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Chapter 2: early education.

The Kentucky Catholic School, called St. Thomas' College, when I was there, was connected with a church. The priests were Dominicans. They held a large property; productive fields, slaves, flour-mills, flocks, and herds. As an association they were rich. Individually, they were vowed to poverty and self-abnegation. They were diligent in the care, both spiritual and material, of their parishioners' wants.

When I entered the school, a large majority of the boys belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. After a short time I was the only Protestant boy remaining, and also the smallest boy in the school. From whatever reason, the priests were particularly kind to me-Father Wallace, afterward Bishop of Nashville, treated me with the fondness of a near relative.

As the charge has been frequently made that it is the practice of the priests in all their schools to endeavor to proselyte the boys confided to them, I may mention an incident [14] which is, in my case at least, a refutation. At that period of my life I knew, as a theologian, little of the true creed of Christianity, and under the influences which surrounded me I thought it would be well that I should become a Catholic, and went to the venerable head of the establishment, Father Wilson, whom I found in his room partaking of his frugal meal, and stated to him my wish. He received me kindly, handed me a biscuit and a bit of cheese, and told me that for the present I had better take some Catholic food.

I was so small at this time that one of the good old priests had a little bed put in his room for me. There was an organized revolt among the boys one day, and this priest was their especial objective point. They persuaded me to promise to blow out the light which always burned in the room; so, after everything was quiet I blew it out; then the insurgents poured in cabbages, squashes, biscuits, potatoes, and all kinds of missiles. As soon as a light could be lit, search was made for the culprits, but they were all sound asleep and I was the only wakeful one. The priests interrogated me severely, but I declared that I did not know much and would not tell that. The one who had especial care of me then took me to a little room in the highest story of the monastery and strapped me down to [15] a kind of cot, which was arranged to facilitate the punishment of the boys; but the old man loved me dearly and hesitated before striking me a blow, the first I should have received since I had been with the monks. He pleaded with me, ‘ If you will tell me what you know, no matter how little, I will let you off.’ ‘ Well,’ said I, ‘ I know one thing, I know who blew out the light.’ The priest eagerly promised to let me off for that piece of information and I then said, ‘ I blew it out.’ Of course I was let off, but with a long talk which moved me to tears and prevented me from co-operating with the boys again in their schemes of mischief.

I had been sent so young to school, and far from home, without my mother's knowledge or consent, that she became very impatient for my return. Neither then, nor in the many years of my life, have I ceased to cherish a tender memory of the loving care of that mother, in whom there was so much for me to admire and nothing to remember save good.

Charles B. Green, a young Mississippian, who was studying law in Kentucky, had acted as my guardian when I was at school there, and he returned with me to Mississippi. We left Bardstown to go home by steamer from Louisville; for, then, steam-boats had been put on the river, [16]

At that time, as well as I can remember, there were three steam-boats on the Mississippi — the Volcano, the Vesuvius, and the Aetna. We embarked on the Aetna. A steam-boat was then a matter of such great curiosity that many persons got on board to ride a few miles down the river, where they were to be landed, to return in carriages. The captain of the Aetna, Robinson De Hart, had been a sailor in his earlier days, and he always used a speaking-trumpet and spy-glass when landing the boat to take wood. Our voyage was slow and uneventful, and we reached home in safety.

I had been absent two years, and my brother Isaac accompanied me home, stopped at the village near my father's house, and told me to go on and conceal my identity to see if they would know me. I found my dear old mother sitting near the door, and, walking up with an assumed air to hide a throbbing heart, I asked her if there had been any stray horses round there. She said she had seen a stray boy, and clasped me in her arms.

After we had become somewhat calmer, I inquired for my father, and was told he was out in the field. I, impatient of the delay, went there to meet him. He was a man of deep feeling, though he sought to repress the [17] expression of it whenever practicable; but I came to him unexpectedly. Greatly moved he took me in his arms with more emotion than I had ever seen him exhibit, and kissed me repeatedly. I remember wondering why my father should have kissed so big a boy.

My father was a silent, undemonstrative man of action. He talked little, and never in general company, but what he said had great weight with the community in which he lived. His admonitions to his children were rather suggestive than dictatorial. I remember a case in point, which happened after my return from Kentucky, while I was at the County Academy.

A task had been assigned me in excess of my power to memorize. I stated the case to the teacher, but he persisted in imposing the lesson. The next day it had not been mastered, and when punishment was threatened I took my books and went to my father. He said, ‘ Of course, it is for you to elect whether you will work with head or hands; my son could not be an idler. I want more cotton-pickers and will give you work.’

The next day, furnished with a bag, I went into the fields and worked all day and the day after. The heat of the sun and the physical labor, in conjunction with the implied equality with the other cotton-pickers, [18] convinced me that school was the lesser evil. This change of opinion I stated to my father when coming from the field, after my day's cotton had been weighed. He received the confidence with perfect seriousness, mentioned the disadvantages under which a man, gently bred, suffers when choosing a laborer's vocation, and advised me, if I was of the same opinion the next day, to return to school; which I did, and quietly took my accustomed place. He had probably arranged with the teacher to receive me without noticing my revolt.

The dominies of that period were not usually university men. Indeed their attainments and the demands of their patrons rarely exceeded the teaching of “the three R's,” and the very general opinion held by that class was that the oil of birch was the proper lubricator for any want of intelligence. I well remember two boys, with whom I went to school, one of them dull, the other idle, but both of them full, broad-shouldered boys, able to bear the infliction, which they rarely failed to receive, of one or more floggings a day. The poor boy who could not learn took it very philosophically, but the other insisted that whipping a boy was very apt to make him a lying hypocrite.

The method of instruction in these old log [19] school-houses was very simple. It consisted solely of a long copy-book — the qualifications required of the teacher being that he should be able to write at the head of each page the pot-hooks, letters, and sentences which were to be copied by the pupil on each line of the paper.

As the pupil advanced, he was required to have a book for his sums. He worked out the examples in the arithmetic, and, after a sufficient amount of attention, he was required to copy this into a book, which, when it was completed, was the evidence that he understood arithmetic. After some time a bright boy could repeat all the rules; but if you asked him to explain why, when he added up a column of figures, he set down the right and carried the left-hand figure, he could give the rule, but no reason for it. And I am not sure that, as a general thing, the teacher could have explained it to him.

The log-cabin schools were not public schools in the sense in which that term is used to-day — for the teacher was supported by the fees charged every pupil.

I was next sent to school in Adams County, Miss., to what was called, and is still known as, Jefferson College. I was then about ten years of age. The principal was a man of great learning, qualified to teach pupils [20] more advanced than those he received. There was an adjacent department (over which a Scotchman presided) to teach the smaller children, and his methods were those of the earlier times — to prescribe the lesson and whip any boy who did not know it.

The path along which I travelled to the school-house passed by the residence of an old dominie who had a great contempt for Latin. Why, he never told me, nor could he have told me, as he knew nothing about it; but whenever he saw me walking along the path, he would shout out, grinningly, “How are you getting along with you hic, haec, hoc?” I had been there but a short time when the County Academy of Wilkinson was organized, and I returned home and went daily from my father's house to the school-house until I was sufficiently advanced to be sent to the college known as the Transylvania University of Kentucky.

At the head of the County Academy was a scholarly man named John A. Shaw, from Boston. He took on himself, also, the duty of preaching every Sunday; but as there was no church, he held his meetings in the court-house. The boys of the Academy were required to attend, and very soon they became his only audience; when, like a conscientious, sensitive man, he notified the [21] trustees that he would preach no more. He explained to them that with him it was a profession; that he agreed to preach for a stipulated salary; but, unless he thought he was doing good, which the absence of the people showed to be doubtful, he was neither willing to preach nor to receive the salary. He continued solely under the pay received as principal of the Academy.

He was a quiet, just man, and I am sure he taught me more in the time I was with him than I ever learned from any one else. He married in our county, and after the death of his wife returned to Massachusetts; but, whether he acquired new tastes during his residence in the South, or from whatever reason, he returned after some years to New Orleans, where he was Superintendent of the Public Schools when I last heard from him. I was very much gratified to learn that he remembered me favorably, and mentioned it to one of his pupils who had been named for me. He was the first of a new class of teachers in our neighborhood, and was followed by classical scholars who raised the standard of ability to teach and of the pupils to learn.

The era of the dominies whose sole method of tuition was to whip the boy when he was ignorant has passed.

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