John Bromfield’s monument is more lasting than brass. It was he who left to the city of Newburyport, in Massachusetts, ten thousand dollars for planting and preserving trees in the streets, and keeping the sidewalks in order. The income of this bequest would not go far in any other sort of monument, but it has embowered his native city in beautiful trees. Every spring other trees are planted, and, as long as that bequest is faithfully administered, he cannot be forgotten.
Nothing brings a larger or surer return than money judiciously spent in making towns and cities pleasant. It not only yields a great revenue of pleasure and satisfaction to the inhabitants; it not only benefits every individual of them every hour, but it invites residents from abroad; it is a standing invitation to persons of taste and good sense. The wisest thing the city of New York ever did, next to the introduction of the Croton water, was the creation of the Central Park; the one feature which redeems the city from the disgrace of its dirty streets and its agonizing tenement region.
This John Bromfield, merchant, was just such a thoughtful and benevolent man as we should naturally expect to find him from his bequest. He belonged to a class of merchants which is rapidly becoming extinct. The cable telegraph and the steam freight ship are superseding the merchants of moderate capital, and are concentrating the great business of interchanging commodities in the hands of a few houses who reckon their capital by millions. Born at Newburyport, in 1779, he was brought up by excellent parents near Boston, who practiced the old-fashioned system of making him hardy and self-helpful. His mother used to say that when he was old enough to wear leather shoes she bored holes in the soles in order to accustom him to wet feet, so that he might be made less liable to catch cold from that cause. This appears to have been a custom of that generation, for it is recorded of the mother of Josiah Quincy that she would never let him take off his wet shoes, regarding it as an effeminate practice.
On approaching the time of entering college his father met with misfortunes and could not bear the expense. Two aunts of his, who could well afford it, offered to pay his expenses in college. He firmly declined the offer. The foundation of his character and career was a love of independence. He asked to be apprenticed, as the custom then was, to a mercantile house, and remained in it as long as it held together. After its failure he tried for months to obtain a clerkship, but, not succeeding, he arranged with a carpenter to learn his trade. Just before putting on the carpenter’s apron an opening occurred in his own business, and he became a merchant. About the year 1801 he went out to China as supercargo, and continued to visit that part of the world in similar capacities for many years, occasionally making small ventures of his own, and slowly accumulating a little capital. He had a series of the most discouraging misfortunes. In the year 1813 he wrote to his sister from Cadiz: –
„It is a melancholy truth that in the whole course of my life I never arrived at a good market.”
On that occasion everything promised well. He had a ship full of valuable goods, and the market to which he was carrying them was in an excellent condition for his purpose, but within twenty-four hours of his port he was captured, and detained ten weeks a prisoner. After the peace of 1815, merchants could send their ships across the ocean without fear of their being taken by English or French cruisers. From that time he had better luck, and gradually gained a moderate fortune, upon which he retired. He never kept a store, or had any sort of warehouse, but made his fortune by sending or taking merchandise from a port which had too much of it to one that was in want of it.
On one of his winter passages to Europe he found the sailors suffering extremely from handling frozen ropes, as they were not provided with mittens. Being a Yankee, and having been brought up to do things as well as read about them, he took one of his thick overcoats and made with his own hands a pair of mittens for every sailor.
On another occasion, in the ship Atahualpa, in 1809, bound to China, the vessel was attacked off Macao by pirates, in twenty-two junks, some of them being twice the tonnage of the vessel. Captain Sturgis, who commanded the vessel, defended her with signal ability and courage, and kept the pirates off for forty minutes, until the vessel gained the protection of the fort. John Bromfield, a passenger on board, took command of a gun, and seconded the endeavors of the captain with such coolness and promptitude as to contribute essentially to the protection of the vessel.
In retirement he lived a quiet life in Boston, unmarried, fond of books, and practicing unusual frugality for a person in liberal circumstances. He had a singular abhorrence of luxury, waste, and ostentation. He often said that the cause of more than half the bankruptcies was spending too much money. Nothing could induce him to accept personal service. He was one of those men who wait upon themselves, light their own fire, reduce their wants to the necessaries of civilized life, and all with a view to a more perfect independence. He would take trouble to oblige others, but could not bear to put any one else to trouble. This love of independence was carried to excess by him, and was a cause of sorrow to his relations and friends.
He was a man of maxims, and one of them was: –
„The good must merit God’s peculiar care, And none but God can tell us who they are.”
Another of his favorite couplets was Pope’s: –
„Reason’s whole pleasure, all the joys of sense, Lie in three words: health, peace, and competence.”
He used to quote Burns’s stanza about the desirableness of wealth: –
„Not to hide it in a hedge, Nor for a train attendant; But for the glorious privilege Of being independent.”
He was utterly opposed to the way in which business was then conducted – hazardous enterprises undertaken upon borrowed capital. The excessive credit formerly given was the frequent theme of his reprobation.
How changed the country, even in the short space of sixty years! In 1825 he made a journey from Boston to New Orleans, and his letters show curious glimpses of life and travel as they then were. Leaving Boston at four o’clock on a Friday morning, he reached New York at ten o’clock on Saturday morning, and he speaks of this performance with astonishment. Boston to New York in thirty hours! He was in New York November 4, 1825, when the opening of the Erie Canal was celebrated. He did not care much for the procession.
„There was, however,” he adds, „an interesting exhibition of steamboats, probably greater than could be found at any other place in the world; say, from twenty-five to thirty, and most of them of a large class.”
He was in the valley of the Ohio that year, and he spoke of it „as the land of cheapness:” flour, two dollars and a quarter a barrel; oats, twelve and a half cents a bushel; corn and rye, twenty cents; coal, three cents. He found all the region from Louisville to Louisiana „one vast wilderness,” with scarcely any settlements, and now and then a log hut on the banks, occupied by the people who cut wood for the steamboats. On the prairies of Missouri he rode miles and miles without seeing a house. Indiana was an almost unbroken wilderness: corn ten cents a bushel, a wild turkey twelve and half cents, and other things in proportion.
Nevertheless, travelers at that day had some pleasures which could be advantageously compared with the ease and comfort of the Pullman car. The Alleghanies were then crossed by open wagons drawn by splendid Pennsylvania horses, six in a team, gayly decorated with ribbons, bells, and trappings. He used to repeat, in a peculiarly buoyant and delightful manner, a popular song of the day, called „The Wagoner,” suggested by the apparently happy lot of the boys who rode and drove these horses. Some readers may remember the old song, beginning: –
„I’ve often thought if I were asked Whose lot I envied most, What one I thought most lightly tasked Of man’s unnumbered host, I’d say I’d be a mountain boy And drive a noble team – wo hoy! Wo hoy! I’d cry, And lightly fly Into my saddle seat; My rein I’d slack, My whip I’d crack – What music is so sweet? Six blacks I’d drive, of ample chest, All carrying high their head. All harnessed tight, and gaily dressed In winkers tipped with red. Oh, yes! I’d be a mountain boy, And such a team I’d drive – wo hoy! Wo hoy! I’d cry; The lint should fly. Wo hoy! Dobbin, Ball. Their feet should ring, And I would sing, I’d sing my fal-de-roll.”
We have almost forgotten that such a gay mode of crossing the Alleghanies was ever practiced; and yet a person need not be very old to have enjoyed the experience. I myself, for example, can just remember riding from Buffalo to New York by a line of stages that came round by the Alleghany Mountains, and crossed the State of New Jersey, passing through Morristown. We were just six days in performing the journey.
This excellent man, after a tranquil and happy life, died in 1849, aged seventy, and left considerable sums to benevolent societies. His estate proved to be of about two hundred thousand dollars value, which was then considered very large, and he bestowed something more than half of it upon institutions for mitigating human woe. Ten thousand of it he gave for the promotion of pleasure, and the evidences of his forethought and benevolence are waving and rustling above my head as these lines are written. His memory is green in Newburyport. All the birds and all the lovers, all who walk and all who ride, the gay equestrian and the dusty wayfarer, the old and the invalid who can only look out of the window, all owe his name a blessing.