In our increasingly secular age, as we watch grown men play a boys’ game, as a certain parade sponsored by Macy’s commercializes our streets, and as we look forward to shaking off our tryptophan-induced slumber to wait in line for Black Friday, it is worth remembering, as Calvin Coolidge did, that “the things of the spirit come first.” Thanksgiving, Coolidge noted, was a “holy day” for those who were its first celebrants.
Coolidge was perhaps the 20th century’s most religious president. He saw the hand of Providence involved in America’s destiny and in her day-to-day affairs. He often warmly quoted the Bible in his speeches. He attended church regularly though he never joined a Washington church, worrying that his duties as president might make it difficult to set a good example. “I am inclined to think now that this was the counsel of darkness,” he regretted in his Autobiography. Most of all, he believed, as did his mentor, Charles Garman of Amherst College, that the Golden Rule revealed a new politics, where men would serve one another in the example of Christ. Ours was a missionary nation, dedicated to the truth and its universal spread. The Pilgrims were the first but they were by no means the last to see its application to America’s public life.
Coolidge, descended from the Puritans in thought and blood, never forgot the true history of Thanksgiving or the Pilgrims who had brought it into being. He knew that Americans, a uniquely religious people with a unique mission in the world, were descended by deed, if not all of them by blood, from those spiritual pioneers.
As governor of the state where the Pilgrims had first made landfall, Coolidge thought often of them and their journey. In 1920, on the tricentennial of their voyage, Coolidge spoke at Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims, he said, came “undecked with orders of nobility” and “oblivious to rank,” as “children [not] of fortune, but of tribulation.” Caring “little for titles, still less for the goods of the earth, ” they sought a new world, “sail[ing] up out of the infinite.” Out of their quest for “an avenue for the immortal soul” came America, “an empire magnificent beyond their dreams of Paradise.” We are the beneficiaries of that “little company,” which is now “known to all the earth.” “No like body ever cast so great an influence on human history,” he rightly said.
“Plymouth Rock does not mark a beginning or an end,” but “a revelation of that which is without beginning and without end — a purpose shining through eternity with a resplendent light, undimmed even by the imperfections of men.” The Pilgrims had helped birth the Declaration of Independence, America’s animating “spiritual document.” “Democracy is Christ’s government in church and state,” Coolidge fondly quoted Pilgrim-era theologian John Wise. The Pilgrims understood that “the ultimate sanction of the law rests on the righteous authority of the Almighty.”
And so Thanksgiving, the day on which we remember and honor the Pilgrims’ voyage, had a special place in Coolidge’s heart. His fondness for the holiday shines through in all of his presidential Thanksgiving proclamations. His first, in 1923, bore a note of sadness. President Harding had died suddenly that August of a heart attack. Harding’s death, Coolidge said, had “replenished the charitable impulse” of the American people. The Japanese, “America’s friends,” were the beneficiaries when America came to their assistance after an earthquake, a tsunami, and a typhoon rocked Tokyo and Yokohama in early September, killing more than 143,000 people. Coolidge had asked the American people — not Congress — for $10 million in donations. By December 1923, Americans had given $12 million — the equivalent of more than $150 million in today’s dollars, and at the time a record amount.