Poor Boys And Great Eminence
( Originally Published 1879 )
MANY men have been obscure in their origin and birth, but great and glorious in life and death. They have been born and nurtured in villages, but have reigned and triumphed in cities. They were first laid in the mangers of poverty and obscurity, but have afterwards become possessors of thrones and palaces. Their fame is like the pinnacle which ascends higher and higher, until at last it becomes a most conspicuous and towering object of attraction.
Columbus was the son of a weaver, and a weaver himself Cervantes was a common soldier. Homer was the son of a small farmer. Moliere was the son of a tapestry maker. Demosthenes was the son of a cutler. Terrence was a slave. Oliver Cromwell was the son of a London brewer. Howard was an apprentice to a grocer. Franklin was the son of a tallow-chandler and soap boiler. Dr. Thomas, Bishop of Worcester, was the son of a linen-draper. Daniel Defoe, hostler and son of a butcher. Whitfield was the son of an inn-keeper. Virgil was the son of a porter. Horace was the son of a shop keeper. Shakspeare was the son of a wood stapler. Milton was the son of a money scrivener. Robert Burns was a plow-man in Ayrshire. Mohammed, called the prophet, a driver of asses. Madame Barnadotte was a washer-woman of Paris. Napoleon was of an obscure family of Corsica. John Jacob Astor once sold apples on the streets of New York. Catherine, Empress of Russia, was a camp-grisette. Cincinnatus was plowing in his. vineyard when the dictatorship of Rome was offered him. Elihu Burrift was a blacksmith. Daniel Webster, while young, worked on a farm. Henry Clay was "the mill-boy of the Slashes.
The young man who thinks of taking a short cut to fortune, should deliberately write down the names of a dozen of ,our richest men, and he will find that the largest part of the wealth of the Astors and Browns and Stewarts and Vanderbilts was accumulated after they had passed their fiftieth year.
"Without fame or fortune at forty, without fame or fortune always," is the sentiment of many, oftener expressed by the saying, that if a man is not rich at forty, he never will be. It was after forty that Sir Walter Scott became the great unknown ; it was after forty that Palmerston was found to be England's greatest prime minister of the century. At that age, many who now appear prominently in our political history were obscure citizens. Howe, of the sewing-machine, was utterly destitute at thirty-five, a millionaire six wears later long time ago, a little boy, twelve years old, on his road to Vermont, stopped at a country tavern, and paid for his lodging and breakfast by sawing wood, instead of asking for it as a gift. Fifty years later, the same boy passed that same little inn as George Peabody, the banker, whose name is the synonym of magnificent charities—the honored of two hemispheres. He was born poor in Danvers, Massachusetts, and by beginning right- and pursuing a course of strict honesty, integrity, industry, activity and Christian benevolence, he has been able to amass great wealth. Some years since he made a generous gift to his native town; and also remembered the city of Baltimore, Maryland, where he long resided, by a liberal donation. For nearly twenty-five years, having done business in London, and being past sixty years old, he had given L150,000—nearly $750,000—to be devoted to the benefit of the poor of that city.
When Cornelius Vanderbilt was a young man, his mother gave him fifty dollars of her savings to buy a small sail-boat, and he engaged in the business of trans-porting market-gardening from Staten Island to New York city. When the wind was not favorable he would work his way over the shoals by pushing the boat along by poles, putting his own shoulder to the pole, and was very sure to get his freight in market in season. This energy gay e him always a command of full freights, and he accumulated money. After awhile he began to build and run steamboats, and he is now reputed to be worth more than nineteen millions of dollars, after making the government a present, as a free gift, of a steamship that cost $800,000.
Mr. Tobin, the President of the Hudson River Rail-road Company, is a millionaire. He is not yet forty years of age. He began life as a steamboat clerk with Commodore Vanderbilt. When he took his, position the Commodore gave him two orders: first, to collect fare of everybody and have no dead-heads on the boat; second, to start the boat on time, and wait for nobody. The Commodore then lived at Staten Island. Tobin obeyed his orders so literally that he collected fare of the Commodore on the first evening, and left him on the wharf the next morning, as the boat could not wait. The Commodore was coming down the wharf leisurely, and supposed, of course, the boat would wait for him. He proved a man after Vanderbilt's own heart. He became his confidential clerk and broker, bought and sold Harlem and made for himself a fortune.
Stephen "Girard left his native country at the age of ten or twelve years, as a cabin boy on a vessel. He came to New York in that capacity. His deportment was distinguished by such fidelity, industry and temperance, that he won the attachment and confidence of his master, who generally bestowed on him the appellation of "my Stephen." When his master gave up business he promoted Girard to the command of a small vessel. Girard was a" self-taught man, and the world was his school. It was a favorite theme with him, when he afterwards grew rich, to relate that he commenced life with a sixpence, and to insist that a man's best capital was his industry. All professions and all occupations, which. afforded a just reward for labor, were alike honorable in his estimation. He was never too proud to work.
In the time of the fever, in 1793, when consternation had seized the whole population of the city of Philadelphia, Stephen Girard, then a rich merchant, offered his services as a nurse in the hospital. His offers were accepted, and in the performance of the most loath-some duties, he walked unharmed in the midst of the pestilence. He used to say to his friends, " When you are sick, if anything ails you, do not go to a doctor, but come to me, I will cure you."
Far back in the teens of the preset century, a young man asked for employment in the Springfield armory but he was poor and modest, and had no friends, so he went away without it; but, feeling the man within him, he sought work until he found it. An age later, he visited that armory a second time, not as a common day-laborer, but as the ablest Speaker of the House of Representatives, and for many years Governor of Massachusetts.
Of P. R. Spencer, the author of the Spencerian system of penmanship, it is said that, " the smooth sand beach of Lake Erie constituted the foolscap in and on which, for want of other material, he perfected essentially the system which meets such general favor in our common and commercial schools, and in our business and literary circles." When we reflect upon the immense popularity of his system, which, passing beyond the limits of our own country, has been re-engraved in England, is used in the model counting-rooms of London, Liverpool and Manchester, and is also the adopted system of ''the English Department of the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, we must accord to its honored author chaste and elevated powers of conception, with bold and tireless grasp, of just apprehension, and agree that the barefooted boy of fifty years ago must have been thinking, and thinking aright, and thinking with no ordinary mind, when he gave to his coinings in the sands such vitality of science, that the world has adopted and embalmed them as the most beautiful imagery of " the art."
Masons and bricklayers can boast of Ben Jonson, who worked at the building of Lincoln's Inn with a trowel in his hand and a book in his pocket; Edwards and Telford, the engineers; Hugh Miller, the geologist, and Allen Cunningham, the writer and sculptor. John Hunter, the physiologist, Ronevey and Opie, the painters, Professor Lee, the orientalist, and John Gibbons, the sculptor, were carpenters. Wilson, the ornithologist, Dr. Livingstone, the missionary traveler, and Tannahill, the poet, were weavers. Samuel Drew, the essayist, and Gifford, the editor of the " Quarterly Review," were shoemakers. Admiral Hobson, one of the gallantest of British seaman, was originally a tailor.
It is not good for human nature to have the road of life made too easy. Better to be under the necessity of working hard and faring meanly, than to have every-thing done ready to our hand, and a pillow of down to repose upon. Indeed, to start in life with comparatively small means seems so necessary as a stimulus to work, that it may almost be set down as one of the essential conditions to success in life. Hence, an eminent judge, when asked what contributed most to success at the bar, replied, " Some succeed by great talent, some by high connections, some by miracle, but the majority by commencing without a shilling." So it is a common saying that the men who are most successful in business are those who begin the world in their shirt-sleeves; whereas those who begin with fortunes generally lose them. Necessity is always the first stimulus to industry, and those who conduct it with prudence, perseverance and energy will rarely fail. Viewed in this light, the necessity of labor is not a chastisement, but a blessing—the very root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations. It may, indeed, be questioned whether a heavier curse could be imposed on man than the complete gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires or struggles. The feeling that life is destitute of any motive or necessity for action, must be, of all others, the most distressing and the most insupportable to a rational being.