Calvin Coolidge and Amherst

Walker Building, Amherst College 1890s

When Calvin Coolidge studied law at Amherst College, he likely walked the very paths pictured in this period photograph.

His alma mater was very important to him. Here is where he studied law, here is where he received what has been described as a rigorous classical education, here is where he was taught by Amherst’s most famous professor of the time, the philosopher Charles E. Garman. “We looked upon Garman as a man who walked with God“, Coolidge would recall in his autobiography.

Amherst is also where Coolidge first practiced public speaking and rhetoric, developing considerable skill as a debater. A member of the graduating class of 1895, he was honored to participate in the commencement festivities as Grove Orator. Delivering an address filled with puns, wisecracks and sarcastic observations about the faculty and student life at Amherst, Coolidge was heckled (as was the custom) and handled himself well, revealing a quick wit.

Frank W. Stearns, left, walking with John C. Coolidge Sr. in 1924

Amherst remained dear to Coolidge’s heart for the rest of his life, and he served as a trustee of the college from 1921 onward.

Perhaps more importantly, during his rise in Massachusetts state politics, his Amherst background brought him into contact with a number of men who early on saw his promise and potential and supported him. In “A Puritan in Babylon”, William Allen White reports an Amherst alumni dinner 1915 in Boston, where Amherst men fretted about their college’s perceived political inconsequence. When someone suggested their organization ought to get behind some alumnus and push him to higher office, Coolidge’s name was brought up by Judge Henry Field of Northampton, in whose office Coolidge had studied law.

Frank Waterman Stearns, scion of a Boston merchant family, and primus inter pares at the dinner, remembered his first somewhat inauspicuous meeting with Coolidge, then stated “Well, if you say it’s Coolidge, it’s Coolidge.” Soon, Stearns came to regard Coolidge with something close to idolatry and remained a backer and confidant from 1915 to Coolidge’s death. In Coolidge’s own words, “While Mr. Stearns always overestimated me, he nervertheless was a great help to me. He never obtruded or sought any favor for himself or any other person, but his whole effect was always disinterested and entirely devoted to assisting me when I indicated I wished him to do so. It is doubtful if any other public man ever had so valuable and unselfish a friend.” As early as 1915, Stearns wrote a correspondent at Amherst, “Just for the minute it does not seem best to push him for anything higher than lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts, but later, of course, he must be governor and still later President. Just think what a time we will have at Commencement when the President of the United States, a graduate of your class, ’95, comes back to Commencement.” Stearns and others were instrumental in financing the publication of books of Coolidge’s speeches, distributing them widely to Republican delegates in 1920, which probably made possible the seemingly spontaneous vote to place Coolidge on the ticket as Vice Presidential candidate. Stearns later was a frequent visitor at the White House. Famous in Coolidge lore are his “talks” with the president, which consisted entirely of both men being silent and smoking cigars. Stearns deserves to have a more extensive blog post devoted to him, and he will.

Dwight Morrow in 1925

Dwight W. Morrow had been a classmate of Coolidge’s at Amherst. It is reported that as a senior at the college, he was the only one of his class to vote for Calvin Coolidge as “most likely to succeed” – all others voted for… Dwight Morrow.

Coming from a modest background, Morrow forged an impressive career at J.P. Morgan, and filled many positions in councils and commissions on topics ranging from prison conditions to aviation. As Ambassador to Mexico, he defused a looming crisis in U.S./Mexican relations in 1927 and at the time of his early death in 1928 served as U.S. Senator for New Jersey.

Other notable Amherst alumni who worked closely with, or for, Coolidge over the years were William F. Whiting, of the paper manufacturing dynasty; Harlan Fiske Stone, whom Coolidge named to the Supreme Court, and Bruce Barton, the author and advertising maven who already was featured prominently in a previous post on this blog.

At the 1920 Republican convention in Chicago, Whiting voted to the bitter end to have Coolidge at the head of the ticket, and in 1928 he was among the last to give up hope of another Coolidge candidacy.

Coolidge and Stone, 1924

As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone was one of three justices dubbed “the three musketeers” who supported the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt named him Chief Justice in 1941, and Stone held that post until his death in 1946. While judicial appointments were to some extent less politicized than they are today, it is nonetheless surprising that a justice appointed by arguably the last true conservative president should have turned out to be such a supporter of one of the most progressive presidents.

This blog will return to these men, their accomplishments, and their close links with Calvin Coolidge, in due course.

5 thoughts on “Calvin Coolidge and Amherst

  1. Coolidge’s Amherst Connection is, indeed, strong and it precedes his days at the college. The Amherst connection began at Black River Academy in Ludlow, Vermont. George Sherman was the Principal; he was an Amherst Graduate, Class of 1879; he pointed Calvin in that direction.
    It was also at Black River that the future president had his first oratorical triumph at his graduation. In a letter dated April 19, 1890 to his father, he writes: “My oration is all done and about learned the subject is: Oratory in History, it is about 10 minutes long. Mr. Sherman told me that it is the best one he has seen but I suppose he was flattering me.”
    Coolidge was always devoted to his alma mater – an affectionate regard not much returned by the institution.

    • Jim, as always thank you for a knowledgeable and informative comment! I’m tempted to claim I knew all this and left it out for the sake of brevity, but that would not be quite candid 🙂 I do hope that everyone who reads my blog also reads your comments. When doing my (cursory) research, I found that the Amherst archives contain the Frank Stearns papers, collected by Coolidge biographer Claude M. Fuess (also an Amherst man!) for a planned biography of Stearns that did not come to fruition. Unfortunately, those papers are not available in a digital format.

  2. I should look at what Amherst has on Frank Stearns. Holy Cross also has a substantial collection of Stearns.
    Fuess’ papers are at Andover Academy. When I first looked at them – I didn’t know a great deal about Coolidge. I still regard Fuess’ Coolidge biography as the best. William Allen White’s “Puritan” is the source of a great deal of misinformation. We owe White for “the business of America” misquote. White repeats it several times and each time assigns a different date to it. I need to go back to Andover.

  3. Kaiology being a fabulous Coolidge vector I would like to ask Kai’s friends — do you have a favorite photo of Calvin or the Coolidge’s to suggest for our forthcoming bio (HarperCollins)? Please send links. The stereotype of Coolidge was that he was unmodern. So something modern would be good. However, he was tired in the pics with Lindbergh that I have, so I am challenged. Please send these to my facebook page.
    Thank you, friends of CC.

  4. When Coolidge was Governor of Massachusetts his photograph was, of course, taken. When he was reelected to a second one-year term the photographer returned for yet another photo.
    Governor Coolidge said: “I don’t know why you need another picture; I’m still using the same face.”

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