In olden times, when people wrote on paper and employed postage stamps, letters created unlikely connections.
The most remarkable set of correspondence in American history was surely the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson after the two men left the White House.
In England, there were the letters, written sometimes during Cabinet meetings, sometimes three times a day, between H.H. Asquith, who became prime minister of Great Britain in 1908, and Venetia Stanley, a London socialite. And there were the letters between David Lloyd George, who succeeded Asquith as prime minister in 1916, and Frances Stevenson, who became his second wife.
Not long ago, The New Yorker magazine published a series of affecting letters between the writer Daniel Mendelsohn and the novelist Mary Renault. These provide poignant insights into a young man’s searchings and longings.
Hardly anyone pays attention to the letters between Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of the United States, and his father, the notary public who swore in his son by the light of a kerosene lamp in a Vermont farmhouse in August 1923, but they offer great insights into a man whose virtues only now are being celebrated.
In her provocative and readable new biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes examines those letters and quotes one that the young Coolidge, then a student at Amherst College, wrote his father on the occasion of the death of Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1894. Referring to “the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table on whom the years sat so lightly and who had just declared that he was 85 years young,” Coolidge noted with great regret that only “Gladstone is left of those great men who were born in 1809.”
Indeed, the year 1809 produced perhaps the most unlikely connections of all time.
William Ewart Gladstone, four times Britain’s prime minister, was but one of several giants born in 1809. The others included Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, the poets Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Lord Tennyson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, the American frontier explorer Kit Carson, the inventor Cyrus McCormick and the author Nikolai Gogol.
How are we to account for this astonishing blossoming of political, scientific and artistic power from the boys of 1809? Was it merely a coincidence that so much genius was created in a single year, or did social, political and cultural events conspire to produce an especially fertile environment?
While the crop of 1809 was unusually bountiful, we stand in wonder, too, at other examples of generational fecundity — the ties that bind but mystify.
How was it possible for Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, three of the titans of serious art music, to all have been born in the year 1685, with Handel and Bach born just over a month apart? (Taking this one step further, what are we to make of the death of Joseph Haydn in that luminous year of 1809? And could it be possible that Kit Carson’s birth in December 1809 — on Christmas Eve! — was some celestial compensation for the death of another explorer, Meriwether Lewis, a few months earlier?)
History is full of surprising connections, none more beguiling than the West Point Class of 1915, known as the class the stars fell upon. That class produced nearly five dozen generals, accounting for more than a third of the class. Among them were two with five stars (Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley), two with four stars and seven with three. The West Point Class of 1976 has produced two four-star generals (nearly three dozen generals in all) and is the only class to have produced commanders of two concurrent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their only known rivals for achievement might be the Harvard Business School Class of 1949, which counts among its ranks onetime chiefs of Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, Capital Cities/ABC, General Dynamics and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Under their sway were the Hilton Hotels, Rockefeller Center, the Chicago Bulls — and a powerful government bureaucracy.
“People push each other to excel, but some of it is circumstantial, having to do with the opportunities presented to a certain group at a certain time,” says Laurence Shames, who wrote a book about this group of Harvard overachievers. “The men of the Class of ‘49 may not have been smarter than others, but they had a great deal more life experience, partially because they were veterans of World War II. They had values beyond business and beyond making money that gave them a riper sense of leadership.”
These clusters of excellence have occurred throughout history, thrusting men and women of talent together and then, through the friction of their interchanges and the fertility of their friendships, elevating all of them to greater heights. Perhaps that explains why Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, John G. Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United States, and Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist, all took degrees from Harvard College in 1976, the year that produced so many West Point generals.
And consider the men who were at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with Franklin Pierce, later the 14th president. They included William Pitt Fessenden, a distinguished senator and treasury secretary, and the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Pierce later appointed Hawthorne consul to Liverpool.
Coolidge was not isolated from this cluster phenomenon, either. Three members of his Amherst Class of 1895 were state legislators, one was an editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette (a precursor newspaper to today’s Post-Gazette), one was the winner of a great balloon race and another, Dwight Morrow, was an ambassador, a senator and eventually the father-in-law of Charles Lindbergh.
Coolidge also was close to Harlan Fiske Stone at Amherst, who was a class ahead of him. Coolidge appointed Stone, who had been a Wall Street lawyer, as his attorney general and, later, to the Supreme Court. Franklin Delano Roosevelt elevated him to chief justice in 1941.
This theme can be carried too far, of course, and we’re probably already past that point. So consider the year 1961. Among those born that year were Eddie Murphy (April 3), Boy George (June 14), Meg Ryan (Nov. 19), Heather Locklear (Sept. 25) and Aaron Sorkin (June 9). None of them has much if any connection with a man born Aug. 4, 1961. You know him as the 44th president of the United States.
Email David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at firstname.lastname@example.org.