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Chapter 3: early childhood.

  • The village of Amherst
  • -- character of the adjacent country -- the Greeley farm -- the Tribune in the room in which its editor was born -- Horace learns to read -- book up-side down -- goes to school in Londonderry -- a district school forty years ago -- Horace as a young orator -- has a mania for spelling hard words -- gets great glory at the spelling school -- recollections of his surviving schoolfellows -- his future eminence foretold -- delicacy of ear -- early choice of a trade -- his courage and timidity -- goes to school in Bedford -- a favorite among his schoolfellows-his early fondness for the village newspaper -- lies in ambush for the post-rider who brought it -- Scours the country for books -- project of sending him to an academy -- the old sea-captain -- Horace as a farmer's boy -- let us do our stint first -- his way of fishing.

Amherst is the county town of Hillsborough, one of the three counties of New Hampshire which are bounded on the South by the State of Massachusetts. It is forty-two miles north-west of Boston.

The village of Amherst is a pleasant place. Seen from the summit of a distant hill, it is a white dot in the middle of a level plain, encircled by cultivated and gently-sloping hills. On a nearer approach the traveler perceives that it is a cluster of white houses, looking as if they had alighted among the trees and might take to wing again. On entering it he finds himself in a very pretty village, built round an ample green and shaded by lofty trees. It contains three churches, a printing-office, a court-house, a jail, a tavern, half a dozen stores, an exceedingly minute watchmaker's shop, and a hundred private houses. There is not a human being to be seen, nor a sound to be heard, except the twittering of birds overhead, and the distant whistle of a locomotive, which in those remote regions seems to make the silence audible. The utter silence and the deserted aspect of the older villages in New England are remarkable. In the morning and evening there is some appearance of life in Amherst; but in the hours of the day when the men are at work, the women busy with their household affairs, and the children at school, the visitor may sit at the window [35] of the village tavern for an hour at a time and not see a living creature. Occasionally a pedler, with sleigh bells round his horse, goes Jingling by. Occasionally a farmer's wagon drives up to one of the stores. Occasionally a stage, rocking in its leather suspenders, stops at the post-office for a moment, and then rocks away again. Occasionally a doctor passes in a very antiquated gig. Occasionally a cock crows, as though he were tired of the dead silence. A New York village, a quarter the size and wealth of Amherst, makes twice its noise and bustle. Forty years ago, however, when Horace Greeley used to come to the stores there, it was a place of somewhat more importance and more business than it is now, for Manchester and Nashua have absorbed many of the little streams of traffic which used to flow towards the county town. It is a curious evidence of the stationary character of the place, that the village paper, which had fifteen hundred subscribers when Horace Greeley was three years old, and learned to read from it, has fifteen hundred subscribers, and no more, at this moment. It bears the same name it did then, is published by the same person, and adheres to the same party.

The township of Amherst contains about eight square miles of some-what better land than the land of New England generally is. Wheat cannot be grown on it to advantage, but it yields fair returns of rye, oats, potatoes, Indian corn, and young men: the last-named of which commodities forms the chief article of export. The farmers have to contend against hills, rocks, stones innumerable, sand, marsh, and long winters; but a hundred years of tillage have subdued these obstacles in part, and the people generally enjoy a safe and moderate prosperity. Yet severe is their toil. To see them ploughing along the sides of those steep rocky hills, the plough creaking, the oxen groaning, the little boy-driver leaping from sod to sod, as an Alpine boy is supposed to leap from crag to crag, the ploughman wrenching the plough round the rocks, boy and man every minute or two uniting in a prolonged and agonizing yell for the panting beasts to stop, when the plough is caught by a hidden rock too large for it to overturn, and the solemn slowness with which the procession winds, and creaks, and groans along, gives to the languid citizen, who chances to pass by, a new idea of hard work, and a new sense of the happiness of his lot. [36]

The farm owned by Zaccheus Greeley when his son Horace was born, was four or five miles from the village of Amherst. It consisted of eighty acres of land—heavy land to till—rocky, moist, and uneven, worth then eight hundred dollars, now two thousand. The house, a small, unpainted, but substantial and well-built farmhouse, stood, and still stands, upon a ledge or platform, half way up a high, steep, and rocky hill, commanding an extensive and almost panoramic view of the surrounding country. In whatever direction the boy may have looked, he saw rock. Rock is the feature of the landscape. There is rock in the old orchard behind the house; rocks peep out from the grass in the pastures; there is rock along the road; rock on the sides of the hills; rock on their summits; rock in the valleys; rock in the woods;—rock, rock, everywhere rock. And yet the country has not a barren look. I should call it a serious looking country; one that would be congenial to grim covenanters and exiled round-heads. The prevailing colors are dark, even in the brightest month of the year. The pine woods, the rock, the shade of the hill, the color of the soil, are all dark and serious. It is a still, unfrequented region. One may ride along the road upon which the house stands, for many a mile, without passing a single vehicle. The turtles hobble across the road fearless of the crushing wheel. If any one wished to know the full meaning of the word country, as distinguished from the word town, lie need do no more than ascend the hill on which Horace Greeley saw the light, and look around.

Yet, the voice of the city is heard even there; the opinions of the city influence there; for, observe, in the very room in which our hero was born, on a table which stands where, in other days, a bed stood, we recognize, among the heap of newspapers, the well known heading of the weekly Tribune.

Such was the character of the region in which Horace Greeley passed the greater part of the first seven years of his life. His father's neighbors were all hard-working farmers—men who worked their own farms—who were nearly equal in wealth, and to whom the idea of social inequality, founded upon an inequality in possessions, did not exist, even as an idea. Wealth and want were alike unknown. It was a community of plain people, who had derived all their book-knowledge from the district school, and depended [37] upon the village newspaper for their knowledge of the world without. There were no heretics among them. All the people either cordially embraced, or undoubtingly assented to the faith called Orthodox, and all of them attended, more or less regularly, the churches in which that faith was expounded.

The first great peril of his existence escaped, the boy grew apace, and passed through the minor and ordinary dangers of infancy without having his equanimity seriously disturbed. He was a ‘quiet and peaceable child,’ reports his father, and though far from robust, suffered little from actual sickness.

To say that Horace Greeley, from the earliest months of his existence, manifested signs of extraordinary intelligence, is only to repeat what every biographer asserts of his hero, and every mother of her child. Yet, common-place as it is, the truth must be told. Horace Greeley did, as a very young child, manifest signs of extraordinary intelligence. He took to learning with the promptitude and instinctive, irrepressible love, with which a duck is said to take to the water. His first instructor was his mother; and never was there a mother better calculated to awaken the mind of a child, and keep it awake, than Mrs. Greeley.

Tall, muscular, well-formed, with the strength of a man without his coarseness, active in her habits, not only capable of hard work, but delighting in it, with a perpetual overflow of animal spirits, an exhaustless store of songs, ballads and stories, and a boundless, exuberant good will towards all living things, Mrs. Greeley was the life of the house, the favorite of the neighborhood, the natural friend and ally of children; whatever she did she did ‘with a will.’ She was a great reader, and remembered all she read. ‘She worked,’ says one of my informants, ‘in doors and out of door, could out-rake any man in the town, and could load the hay-wagons as fast and as well as her husband. She hoed in the garden; she labored in the field; and while doing more than the work of an ordinary man, and an ordinary woman combined, would laugh and sing all day long, and tell stories all the evening.’

To these stories the boy listened greedily, as he sat on the floor at her feet, while she spun and talked with equal energy. They ‘served,’ says Mr. Greeley, in a passage already quoted?, ‘to awaken in me a thirst for knowledge, and a lively interest in learning and [38] history.’ Think of it, you word-mongering, gerund-grinding teachers who delight in signs and symbols, and figures and ‘facts,’ and feed little children's souls on the dry, innutricious husks of knowledge; and think of it, you play-abhorring, fiction-forbidding parents! Awaken the interest in learning, and the thirst for knowledge, and there is no predicting what may or what may not result from it. Scarcely a man, distinguished for the supremacy or the beauty of his immortal part, has written the history of his childhood, without recording the fact, that the celestial fire was first kindled in his soul by means similar to those which awakened an ‘interest in learning’ and a ‘thirst for knowledge’ in the mind of Horace Greeley.

Horace learned to read before he had learned to talk; that is, before he could pronounce the longer words. No one regularly taught him. When he was little more than two years old, he began to pore over the Bible, opened for his entertainment on the floor, and examine with curiosity the newspaper given him to play with. He cannot remember a time when he could not read, nor can any one give an account of the process by which he learned, except that he asked questions incessantly, first about the pictures in the newspaper, then about the capital letters, then about the smaller ones, and finally about the words and sentences. At three years of age he could read easily And correctly any of the books prepared for children; and at four, any book whatever. But he was not satisfied with overcoming the ordinary difficulties of reading. Allowing that nature gives to every child a certain amount of mental force to be used in acquiring the art of reading, Horace had an overplus of that force, which he employed in learning to read with his book in positions which increased the difficulty of the feat. All the friends and neighbors of his early childhood, in reporting him a prodigy unexampled, adduce as the unanswerable and clinching proof of the fact, that, at the age of four years, he could read any book in whatever position it might be placed,—right-side up, up-side down, or sidewise.

His third winter Horace spent at the house of his grandfather, David Woodburn, in Londonderry, attended the district school there and distinguished himself greatly. He had no right to attend the Londonderry school, and the people of the rural districts [39] are apt to be strenuous upon the point of not admitting to their school pupils from other towns; but Horace was an engaging child; ‘every one liked the little, white-headed fellow,’ says a surviving member of the school committee, ‘and so we favored him.’

A district school—and what was a district school forty years ago? Horace Greeley never attended any but a district school, and it concerns us to know what manner of place it was, and what was its routine of exercises.

The school-house stood in an open place, formed (usually) by the crossing of roads. It was very small, and of one story; contained one apartment, had two windows on each side, a small door in the gable end that faced the road, and a low door-step before it. It was the thing called House, in its simplest form. But for its roof, windows, and door, it had been a Box, large, rough, and unpainted. Within and without, it was destitute of anything ornamental. It was not enclosed by a fence; it was not shaded by a tree. The sun in summer, the winds in winter, had their will of it: there was nothing to avert the fury of either. The log school-houses of the previous generation were picturesque and comfortable; those of the present time are as prim, neat, and orderly (and as elegant sometimes) as the cottage of an old maid who enjoys an annuity; but the school-house of forty years ago had an aspect singularly forlorn and uninviting. It was built for an average of thirty pupils, but it frequently contained fifty; and then the little school-room was a compact mass of young humanity: the teacher had to dispense with his table, and was lucky if he could find room for his chair. The side of the apartment opposite the door was occupied, chiefly, by a vast fireplace, four or five feet wide, where a carman's load of wood could burn in one prodigious fire. Along the sides of the room was a low, slanting shelf, which served for a desk to those who wrote, and against the sharp edge of which the elder pupils leaned when they were not writing. The seats were made of ‘slabs,’ inverted, supported on sticks, and without backs. The elder pupils sat along the sides of the room,—the girls on one side, the boys on the other; the youngest sat nearest the fire, where they were as much too warm as those who sat near the door were too cold. In a school of forty pupils, there would be a dozen who were grown up, marriageable [40] young men and women. Not unfrequently married men, and occasionally married women, attended school in the winter. Among the younger pupils, there were usually a dozen who could not read, and half as many who did not know the alphabet. The teacher was, perhaps, one of the farmer's sons of the district, who knew a little more than his elder pupils, and only a little; or he was a student who was working his way through college. His wages were those of a farm-laborer, ten or twelve dollars a month and his board. He boarded ‘round,’ i. e. he lived a few days at each of the houses of the district, stopping longest at the most agreeable place. The grand qualification of a teacher was the ability ‘to do’ any sum in the arithmetic. To know arithmetic was to be a learned man. Generally, the teacher was very-young, sometimes not more than sixteen years old; but, if he possessed the due expertness at figures, if he could read the Bible without stumbling over the long words, and without mispronouncing more than two thirds of the proper names, if he could write well enough to set a decent copy, if he could mend a pen, if he had vigor enough of character to assert his authority, and strength enough of arm to maintain it, he would do. The school began at nine in the morning, and the arrival of that hour was announced by the teacher's rapping upon the window frame with a ruler. The boys, and the girls too, came tumbling in, rosy and glowing, from their snowballing and sledding. The first thing done in school was reading. The ‘first class,’ consisting of that third of the pupils who could read best, stood on the floor and read round once, each individual reading about half a page of the English Reader. Then the second class. Then the third. Last of all, the youngest children said their letters. By that time, a third of the morning was over; and then the reading began again; for public opinion demanded of the teacher that he should hear every pupil read four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. Those who were not in the class reading, were employed, or were supposed to be employed, in ciphering or writing. When they wanted to write, they went to the teacher with their writing-book and pen, and he set a copy,— ‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ ‘Contentment is a virtue,’ or some other wise saw,—and mended the pen. When they were puzzled with a ‘sun,’ they went to the teacher to have it elucidated. [41] They seem to have written and ciphered as much or as little as they chose, at what time they chose, and in what manner. In some schools there were classes in arithmetic and regular instruction in writing, and one class in grammar; but such schools, forty years ago, were rare. The exercises of the morning were concluded with a general spell, the teacher giving out the words from a spelling-book, and the pupils spelling them at the top of their voices. At noon the school was dismissed; at one it was summoned again, to go through, for the next three hours, precisely the same routine as that of the morning. In this rude way the last generation of children learned to read, write, and cipher. But they learned something more in those rude school-houses. They learned obedience. They were tamed and disciplined. The means employed were extremely unscientific, but the thing was done! The means, in fact, were merely a ruler, and what was called, in contradistinction to that milder weapon, ‘the heavy gad;’ by which expression was designated five feet of elastic sapling of one year's growth. These two implements were plied vigorously and often. Girls got their full share of them. Girls old enough to be wives were no more exempt than the young men old enough to marry them, who sat on the other side of the schoolroom. It was thought, that if a youth of either sex was not too old to do wrong, neither he nor she was too old to suffer the consequences. In some districts, a teacher was valued in proportion to his severity; and if he were backward in applying the ferule and the ‘gad,’ the parents soon began to be uneasy. They thought he had no energy, and inferred that the children could not be learning much. In the district schools, then, of forty years ago, all the pupils learned to read and to obey; most of them learned to write; many acquired a competent knowledge of figures; a few learned the rudiments of grammar; and if any learned more than these, it was generally due to their unassisted and unencouraged exertions. There were no school-libraries at that time. The teachers usually possessed little general information, and the little they did possess was not often made to contribute to the mental nourishment of their pupils.

On one of the first benches of the Londonderry school house, near the fire, we may imagine the little white-headed fellow, whom everybody liked, to be seated during the winter of 1814-15. He [42] was eager to go to school. When the snow lay on the ground in drifts too deep for him to wade through, one of his aunts, who still lives to tell the story, would take him up on her shoulders and carry him to the door. He was the possessor that winter, of three books, the ‘Columbian Orator,’ Morse's Geography, and a spelling book. From the Columbian Orator, he learned many pieces by heart, and among others, that very celebrated oration which, probably the majority of the inhabitants of this nation have at some period of their lives been able to repeat, beginning,

You'd scarce expect one of my age,
To speak in public on the stage.

One of his schoolfellows has a vivid remembrance of Horace's reciting this piece before the whole school in Londonderry, before he was old enough to utter the words plainly. He had a lisping, whining little voice, says my informant, but spoke with the utmost confidence, and greatly to the amusement of the school. He spoke the piece so often in public and private, as to become, as it were, identified with it, as a man who knows one song, suggests that song by his presence, and is called upon to sing it wherever he goes.

It is a pity that no one thinks of the vast importance of those ‘Orators’ and reading books which the children read and wear out in reading, learning parts of them by heart, and repeating them over and over, till they become fixed in the memory and embedded in the character forever. And it is a pity that those books should contain so much false sentiment, inflated language, Buncombe oratory, and other trash, as they generally do! To compile a series of Reading Books for the common schools of this country, were a task for a conclave of the wisest and best men and women that ever lived; a task worthy of them, both from its difficulty and the incalculable extent of its possible results.

Spelling was the passion of the little orator during the first winters of his attendance at school. He spelt incessantly in school and out of school. He would lie on the floor at his grandfather's house, for hours at a time, spelling hard words, all that he could find in the Bible and the few other books within his reach. It was the [43] standing amusement of the family to try and puzzle the boy with words, and no one remembers succeeding. Spelling, moreover, was one of the great points of the district schools in those days, and he who could out-spell, or, as the phrase was, ‘spell down’ the whole school, ranked second oily to him who surpassed the rest in arithmetic. Those were the palmy days of the spelling-school. The pupils assembled once a week, voluntarily, at the school-house, chose ‘sides,’ and contended with one another long and earnestly for the victory. Horace, young as he was, was eager to attend the spelling school, and was never known to injure the ‘side’ on which he was chosen by missing a word, and it soon became a prime object at the spelling-school to get the first choice, because that enabled the lucky side to secure the powerful aid of Horace Greeley. He is well remembered by his companions in orthography. They delight still to tell of the little fellow, in the long evenings, falling asleep in his place, and when it came his turn, his neighbors gave him an anxious nudge, and he would wake instantly, spell off his word, and drop asleep again in a moment.

Horace went to school three terms in Londonderry, spending part of each year at home. I will state as nearly as possible in their own words, what his school-fellows there remember of him.

One of them can just recall him as a very small boy with a head as white as snow, who ‘was almost always up head in his class, and took it so much to heart when he did happen to lose his place, that he would cry bitterly; so that some boys when they had gained the right to get above him, declined the honor, because it hurt Horace's feelings so.’ He was the pet of the school. Those whom he used to excel most signally liked him as well as the rest. He was an active, bright, eager boy, but not fond of play, and seldom took part in the sports of the other boys. One muster day, this informant remembers, the clergyman of Londonderry, who had heard glowing accounts of Horace's feats at school, took him on his lap in the field, questioned him a long time, tried to puzzle him with hard words, and concluded by saying with strong emphasis to one of the boy's relatives, ‘Mark my words, Mr. Woodburn, that boy was not made for nothing.’

Another, besides confirming the above, adds, that Horace was in some respects exceedingly brave, and in others exceedingly tim [44] orous. He was never afraid of the dark, could not be frightened by ghost-stories, never was abashed in speaking or reciting, was not to be overawed by supposed superiority of knowledge or rank, would talk up to the teacher and question his decision with perfect freedom, though never in a spirit of impertinence. Yet he could not stand up to a boy and fight. When attacked, he would neither fight nor run away, but ‘stand still and take it.’ His ear was so delicately constructed that any loud noise like the report of a gun would almost throw him into convulsions. If a gun were about to be discharged, he would either run away as fast as his slender legs carry him, or else would throw himself upon the ground and stuff grass into his ears to deaden the dreadful noise. On the fourth of July, when the people of Londonderry inflamed their patriotism by a copious consumption of gunpowder, Horace would run into the woods to get beyond the sound of the cannons and pistols. It was at Londonderry, and about his fourth year, that Horace began the habit of reading or book-devouring, which he never lost during all the years of his boyhood, youth, and apprenticeship, and relinquished only when he entered that most exacting of all professions, the editorial. The gentleman whose reminiscences I am now recording, tells me that Horace in his fifth and sixth years, would lie under a tree on his face, reading hour after hour, completely absorbed in his book; and ‘if no one stumbled over him or stirred him up,’ would read on, unmindful of dinner time and sun-set, as long as he could see. It was his delight in books that made him, when little more than an infant, determine to be a printer, as printers, he supposed, were they who made books. ‘One day,’ says this gentleman,

Horace and I went to a blacksmith's shop, and Horace watched the process of horse-shoeing with much interest. The blacksmith observing how intently he looked on, said, “You'd better come with me and learn the trade” . “No,” said Horace in his prompt decided way, I'm going to be a printer. He was then six years old, and very small for his age; and this positive choice of a career by so diminutive a piece of humanity mightily amused the by-standers. The blacksmith used to tell the story with great glee when Horace was a printer, and one of some note.

Another gentleman, who went to school with Horace at Londonderry, [45] writes:—

I think I attended school with Horace Greeley two summers and two winters, but have no recollection of seeing him except at the school-house. He was an exceedingly mild, quiet and inoffensive child, entirely devoted to his books at school. It used to be said in the neighborhood, that he was the same out of school, and that his parents were obliged to secrete his books to prevent his injuring himself by over study. His devotion to his books, together with the fact of his great advancement beyond others of his age in the few studies then pursued in the district school, rendered him notorious in that part of the town. He was regarded as a prodigy, and his name was a household world. He was looked upon as standing alone, and entirely unapproachable by any of the little mortals around him. Reading, parsing, and spelling, are the only branches of learning which I remember him in, or in connection with which his name was at that time mentioned, though he might have given some attention to writing and arithmetic, which completed the circle of studies in the district school at that time; but in the three branches first named he excelled all, even in the winter school, which was attended by several young men and women, some of whom became teachers soon after. Though mild and quiet he was ambitious in the school; to be at the head of his class, and be accounted the best scholar in school, seemed to be prominent objects with him, and to furnish strong motives to effort. I can recall but one instance of his missing a word in the spelling class. The classes went on to the floor to spell, and he almost invariably stood at the head of the “first class,” embracing the most advanced scholars. He stood there at the time referred to, and by missing a word, lost his place, which so grieved him that he wept like a punished child. While I knew him he did not engage with other children in the usual recreations and amusements of the school grounds; as soon as the school was dismissed at noon, he would start for home, a distance of halt a mile, with all his books under his arm, including the New Testament, Webster's Spelling Book, English Reader, &c., and would not return till the last moment of intermission; at least such was his practice in the summer time. With regard to his aptness in spelling, it used to be said that the minister of the town, Rev. Mr. McGregor, once attempted to find a word or name in the Bible which he could not [46] spell correctly, but failed to do so. I always supposed, however, that this was an exaggeration, for he could not have been more than seven years old at the time this was told. My father soon after removed to another town thirty miles distant, and I lost sight of the family entirely, Horace and all, though I always remembered the gentle, flaxen-haired schoolmate with much interest, and often wondered what became of him; and when the “Log Cabin” appeared, I took much pains to assure myself whether this Horace Greeley was the same little Horace grown up, and found it was.

From his sixth year, Horace resided chiefly at his father's house. He was now old enough to walk to the nearest school-house, a mile and a half from his home. He could read fluently, spell any word in the language; had some knowledge of geography, and a little of arithmetic; had read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelations; had read the Pilgrim's Progress with intense interest, and dipped into every other book he could lay his hands on. From his sixth to his tenth year, he lived, worked, read and went to school, in Amherst and the adjoining town of Bedford. Those who were then his neighbors and schoolmates there, have a lively recollection of the boy and his ways.

Henceforth, he went to school only in the winter. Again he attended a school which he had no right to attend, that of Bedford, and his attendance was not merely permitted, but sought. The school-committee expressly voted, that no pupils from other towns should be received at their school, except Horace Greeley alone; and, on entering the school, he took his place, young as he was, at the head of it, as it were, by acclamation. Nor did his superiority ever excite envy or enmity. He bore his honors meekly. Every one liked the boy, and took pride in his superiority to themselves. All his schoolmates agree in this, that Horace never had an enemy at school.

The snow lies deep on those New Hampshire hills in the winter, and presents a serious obstacle to the younger children in their way to the school-house; nor is it the rarest of disasters, even now, for children to be lost in a drift, and frozen to death. (Such a calamity happened two years ago, within a mile or two of the old Greeley homestead.) ‘Many a morning,’ says one of the neighbors— then a stout schoolboy, now a sturdy farmer—‘many a morning I [47] have carried Horace on my back through the drifts to school, and put my own mittens over his, to keep his little hands from freezing.’ He adds, ‘I lived at the next house, and I and my brothers often went down in the evening to play with him; but he never would play with us till he had got his lessons. We could neither coax nor force him to.’ He remembers Horace as a boy of a bright and active nature, but neither playful nor merry; one who would utter acute and ‘old-fashioned’ remarks, and make more fun for others than he seemed to enjoy himself.

His fondness for reading grew with the growth of his mind, till it amounted to a passion. His father's stock of books was small indeed. It consisted of a Bible, a ‘Confession of Faith,’ and perhaps, all told, twenty volumes beside; and they by no means of a kind calculated to foster a love of reading in the mind of a little boy. But a weekly newspaper came to the house from the village of Amherst; and, except his mother's tales, that newspaper probably bad more to do with the opening of the boy's mind and the tendency of his opinions, than anything else. The family well remember the eagerness with which he anticipated its coming.<*> per-day was the brightest of the week. An hour before the post-rider was expected, Horace would walk down the road to meet him, bent on having the first read; and when he had got possession of the precious sheet, he would hurry with it to some secluded place, lie down on the grass, and greedily devour its contents. The paper was called (and is still) the Farmer's Cabinet. It was mildly Whig in politics. The selections were religious, agricultural, and miscellaneous; the editorials few, brief, and amiable; its summary of news scanty in the extreme. But it was the only bearer of tidings from the Great World. It connected the little brown house on the rocky hill of Amherst with the general life of mankind. The boy, before he could read himself, and before he could understand the meaning of war and, doubtless heard his father read in it of the triumphs and disasters of the Second War with Great Britain, and of the rejoicings at the conclusion of peace. He himself may have read of Decatur's gallantry in the war with Algiers, of Wellington's victory at Waterloo, of Napoleon's fretting away his life on the rock of St. Helena, of Monroe's inauguration, of the dismantling of the flees on the great lakes, of the progress of the [48] Erie Canal project, of Jackson's inroads into Florida, and the subsequent cession of that province to the United States, of the first meeting of Congress in the Capital, of the passage of the Missouri Compromise. During the progress of the various commercial treaties with the States of Europe, which were negotiated after the conclusion of the general peace, the whole theory, practice, and history of commercial intercourse, were amply discussed in Congress and the newspapers; and the mind of Horace, even in his ninth year, was mature enough to take some interest in the subject, and derive some impressions from its discussion. The Farmer's Cabinet, which brought all these and countless other ideas and events to bear on the education of the boy, is now one of the thousand papers with which the Tribune exchanges.

Horace scoured the country for books. Books were books in that remote and secluded region; and when he had exhausted the collections of the neighbors, he carried the search into the neighboring towns. I am assured that there was not one readable book within seven miles of his father's house, which Horace did not borrow and read during his residence in Amherst. He was never without a book. As soon, says one of his sisters, as he was dressed in the morning, he flew to his book. He read every minute of the day which he could snatch from his studies at school, and on the farm. He would be so absorbed in his reading, that when his parents required his services, it was like rousing a heavy sleeper from his deepest sleep, to awaken Horace to a sense of things around him and an apprehension of the duty required of him. And even then he clung to his book. He would go reading to the cellar and the cider-barrel, reading to the wood-pile, reading to the garden, reading to the neighbors; and pocketing his book only long enough to perform his errand, he would fall to reading again the instant his mind and his hands were at liberty.

He kept in a secure place an ample supply of pine knots, and as soon as it was dark he would light one of these cheap and brilliant illuminators, put it on the back-log in the spacious fire-place, pile up his school books and his reading books on the floor, lie down on his back on the hearth, with his head to the fire and his feet coiled away out of the reach of stumblers; and there he would lie and read all through the long winter evenings, silent, motionless, dead [49] to the world around him, alive only to the world to which he was transported by his book. Visitors would come in, chat a while, and go away, without knowing he was present, and without his being aware of their coming and going. It was a nightly struggle to get him to bed. His father required his services early in the morning, and was therefore desirous that he should go to bed early in the evening. He feared, also, for the eye-sight of the boy, reading so many hours with his head in the fire and by the flaring, flickering light of a pine knot. And so, by nine o'clock, his father would begin the task of recalling the absent mind from its roving, and rousing the prostrate and dormant body. And when Horace at length had been forced to beat a retreat, he kept his younger brother awake by telling over to him in bed what he had read, and by reciting the school lessons of the next day. His brother was by no means of a literary turn, and was prone—much to the chagrin of Horace—to fall asleep long before the lessons were all said and the tales all told.

So entire and passionate a devotion to the acquisition of knowledge in one so young, would be remarkable in any circumstances. But when the situation of the boy is considered—living in a remote And very rural district—few books accessible—few literary persons residing near—the school contributing scarcely anything to his mental nourishment—no other boy in the neighborhood manifesting any particular interest in learning—the people about him all engaged in a rude and hard struggle to extract the means of subsistence from a rough and rocky soil—such an intense, absorbing, and persistent love of knowledge as that exhibited by Horace Greeley, must be accounted very extraordinary.

That his neighbors so accounted it, they are still eager to attest. Continually the wonder grew, that one small head should carry all he knew.

There were not wanting those who thought that superior means of instruction ought to be placed within the reach of so superior a child. I have a somewhat vague, but very positive, and fully confirmed story, of a young man just returned from college to his father's house in Bedford, who fell in with Horace, and was so struck with his capacity and attainments that he offered to send him to an academy in a neighboring town, and bear all the expenses [50] of his maintenance and tuition. But his mother could not let him go, his father needed his assistance at home, and the boy himself is said not to have favored the scheme. A wise, a fortunate choice, I cannot help believing. That academy may have been an institution where boys received more good than harm—where real knowledge was imparted—where souls were inspired with the love of high and good things, and inflamed with an ambition to run a high and good career—where boys did not lose all their modesty and half their sense—where chests were expanded—where cheeks were ruddy—where limbs were active—where stomachs were peptic. It may have been. But if it was, it was a different academy from many whose praises are in all the newspapers. It was better not to run the risk. If that young man's offer had been accepted, it is a question whether the world would have ever heard of Horace Greeley. Probably his fragile body would not have sustained the brain-stimulating treatment which a forward and eager boy generally receives at an academy.

A better friend, though not a better meaning one, was a jovial neighbor, a sea-captain, who had taken to farming. The captain had seen the world, posessed the yarn-spinning faculty, and besides, being himself a walking traveller's library, had a considerable collection of books, which he freely lent to Horace. His salute, on meeting the boy, was not “How do you do, Horace?” but “Well, Horace, what's the capital of Turkey” or, “Who fought the battle of Eutaw springs?” or, “How do you spell Encyclopedia, or Kamtschatka, or Nebuchadnezzar?” The old gentleman used to question the boy upon the contents of the books he had lent him, and was again and again surprised at the fluency, the accuracy, and the fullness of his replies. The captain was of service to Horace in various ways, and he is remembered by the family with gratitude. To Horace's brother he once gave a sheep and a load of hay to keep it on during the winter, thus adapting his benefactions to the various tastes of his juvenile friends.

A clergyman, too, is spoken of, who took great interest in Horace, and gave him instruction in grammar, often giving the boy erroneous information to test his knowledge. Horace, he used to say, could never be shaken on a point which he had once clearly understood, but would stand to his opinion, and defend it against anybody and everybody—teacher, pastor, or public opinion. [51]

In New England, the sons of farmers begin to make themselves useful almost as soon as they can walk. They feed the chickens, they drive the cows, they bring in wood and water, and soon come to perform all those offices which come under the denomiation of ‘chores.’ By the time they are eight or nine years old, they frequently have tasks assigned them, which are called ‘stints,’ and not till they have done their stint are they at liberty to play. The reader may think that Horace's devotion to literature would naturally enough render the farm work distasteful to him; and if he had gone to the academy, it might. I am bound, however, to say that all who knew him in boyhood, agree that he was not more devoted to study in his leisure hours, than he was faithful and assiduous in performing his duty to his father during the hours of work. Faithful is the word. He could be trusted any where, and to do anything within the compass of his strength and years. It was hard, sometimes, to rouse him from his books; but when he had been roused, and was entrusted with an errand or a piece of work, he would set about it vigorously and lose no time till it was done. ‘Come,’ his brother would say sometimes, when the father had set the boys a task and had gone from home; ‘come, Hod, let's go fishing.’ ‘No,’ Horace would reply, in his whining voice, ‘let us do our stint first.’ ‘He was always in school though,’ says his brother, ‘and as we hoed down the rows, or chopped at the woodpile, he was perpetually talking about his lessons, asking questions, and narrating what he had read.’

Fishing, it appears, was the only sport in which Horace took much pleasure, during the first ten years of his life. But his love of fishing did not originate in what the Germans call the ‘sport impulse.’ Other boys fished for sport; Horace fished for fish. He fished industriously, keeping his eyes unceasingly on the float, and never distracting his own attention, or that of the fish, by conversing with his companions. The consequence was that he would often catch more than all the rest of the party put together. Shooting was the favorite amusement of the boys of the neighborhood, but Horace could rarely be persuaded to take part in it. When he did accompany a shooting-party, he would never carry or discharge a gun, and when the game was found he would lie down and stop his ears till the murder had been done.

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