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Great American Stories: Coolidge’s Quote

It’s Friday, July 7, the day of the week I pass along quotations relating to American political life — lines intended to be uplifting or educational. Today’s words come from Calvin Coolidge.

On this date 102 years ago, Vice President Coolidge spoke at the second annual conference of the American Classical League, being held at the University of Pennsylvania. It was a typical assignment for a veep — then, as it would be now — but Coolidge warmed to the task. He gave a spirited and well-received address to a group formed in the waning days of World War I to promote the teaching of Greek and Latin and classical history.

“We come here today in defense of some of the great realities of life,” Coolidge began. “We come to continue the guarantee of progress in the future by continuing knowledge of progress in the past.”

“We come,” he continued, “because we realize that the only road to freedom lies through a knowledge of the truth.”

After being elevated to the presidency, this taciturn New Englander would earn the moniker “Silent Cal.” But it wasn’t really possible for an elected official to ascend the heights of U.S. politics without giving public addresses, and Calvin Coolidge made a number of notable speeches in his career — including several that 21st century Americans would do well to heed.

Americans and Europeans were still reeling from the unimaginable carnage of World War I when Vice President Coolidge spoke to the nation’s classical scholars at Penn 102 years ago today. One of the most disquieting aspects of The Great War, as it was then known, was how new technologies — airplanes, chemical compounds like mustard gas, and artillery of frightening power — had been used with such efficiency to kill human beings.

But the 1920s was also a time of exciting innovation in peacetime inventions, and Coolidge embraced that vision, too.

“The age of science and commercialism is here,” he said. “There is no sound reason for wishing it otherwise. The wise desire is not to destroy it, but to use it and direct it rather than to be used and directed by it, that it may be, as it should be, not the master but the servant, that the physical forces may not prevail over the moral forces, and that the rule of life may not be expediency but righteousness.”

To help in this endeavor, the vice president suggested, Americans must know where their civilization originated and immerse themselves in the wisdom of the ancients.

“Modern civilization dates from Greece and Rome,” he said. “We could not cut ourselves off from all influence which existed prior to the Declaration of Independence and expect any success by undertaking to ignore all that happened before that date.

“The development of society is a gradual accomplishment,” Coolidge continued. “Culture is the product of a continuing effort. The education of the [human] race is never accomplished. It must be gone over with each individual and it must continue from the beginning to the ending of life.”

Thus did a future American president promote the benefits of civic education, teaching the classics, the promise of technology, and lifetime learning all in a single speech.

And that is our quote of the week.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon

This article was originally published by RealClearPublicAffairs and made available via RealClearWire.

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About Carl Cannon

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Photo: The White House showing President Coolidge on the South lawn. iStock/Getty Images