A Man ‘Who Walked with God’: Garman’s Impact on Coolidge

By Marisol Balderas, Coolidge intern



Among the most important lessons Calvin Coolidge took away from Professor Charles Garman was the importance of public service. Garman, who taught Coolidge at Amherst College, spoke of “sovereignty through service.”[1] Garman taught Coolidge that service and self-sacrifice, not the principles of expediency or survival of the fittest, are the only means of preserving free, constitutional government.

Charles Edward Garman was born into a devout Christian household in 1850. His father was a clergyman who had held many pastorates. Garman himself attended Yale Divinity School after graduating from Amherst. Soon after, Garman became a professor at Amherst and discarded the traditional lecture system in favor of more student discussion, encouraging the students to think for themselves.[2] It was at Amherst that Calvin Coolidge met Garman. Coolidge was struck by this enigmatic professor, whom he considered “one of the most remarkable men with whom I ever came in contact.”[3] Through Garman’s unique teaching method, Coolidge learned how to think carefully through ethical problems until he arrived at truth.[4]

Garman’s religious background gave him a distinctly Christian perspective on man’s nature. According to Garman, man “has a spiritual nature” that obliges him to sacrifice for the sake of others.[5] As such, the professor concluded that “not selfishness, but service, becomes the process of the moral life.”[6] It is service and sacrifice at great personal cost that is praiseworthy, not the ability to secure personal gain. Garman once asked his students, “What is the financial compensation which Christ received?”[7] Just as man is created in the divine image, he is meant to imitate his Creator by sacrificing, not by working solely for his own benefit as the principle of survival of the fittest suggests.[8] Therefore, service brings man fulfillment and ennobles him.

More Than a Religious Ideal

For Garman, the need for service was not only a religious ideal but also a political necessity. He asserted that man did not have two personalities, one “in the sphere of religion and the other in the sphere of government and society.”[9] If man is to love and serve his Creator, then he is to love and serve his fellow citizens. Garman reasoned that “love to God and love to man are, from the point of the finite, exactly the same process.”[10] Garman thought that politics was an extension of ethics, particularly of religious obligations, as “there is no such thing as political ethics apart from divine ethics.”[11] Man in society cannot be separated from man as a spiritual being. The obligations he has to God must inform his duties to others in the political community.

Garman claimed that “universal peace” would come only “when the state, and institutions, as truly as individuals, are born again, and the reign of righteousness and love, that is, self-sacrifice, shall be established.”[12] For Garman, it followed that reformers ought to esteem “the philosophy of religion” and that statesmen should draw on religious truths and ideals.[13] Garman looked forward to a time when, “for the improvement of government and society,” statesmen should look to “those great spiritual truths,” which teach us to seek after righteousness.[14]

Coolidge Advances Garman’s Teachings

Like Garman, Coolidge accepted the idea that man is meant for service, quoting from the Gospel of Mark: “Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister.”[15] Coolidge explained that religion teaches us “the binding force of right, of justice, and of truth.”[16] It tells us that faith makes us realize that our work, “well done, is a part of an unending plan,” so that our service has a significance laid in an eternal standard of righteousness.[17] It was thus evident to Coolidge that “men are not so constituted that selfishness satisfies them.”[18] Rather, they are meant to serve others and to live in service of truth, justice, and charity, not for personal gain.[19]

In a speech titled “On the Nature of Politics,” Coolidge proclaimed that, far from being a sordid undertaking, politics furnishes one of the finest opportunities for service. In this speech, the influence of Garman’s views of religion, man, service, and their connection to politics is evident. To support the case for service in politics, Coolidge quoted a lengthy paragraph directly from Garman’s Letters, Lectures, and Addresses. Here, Coolidge argued that our form of government cannot be preserved if selfishness and self-interest are permitted to prevail in society. He pointed out that “our late Dr. Garman recognized this limitation.”[20] Consequently, the statesman must be “a minster to civilization” and citizens “must stand not in the expectation of a reward but with a desire to serve.”[21]

The Bedrock of Free Government

Indeed, the very formation of free, constitutional government requires sacrifice. “The state is not founded on selfishness,” Coolidge said.[22] Through the sacrifice of the Founding generation, our liberty was bought, and through sacrifice alone can it be maintained. Coolidge made it clear that we would be “deluded” in supposing that our rights under the Constitution can be maintained “without more of the same stern sacrifice offered in perpetuity.”[23] Elsewhere, he reminded Americans that the “assertion of human rights is naught but a call to human sacrifice.”[24] Civilization depends not on the survival of the fittest but on “the sacrifice of the fittest.”[25] In a free government, politicians often need to set aside their private interests to pursue the common good. Coolidge stressed that “the only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give.”[26]

Garman’s lesson on service might seem self-evident, but at a time when many were enamored by Charles Darwin’s theories and the quest for the attainment of material prosperity, Coolidge sought to remind Americans that the purpose of human life is not selfishness or material rewards but rather service for a higher good. Coolidge became the kind of statesman Garman envisioned—one who recognized the importance of sacrifice for truth and justice.

Marisol R. Balderas is a senior at Houston Christian University, where she studies political science and works as a writing tutor. She has interned at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and has been interested in Calvin Coolidge for several years.

[1] Charles Edward Garman, “Social Progress,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, ed. Eliza Miner Garman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 368.

[2] Walter A. Dyer, “Garman of Amherst,” in The Sewanee Review 43, no. 2 (April-June, 1935): 146-159.

[3] Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 63.

[4] Ibid, 67.

[5] Charles Edward Garman, “Pleasure or Righteousness,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, 297–98.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Charles Edward Garman, “The Coming Reform,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, 371.

[8] Charles Edward Garman, “Science and Theism,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, 228–30.

[9] Charles Edward Garman, “The Aims and Divisions of the Course,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, 99.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Charles Edward Garman, “A Plea for Philosophy in the Pulpit,” in Letters, Lectures, and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman, 433.

[13] Charles Edward Garman, “A Plea for Philosophy in the Pulpit,” 432.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Calvin Coolidge, “The Meaning of Democracy,” in The Price of Freedom (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1924; reprinted by Fredonia Books, 2001), 191.

[16] Calvin Coolidge, “The Needs of Education,” in The Price of Freedom, 216.

[17] Calvin Coolidge, “What It Means to be a Boy Scout,” in Foundations of the Republic: Speeches and Addresses (Reprint: London: Forgotten Books, 2015 [1926]), 68.

[18] Calvin Coolidge, “The Supports of Civilization,” in The Price of Freedom, 7.

[19] See Calvin Coolidge, “The Power of the Moral Law,” in The Price of Freedom, 80–81.

[20] Calvin Coolidge, “On the Nature of Politics,” in Have Faith in Massachusetts: A Collection of Speeches and Messages, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919), 81.

[21] Calvin Coolidge, “On the Nature of Politics,” 69–84.

[22] Calvin Coolidge, “On the Nature of Politics,” 80.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Calvin Coolidge, “At the Home of Daniel Webster,” in Have Faith in Massachusetts, 36.

[25] Calvin Coolidge, “Address at Roxbury Historical Society Bunker Hill Day,” in Have Faith in Massachusetts, 118.

[26] Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, 1929), 67.

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