Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct
By Samuel Smiles
It is an interesting question to ask oneself how the ideas of academic economists, like Adam
Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say for example, were made available to the ordinary person who does not normally read multi-volume academic tracts. In the first half of the 19th century we see this role of popularizer of economic ideas being taken up by a number of people who wrote what we would now call economic journalism or who gave popular lectures to working class audiences or who wrote what might be called “economic stories or tales” which were sold in a cheap and popular book format. In France, Frédéric Bastiat was a good example of the economic journalist who took complex economic theory and rendered it down for a more popular audience. In Britain there was Thomas Hodgskin who gave lectures on free trade to “mechanics institutes” (what we might now call adult education groups) and who wrote articles for the recently founded “Economist” magazine (the forefather of the “Economist” which continues to this day). In the United States, we see William Leggett defending free market ideas in a number of newspapers in the Jacksonian era. Women too were involved in this important task. Harriet Martineau and Jane Marcet wrote semi-fictional “moral tales” with a strong economic component which were aimed at convincing working class audiences of the benefits of free trade, industrialization, and the free market in general. One of the best selling authors in this vein was Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). A Scot who originally trained as a doctor before turning to journalism fulltime, Smiles wrote for a popular audience to show people how best to take advantage of the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution which was sweeping Britain and other parts of the world in the first half of the 19th century. In his best known work, “Self-Help” (published in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and John Stuart Mill’s“On Liberty”) he combines Victorian morality with sound free market ideas into moral tales showing the benefits of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance, and a sound moral character. He drew upon the personal success stories of the emerging self-made millionaires in the pottery industry (Josiah Wedgwood), the railway industry (Watt and Stephenson), and the weaving industry (Jacquard) to make his point that the benefits of the market were open to anyone.
Dr. David M. Hart
First Pub. Date
Boston: Ticknor and Fields
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Samuel Smiles: frontispiece, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
“See first that the design is wise and just;
That ascertained, pursue it resolutely.
Do not for one repulse forego the purpose
That you resolved to effect.”
“Allez en avant, et la foi vous viendra!”—
THE greatest results in life are usually attained by simple means, and the exercise of ordinary qualities. The common life of every day, with its cares, necessities, and duties, affords ample opportunity for acquiring experience of the best kind; and its most beaten paths provide the true worker with abundant scope for effort and room for self-improvement. The great high-road of human welfare lies along the old highway of steadfast welldoing; and they who are the most persistent, and work in the truest spirit, will invariably be the most successful.
Fortune has often been blamed for her blindness; but fortune is not so blind as men are. Those who look into practical life will find that fortune is usually on the side of the industrious, as the winds and waves are on the side of the best navigators. Success treads on the heels of every right effort; and though it is possible to overestimate success to the extent of almost deifying it, as is sometimes done, still, in any worthy pursuit, it is meritorious. Nor are the qualities necessary to insure
success at all extraordinary. They may, for the most part, be summed up in these two,—common sense and perseverance. Genius may not be necessary, though even genius of the highest sort does not despise the exercise of these common qualities. The very greatest men have been among the least believers in the power of genius, and as worldly wise and persevering as successful men of the commoner sort. Some have even defined genius to be only common sense intensified. A distinguished teacher and president of a college spoke of it as the power of making efforts. John Foster held it to be the power of lighting one’s own fire. Buffon said of genius,—It is patience.
Newton’s was unquestionably a mind of the very highest order, and yet, when asked by what means he had worked out his extraordinary discoveries, he modestly answered, “By always thinking unto them.” At another time he thus expressed his method of study: “I keep the subject continually before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly by little and little into a full and clear light.” It was in Newton’s case, as it is in every other, only by diligent application and perseverance that his great reputation was achieved. Even his recreation consisted merely in a variety in his industry,—leaving one subject only to take up another. To Dr. Bentley he said: “If I have done the public any service, it is due to nothing but industry and patient thought.” So Kepler, another great philosopher, speaking of his studies and his progress, said: “As in Virgil, ‘Fama mobilitate viget, vires acquirit eundo,’ so it was with me, that the diligent thought on these things was the occasion of still further thinking; until at last I brooded with the whole energy of my mind upon the subject.”
The extraordinary results effected by dint of sheer industry and perseverance, have led many distinguished men to doubt whether the gift of genius be so exceptional an endowment as it is generally supposed to be. Thus Voltaire held that it is only a very slight line of separation that divides the man of genius from the man of ordinary mould. Beccaria was even of opinion that all men might be poets and orators, and Reynolds that they might be painters and sculptors. If this were really so, that stolid Englishman might not have been so very far wrong after all, who, on Canova’s death, inquired of his brother whether it was “his intention to carry on the business!” Locke, Helvetius, and Diderot believed that all men have an equal aptitude for genius; and that what some are able to effect under the influence of the fundamental laws which regulate the march of intellect, must also be within the reach of others who, in the same circumstances, apply themselves to like pursuits. But while admitting to the fullest extent the wonderful achievements of labor, and also recognizing the fact that men of the most distinguished genius have invariably been found the most indefatigable workers, it must nevertheless be sufficiently obvious that, without the original endowment of heart and brain, no amount of labor, however well applied, would have produced a Shakspeare, a Newton, a Beethoven, or a Michael Angelo.
We have, however, a recent reassertor of the power of perseverance in a distinguished living engineer, Mr. G. P. Bidder, so well known in his youth as the wonderful Calculating Boy. In a charmingly modest account which he lately gave of himself before the Institute of Civil Engineers, Mr. Bidder insisted that his remarkable power of mental calculation, a power exhibited by so few
that we must account it as abnormal, can be acquired by any one who will devote time, attention, and perseverance to the subject. “I have endeavored,” he said, “to examine my own mind, to compare it with that of others, and to discover if such be the case; but I can detect no particular turn of mind, beyond a predilection for figures, which many possess almost in an equal degree with myself. I do not mean to assert that all minds are alike constituted to succeed in mental computations; but I do say that, so far as I can judge, there may be as large a number of successful mental calculators as there are who attain eminence in any other branch of learning.” Mr. Bidder urged that the proficiency at which he eventually arrived was mainly the result of assiduous application. His father was a working mason, and his elder brother, who pursued the same calling, first taught the little boy to count 100. He counted the numbers over and over in tens. The numerals became as it were his friends, and he knew all their relations and acquaintances. He next set about learning the multiplication table in his own way, by means of peas or marbles; and a small bag of shot which he obtained, proved a great treasure to him. These he arranged into squares, each line consisting of an equal number of shot, and, counting their sides, he thus learned to multiply up to 10 times 10. Opposite his father’s house lived a blacksmith, who, not having any children, had taken a nephew as his apprentice. With this old gentleman the boy Bidder struck up an acquaintance, and was allowed the privilege of running about his workshop. As his strength increased he was raised to the dignity of being permitted to blow the bellows for him, and on winter evenings he was allowed to perch himself on the forge-hearth, listening to his stories. On one of
these occasions somebody by chance mentioned a sum,—perhaps 9 times 9,—which the boy at once answered correctly. This excited a little astonishment, and then other questions were put to “fickle” him, but which he answered with equal facility. The numbers multiplied were so high, that the old gentleman’s nephew had to work up the sums with chalk upon a board, to see that they were right, and they were found so. The boy became talked of as a wonder, and half-pence began to flow into his pocket; so that, what with the gain and the
éclat, he became still more attached to the science of arithmetic; and he got on by degrees until the multiple of figures which he could accomplish arrived at thousands, and he eventually became familiar with the multiplication table up to a million. The “Extraordinary Calculating Boy” was regarded as one of the prodigies of the day. The phrenologists had a cast taken of his “organs,” and he was cited in the “Phrenological Magazine” as a remarkable proof of the correctness of their “science.” Some time after this he commenced the business of life as a clerk in an assurance office, which he left to enter the service of a well-known engineer, the late Mr. H. R. Palmer. His advance was rapid, and his reputation soon became distinguished,—a result due no less to his perseverance than to his eminent engineering ability. For he brought the same habit of study and application to the business of his profession, that he had already trained in mastering the science of numbers. Speaking to his friends of the Civil Engineers’ Institute, he said: “I have sacrificed years of labor; I have striven with much perseverance to obtain, and to retain, a power or mastery over numbers, which will, probably, at all times be as rare as its utility in the ordinary affairs of life. Far be it from
me to say, however, that it has been of little use to me. Undoubtedly the acquirement has attracted towards me a degree of notice which has ended in raising me from the position of a common laborer in which I was born, to that of being able to address you as one of the Vice-Presidents of this distinguished Society.”
Dalton, the chemist, always repudiated the notion of his being “a genius,” attributing everything which he had accomplished to simple industry and accumulation. John Hunter said of himself, “My mind is like a beehive; but full as it is of buzz and apparent confusion, it is yet full of order and regularity, and food collected with incessant industry from the choicest stores of nature.” We have, indeed, but to glance at the biographies of great men to find that the most distinguished inventors, artists, thinkers, and workers of all sorts, owe their success, in a great measure, to their indefatigable industry and application. They were men who turned all things to gold,—even time itself. Disraeli the elder held that the secret of all success consisted in being master of your subject, such mastery being attainable only through continuous application and study. Hence it happens that the men who have most moved the world, have not been so much men of genius, strictly so called, as men of intense mediocre abilities, untiring workers, persevering, self-reliant, and indefatigable; not so often the gifted, of naturally bright and shining qualities, as those who have applied themselves diligently to their work, in whatever line that might lie. “Alas!” said a widow, speaking of her brilliant but careless son, “he has not the gift of continuance.” Wanting in perseverance, such volatile natures are outstripped in the race of life by the diligent and even the dull. “Che va piano, va longano, e va
lontano,” says the Italian proverb: who goes slowly, goes long, and goes far.
Hence, a great point to be arrived at is to get the working quality well trained. When that is done, the race will be found comparatively easy. We must repeat and again repeat; facility will come with labor. Not even the simplest art can be accomplished without it; and what difficulties it is found capable of achieving! It was by early discipline and repetition that the late Sir Robert Peel cultivated those remarkable, though still mediocre powers, which rendered him so illustrious an ornament of the British senate. When a boy at Drayton Manor, his father was accustomed to set him up at table to practise extemporaneous speaking; and he early accustomed him to repeat as much of the Sunday’s sermon as he could carry away in his memory. Little progress was made at first, but by steady perseverance the habit of attention soon became powerful, and the sermon was at length repeated almost verbatim. When afterwards replying in succession to the arguments of his parliamentary opponents,—an art in which he was perhaps unrivalled,—it was little surmised that the extraordinary power of accurate remembrance which he displayed on such occasions had been originally diligently trained under the discipline of his father in the parish church of Drayton.
It is indeed marvellous what continuous application will effect in the commonest of things. It may seem a simple affair to play upon a violin; yet what a long and laborious practice it requires! Giardini said to a youth who asked him how long it would take to learn it, “Twelve hours a day for twenty years together.” Industry, it is said,
fait l’ours danser. The poor figurante must devote
years of incessant toil too her profitless task before she can shine in it. When Taglioni was preparing herself for her evening exhibition, she would, after a severe two hours’ lesson from her father, fall down exhausted, and had to be undressed, spunged, and resuscitated, totally unconscious. The agility and bounds of the evening were insured only at a price like this. The enormous preparatory training and labor undergone by these “artists” is enough to shame the indolent and the supine engaged in more worthy pursuits. Less than half of such application devoted to self-culture or to self-improvement of any kind, could scarcely fail in insuring success and leading to distinction.
Progress, however, of the best kind, is comparatively slow. Great results cannot be achieved at once; and we must be satisfied to advance in life as we walk, step by step. De Maistre says that “to know
how to wait is the great secret of success.” We must sow before we can reap, and often have to wait long, content meanwhile to look patiently forward in hope; the fruit best worth waiting for often ripening the slowest. But “time and patience,” says the Eastern proverb, “change the mulberry leaf to satin.”
To wait patiently, however, men must work cheerfully. Cheerfulness is an excellent working quality, imparting great elasticity to the character. As a bishop has said, “Temper is nine tenths of Christianity;” so are cheerfulness and diligence nine tenths of practical wisdom. They are the life and soul of success, as well as of happiness; perhaps the very highest pleasure in life consisting in clear, brisk, conscious working; energy, confidence, and every other good quality mainly depending upon it. Sydney Smith, when laboring as a parish priest at Fostonle-Clay,
in Yorkshire,—though he did not feel himself to be in his proper element,—went cheerfully to work in the firm determination to do his best. “I am resolved,” he said, “to like it, and reconcile myself to it, which is more manly than to feign myself above it, and to send up complaints by the post of being thrown away, and being desolate, and such like trash.” So Dr. Hook, when leaving Leeds for a new sphere of labor, said, “Wherever I may be, I shall, by God’s blessing, do with my might what my hand findeth to do; and if I do not find work, I shall make it.”
Laborers for the public good especially, have to work long and patiently, often uncheered by the prospect of immediate recompense or result. The seeds they sow sometimes lie hidden under the winter’s snow, and before the spring comes the husbandman may have gone to his rest. It is not every public worker who, like Rowland Hill, sees his great idea bring forth fruit in his lifetime. Adam Smith sowed the seeds of a great social amelioration in that dingy old University of Glasgow, where he so long labored, there laying the foundations of his “Wealth of Nations;” and seventy years passed before his work bore substantial fruits, nor indeed are they all gathered in yet.
Nothing can compensate for the loss of hope in a man,—it entirely changes the character. “How can I work,—how can I be happy,” said a great but miserable thinker, “when I have lost all hope?” Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us. One of the most cheerful and courageous, because one of the most hopeful of workers, was Carey, the missionary. When in India, it was no uncommon thing for him to weary out three pundits, who
officiated as his clerks, in one day, he himself taking rest only in change of employment. Carey, himself the son of a shoemaker, was supported in his labors by Ward, the son of a carpenter, and Marshman, the son of a weaver. By their labors, a magnificent college was erected at Serampore; sixteen flourishing stations were established; the Bible was translated into sixteen languages, and the seeds were sown of a beneficent moral revolution in British India. Carey was never ashamed of the humbleness of his origin. On one occasion, when at the Governor-General’s table, he overheard an officer opposite him asking another, loud enough to be heard, whether Carey had not once been a shoemaker: “No, sir,” exclaimed Carey immediately, “only a cobbler.” An eminently characteristic anecdote has been told of his perseverance as a boy. When climbing a tree, one day, his foot slipped, and he fell to the ground, breaking his leg by the fall. He was confined to his bed for weeks, but when his strength had grown again and he was able to walk without support, the very first thing he did was to go and climb that tree. Carey had need of this sort of dauntless courage for the great missionary work of his life, and nobly and resolutely did he do it.
It was a maxim of Dr. Young, the philosopher, that “Any man can do what any other man has done;” and it is unquestionable that he himself never recoiled from any trials to which he determined to subject himself. It is related of him, that the first time he mounted a horse, he was in company with the grandson of Mr. Barclay, of Ury, the well-known sportsman, when the horseman who preceded them leapt a high fence. Young wished to imitate him, but fell off his horse in the attempt. Without saying a word, he remounted, made a second effort,
and was again unsuccessful, but this time he was not thrown further than on to the horse’s neck, to which he clung. At the third trial, he succeeded, and cleared the fence.
The story of Timour the Tartar, learning a lesson of perseverance under adversity from the spider, is well known, and need not be repeated; but not less interesting is the following anecdote of Audubon, the American ornithologist, related by himself: “An accident,” he says, “which happened to two hundred of my original drawings, nearly put a stop to my researches in ornithology. I shall relate it, merely to show how far enthusiasm—for by no other name can I call my perseverance—may enable the preserver of nature to surmount the most disheartening difficulties. I left the village of Henderson, in Kentucky, situated on the banks of the Ohio, where I resided for several years, to proceed to Philadelphia on business. I looked to my drawings before my departure, placed them carefully in a wooden box, and gave them in charge of a relative, with injunctions to see that no injury should happen to them. My absence was of several months; and when I returned, after having enjoyed the pleasures of home for a few days, I inquired after my box, and what I was pleased to call my treasure. The box was produced and opened; but, reader, feel for me,—a pair of Norway rats had taken possession of the whole, and reared a young family among the gnawed bits of paper, which, but a month previous, represented nearly a thousand inhabitants of air! The burning heat which instantly rushed through my brain was too great to be endured without affecting my whole nervous system. I slept for several nights, and the days passed like days of oblivion,—until the animal powers being recalled into action,
through the strength of my constitution, I took up my gun, my note-book, and my pencils, and went forth to the woods as gayly as if nothing had happened. I felt pleased that I might now make better drawings than before; and, ere a period not exceeding three years had elapsed, my portfolio was again filled.”
The accidental destruction of Sir Isaac Newton’s papers, by his little dog “Diamond” upsetting a lighted taper upon his desk, by which the elaborate calculations of many years were in a moment destroyed, is a well-known anecdote, and need not here be repeated: it is said that the loss caused the philosopher such profound grief that it seriously injured his health, and impaired his understanding. An accident of a somewhat similar kind happened to the MS. of Mr. Carlyle’s first volume of his “French Revolution” He had lent the MS. to a literary neighbor to peruse. By some mischance or other, it had been left lying on the parlor floor, and become forgotten. Weeks ran on, and the historian sent for his MS., the printers being loud for “copy.” Inquiries were made, and then it was found that the maid-of-all-work, finding what she conceived to be a bundle of waste paper on the floor, had used it to light the kitchen and parlor fires with! Such was the answer returned to Mr. Carlyle; and his consternation and despair may be imagined. There was, however, no help for him but to set himself resolutely to work to rewrite his book; and he turned to and did it. He had no draft, and was compelled to rake up from his memory facts, ideas, and expressions, which had long since been dismissed. The composition of the book in the first instance had been a work of real pleasure; the rewriting of it a second time was one of pain and anguish almost beyond belief. That he persevered and finished the volume under such circumstances,
affords an instance of determination of purpose which has seldom been exceeded.
The lives of all eminent inventors are eminently illustrative of the same quality of perseverance. George Stephenson, when addressing young men, was accustomed to sum up his best advice to them in the words, “Do as I have done—persevere.” He had worked at the improvement of his locomotive for some fifteen years before achieving his decisive victory at Rainhill; and Watt was engaged for some thirty years upon the condensing engine before he brought it to perfection. But there are equally striking illustrations of perseverance to be found in every other branch of science, art, and industry. Perhaps one of the most interesting is that connected with the disentombment of the Nineveh marbles, and the discovery of the long-lost cuneiform or arrow-headed character, in which the inscriptions on them are written,—a kind of writing which had been lost to the world since the period of the Macedonian conquest of Persia.
An intelligent cadet of the East India Company, stationed at Kermanshah, in Persia, had observed the curious cuneiform inscriptions on the old monuments in the neighborhood,—so old that all historical traces of them had been lost,—and amongst the inscriptions which he copied was that upon the celebrated rock of Behistun,—a perpendicular rock rising abruptly some 1,700 feet from the plain, the lower part bearing inscriptions for the space of about three hundred feet, in three languages,—the Persian, Scythian, and Assyrian. Comparison of the known with the unknown, of the language which survived with the language that had been lost, enabled this cadet to acquire some knowledge of the cuneiform character
and even to form an alphabet. Mr. (afterwards Sir Henry) Rawlinson sent his tracings home for examination. No professors in colleges knew anything about the cuneiform character; but there was a ci-devant clerk of the East India House,—a modest unknown man of the name of Norris,—who had made this little-understood subject his study, to whom the tracings were submitted; and so accurate was his knowledge, that, though he had never seen the Behistun rock, he pronounced that Rawlinson had not copied the puzzling inscription with proper exactness. Rawlinson, who was still in the neighborhood of the rock, compared his copy with the original, and found that Norris was right; and by further comparison and careful study the knowledge of the cuneiform writing was thus greatly advanced.
But to make the learning of these two self-taught men of avail, a third laborer was necessary in order to supply them with material for the exercise of their skill. Such a laborer presented himself in the person of Austen Layard, originally an articled clerk in the office of a London solicitor. One would scarcely have expected to find in these three men, a cadet, an India House clerk, and a lawyer’s clerk, the discoverers of a forgotten language, and of the buried history of Babylon; and yet it was so. Layard was a youth of only twenty-two, travelling in the East, when he was possessed with a desire to penetrate the regions beyond the Euphrates. Accompanied by a single companion, trusting to his arms for protection, and, what was better, to his cheerfulness, politeness, and chivalrous bearing, he passed safely amidst tribes at deadly war with each other; and, after the lapse of many years, with comparatively slender means at his command, but aided by intense labor and perseverance, resolute will
and purpose, and almost sublime patience, borne up throughout by his passionate enthusiasm for discovery and research, he succeeded in laying bare and digging up an amount of historical treasures, the like of which has probably never before been collected by the industry of any one man. Not less than two miles of bas-reliefs were thus brought to light by Mr. Layard. The selections of these valuable antiquities now placed in the British Museum were found so curiously corroborative of the Scriptural records of events which occurred some three thousand years ago, that they burst upon the world almost like a new revelation. And the story of the disentombment of these remarkable works, as told by Mr. Layard himself in his “Monuments of Nineveh,” will always be regarded as one of the most charming and unaffected records which we possess of individual enterprise, industry, and energy.
Literary life affords abundant illustrations of the same power of perseverance; and perhaps no career is more instructive, viewed in this light, than that of Sir Walter Scott. His admirable working qualities were trained in a lawyer’s office, where he pursued for many years a routine of drudgery scarcely above that of a mere copying clerk. His daily dry routine made his evenings, which were his own, all the more sweet; and he generally devoted them to reading and study. He himself attributed to his prosaic office discipline that habit of steady, sober diligence, in which mere literary men are so often found wanting. As a copying clerk he was allowed 3
d. for every page containing a certain number of words; and he sometimes, by extra work, was able to copy as many as one hundred and twenty pages in twenty-four hours, thus earning some 30
s.; out of which he
would sometimes purchase an odd volume otherwise beyond his means. During his after-life Scott was wont to pride himself upon being a man of business, and he averred, in contradiction to what he called the cant of sonneteers, that there was no necessary connection between genius and an aversion or contempt for the common duties of life. On the contrary, he was of opinion that to spend some fair portion of every day in any matter-of-fact occupation, was good for the higher faculties themselves in the upshot. While afterwards acting as clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, he performed his literary work chiefly before breakfast, attending the court during the day, where he was occupied in ordinary drudgery, such as authenticating registered deeds and writings of various kinds; on the whole, says Lockhart, “it forms one of the most remarkable features in his history, that throughout the most active period of his literary career, he must have devoted a large proportion of his hours, during half at least of every year, to the conscientious discharge of professional duties.” It was a principle of action which he laid down for himself, that he must earn his living by business, and not by literature; he said, “I determined that literature should be my staff, not my crutch, and that the profits of my literary labor, however convenient otherwise, should not, if I could help it, become necessary to my ordinary expenses.”
His punctuality was one of the most carefully cultivated of his habits, otherwise it had not been possible for him to get through so enormous an amount of literary labor. He made it a rule to answer every letter received by him, on the same day, except where inquiry and deliberation were requisite. Nothing else could have enabled him to keep abreast with the flood of communications
that poured in upon him and put his good nature to the severest test. It was his practice to rise by five o clock, and light his own fire. He shaved and dressed with deliberation, and was seated at his desk by six o’clock, all his papers arranged before him in the most accurate order, with his books of reference marshalled round him on the floor, while at least one favorite dog lay watching his eye, outside the line of books. Thus by the time the family assembled for breakfast, between nine and ten, he had done enough—to use his own words—to break the neck of the day’s work. But with all his diligent and indefatigable industry, and his immense knowledge, the result of many years’ patient labor, Scott always spoke with the greatest modesty of his own powers. On one occasion he said, “Throughout every part of my career I have felt pinched and hampered by my own ignorance.”
Such is true wisdom and humility; for the more a man really knows, the less conceited will he be. The student at Trinity College who went up to his professor to take leave of him because he had “finished his education,” was wisely rebuked by the professor’s reply, “Indeed! I am only beginning mine.” The superficial person who has obtained a smattering of many things, but knows nothing well, may pride himself upon his gifts; but the sage humbly confesses that “all he knows is, that he knows nothing,” or like Newton, that he has been only engaged in picking shells by the sea-shore, while the great ocean of truth extends itself all unexplored before him.
The lives of second-rate literary men furnish equally remarkable illustrations of the power of perseverance. The late John Britton, author of “The Beauties of England
and Wales,” and of many valuable architectural works, furnished a striking instance of well-directed application. He was born in a miserable cot in Kingston, Wiltshire. His father had been a baker and maltster, but was ruined in trade, and became insane, while Britton was yet a child. The boy received very little schooling, but a great deal of bad example, which happily did not destroy him. He was early in life set to labor with an uncle, a tavern-keeper in Clerkenwell, under whom he bottled, corked, and binned wine, for more than five years. His health failing him, his uncle turned him adrift in the world, with only two guineas, the fruits of his five years’ service, in his pocket. During the next seven years of his life he endured many vicissitudes and hardships. Yet he says, in his autobiography, “in my poor and obscure lodgings, at eighteen pence a week, I indulged in study, and often read in bed during the winter evenings, because I could not afford a fire.” Travelling on foot to Bath, he there obtained an engagement as a cellar-man, but shortly after we find him back in the metropolis again, almost penniless, shoeless, and shirtless. He succeeded, however, in obtaining employment as a cellar-man at the London Tavern, and it was his duty to be in the cellar from seven in the morning until eleven at night. His health broke down under this confinement in the dark, added to the heavy work; and he then engaged himself, at fifteen shillings a week, to an attorney,—for he had been diligently cultivating the art of writing during the few spare minutes that he could call his own. While in this employment, he devoted his leisure principally to perambulating the bookstalls, where he read books by snatches which he could not buy, and thus picked up a good deal of odd knowledge. Then he shifted to another
office, at the advanced wages of twenty shillings a week, still reading and studying. At twenty-eight he was able to write a book, which he published under the title of “The Enterprising Adventures of Pizarro;” and from that time until quite recently, during a period of about fifty-five years, Britton was occupied in laborious literary occupation, chiefly connected with English antiquities. The number of his published works is not fewer than eighty-seven; the most important being “The Cathedral Antiquities of England,” in fourteen volumes, a truly magnificent work; itself the best monument of John Britton’s indefatigable industry.
Loudon, the landscape gardener, was a man of somewhat similar character, possessed of an extraordinary working-power. The son of a farmer near Edinburgh, he was early inured to work. His skill in drawing plans and making sketches of scenery induced his father to train him for a landscape gardener. During his apprenticeship he sat up two whole nights every week to study; yet he worked harder during the day than any laborer. During his studious hours he learned French, and before he was eighteen translated a life of Abelard for an Encyclopædia. He was so eager to make progress in life, that when only twenty, while working as a gardener in England, he wrote down in his note-book, “I am now twenty years of age, and perhaps a third part of my life has passed away, and yet what have I done to benefit my fellow-men?” an unusual reflection for a youth of only twenty. From French he proceeded to learn German, and rapidly mastered that language. He now took a large farm for the purpose of introducing Scotch improvements in the art of agriculture, and soon succeeded in realizing a considerable income. The continent being thrown open on the cessation of the war, he proceeded to travel for the purpose
of observation, making sketches of the system of gardening in all countries, which he afterwards introduced in the historical part of his laborious Encyclopædia of Gardening. He twice repeated his journeys abroad for a similar purpose, the result of which appeared in his Encyclopædias; perhaps amongst the most remarkable works of their kind, distinguished for the immense mass of useful matter which they contain, all collected by dint of persevering industry and labor, such as has rarely been equalled.
The career of Samuel Drew is perhaps less known, but is no less remarkable than any of those which we have cited. His father was a hard-working laborer of the parish of St. Austell, in Cornwall. Though poor, he contrived to send his two sons to a penny-a-week school in the neighborhood. Jabez, the elder, took delight in learning, and made great progress in his lessons; but Samuel, the younger, was a dunce, notoriously given to mischief and playing truant. Hence it was principally to his mother that he was indebted for nearly all the reading and writing that he learned in youth. When about eight years old he was put to manual labor, earning three halfpence a day as a buddle boy at a tin mine.
His mother having died, the boy was allowed to grow up altogether neglected by his father, who, being a Wesleyan local preacher, was so much occupied by his class engagements that he had no time to devote to the training of his own children. When about ten years old, the boy was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and while in this employment he endured many hardships, living, as he used to say, “like a toad under a harrow.” He often thought of running away and becoming a pirate, or something of that sort, and he seems to have grown in recklessness as
he grew in years. In robbing orchards he was always a leader; and, as he grew older, his greatest delight was in taking part in a poaching or smuggling exploit. When about seventeen, before his apprenticeship was out, he ran away from his home, with sixteen pence half-penny in his pocket. His intention was to enter on board a man-of-war; but, sleeping in a hay-field for the night cooled him a little, and, in passing through Liskeard, he applied to a master shoemaker for employment, and obtained it. While there, his brother, who was in search of him, hearing of the lad’s whereabouts, found him out, and took him home again; then he was employed for a time in the ordinary labors of a small farm, and in running the post between St. Austell and Bodmin.
Drew next removed to the neighborhood of Plymouth to work at his shoemaking business, and while at Cawsand he won a prize for cudgel-playing, in which he seems to have been an adept. While living in this neighborhood he had nearly lost his life in one of the smuggling exploits in which he still continued eager to join, partly induced by the love of adventure, and partly by the love of gain, for his regular wages were not more than eight shillings a week. One night notice was given throughout Crafthole, that a smuggler was off the coast, and ready to land her cargo; on which the male population of the place—nearly all smugglers—made for the shore. One party remained on the rocks to make signals, and dispose of the goods as they were landed; and another manned the boats, Samuel Drew being of the latter party. The night was intensely dark, and but little progress had been made in landing the vessel’s cargo, when the wind rose, with a heavy sea. The men in the boats, however, determined to persevere, and several trips were
made between the smuggler, now standing farther out to sea, and the shore. One of the men in the boat in which Drew was, had his hat blown off by the wind, and in attempting to recover it, the boat was upset. Three of the men were immediately drowned, and Samuel and two or three others clung to the boat for a time, but finding it drifting fast out to sea, they took to swimming. They were about two miles from shore, in an intensely dark night. After being about three hours in the water, Drew reached some rocks near the shore, with one or two others, where he remained benumbed with cold till morning, when he and his companions were discovered and taken off, more dead than alive. A keg of brandy from the cargo just landed was brought, the head knocked in with a hatchet, and a bowlful of the liquid presented to the survivors; and, shortly after, Drew was able to walk two miles through the deep snow, to his lodgings.
This was a very unpromising beginning of a life, and yet this same Drew, scape-grace, orchard-robber, shoe-maker, cudgel-player, and smuggler, outlived the recklessness of his youth, and became distinguished as a minister of the Gospel and a writer of good books. Happily, before it was too late, the energy which characterized him was turned into wholesome directions, and rendered him as eminent in usefulness as he had before been in wickedness. His father again took him back to St. Austell, and found employment for him as a journey-man shoemaker. Perhaps his recent escape from death had tended to make the young man serious, and we shortly find him, attracted by the forcible preaching of Dr. Adam Clarke, become a member of the Wesleyan Methodists. His brother having died about the same time, the impression of seriousness was deepened; and
thenceforward he was an altered man. He recommenced the work of education, for he had almost forgotten how to read and write; and even after several years’ practice, a friend compared his writing to the traces of a spider dipped in ink, and set to crawl upon paper. Speaking of himself, about the same time, Drew afterwards said, “The more I read, the more I felt my own ignorance; and the more I felt my ignorance, the more invincible became my energy to surmount it. Every leisure moment was now employed in reading one thing or another. Having to support myself by manual labor, my time for reading was but little, and to overcome this disadvantage, my usual method was to place a book before me while at meat, and at every repast I read five or six pages.” The perusal of Locke’s “Essay on the Understanding” gave the first metaphysical turn to his mind. “It awakened me from my stupor,” said he, “and induced me to form a resolution to abandon the grovelling views which I had been accustomed to entertain.”
Drew now began business on his own account, though his whole capital was only fourteen shillings; but his steady good character being now proved, a neighboring miller volunteered a loan, which was accepted, and, success attending his industry, the debt was repaid at the end of a year. He started in life with a determined resolution to “owe no man anything,” and he held to it in the midst of many privations. Often he went to bed supperless, to avoid rising in debt. His ambition was to achieve independence by industry and rigid economy, and in this he gradually succeeded. In the midst of incessant toil, he labored to carry forward the cultivation of his mind, studying even astronomy, history, and metaphysics. He was induced to pursue the latter study chiefly because
it required fewer books to consult than either of the others. “It appeared to be a thorny path,” he said, “but I determined, nevertheless, to enter, and accordingly began to tread it.”
Added to his labors in shoemaking and metaphysics, Drew became a local preacher and a class leader; over-flowing with activity he also entered eagerly into the discussion of politics, and he even ran some risk of becoming a gad-about and busybody. Politicians resorted to his shoemaking shop to talk politics, and he went to theirs for a similar purpose. This so encroached upon his time that he found it necessary sometimes to work until midnight to make up for the hours lost during the day. Shoemakers are proverbially political characters, and Drew’s fervor soon became the talk of the village. While busy one night hammering away at a shoe-sole, a little boy, seeing a light in the shop, put his mouth to the keyhole of the door, and called out in a shrill pipe, “Shoemaker! shoemaker! work by night and run about by day!” A friend, to whom Drew afterwards told the story, asked, “And did you not run after the boy, and strap him?” “No, no,” was the reply; “had a pistol been fired off at my ear, I could not have been more dismayed or confounded. I dropped my work, and said to myself, ‘True, true! but you shall never have that to say of me again.’ To me that cry was as the voice of God, and it has been a word in season throughout my life. I learnt from it not to leave till to-morrow the work of to-day, or to idle when I ought to be working.”
From that moment Drew dropped politics, and stuck to his daily work, and to self-improvement in his spare hours; but he never allowed the latter to interfere with his business, though it frequently broke in upon his rest.
He married, and thought of emigrating to America; but he remained working on. His literary taste first took the direction of poetical composition; and from some of the fragments which have been preserved, it appears that his speculations as to the immateriality and immortality of the soul had their origin in these poetical musings. His study was the kitchen, where his wife’s bellows served him for a desk; and he wrote amidst the cries and cradlings of his children. Paine’s “Age of Reason” having come out about this time, and excited great interest amongst young readers, he composed a pamphlet in refutation of its arguments, which was published. He used afterwards to say that it was the “Age of Reason” that made him an author. Various pamphlets from his pen now appeared in rapid succession, and a few years later, whilst still working on at shoemaking, he wrote and published his admirable “Essay on the Immateriality and Immortality of the Human Soul,” which he sold for twenty pounds, a great sum in his estimation at the time. The book went through many editions, and is still prized.
He was in no wise puffed up by his success, as many young authors are, but, long after he had become celebrated as a writer, used to be seen sweeping the street before his door, or helping his apprentices to carry in the winter’s coals. Some one telling him that he compromised his dignity by so doing, he replied, “The man who is ashamed to carry in his own coals deserves to sit all the winter by an empty grate.” Nor could he, for some time, bring himself to regard literature as a profession to live by. His first care was to secure an honest livelihood by his business, and to put into the “lottery of literary success,” as he termed it, only the surplus of his
time. But a new and honorable sphere of life now opened before him; and, at the invitation of Dr. Coke, he entered into an engagement with that gentleman to assist him in the arrangement and completion of certain works in which he was engaged. He continued an active literary career in connection with the Wesleyan body, editing one of their magazines, and superintending the publication of many of their denominational works, writing also in the “Eclectic Review,” compiling and publishing a valuable history of his native county, Cornwall, with numerous other works. Of himself he truly said, “Raised from one of the lowest stations in society, I have endeavored through life to bring my family into a state of respectability, by honest industry, frugality, and a high regard for my moral character. Divine Providence smiled on my exertions, and crowned my wishes with success.”
The late Joseph Hume pursued a different career in life, but worked in an equally conscientious spirit. He was a man of moderate parts, but of great industry, and unimpeachable honesty of purpose. The motto of his life was “Perseverance,” and well he acted up to it. His father dying while he was a mere child, his mother opened a small shop in Montrose, and toiled hard to maintain her family and bring them up respectably. Joseph she put apprentice to a surgeon, and educated for the medical profession. Having got his diploma, he made several voyages to India as ship’s surgeon,
*4 and afterwards obtained a cadetship in the Company’s service.
None worked harder, or lived more temperately, than he did; and, securing the confidence of his superiors, who found him a capable man in the performance of his duty, they gradually promoted him to higher rank. In 1803 he was with the division of the army under General Powell in the Mahratta war; and the interpreter having died, Hume, who had meanwhile studied and mastered the native languages, was appointed to the office. He was also made chief of the medical staff. But as if this were not enough to occupy his full working-power, he undertook in addition the offices of paymaster and postmaster, and satisfactorily performed their duties. He also undertook large contracts for supplying the commissariat, which he conducted with advantage to the army and profit to himself. After about ten years’ unremitting labor, he returned to England with a competency; and one of his first acts was to make provision for the poorer members of his family.
But Joseph Hume was not a man idly to enjoy the fruits of his industry; indeed, work and occupation were necessary for his comfort and happiness. To make himself fully acquainted with the actual state of his own
country and the condition of the people, he visited every town in the United Kingdom which enjoyed any degree of manufacturing celebrity. Afterwards he travelled abroad, gathering a store of experience of men and states. Returned to England, he entered Parliament in 1812, and continued a member of that assembly, with a short interruption, for a period of about thirty-four years. His first recorded speech was on the subject of public education, and throughout his long and honorable career he took an active and earnest interest in that and all other questions calculated to elevate and improve the condition of the people,—criminal reform, savings-banks, free-trade, economy and retrenchment, extended representation, and such like measures, all of which he indefatigably promoted. Whatever subject he undertook, he worked at with all his might. He was not a good speaker, but what he said was believed to proceed from the lips of an honest, single-minded, accurate man. If ridicule, as Shaftesbury says, be the test of truth, Joseph Hume stood the test well. No man was more laughed at, but there he stood perpetually, and literally, “at his post.” He was usually beaten on a division, but the influence which he exercised was nevertheless deeply felt, and many important financial improvements were effected by him even with the vote directly against him. The amount of hard work which he contrived to get through was something extraordinary. He rose at six, wrote letters and arranged his papers for the House; then, after breakfast, he received persons on business, sometimes as many as twenty in a morning. The House rarely assembled without him, and though the debate were prolonged to two or three o’clock in the following morning, be sure you would find Mr. Hume’s name in any division that took place.
In short, to perform the work which Mr. Hume did, extending over so long a period, in the face of so many administrations, week after week, year after year,—to be outvoted, beaten, laughed at, standing on many occasions almost alone,—to persevere in the face of every discouragement, preserving his temper unruffled, never relaxing in his energy or his hope, and living to see the greater number of his measures adopted with acclamation, must be regarded as one of the most marvellous things of its kind in the history of human character.