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 village.
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 Æneid 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 coöperation, not for fierce competition and bloody wars.
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 years.