Campus Only Senior Thesis
Bachelor of Arts
Charles R. Kesler
© 2012 Corbin Tognoni
What Calvin Coolidge saw in the early Progressive movement was a lack of faith. In American institutions, in the founding principles thereof, and in Man writ large, Calvin Coolidge had a faith that his contemporaries deemed antiquated. The advancement of scientific knowledge promised to discover "a new principle for a new age," as Woodrow Wilson—a founding father of Progressive America—posited.1 Since science offered men the ability to "reconstruct their conceptions of the universe and of their relation to nature, and even of their relation to God," the founders' view of human nature as unchanging and eternal only restricted progress by applying Newtonian strictures on a Darwinian society.2 For an organic society to evolve in America, political leaders needed to interpret the founding documents in the circumstance of modern times, not in their own context. A Hegelian faith in the rational, positive evolution of the human condition through history combined with a reverence for German administrative excellence compelled Wilson to employ rhetoric as a means to gain political support—often citing the beloved Abraham Lincoln as his political and philosophical antecedent. Coolidge noted the great power that Lincoln’s name held among Americans at the time: "Two generations have sought out whatever could be associated with him, have read the record of his every word with the greatest eagerness, and held his memory as a precious heritage."3 Wilson sought to deny the political philosophy of the founding—which Lincoln understood as grounded in natural rights and strict constitutionalism—severing current affairs from the influence of the past and freeing himself and future leaders to act as circumstance demanded.4 Ironically, freedom from the founding ideals made the Progressives slaves of expediency. Coolidge understood Wilson’s denial of founding principles to be dangerous and actively sought to restore faith in self-government as a principle and way of life.
1 Wilson, Selected Papers, 1:235.
2 Ibid, 222.
3 Coolidge, The Price of Freedom, 120.
4 Harry V. Jaffa of Claremont McKenna College offers a deep and comprehensive exposition of Lincoln’s words and actions surrounding the issue of slavery in “A New Birth of Freedom.” Jaffa shows that Lincoln had a pseudo-religious belief in the doctrines and theories presented in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and saw slavery as violating not only the morality of the owner but the natural rights of the slave.
Tognoni, Corbin, "Two and a Half Lawyers: Coolidge, Wilson, and the Legacy of Lincoln" (2012). CMC Senior Theses. 436.
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