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.
Americans, said Coolidge, had reacted in a manner befitting their character. After all, Americans “have been blessed with much of material prosperity. We shall be better able to appreciate it if we remember the privations others have suffered, and we shall be the more worthy of it if we use it for [the Japanese] relief.” Echoing a kind of Calvinism, Coolidge noted that only by helping others through our “full measure of service” could we be worthy of “the good that has come to us.” “We have been a most favored people. We ought to be a most generous people. We have been a most blessed people. We ought to be a most thankful people,” he said.
In his 1924 proclamation, Coolidge explained that Thanksgiving “has the sanction of antiquity and the approbation of our religious convictions. In acknowledging the receipt of divine favor, in contemplating the blessings which have been bestowed upon us, we shall reveal the spiritual strength of the nation.” This is especially true in times of plenty. Americans had to “show that they are worthy to prosper by rededicating America to the service of God and man.” He urged Americans “to supplicate the Throne of Grace,” a reference to Hebrews 4:16. He hoped that the American people “may gather strength from their tribulations, that they may gain humility from their victories, that they may bear without complaining the burdens that shall be placed upon them, and that they may be increasingly worthy in all ways of blessings that shall come to them.”
Coolidge returned to this theme over and over. In 1925, he urged Americans to thank “Almighty God for the manifold blessings which His gracious and benevolent providence has bestowed upon us as a nation and as individuals.” God had intervened in our affairs both directly and indirectly, by providing the Golden Rule, which Coolidge believed was the template for how men in a republic ought to live with one another. “We are a God-fearing people who should set ourselves against evil and strive for righteousness in living, and observing the Golden Rule we should from our abundance help and serve those less fortunately placed,” he proclaimed. “We should bow in gratitude to God for His many favors.”
Those “favors” continued the next year. Americans, Coolidge said in 1926, “should not fail in our acknowledgment of His divine favor which has bestowed upon us so many blessings.” The American people must continue to “seek His guidance that through good deeds and brotherly love they may deserve a continuance of His favor.” Times were still good in 1927, when Coolidge expressed his hope that “we should humbly pray that we may be worthy of a continuation of Divine favor.” They even continued in 1928, when “through his Divine favor peace and tranquility have reigned through the land,” and “He has protected our country as a whole against pestilence and disaster and has directed us in the ways of National prosperity.”
America, brought to her knees in 1929 (as she has been again now) by economic tumult, ought still to pray and be thankful. “If at any time our rewards have seemed meager, we should find our justification for Thanksgiving by carefully comparing what we have with what we deserve,” he wrote in 1930. Americans could take solace in all that had been established since the Pilgrims and all that remained yet to be achieved. “If their little colony of devoted souls, when exiled to a foreign wilderness by persecution, cut in half by disease, surrounded by hostility, and threatened with famine, could give thanks, how much more should this great nation, less deserving than the Pilgrims yet abounding in freedom, peace, security, and plenty, now have the faith to return thanks to the author of all good and perfect gifts.”
God’s favor must have receded when the Roaring Twenties grew silent, giving way to the Great Depression. It was in this period that Americans most needed Coolidge’s advice and Providence’s hand. His post-presidential newspaper column, “Calvin Coolidge Says,” was among the most widely read, concerned above all to restore the American people’s faith in themselves. Such a faith was predicated upon a faith in God.
In his column for Thanksgiving 1930, he observed, “It is by no means enough to make it an occasion for recreating and feasting. Thanks are not to be returned merely to ourselves and to each other.” He continued, “The day is without significance unless it has a spiritual meaning. For more than three centuries our people have felt the need of celebrating the harvest time as a religious rite by offering thanks to the Creator for all their earthly blessings. There can be no true Thanksgiving without prayer.” Amen.
— Charles C. Johnson is the author of the forthcoming Coolidge: Then and Now, due out from Encounter in Fall 2012. You may e-mail him at [email protected].