Coit, Margaret L.

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COIT, Margaret L.

Born 30 May 1919, Norwich, Connecticut

Daughter of Arch W. and Grace Trow Coit

It is as a biographer that Margaret Coit made her major impact as a writer. Her two most influential works are John C. Calhoun: American Portrait (1950, reprinted in 1977), for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951, and Mr. Baruch (1957).

Her biography of Calhoun involved a significant recasting of the story of his life. Rejecting the traditional stress on Calhoun as sectionalist, Coit argued that his great concern throughout his career was to preserve his section within the Union and "to make democracy work." From the time of the triumph of Jacksonian democracy, Calhoun tried to avert the consequences of unlimited majority rule, eventually posing the concurrent majority concept. In Coit's view, interest in slavery was not at the center of Calhoun's concern for the South. Rather, his defense of slavery reflected his view of human nature. Calhoun, she contends, "loved [freedom] too much to surrender it to those who he thought might endanger it," as he felt blacks must inevitably do. Her portrait of Calhoun is of a man of tragic vision desperately trying to avert an unavoidable future.

In her second biography, Mr. Baruch, Coit deftly depicts the transformation of a post-Reconstruction South Carolinean into the Wall Street entrepreneur. The primary focus of the biography, however, is on Baruch's extended period of public service beginning with World War I. Baruch's relations with the presidents he served are perceptively analyzed. Coit stresses Wilson's crucial role in capturing Baruch's imagination and enlisting his talents in the wartime mobilization of industry. In the Roosevelt years, the relationships were more strained and Baruch's contributions to the nation more indirect. According to Coit, between Roosevelt and Baruch was "the uneasy truce of two extraordinarily able men" whose dominant personalities made collaboration difficult. Baruch's last major contribution came in the Truman years with the formulation of the Baruch Plan for international control of atomic energy.

Coit's picture of Baruch is of a proud individualist, an intensely private person creating his own myth. In her view, Baruch's chief weakness was that he would not put himself to the political test and seek the public office where his talents might most significantly have been put to use. Of the two biographies, Coit's more powerful and penetrating portrait is of Calhoun, the man who did risk political action, though he failed in his ultimate aim.

Coit also coauthored two accounts of the early American nation, The Growing Years: 1789-1829 (1963) and The Sweep Westward: 1829-49 (1963). The Growing Years focuses primarily on the political and military history of the early republic. The Sweep Westward is centered on the transformation of America through geographical expansion and the growth of industrialization. Both books capture the sense of movement and energetic growth of early national history. Again, Coit reveals her gift for incisive analysis of national character and mood.

In all her writing, Coit displays a gift for portraiture and a sense of drama. Her sensitivity to the spirit of the age enables her to evoke past issues and national mood, and to deal perceptively with the changes in America. She contrasts the frontier world of Calhoun's youth with the new industrializing, consolidating nation against which he struggled; the post-Reconstruction South of Baruch's youth with the precision-oriented, standardized America which he promoted during World War I.

As a political biographer, Coit had a strong grasp of political reality, adroitly weaving together both public action and the maneuvers behind the scenes. Her gift for individual character analysis is particularly striking, whether in short sketches or full-faceted studies. While she often utilizes bold, dramatic colors, she is also sensitive to the play of light and shadow within a personality. As a biographer, she depicts with grace and insight the private as well as the public world of fully realized human beings.

Other Works:

The Fight for Union (1961). Andrew Jackson (1965). Massachusetts (1967). John C. Calhoun (edited by Coit, 1971). "The Continuing Relevance of John C. Calhoun" in Continuity: Special Issue—Recovering Southern History (Fall, 1984).

Bibliography:

Annals of the American Academy (Nov. 1950). Nation (1 April 1950). NYT (5 March 1950, 24 Nov. 1957). Political Science Quarterly (June 1950). SRL (4 Jan. 1958).

—INZER BYERS

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