Title: Speech to the Amherst College Alumni Association
Date: February 4, 1916
Location: Boston, MA
Context: Coolidge presses Amherst graduates to stay true to the college’s doctrine of striving to create and work
We live in an age which questions everything. The past generation was one of religious criticism. This is one of commercial criticism.
We have seen the development of great industries. It has been represented that some of these have not been free from blame. In this development some men have seemed to prosper beyond the measure of their service, while others have appeared to be bound to toil beyond their strength for less than a decent livelihood.
As a result of criticizing these conditions there has grown up a too well-developed public opinion along two lines; one, that the men engaged in great affairs are selfish and greedy and not to be trusted, that business activity is not moral and the whole system is to be condemned; and the other, that employment, that work, is a curse to man, and that working hours ought to be as short as possible or-in some way abolished. After criticism, our religious faith emerged clearer and stronger and freed from doubt. So will our business relations emerge, purified but justified.
The evidence of evolution and the facts of history tell us of the progress and development of man through various steps and ages, known by various names. We learn of the stone age, the bronze, and the iron age. We can see the different steps in the growth of the forms of government; how anarchy was put down by the strong arm of the despot, of the growth of aristocracy, of limited monarchies and of parliaments, and finally democracy.
But in all these changes man took but one step at a time. Where we can trace history, no race ever stepped directly from the stone age to the iron age and no nation ever passed directly from despotism to democracy. Each advance has been made only when a previous stage was approaching perfection, even to conditions which are now sometimes lost arts.
We have reached the age of invention, of commerce, of great industrial enterprise. It is often referred to as selfish and materialistic.
Our economic system has been attacked from above and from below. But the short answer lies in the teachings of history. The hope of a Watt or an Edison lay in the men who chipped flint to perfection. The seed of democracy lay in a perfected despotism. The hope of to-morrow lies in the development of the instruments of today. The prospect of advance lies in maintaining those conditions which have stimulated invention and industry and commerce. The only road to a more progressive age lies in perfecting the instrumentalities of this age. The only hope for peace lies in the perfection of the arts of war.
“We build the ladder by which we rise, and we mount to the summit round by round.”
All growth depends upon activity. Life is manifest only by action. There is no development physically or intellectually without effort, and effort means work. Work is not a curse, it is the prerogative of intelligence, the only means to manhood, and the measure of civilization. Savages do not work. The growth of a sentiment that despises work is an appeal from civilization to barbarism.
I would not be understood as making a sweeping criticism of current legislation along these lines. I, too, rejoice that an awakened conscience has outlawed commercial standards that were false or low and that an awakened humanity has decreed that the working and living condition of our citizens must be worthy of true manhood and true womanhood.
I agree that the measure of success is not merchandise but character. But I do criticize those sentiments, held in all too respectable quarters, that our economic system is fundamentally wrong, that commerce is only selfishness, and that our citizens, holding the hope of all that America means, are living in industrial slavery. I appeal to Amherst men to reiterate and sustain the Amherst doctrine, that the man who builds a factory builds a temple, that the man who works there worships there, and to each is due, not scorn and blame, but reverence and praise.
Citation: Have Faith in Massachusetts
The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Vincent Scanlan, who prepared this document for digital publication.