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.