"THE LEARNED BLACKSMITH"
This man's career is the star example of the pursuit of knowledge under
difficulties. For years, while earning his living at the forge, he
denied himself all natural pleasures that he might devote every possible
minute to cramming his head with seemingly useless scraps of knowledge.
The acquisition of knowledge merely for its own sake is of course
foolishness, but it is a very rare kind of foolishness. Nearly always
the learned man pays his debt to society in full measure, if we but give
him time enough. So it was with "The Learned Blacksmith." From his deep
learning, Elihu Burritt at last drew the inspiration which made him a
powerful advocate in the cause of the world's peace.
From "Captains of Industry," by James Parton. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.,
Elihu Burritt, with whom we have all been familiar for many years as the
Learned Blacksmith, was born in 1810 at the beautiful town of New
Britain, in Connecticut, about ten miles from Hartford. He was the
youngest son in an old-fashioned family of ten children. His father
owned and cultivated a small farm, but spent the winters at the
shoemaker's bench, according to the rational custom of Connecticut in
that day. When Elihu was sixteen years of age his father died, and the
lad soon after apprenticed himself to a blacksmith in his native village.
He was an ardent reader of books from childhood up, and he was enabled to
gratify this taste by means of a very small village library, which
contained several books of history, of which he was naturally fond. This
boy, however, was a shy, devoted student, brave to maintain what he
thought right, but so bashful that he was known to hide in the cellar
when his parents were going to have company.
As his father's long sickness had kept him out of school for some time,
he was the more earnest to learn during his apprenticeship—particularly
mathematics, since he desired to become, among other things, a good
surveyor. He was obliged to work from ten to twelve hours a day at the
forge, but while he was blowing the bellows he employed his mind in doing
sums in his head. His biographer gives a specimen of these calculations
which he wrought out without making a single figure:
"How many yards of cloth, three feet in width, cut into strips an inch
wide, and allowing half an inch at each end for the lap, would it require
to reach from the centre of the earth to the surface, and how much would
it all cost at a shilling a yard?"
He would go home at night with several of these sums done in his head,
and report the results to an elder brother, who had worked his way
through Williams College. His brother would perform the calculations
upon a slate, and usually found his answers correct.
When he was about half through his apprenticeship he suddenly took it
into his head to learn Latin, and began at once through the assistance of
the same elder brother. In the evenings of one winter he read the Aeneid
of Virgil; and, after going on for a while with Cicero and a few other
Latin authors, he began Greek. During the winter months he was obliged
to spend every hour of daylight at the forge, and even in the summer his
leisure minutes were few and far between. But he carried his Greek
grammar in his hat, and often found a chance, while he was waiting for a
large piece of iron to get hot, to open his book with his black fingers,
and go through a pronoun, an adjective, or part of a verb, without being
noticed by his fellow-apprentices.
So he worked his way until he was out of his time, when he treated
himself to a whole quarter's schooling at his brother's school, where he
studied mathematics, Latin, and other languages. Then he went back to
the forge, studying hard in the evenings at the same branches, until he
had saved a little money, when he resolved to go to New Haven and spend a
winter in study. It was far from his thoughts, as it was from his means,
to enter Yale College, but he seems to have had an idea that the very
atmosphere of the college would assist him. He was still so timid that
he determined to work his way without asking the least assistance from a
professor or tutor.
He took lodgings at a cheap tavern in New Haven, and began the very next
morning a course of heroic study. As soon as the fire was made in the
sitting-room of the inn, which was at half-past four in the morning, he
took possession, and studied German until breakfast-time, which was
half-past seven. When the other boarders had gone to business, he sat
down to Homer's Iliad, of which he knew nothing, and with only a
dictionary to help him.
"The proudest moment of my life," he once wrote, "was when I had first
gained the full meaning of the first fifteen lines of that noble work. I
took a short triumphal walk, in favor of that exploit."
Just before the boarders came back for their dinner he put away all his
Greek and Latin books and took up a work in Italian, because it was less
likely to attract the notice of the noisy crowd. After dinner he fell
again upon his Greek, and in the evening read Spanish until bedtime. In
this way he lived and labored for three months, a solitary student in the
midst of a community of students; his mind imbued with the grandeurs and
dignity of the past while eating flapjacks and molasses at a poor tavern.
Returning to his home in New Britain, he obtained the mastership of an
academy in a town near by, but he could not bear a life wholly sedentary;
and at the end of a year abandoned his school and became what is called a
"runner" for one of the manufacturers of New Britain. This business he
pursued until he was about twenty-five years of age, when, tired of
wandering, he came home again, and set up a grocery and provision store,
in which he invested all the money he had saved. Soon came the
commercial crash of 1837, and he was involved in the widespread ruin. He
lost the whole of his capital, and had to begin the world anew.
He resolved to return to his studies in the languages of the East.
Unable to buy or find the necessary books, he tied up his effects in a
small handkerchief and walked to Boston, one hundred miles distant,
hoping there to find a ship in which he could work his passage across the
ocean, and collect oriental works from port to port. He could not find a
berth. He turned back, and walked as far as Worcester, where he found
work, and found something else which he liked better. There is an
antiquarian society at Worcester, with a large and peculiar library,
containing a great number of books in languages not usually studied, such
as the Icelandic, the Russian, the Celtic dialects, and others. The
directors of the society placed all their treasures at his command, and
he now divided his time between hard study of languages and hard labor at
the forge. To show how he passed his days, I will copy an entry or two
from his private diary he then kept:
"Monday, June 18. Headache; 40 pages Cuvier's Theory of the Earth; 64
pages French; 11 hours forging.
"Tuesday, June 19. 60 lines Hebrew; 30 pages French; 10 pages Cuvier; 8
lines Syriac; 10 lines Danish; 10 lines Bohemian; 9 lines Polish; 15
names of stars; 10 hours forging.
"Wednesday, June 20. 25 lines Hebrew; 8 lines Syriac; 11 hours forging."
He spent five years at Worcester in such labors as these. When work at
his trade became slack, or when he had earned a little more money than
usual, he would spend more time in the library; but, on the other hand,
when work in the shop was pressing, he could give less time to study.
After a while he began to think that he might perhaps earn his
subsistence in part by his knowledge of languages, and thus save much
waste of time and vitality at the forge. He wrote a letter to William
Lincoln, of Worcester, who had aided and encouraged him; and in this
letter he gave a short history of his life, and asked whether he could
not find employment in translating some foreign work into English. Mr.
Lincoln was so much struck with his letter that he sent it to Edward
Everett, and he, having occasion soon after to address a convention of
teachers, read it to his audience as a wonderful instance of the pursuit
of knowledge under difficulties. Mr. Everett prefaced it by saying that
such a resolute purpose of improvement against such obstacles excited his
admiration, and even his veneration.
"It is enough," he added, "to make one who has good opportunities for
education hang his head in shame."
All this, including the whole of the letter, was published in the
newspapers, with eulogistic comments, in which the student was spoken of
as the "Learned Blacksmith." The bashful scholar was overwhelmed with
shame at finding himself suddenly famous. However, it led to his
entering upon public life. Lecturing was then coming into vogue, and he
was frequently invited to the platform. Accordingly, he wrote a lecture,
entitled "Application and Genius," in which he endeavored to show that
there is no such thing as genius, but that all extraordinary attainments
are the results of application. After delivering this lecture sixty
times in one season, he went back to his forge at Worcester, mingling
study with labor in the old way.
On sitting down to write a new lecture for the following season, on the
"Anatomy of the Earth," a certain impression was made upon his mind which
changed the current of his life. Studying the globe, he was impressed
with the need that one nation has of other nations, and one zone of
another zone; the tropics producing what assuages life in the northern
latitudes and northern lands furnishing the means of mitigating tropical
discomforts. He felt that the earth was made for friendliness and
co÷peration, not for fierce competition and bloody wars.
Under the influence of these feelings, his lecture became an eloquent
plea for peace, and to this object his after life was chiefly devoted.
The dispute with England upon the Oregon boundary induced him to go to
England with the design of travelling on foot from village to village,
preaching peace, and exposing the horrors and folly of war. His
addresses attracting attention, he was invited to speak to larger bodies,
and, in short, he spent twenty years of his life as a lecturer upon
peace, organizing Peace Congresses, advocating low uniform rates of ocean
postage, and spreading abroad among the people of Europe the feeling
which issued, at length, in the arbitration of the dispute between the
United States and Great Britain, an event which posterity will, perhaps,
consider the most important of this century. He heard Victor Hugo say at
the Paris Congress of 1850:
"A day will come when a cannon will be exhibited in public museums, just
as an instrument of torture is now, and people will be amazed that such a
thing could ever have been.…"
Elihu Burritt spent the last years of his life upon a little farm which
he had contrived to buy in his native town. He was never married, but
lived with his sister and her daughters. He was not so very much richer
in worldly goods than when he started out for Boston, with his property
wrapped in a small handkerchief. He died in March, 1879, aged sixty-nine