winning medals.”