THE LEARNED BLACKSMITH.
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
He was an ardent reader of books from childhood up; and he was enabled
to gratify this taste by means of a 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
bed-time. 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 a 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 of 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 cooeperation, not for fierce competition and bloody
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 traveling 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."
If he had sympathetic hearers, he produced upon them extraordinary
effects. Nathaniel P. Rogers, one of the heroes of the Anti-slavery
agitation, chanced to hear him in Boston in 1845 on his favorite subject
of Peace. He wrote soon after:--
"I had been introduced to Elihu Burritt the day before, and was much
interested in his original appearance, and desirous of knowing him
further. I had not formed the highest opinion of his liberality. But on
entering the hall my friends and I soon forgot everything but the
speaker. The dim-lit hall, the handful audience, the contrast of both
with the illuminated chapel and ocean multitude assembled overhead,
bespeak painfully the estimation in which the great cause of peace is
held in Christendom. I wish all Christendom could have heard Elihu
Burritt's speech. One unbroken, unabated stream it was of profound and
lofty and original eloquence. I felt riveted to my seat till he finished
it. There was no oratory about it, in the ordinary sense of that word;
no graces of elocution. It was mighty thoughts radiating off from his
heated mind like the sparkles from the glowing steel on his own anvil,
getting on as they come out what clothing of language they might, and
thus having on the most appropriate and expressive imaginable. Not a
waste word, nor a wanting one. And he stood and delivered himself in a
simplicity and earnestness of attitude and gesture belonging to his
manly and now honored and distinguished trade. I admired the touch of
rusticity in his accent, amid his truly splendid diction, which
betokened, as well as the vein of solid sense that ran entirely through
his speech, that he had not been educated at the college. I thought of
ploughman Burns as I listened to blacksmith Burritt. Oh! what a dignity
and beauty labor imparts to learning."
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 had started for Boston with his property
wrapped in a small handkerchief. He died in March, 1879, aged sixty-nine