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Bittinger: The College Advantage

Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood village is preserved at Plymouth, Vermont and Daniel Webster’s college boarding house is run by the Hanover New Hampshire Historical Society near the town green. I’ve worked in each, and they are worth a visit.

Daniel Webster is one of New Hampshire’s most famous politicians, even serving as Secretary of State under three U.S. Presidents, beginning in 1841. Calvin Coolidge became the 30th U.S. President upon the death of Warren Harding in 1923, serving until 1929. But each of their remarkable careers was far from certain.
To begin with, neither would have gone to college without the financial sacrifice of their families. The Websters mortgaged their farm in Salisbury, NH to send Daniel to Dartmouth and Col. John Coolidge set aside funds from his farming in Vermont to send young Calvin to Amherst. Both fathers wanted their sons to toil less in the fields and more in the libraries.

At first, Webster struggled at Phillips Exeter Academy, but through diligent study eventually became first in his class. Then at Dartmouth he excelled in oration, was a leader in his fraternity and even spoke before the town of Hanover on July 4, 1800. His class was outraged when Dartmouth professors denied him the honor of giving the graduation speech, but he got over this slight and in 1819 saved Dartmouth from becoming a state institution by defending the private college before the U.S. Supreme Court. He is famously quoted as saying, “It is... a small college, and yet there are those who love it.”

Coolidge was a quiet, thin, hayseed from the backwater town of Plymouth - quite the opposite of the well-dressed urban slicks who attended Amherst in 1891; he was not even invited to join a fraternity. He only owned two suits and his accent or twang was so strong it was said he pronounced the word Vermont in three syllables. Yet, eventually he found some other kindred spirits and began his own branch of a national fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. He was not popular until senior year when his humor was finally recognized and he was chosen by his classmates to give the grove oration, a clever graduation speech.

Coolidge and Webster were the first in their families to attend college. They were lawyers and politicos who read the law after they graduated and reached the highest levels of government from some of the smallest, most rural outposts in Northern New England. It was their education and their ability at oration and debate that made all the difference.

As young men, they left their rural states for Massachusetts and in that much larger, more urban setting made successful entrances into national politics. Webster and Coolidge have been called elitists by some historians. And they certainly did enjoy the trappings of their offices, but both believed sincerely in the goal of public service. They put country before self. And perhaps that explains best why their legacies and artifacts continue to inspire us.

Cyndy Bittinger is a writer and historian, who teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Her latest book is, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History."
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