Published: Nov. 5, 2020

The Reasons to Get Reacquainted with Josiah Royce and Mary Roberts Coolidge in the First Week of November 2020

The Original Golden Rule
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.
Matthew 7:12


The Golden Rule, Revised for 2020 and Extended in Time
Do unto the people of the past as you would have the people of the future do unto you.
Patty Limerick, Member, First Congregational Church, Boulder, Colorado


 “Live in fragments no longer.”
E. M.Forster, Howards End


In the twenty-first century, the angry people who have rushed to defend historical figures from present-day condemnations have—inadvertently—done a great disservice to the historical figures they champion, draining their lives of meaning.

How on earth could the desire to protect produce the opposite result?

Hundreds of recent controversies over monuments, memorials, and plaques have given us an ideal opportunity to observe this process at work.

It begins when the legacy of a historical figure lands at the center of public attention, where closer inspection reveals aspects of this figure’s character, beliefs, and actions that were morally flawed—and sometimes, as in the practice of slavery and the violent displacement of Indian peoples, a lot worse than “flawed.” Disturbed by these revelations, a sector of society then expresses rage and moves forward to challenge or remove the various symbolic tributes to and celebrations of that figure.

Instantly, another sector of society then responds with opposite and equal rage, rushing to defend and protect the historical figure from disparagement. “He was a man of his times!” the defenders nearly always proclaim, with the conviction that this assertion will settle the issue.

But how could a person—who was born at a certain time and who died at certain time—be anything but an occupant, inhabitant, and denizen of “his times”?  Why would anyone bother to proclaim such a self-evident chronological fact? And why would anyone think that this assertion would bring a conclusive end to arguments and conflicts?

Here’s my best shot at an answer to those questions: the pronouncement, “he was a man of his times,” is actually a seven-word code for the assertion that any critical judgment of this figure is unjust, illegitimate, and even prohibited. The “times,” not the individual, bear responsibility for any troubles posed by the individual’s beliefs and conduct.

So how does this insistence inflict harm on the figures it intends to protect?

It treats the people of the past as if their minds, souls, and consciences were interchangeable parts of an unearthly, inexorable, tyrannical machine called “their times.” It presents the people who lived in a particular era as if their beliefs were similar, uniform, and homogeneous, when those beliefs were, in actuality, enlivened by enormous variation and often charged with contention. It extinguishes the distinctive individuality of historic figures, and thereby makes them what they never were in life: dull and predictable.

In other words, when it comes to paying proper respect to the people of the past, wild over-generalization is “the most unkindest cut of all.”

Let’s cut that out.

Discard those tired old phrases, “women of their times” and “men of their times,” and the people of the past are quickly restored to individuality, interest, and meaning.

As irony-sensitive readers will have noticed, I am—at this very moment—risking over-generalization. So it is surely time for me to correct over-generalization with specificity, by introducing two significant, but not-universally-recognized historical figures: Josiah Royce and Mary Roberts Coolidge. These two driven, intense, and apparently quite likable people were at the peak of their powers in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. That era was, by many measures, the absolute low point of American race relations: with Indian peoples at their nadir of population and power; with Jim Crow segregation denying opportunity and dignity to African Americans, with lynching a peril that could never be dismissed; with very rough working conditions, discriminatory policies, and sometimes violence shaping the lives of Mexican and Asian immigrants.

Applied to Josiah Royce and Mary Roberts Coolidge, the conventional term “people of their times” makes no sense at all. Anyone foolish enough to try to jam either of those folks into that tiresome characterization would instantly know why “putting round pegs into square holes” is the chosen figure of speech to stand for a futile and frustrating endeavor.

And now, to have you fully prepared to meet these two memorable people, you will want to be geared up to repeat these sentences: “He wrote that in 1886??” and “She wrote that in 1909??”


Josiah Royce, Master Craftsman of Honest History

Definition of “scary smart”: “A demonstrated level of superior mental intelligence, . . . beyond that which people of “average” intelligence find comfortable or can understand, often to such a great degree that it leaves them feeling intimidated or even somewhat frightened.”

The Urban Dictionary

“Sometimes directly, more often inadvertently, [Josiah] Royce became a spokesman for the West . . . More recently, Patricia Nelson Limerick called Royce ‘the father of Western history.’”

Robert V. Hine, Josiah Royce: From Grass Valley to Harvard (1991), p. 194

The West had cause to rejoice
When a philosopher by name of Royce
Told the truth in a tome;
But he made Harvard his home
And thereby lost most of his voice.

Patty Limerick

Our mission in the cause of liberty is to be accomplished through a steadfast devotion for the cultivation of our own inner life, and not by going abroad as missionaries, as conquerors, or as marauders among weaker peoples.

Josiah Royce, California

Josiah Royce was a very renowned American philosopher who taught at Harvard from 1882 until his death in 1916.

More to the point, Josiah Royce was scary smart. The world’s leading proponent of philosophical idealism, Royce wrote about metaphysics and epistemology; he wrote about individuality, community, and, especially, loyalty; he wrote about the intricacies of Christian belief; he wrote about good, evil, and atonement; and, for heaven’s sake, as if he hadn’t already exceeded all halfway normal boundaries on demonstrating the powers of his mind, he went on to write about mathematics and logic.

And Royce also wrote about Western American history.

His book, California:  From the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco:  A Study of American Character, was published in 1886. If my predecessors in the field of Western American history had paid more attention to Josiah Royce’s book and incorporated his ideas into their own work, I would have been out of a job, robbed of my opportunity to write a book called The Legacy of Conquest. There are reasons to think that Royce’s positioning as an “outsider” at Harvard and as a philosopher reduced his impact on the writing of Western history. One way or another, inattention to Royce’s 1886 book left the door open for me and many other historians of my generation.

Josiah Royce’s parents arrived in Gold Rush California in in 1849, narrowly surviving the overland trail. Royce was born in 1854 in Grass Valley in the California gold country. He went to college at UC Berkeley, and then went on to Johns Hopkins, where he received one of the first four PhDs awarded by that university. After a short spell teaching at Berkeley, he moved to Harvard.

Someday, someone will write a book called: The American West and the Ivy League: A Clandestine, but Intense and Lasting Love Affair. Blessedly, the author will not be me (though I might appear in a footnote), but the book will surely have a lot to say about Josiah Royce.

The subject of Royce’s book was the American conquest of Mexican California. If he pulled a single punch in his commentary on the moral dimensions of that conquest, I can’t see any place where he held back.

Remember that line—“He said that in 1886?”—that you memorized so you could repeat it?  Here’s your chance: a carefully “curated” collection of quotations from Royce’s California, which I plead with you to read closely, repeating to yourself, “He said that in 1886?”

The American as conqueror is unwilling to appear in public as a pure aggressor. . . . The American wants to persuade not only the world but himself that he is doing God service in a peaceable spirit, even when he violently takes what he determined to get. His conscience is sensitive, and hostile aggression, practiced against any but Indians, shocks this conscience . . . Our national conscience, however, was not only squeamish, but also, in those days, not a little hypocritical. It disliked, moreover, to have the left hand know what the right hand was doing when both were doing mischief. And so, because of its very virtues, it involved itself in disastrously complex plots.

In writing California history, few have even yet chosen to treat the acts of conquest with the deserved plainness of speech. [And yet] It is to be hoped that this [history] will some day be once more remembered, so that when our nation is another time about to serve the devil, it will do so with more frankness and will deceive itself less by half-conscious cant.


Did he pick up these ideas, you might wonder, at Harvard?

Not in the least.

Josiah Royce was a homegrown Western historian. The questions that drove his interpretation of westward expansion originated in his life experience, and also from the research he conducted in archives and in interviews with some of the historic figures whose ethics he found most troubling.

Josiah Royce’s written legacy poses an enormous challenge to the conventional use of that tired old phrase, “he was a man of his times.” And yet his legacy also offers a redeemed, more accurate, and far livelier meaning to that saying.

If we recognize Josiah Royce as “a man of his times,” we give ourselves a lifelong reminder that Royce’s times came with an enormous amount of variation in the range of beliefs, attitudes, and understandings that he and his contemporaries held. Of course, those who lived before us were not, as many historians have labored to remind us, people who were just like us but dressed up in funny clothes. Many of their assumptions were very different from the assumptions we hold, and often equally different from the assumptions held by some of their contemporaries.

Mary Roberts Coolidge: Who Gave Ethnic Stereotypes a Very Rough Time 

(With a Few Cringe-Worthy Moments When Stereotypes Surged Back into Power)

When she tracked the West’s record on race,
Coolidge cut straight to the chase.
Not confined by “her times”
Nor trapped in paradigms,
She would call out shame and disgrace.

Patty Limerick

Like Josiah Royce, Mary Roberts Coolidge was scary smart, and equally forthright in declaring where she parted ways with people who took up causes that she saw as saturated with cruelty and moral weakness.

Born in 1860 just five years after Josiah Royce, Coolidge graduated from Cornell and went on to receive a PhD from Stanford University in Economics, where she taught for several years. She also taught at Mills College in Oakland, where she founded the sociology department. In 1909, she published a book called Chinese Immigration.

In this very carefully researched book, Coolidge explored the history of the Chinese in California Like Royce, she did not hold back in her critique of attitudes held by many Americans in her own times and in the immediate past. When, for instance, she discussed California’s Foreign Miners’ Tax, she noted that the law targeted only “foreigners” of dark skin, and not “Germans, Irish, and Englishmen, . . . although many of them,” as she said, “were not naturalized, and had far less right in the country than the native Indians and Spaniards.”

Coolidge’s legislative history of the 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act remains one of the best available. That law, she wrote, committed “the United States to a race discrimination at variance with our professed theories of government.” To this day, she ranks as a leading practitioner in identifying and spotlighting inconsistency in familiar rationales offered for injustice. The supposed Chinese resistance to assimilation was, she said, “the least convincing and most consistent of all the arguments against Chinese immigration in the mouths of those who have not wished them to assimilate nor given them opportunities to do so.”

The Chinese, Coolidge wrote, had been excluded “because of their virtues, not their vices”—because they were “industrious, thrifty, shrewd, and healthily selfish—like many Europeans.” The exclusion of the Chinese arose from an “arrogant and narrow-minded temper bred by pioneer conditions, monopolistic spirit and lack of sanity and justice.” “Injustice” on that scale, Mrs. Coolidge proclaimed, “has brought, and will not fail to bring, retribution in the degradation of those who practice it, and California had badly damaged itself with its “lawlessness, class hatred, and incapacity for cooperation.”

And now we reach an unsettling aspect of Coolidge’s forthrightness. Defending the Chinese, she sometimes took a good, solid swipe at European immigrants. “Every charge brought against the Chinaman,” she wrote, “can be brought with greater force against many of the Europeans who now constitute the bulk of immigration at the Atlantic ports.” Coolidge did not sit around waiting for others to suggest what those charges might be. “It is perfectly well-known,” she wrote,

that the Italian quarter of San Francisco is unsanitary and immoral; that the Italians are clannish and very slow to speak English; that some of them are drunken, violent, even murderous; that only those of the better class assimilate in the first generation and that their children leave school early and are by no means always cleanly or intelligent. . . . Yet no one in California proposes that the Italian should go, because he is a Caucasian and because he has a useful vote.

Coolidge’s characteristic generosity of spirit also took a leave of absence in her characterization of the Irish. “In California,” Coolidge wrote, “although [the Irish] average only 5 to 7% of the total population, they constitute forty percent of the almshouse inmates and nearly half of the arrests for drunkenness.”

Thirty years ago, when I first read Chinese Immigration, Coolidge’s remarks about European immigrants left me flummoxed and even peevish. Since then, I have conjured up a theory that I hope every reader will appraise with skepticism.

Here’s the theory.

When we learn of people in the past who were brave and principled, we are actually better off when they refuse to let us ignore or evade their deficiencies and limitations. If we were to find a historical figure who was utterly saintly and without flaws, we would have found a hero who we will never be able to match in consistent virtue and whose power to inspire us will shrink, since we cannot possibly live up to such an example.

Much to her credit, Mary Roberts Coolidge refused to make it easy for us to form a clear and settled opinion of her. She wholeheartedly fought stereotypes of Chinese immigrants and she wholeheartedly embraced stereotypes of Italian and Irish immigrants. When we try to simplify her into a narrow category of “person from the past who we admire wholeheartedly,” she defies our efforts, insisting on her identity as a human being of complexity.

In 1994, when I first gave a public speech about Mary Roberts Coolidge, my audience happened to be the supporters and affiliates of the California Historical Society. When I finished my speech, half of the audience gave me a standing ovation, and half of the audience remained seated and chose not to clap.

This mixed response was, in its own way, exactly the right tribute to Mary Roberts Coolidge and the fundamental reason why we should remember her.


If We Are Ourselves “People of Our Times,” Who on Earth Are We?

In the twenty-first century, when people protecting historical figures from criticism adopt the “men of their times” defense, they also adopt a doubtful premise about history: An awareness of the injustices committed on the basis of race in the United States, they seem to believe, emerged very recently, so recently that such an awareness could not possibly have registered in the minds of the people whose heritage they are defending.

Josiah Royce and Mary Roberts Coolidge and thousands of other historical figures—many of them African American, Asian American, Latino, and American Indian—demonstrate the inaccuracy of that premise.

When we read the words that Royce and Coolidge wrote, we might be tempted to think of them as mavericks, renegades, contrarians, anomalies, outliers, or aberrations.  But we simply do not know enough about the thoughts and feelings of all the people of the past to assess the typicality of the few who had the fortunate social positioning to put their dissenting views on public record.

It is important to note that neither Royce nor Coolidge escaped intense sorrow in life. After a painful divorce, Coolidge underwent a psychological collapse that led to years when she could only work on the margins of professional life. Royce’s oldest child, Christopher, struggled with mental illness and died young of typhoid fever. Royce himself had his first stroke in his late fifties and died at age sixty-one. Privileged by their education, social class, and race, they had their own reasons to empathize with the unfortunate.

For a good share of my professional life, these two have served me as sustainable heroes. They were far from perfect, which is one of the main reasons I treasure them. In our quest for heroes as in many other efforts, the perfect is the enemy of the good.


“What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?”

The title of economist Robert L. Heilbroner’s essay on what he saw as the indifference of Americans to the concerns of the future, Inquiry into the Human Prospect (1975)

When Americans of the future look back at the Americans of the early twenty-first century, I can imagine that the first question to come to posterity’s minds will be this: “What were they thinking?”

It seems very possible that the people of the future will see us as self-absorbed and breathtakingly neglectful of their interests. I hope they will spare us the unintended injury of resorting to the “people of their times” to defend us against critical appraisal.

In the United States in the first week of November 2020, as the results of the presidential election reveal the canyons of division among American citizens, thoughts of Josiah Royce and Mary Roberts Coolidge offer me something that could pass for consolation and encouragement. Royce and Coolidge could not see their future, any more than we can see ours. But that uncertainty did nothing to silence them.

Josiah Royce gets credit for coining the phrase, “the beloved community,” to convey an ideal of strong individuals who live with  to each other as their steady point of orientation. In a chain of connection and influence, Rev. Martin Luther King invoked the idea of “the beloved community” throughout his time of leadership.

Here is the territory where historians walk nervously into theology: Yes, we are mortals, but when it comes to our connections through time, Dylan Thomas got it right when he wrote his poem, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” We are tied to events that happened long before we were born, and also to events that will happen—shaped and configured by our actions or lack of actions— long after we are dead. To the core of my soul, I join Royce in believing that the idea of “the beloved community” must extend through time, embracing the people of the past, the people of the present, and the people of the future.

Still, Royce’s ideal of “the beloved community” sets the bar very high. In November of 2020, lowering that bar presents itself as a necessity.

In November of 2020, I dream of the creation of “the putting-up-with-each-other community,” even as I hope that posterity will have a chance to give the “beloved” part a try.

photo of Patty Limerick's signature

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Photo Credit: Mary Roberts Coolidge image courtesy of: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Josiah Royce image courtesy of: Wikipedia