History’s clusters of greatness


In olden times, when people wrote on paper and used 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.

Hardly anyone pays attention to the letters between Calvin Coolidge, the 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 these letters offer great insights into a man whose virtues are celebrated only now.

In her provocative new biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes examines those letters. She 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,” Mr. Coolidge noted with great regret that only “Gladstone is left of those great men who were born in 1809.”

Indeed, 1809 produced perhaps the most unlikely connections of all time.

William Ewart Gladstone, four times Britiain’s prime minister, was but one of several giants born in 1809. The others included Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, poets Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Lord Tennyson, composer Felix Mendelssohn, American frontier explorer Kit Carson, inventor Cyrus McCormick, and 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?

Although the crop of 1809 was unusually bountiful, we stand in wonder 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 have been born in 1685?

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). It is the only class to have produced commanders of two concurrent wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.

These clusters of excellence have occurred throughout history. They thrust 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 Roberts, Jr., chief justice of the United States, and Yo Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist, all took degrees from Harvard in 1976, the year that produced so many West Point generals.

President Coolidge was not isolated from this cluster phenomenon. Three members of his Amherst class of 1895 were state lawmakers, one was an editor of the Pittsburgh 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.

This theme can be carried too far, 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.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com