- Manners and society in Boston at the time of Mr. Ticknor's birth. -- his College life. -- admitted to the bar. -- the law not congenial. -- Determines to abandon it and devote himself to a life of letters. -- Decides to go to Europe and study there. -- visits Washington and Virginia in the winter of 1814-15. -- visit to Jefferson at Monticello. -- sketch of Jeffrey.
Mr. Ticknor's sketch of his early life is so full and graphic that little need be added by his biographer. I have only to describe, very briefly, the state of society and manners in Boston during his childhood and youth, thus suggesting some of the influences which helped to train his mind and character, and exhibit the poverty and limitations of that period in the means of education, compared with present resources, but which yet produced ripe scholars through individual resolution and desire for knowledge. Boston, at the time of Mr. Ticknor's birth, was a small town, of about eighteen thousand inhabitants, forming a homogeneous community, nearly all of whom were of native birth and English descent. They were a people of primitive habits and a plain way of life, with certain peculiarities of character and manners which the great increase in wealth, population, and luxury during succeeding years has not entirely effaced. Though Dr. Freeman had been settled over King's Chapel in 1787, as a Unitarian clergyman, yet the stern faith of the Puritan settlers of New England held very general sway. Dr. Channing, Mr. Norton, and Mr. Buckminster, the real founders of liberal Christianity in New England, were in their childhood,—Dr. Channing, the oldest of them, having been born in 1780. And with the Puritan faith there lingered something of the Puritan spirit, which threw a shade of gravity and sternness over life and manners. One expression  of this spirit was the drawing of the line of moral distinction in the wrong place, and branding as essentially evil that which was evil only in excess. Many amusements, now justly deemed innocent, were frowned upon as snares of Satan, spread for the capture of the soul. Indeed, in the austere Puritan code, happiness itself was almost regarded as a sin. Repression was the general rule of life. The joyous sense of existence common to healthy childhood was not allowed full play. The discipline of families was strict. Children were taught, not merely to obey, but to reverence, their parents. In the presence of their elders, they were not expected to speak unless first spoken to. They were rarely caressed, and a sense of restraint was always present, which, while it pressed heavily upon the timid and sensitive, had the good effect of producing a valuable habit of self-command. While the narrowness of Puritan Protestantism was thus slowly yielding, before the advances of social civilization, it was not yet strenuously attacked, either by the influx of a foreign population bringing with it its own foreign creed, or by the cold scepticism of what is called modern thought. For many years after this there was but one Roman Catholic church in Boston.1 At the same time the means of intellectual training were infinitely less than they are now. Books were scarce, and there were no large libraries rich with the spoils of learning.  But a taste for reading and a love of knowledge were generally diffused, and there were few homes of those in comfortable circumstances where there was not at least a closetful of good books. These were carefully, almost reverently, read; and such reading was productive of sound intellectual growth. Johnson was the favorite author in prose, and Pope in verse. Hervey's Meditations and Zimmerman on Solitude were popular books, and the glittering monotony of Darwin found admirers and imitators. Few were rich, and none were very poor. The largest estates were not more than what would now be deemed a modest competence. Political independence and popular government were of too recent a date to have wholly effaced the social customs of a colonial period. A certain line of distinction was drawn between men, according to their wealth and station. Magistrates, men in authority, the learned professions, were treated with peculiar deference and consideration. Clergymen, especially, enjoyed from their office simply an influence now given to personal superiority alone. Friends and acquaintances saw much of each other in a simple and unostentatious way. Those in easy circumstances exercised a frequent, cordial, and not expensive hospitality. Time was not so precious, and life was not so crowded, then as now, and men and women could afford to give a larger portion of the day to social pleasures. The traditions of the fathers did not forbid a certain measure of conviviality. Excellent Madeira flowed generously at rich men's tables, and punch was a liquor that held up its head in good society. It was a pleasant life they led, in spite of the Puritan frost that yet lingered in the air. The resources of wealth and the refinements of luxury, however, fail of their end if they do not awaken the faculty of discourse, and make conversation finer and brighter. This result of society was secured in those days in measure not less ample than in our own. The women of that day were, in beauty of person, in grace of manner, in a high sense of duty, in the power of quiet self-sacrifice, and in clearness of thought, not inferior to those of later times. The contrasts of life were not so marked:  if its lights were not so bright, its shadows were less deep. The struggle alike for subsistence and superiority was less eager; and every capacity found employment in the rapid growth of a young country. Boston has been compared to Athens, sometimes in good faith and sometimes as a sneer; but there is and was at least one marked point of resemblance between the two. In both cities the people were accustomed to hear public measures discussed by leading citizens, and were thus educated to a knowledge of their political duties. Athens and the Acropolis, Rome and the Capitol, are not more associated ideas than are Boston and Faneuil Hall. From a period earlier than the Revolutionary War, the people of Boston were accustomed to crowd that hall, and listen to men whom wisdom and eloquence raised to the rank of popular teachers and speakers; and at the time of Mr. Ticknor's birth there were two men in Boston—Harrison Gray Otis on the Federal side, and Charles Jarvis on the Democratic—who, in any age or country, would have been deemed excellent speakers. Mr. Ticknor thus states his recollections of the town meetings of Boston in his youth:—
‘I now (1865) feel sure—though at the time I did not so look upon them—that the town meetings held in Boston during the war of 1812 were more like the popular meetings in Athens than anything of the kind the world has ever seen. Commerce and trade were dead; the whole population was idle, and all minds intent on the politics of the day, as affecting their individual existence and happiness. Faneuil Hall could be filled with an eager and intelligent crowd at any moment of day or night. Town meetings were often continued two or three days, morning and evening. Caucuses were constantly held on Sunday evenings, and often it was necessary to adjourn from the small hall, where they might have been collected, to the Old South Church, for greater space. The orators were eloquent, and sometimes adverse parties met to discuss questions together. Governor Eustis, Mr. George Blake, and others on one side; Mr. H. G. Otis, Mr. Samuel Dexter, Mr. William Sullivan, on the other. All the speeches were extemporaneous; it would have lowered a man's reputation materially if it had been supposed that he had prepared and committed a speech to memory. Such a thing was never  known; and no one thought of reporting any speech. Mr. Otis was a very captivating speaker; handsome, gesticulating gracefully, with a beautiful voice and fervent manner, he excited an audience sometimes to such a degree, that it was said, if it had pleased him, at the end of one of his speeches, to give a hurrah, and call on the people to follow him to burn the town, they would have done it. His manner was very natural.’In politics the town was strongly Federal. This was especially true of the educated and wealthier classes. The clergymen, lawyers, physicians, and merchants were nearly all of that party. Towards Washington their feeling was such as was due to his unequalled virtues and services, and hardly stopped short of idolatry. The opening scenes of the French Revolution were watched with the keenest interest by both parties, soon passing, with the Federalists, to aversion deepening into horror. Mr. Ticknor remembered Washington's death, and says of it:—
There never was a more striking or spontaneous tribute paid to a man than here in Boston, when the news came of Washington's death (1799). It was a little before noon; and I often heard persons say at the time that one could know how far the news had spread by the closing of the shops. Each man, when he heard that Washington was dead, shut his store as a matter of course, without consultation; and in two hours all business was stopped. My father came home and could not speak, he was so overcome; my mother was alarmed to see him in such a state, till he recovered enough to tell her the sad news. For some time every one, even the children, wore crape on the arm; no boy could go into the street without it. I wore it, though only eight years old.In the household in which George was reared there was nothing of the Puritan austerity which has been spoken of as tingeing the domestic manners of New England at that time. Of the peculiar characteristics of the Puritans, his father had only their pure morals and their strong religious faith. Being the only child of his father, and much younger than his half brothers and sisters, he was naturally a good deal petted, but never unwisely indulged. He was a docile, affectionate, and engaging child,  easily controlled, taking kindly to instruction, and early showing that love of knowledge which continued in him through life. He was very delicate in his childhood, and he believed it was owing to his mother's devoted care, and a very nourishing diet, that he was reared to man's estate.2 Brought up by parents whose daily occupation had been instructing young persons, it was natural that they should give him the elements of knowledge early. He showed, especially, skill and facility in penmanship; and a copy-book is still preserved, filled by him very creditably when only four and a half years old. Between him and his father there was the perfect love that casteth out fear. From the first he gave to this wise, good, and kind man his whole heart and full confidence, and was repaid by the most judicious care, the most thoughtful affection, the readiest and most comprehending sympathy. Mr. Ticknor carried with him through life the sweet remembrance of a happy childhood, a blessing the full value of which is only appreciated by those who have never had it. It has always been deemed to be a sort of moral duty in New England for every one to study some profession or take up some calling. In Mr. Ticknor's youth the church and the bar divided between them the young men of studious habits and literary tastes. Mr. Ticknor's strong religious faith, pure morals, facility in writing, and easy and graceful elocution well qualified him for the sphere of a clergyman; but his thoughts were never turned that way; and, almost as a matter of course, he chose the law. In due time he was admitted to the bar, opened an office, surrounded himself with a fair library of law-books, supplied by the kindness of his father, and stood for a year at the receipt of professional custom: nor was it a barren year; for the young lawyer  who, at the start, pays all his office expenses during that period does well, and has no right to complain of fortune. And there can be no doubt that, had circumstances made it his duty to apply himself to the law, Mr. Ticknor would have been useful and eminent at the bar. He would have secured all the advantages that can be gained by invincible industry, sound judgment, and uncommon capacity in all business matters. Every lawyer knows that industry and judgment form the chief elements of professional success; and his habits of order, method, and punctuality would have secured the full confidence of his clients. He was the best man of business I have ever known of men not trained to it. His judgment in all things relating to the investment and care of property was excellent. But having faithfully prepared himself for the law, and for a year patiently attended to its practice, Mr. Ticknor decided that the life of a lawyer would not satisfy his most simple ideas of usefulness or happiness. He therefore gave up his office, and turned his thoughts to plans of study and travel which should prepare him for the greater advantages of Europe. This was a conclusion not suddenly or unadvisedly formed, nor without the approval of his father, upon due consideration of the reasons which influenced his son in thus changing his course of life. His motives for the step he took, and his hopes and views as to the future, may be learned from the following extract from a letter to his friend Mr. Haven, a young lawyer of Portsmouth, N. H., written in July, 1814:—
My plan, so far as I have one, is to employ the next nine months in visiting the different parts of this country, and in reading those books and conversing with those persons, from whom I can learn in what particular parts of the countries I mean to visit I can most easily compass my objects. The whole tour in Europe I consider a sacrifice of enjoyment to improvement. I value it only in proportion to the great means and inducements it will afford me to study—not men, but books. Wherever I establish myself, it will be only with a view of labor; and wherever I stay,—even if it be but a week,—I shall, I hope, devote myself to some study, many more hours in the day than I do at home. In August of the same year he gave to Mr. Daveis, of Portland, Maine, much the same sketch of his plans:—
This next winter I shall pass at the South, to see the men the cities contain, and get some notion of the state of my own country; and, in the spring, I shall go to the land of strangers. The prospect of the pleasures and profits of a voyage to Europe and of travelling there, grows dim and sad as I approach it. One who, like myself, has always been accustomed to live, in the strictest sense of the phrase, at home, and never to desire any pleasures which could not be found there,—one who has never had enough of curiosity to journey through his own country,—can hardly feel much exultation at the prospect of being absent two or three years from that country in which all his wishes and hopes rest, as in their natural centre and final home. I began, long ago, a course of studies which I well knew I could not finish on this side the Atlantic; and if I do not mean to relinquish my favorite pursuits, and acknowledge that I have trifled away some of the best years of my life, I must spend some time in Italy, France, and Germany, and in Greece, if I can. . . . The truth is, dear Charles, that I have always considered this going to Europe a mere means of preparing myself for greater usefulness and happiness after I return,—as a great sacrifice of the present to the future; and the nearer I come to the time I am to make this sacrifice, the more heavy and extravagant it appears. But the resolution is taken and the preparation begun.From these letters we learn the motives which led Mr. Ticknor to give up the law. Such a change is no very uncommon experience. Our paths in life are usually marked out by the force of circumstances over which we can exert but little control, and especially by that necessity of earning one's bread which is laid upon nine men out of ten. A young man of literary tastes may not like the profession to which he has been trained; but if he have good sense and strength of purpose, he will persevere in it, feeling assured that in this way he is certain of a sufficient support; while literature, which, as Scott well said, is a good staff but a poor crutch, gives no such pledge. But to this general rule there are exceptions. Some men, sooner or later, come to the dividing of the ways, and must decide for themselves  whether they will take the right hand or the left. Some choose the wrong turn, and then the whole life becomes a failure, embittered by the feeling that the true vocation has been missed. Mr. Ticknor decided rightly. He gave up the law, not from a fickle temper, not from a restless and dissatisfied spirit, not because he preferred a life of indolence and ease to a life of toil, but because, upon reflection and experiment, he was satisfied that he should be more useful and happy as a man of letters than as a lawyer. He saw that the country would never be without good lawyers, because the bar presented such powerful attractions to able and ambitious young men; and that it was in urgent need of scholars, teachers, and men of letters, and that this want was much less likely to be supplied. Feeling in himself a strong love of literature, and, from the circumstances of his life, being able to indulge in it, he came to the conclusion that he should be of more service to his generation as a scholar than as a lawyer. A mere preference of taste would not alone have determined his choice; and it should always be borne in mind that, in turning from law to literature, he was merely exchanging one form of hard work for another. It was his purpose to labor in his new vocation as manfully as his contemporaries in the laborious profession he had left, and we shall see how nobly in the future he redeemed his self-imposed pledge. This change in the plan of life involved a change in the course of study. If he were to be a scholar, and not a mere literary trifler, he must prepare himself for his new calling by diligent study, and must go where the best instruction was to be had,— to Europe, and first of all to Germany. Even at this day the earnest American scholar seeks to complete his education in Europe, for there he finds larger libraries, more accomplished teachers, and better appointed universities; but in all these respects the difference between the two countries was much greater forty or fifty years ago than it is now. The literary poverty of this country at that time cannot be better illustrated than by the fact which Mr. Ticknor gives, that when he wanted to study German he was obliged to seek a text-book  in one place, a dictionary in a second, and a grammar in a third; the last two very indifferent in their kind. There are now, doubtless, more facilities in New England for the study of Arabic or Persian than there were then for the study of German. But Mr. Ticknor spoke the simple truth when he said that he considered a residence in Europe as a sacrifice of enjoyment to improvement. He had all the elements of happiness in his own country. Very domestic in his tastes, he found under his father's roof a home in which affection, sympathy, and cultivation gave sweetness to every moment of life. The intelligent and agreeable society of Boston and its neighborhood, where he was always warmly welcomed, filled up pleasantly his hours of leisure, and we have seen by what strong ties of love and confidence he was bound to his friends. His was not the vacant mind which goes abroad in search of some object in life; nor did he sigh for the more highly flavored pleasures of a riper civilization than that of his own country. Mr. Ticknor's journey to Washington and Virginia in the winter of 1814-15 was undertaken more as a matter of duty than of pleasure; for travelling in those days, in our country, was attended with wretched discomforts, of which those who were born in an age of railroads can have no conception. He felt that he ought not to go abroad without seeing something more of his own country than he had yet done; and he also hoped, in the course of his journey, to fall in with persons who had been in Europe and could give him information as to its universities and means of study.3 His letters during this journey form a natural sequel to the autobiography. They were all written to his parents, except one to his friend, Mr. Edward T. Channing. 
Mr. Ticknor dined with President Madison soon after his arrival in Washington. In a letter to his father he gives an account of the dinner. Mr. Ticknor, like all young men of full minds and warm hearts, was a frequent and copious correspondent. Of the letters written to his friends before his departure for Europe, many are still preserved, and of these two are given as specimens of his intellectual activity and the warmth of his affections. The  sketch of Mr. Jeffrey, in the letter to Mr. Daveis, will be recognized as an admirable pen-portrait, especially for so young an artist. The power of drawing characters with a firm and discriminating touch does not usually come till later in life. Mr. Jeffrey came to America in a cartel, in the depth of winter. Having, in Edinburgh, made the acquaintance of Miss Wilkes, of New York, he crossed the ocean to seek her for his wife, and won her.