« AnteriorContinuar »
father had established on the outskirts of civilization. If the character and situation of the place, and the circumstances under which he passed the first years of his life, might seem adverse to the early cultivation of his extraordinary talent, it still cannot be doubted that they possessed influences favorable to elevation and strength of character. The hardships of an infant settlement and border life, the traditions of a long series of Indian wars, and of two mighty national contests, in which an honored parent had borne his part, the anecdotes of Fort William Henry, of Quebec, of Bennington, of West Point, of Wolfe and Stark and Washington, the great Iliad and Odyssey of American Independence,—this was the fireside entertainment of the long winter evenings of the secluded village home. Abroad, the uninviting landscape, the harsh and craggy outline of the hills broken and relieved only by the funereal hemlock and the “cloud seeking” pine, the lowlands traversed in every direction by unbridged streams, the tall, charred trunks in the cornfields, that told how stern had been the struggle with the boundless woods, and, at the close of the year, the dismal scene which presents itself in high latitudes in a thinly settled region, when “the snows descend; and, foul and fierce, All winter drives along the darkened air ''; —
these are circumstances to leave an abiding impression on the mind of a thoughtful child, and induce an early maturity of character.
Mr. March has described an incident of Mr. Webster's earliest youth in a manner so graphical, that we are tempted to repeat it in his own words: —
“In Mr. Webster's earliest youth an occurence of such a nature took place, which affected him deeply at the time, and has dwelt in his memory ever since. There was a sudden and extraordinary rise in the Merrimack River, in a spring thaw. A deluge of rain for two whole days poured down upon the houses. A mass of mingled water and snow rushed madly from the hills, inundating the fields far and wide. The highways were broken up, and rendered undistinguishable. There was no way for neighbors to interchange visits of condolence or necessity, save by boats, which came up to the very door-steps of the houses.
“Many things of value were swept away, even things of bulk. A large barn, full fifty feet by twenty, crowded with hay and grain, sheep, chickens, and turkeys, sailed majestically down the river, before the eyes of the astonished inhabitants; who, no little frightened, got ready to fly to the mountains, or construct another ark. “The roar of waters, as they rushed over precipices, casting the foam and spray far above, the crashing of the forest-trees as the storm broke through them, the immense sea everywhere in range of the eye, the sublimity, even danger, of the scene, made an indelible impression upon the mind of the youthful observer. “Occurrences and scenes like these excite the imaginative faculty, furnish material for proper thought, call into existence new emotions, give decision to character, and a purpose to action.” – pp. 7, 8.
It may well be supposed that Mr. Webster's early opportunities for education were very scanty. It is indeed correctly remarked by Mr. Ticknor, in reference to this point, that “in New England, ever since the first free school was established amidst the woods that covered the peninsula of Boston in 1636, the schoolmaster has been found on the border line between savage and civilized life, often indeed with an axe to open his own path, but always looked up to with respect, and always carrying with him a valuable and preponderating influence.” Still, however, compared with any thing that would be called a good school in this region and at the present time, the schools which existed on the frontier sixty years ago were sadly defective. Many of our district schools even now are below their reputation. The Swedish Chancellor's exclamation of wonder at the little wisdom with which the world is governed, might well be repeated at the little learning and skill with which the scholastic world in too many parts of our country is still taught. In Mr. Webster's boyhood it was much worse. Something that was called a school was kept for two or three months in the winter, frequently by an itinerant, too often a pretender, claiming only to teach a little reading, writing, and ciphering, and wholly incompetent to give any valuable assistance to a clever youth in learning either.
Such as the village school was, Mr. Webster enjoyed its advantages, if they could be called by that name. It was, however, of a migratory character. When it was near his father's residence it was easy to attend; but it was sometimes in a distant part of the town, and sometimes in another town. While he was quite young, he was daily sent two miles and a half or three miles to school in mid-winter and on foot. If the school-house lay in the same direction with the miller or the blacksmith, an occasional ride might be hoped for. If the school was removed to a still greater distance, he was boarded at a neighbor's. Poor as these opportunities of education were, they were bestowed on Mr. Webster more liberally than on his brothers. He showed a greater eagerness for learning; and he was thought of too frail a constitution for any robust pursuit. An older half-brother good-humoredly said, that “Dan was sent to school that he might get to know as much as the other boys.” It is probable that the best part of his education was derived from the judicious and experienced father, and the strong-minded, affectionate, and ambitious mother.
Mr. Webster's first master was Thomas Chase. He could read tolerably well, and wrote a fair hand; but spelling was not his forte. His second master was James Tappan, now living at an advanced age in Gloucester, Massachusetts. His qualifications as a teacher far exceeded those of Master Chase. The worthy veteran, now dignified with the title of Colonel, feels a pride, it may well be supposed, in the same of his quondam pupil. He lately addressed a letter to him, recounting some of the incidents of his own life since he taught school at Salisbury. This unexpected communication from his aged teacher drew from Mr. Webster the following answer, in which a handsome gratuity was inclosed, more, probably, than the old gentleman ever received for a winter's teaching at “New Salisbury.” "
“Washington, February 26, 1851.
“MASTER TAPPAN, - I thank you for your letter, and am rejoiced to know that you are among the living. I remember you perfectly well as a teacher of my infant years. I suppose my mother must have taught me to read very early, as I have never been able to recollect the time when I could not read the Bible. I think Master Chase was my earliest schoolmaster, probably when I was three or four years old. Then came Master Tappan. You boarded at our house, and sometimes, I think, in the family of Mr. Benjamin Sanborn, our neighbor, the lame man. Most of those whom you knew in ‘New Salisbury' have gone to their graves. Mr. John Sanborn, the son of Benjamin, is yet living, and is about your age. Mr. John Colby, who married my oldest sister, Susannah, is also living. On the “North Road' is Mr. Benjamin Hunton, and on the “South Road' is Mr. Benjamin Pettengil. I think of none else among the living whom you would probably remember. “You have indeed lived a checkered life. I hope you have been able to bear prosperity with meekness, and adversity with patience. These things are all ordered for us far better than we could order them for ourselves. We may pray for our daily bread; we may pray for the forgiveness of sins; we may pray to be kept from temptation, and that the kingdom of God may come, in us, and in all men, and his will everywhere be done. Beyond this, we hardly know for what good to supplicate the Divine Mercy. Our Heavenly Father knoweth what we have need of better than we know ourselves, and we are sure that his eye and his loving-kindness are upon us and around us every moment. “I thank you again, my good old schoolmaster, for your kind letter, which has awakened many sleeping recollections; and, with all good wishes, I remain your friend and pupil, t “DANIEL WEBSTER. “MR. JAMES TAPPAN.”
* Fifty dollars. The knowledge of this fact is derived from the “Gloucester News,” to which it was no doubt communicated by Master Tappan.
He derived, also, no small benefit from the little social library, which, chiefly by the exertions of Mr. Thompson (the intelligent lawyer of the place), the clergyman, and Mr. Webster's father, had been founded in Salisbury. The attention of the people of New Hampshire had been called to this mode of promoting general and popular education by Dr. Belknap. In the patriotic address to the people of New Hampshire, at the close of his excellent History, he says: —
“This (the establishment of social libraries) is the easiest, the cheapest, and the most effectual mode of diffusing knowledge among the people. For the sum of six or eight dollars at once, and a small annual payment besides, a man may be supplied with the means of literary improvement during his life, and his children may inherit the blessing.”.”
From the village library at Salisbury, founded on recommendations like these, Mr. Webster was able to obtain a moderate supply of good reading. It is quite worth noticing, that his attention, like that of Franklin, was in early boyhood attracted to the Spectator. Franklin, as is well known, studiously formed nis style on that of Addison; — and a considerable resemblance may be traced between them. There is no such resemblance
* Belknap's History of New Hampshire, Vol. III. p. 328.
between Mr. Webster's style and that of Addison, unless it be the negative merit of freedom from balanced sentences, hard words, and inversions. It may, no doubt, have been partly owing to his early familiarity with the Spectator, that he escaped in youth from the turgidity and pomp of the Johnsonian school, and grew up to the mastery of that direct and forcible, but not harsh and affected sententiousness, that masculine simplicity, with which his speeches and writings are so strongly marked. The year before Mr. Webster was born was rendered memorable in New Hampshire by the foundation of the Academy at Exeter, through the munificence of the Honorable John Phillips. His original endowment is estimated by Dr. Belknap at nearly ten thousand pounds, which, in the comparative scarcity of money in 1781, cannot be considered as less than three times that amount at the present day. Few events are more likely to be regarded as eras in the history of that State. In the year 1788, Dr. Benjamin Abbot, soon afterwards its principal, became connected with the Academy as an instructor, and from that time it assumed the rank which it still maintains among the schools of the country. To this Academy Mr. Webster was taken by his father in May, 1796. He enjoyed the advantage of only a few months' instruction in this excellent school; but, short as the period was, his mind appears to have received an impulse of a most genial and quickening character. Nothing could be more graceful or honorable to both parties than the tribute paid by Mr. Webster to his ancient instructor, at the festival at Exeter, in 1838, in honor of Dr. Abbot's jubilee. While at the Academy, his studies were aided and his efforts encouraged by a pupil younger than himself, but who, having enjoyed better advantages of education in boyhood, was now in the senior class at Exeter, the early celebrated and lamented Joseph Stevens Buckminster. The following anecdote from Mr. March's work will not be thought out of place in this connection: —
“It may appear somewhat singular that the greatest orator of modern times should have evinced in his boyhood the strongest antipathy to public declamation. This fact, however, is established by his own words, which have recently appeared in print. “I believe,” says Mr. Webster, ‘I made tolerable progress in most branches which I attended to while in this school; but there was one thing I could not do. I could not make a declamation. I could not speak before the school. The