Category Archives: Calvin Coolidge

Purpose and Persistence Are Required for Success: Unrewarded Genius Is Almost a Proverb

Calvin Coolidge? Theodore Thornton Munger? M. M. Callen? Orison Swett Marden? Edward H. Hart?

purpose22Dear Quote Investigator: Many books extolling self-improvement include a didactic passage that begins as follows:

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

These words have been credited to U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A closely matching text was attributed to Calvin Coolidge by 1929, but the passage did not originate with the former President. Instead, it evolved over a period of several decades. Interestingly, the original text located by QI emphasized the importance of “purpose” to success and did not mention “persistence”.

In 1881 the Reverend Theodore Thornton Munger of New England published a book of guidance for young people titled “On the Threshold”. The first chapter was called “Purpose”, and the author stated the following, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb; the “mute, inglorious Milton” is not a poetic creation. The chance of events, the push of circumstances, will not. The natural unfolding of faculties will not. Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated men; indeed, it is a problem of society what to do with the young men it is turning out of its colleges and professional schools. There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose.

A purpose underlies character, culture, position, attainment of whatever sort. Shakespeare says: “Some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them;” but the latter is external, and not to be accounted as success.

The boldface text above highlights some of the points of similarity and contrast with the modern text about persistence which has often been attributed to Coolidge.

The phrase “mute, inglorious Milton” was a reference to the popular poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray who was contemplating the graves of the largely-anonymous people who lived and died in the small villages of the English countryside. Gray imagined a person who might have rivalled the power and acclaim of the poet John Milton. Yet, the person was mute and did not achieve glory because chance and circumstance prevented the emergence of his or her greatness. Munger implicitly re-imagined the scenario by suggesting that a clear and strong purpose might have allowed the mute Milton and others to acquire success.

Munger’s words were remembered, and a shortened version of the passage above was further disseminated when it was included in an 1889 collection titled “A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought” which was published in a series of editions. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1881 (Copyright 1880), On the Threshold by Theodore T. Munger (Theodore Thornton Munger), Chapter 1: Purpose, Quote Page 9, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1889, A Homiletic and Illustrative Treasury of Religious Thought by H. D. M. Spence, Joseph S. Exell, and Charles Neil, Volume 3, Second Edition, Quote Page 260, Section: Fixity and Tenacity of Purpose, Published by R. D. Dickinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

“I Bet I Could Get Three Words Out of You.” “You Lose.”

Calvin Coolidge? Frank B. Noyes? Apocryphal?

cool07Dear Quote Investigator: President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” because of his extraordinarily laconic speech. A famous anecdote tells of a dinner party during which the person sitting adjacent to the Coolidge said: “Mr. President I’ve made a large bet that I would be able to make you say more than two words.” Coolidge considered this proposition carefully and then replied slowly and emphatically, “You lose.”

Would you please explore the veracity of this comical tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in several newspapers in April 1924 which were reporting on a short speech of introduction delivered at the annual luncheon of the Associated Press news service by Frank B. Noyes who was the President of the organization. The introduction was for the main speaker at the event, President Calvin Coolidge. Noyes told a story about an unnamed “very high official”, and his audience knew that the tale was supposed to be about Coolidge. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . let me be reminded at this point of a story current in Washington last year.

“A very high official had a really undeserved reputation of extreme reticence, and it is related that at a dinner the lady on his right opened the conversation by saying that her neighbor had it in his power to lose or win a wager for her as she had made a bet that however reserved he might have been with others that he would talk with her. Then came a measurable pause, followed by ‘You lose.’

This version of the tale did not mention a specific number of words, e.g., “more than two words” or “at least three words”. Hence, it was not quite as funny as later instances of the anecdote.

“The New York Times” published an article about the luncheon which included the response given by Coolidge immediately after the humorous story was presented. He completely denied its accuracy. The term “President” in the following remark by Coolidge might be somewhat confusing; the term referred to Frank B. Noyes, President of the Associated Press, and not to Coolidge. 2

“Your President has given you a perfect example,” said Mr. Coolidge, “of one of those rumors now current in Washington which is without any foundation.”

The audience laughed, and then Mr. Coolidge went ahead with his prepared speech.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1924 April 23, The Hartford Courant, President Favors New Parley for Further Limitation of Arms, Quote Page 22, Column 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  2. 1924 April 23, New York Times, Coolidge for a New Arms Conference; Demands Constructive Federal Thrift; Favors Participation in German Loan: Sees Hope in Dawes Plan, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)

How Can They Tell?

Dorothy Parker? Wilson Mizner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

parker07Dear Quote Investigator: Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, and his highly reserved character in social settings led to the nickname “Silent Cal”. A few years after his death in 1933 two similar anecdotes began to circulate about the spoken reaction to the news of Coolidge’s demise. Reportedly, when the wit Dorothy Parker was notified she said:

How can they tell?

Also, when the raconteur Wilson Mizner was told he said:

How do they know?

What evidence is there for these two tales?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the 1936 book “Enjoyment of Laughter” by Max Eastman in a chapter about the use of exaggeration in humor: 1

…Dorothy Parker’s remark when told that Calvin Coolidge was dead: How can they tell?

In 1937 a review of Eastman’s book was printed in “The Glasgow Herald” of Scotland, and the remark ascribed to Parker was reprinted 2

But here one gives the prize to Dorothy Parker, that vitriolic lady who “can’t read Wodehouse.” When told that President Coolidge was dead all she said was, “How can they tell?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1936, Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman, Quote Page 155, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1937 May 13, The Glasgow Herald, American Humour (Book Review of Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman), Quote Page 2, Colum 4, Glasgow, Scotland. (Google News Archive)]