Tag 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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Notes:

  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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Notes:

  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)

You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

rogers09Dear Quote Investigator: While searching for a quotation on the subject of government in a reference book I came across a quip from the famous cowboy and Native American humorist Will Rogers:

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”

A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3

Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”

Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”

There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)