Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

kind and excellent Buckminster sought especially to persuade me to perform the exercise of declamation, like other boys, but I could not do it. Many a piece did I commit to memory, and recite and rehearse in my own room, over and over again; yet when the day came, when the school collected to hear declamations, when my name was called, and I saw all eyes turned to my seat, I could not raise myself from it. Sometimes the instructors frowned, sometimes they smiled. Mr. Buck. minster always pressed and entreated, most winningly, that I would venture. But I never could command sufficient resolution.” Such diffidence of its own powers may be natural to genius, nervously fearful of being unable to reach that ideal which it proposes as the only full consummation of its wishes. It is fortunate, however, for the age, fortunate for all ages, that Mr. Webster by determined will and frequent trial overcame this moral incapacity, as his great prototype, the Grecian orator, subdued his physical defect.”—pp. 12, 13.

The effect produced, even at that early period of Mr. Webster's life, on the mind of a close observer of his mental powers, is strikingly illustrated by the following anecdote. Mr. Nicholas Emery, afterwards a distinguished lawyer and judge, and now living in Portland, was temporarily employed, at that time, as an usher in the Academy. On entering the Academy, Mr. Webster was placed in the lowest class, which consisted of half a dozen boys, of no remarkable brightness of intellect. Mr. Emery was the instructor of this class, among others. At the end of a month, after morning recitations, “Webster,” said Mr. Emery, “you will pass into the other room and join a higher class”; and added, “Boys, you will take your final leave of Webster, you will never see him again.”

After a few months well spent at Exeter, Mr. Webster returned home, and in February, 1797, was placed by his father under the Rev. Samuel Wood, the minister of the neighboring town of Boscawen. He lived in Mr. Wood's family, and for board and instruction the entire charge was one dollar per week.

On their way to Mr. Wood's, Mr. Webster's father first opened to his son, now fifteen years old, the design of sending him to college, the thought of which had never before entered his mind. The advantages of a college education were a privilege to which he had never aspired in his most ambitious dreams. “I remember,” says Mr. Webster, in an autobiographical memorandum of his boyhood, “the very hill which we

[ocr errors]

were ascending, through deep snows, in a New England sleigh, when my father made known this purpose to me. I could not speak. How could he, I thought, with so large a family and in such narrow circumstances, think of incurring so great an expense for me. A warm glow ran all over me, and I laid my head on my father's shoulder and wept.” In truth, a college education was a far different affair fifty years ago from what it has since become, by the multiplication of collegiate institutions, and the establishment of public funds in aid of those who need assistance. It constituted a person at once a member of an intellectual aristocracy. In many cases it really conferred qualifications, and in all was supposed to do so, without which professional and public life could not be entered upon with any hope of success. In New England, at that time, it was not a common occurrence that any one attained a respectable position in either of the professions without this advantage. In selecting the member of the family who should enjoy this privilege, the choice not unfrequently fell upon the son whose slender frame and early indications of disease unfitted him for the laborious life of our New England yeomanry. From February till August, 1797, Mr. Webster remained under the instruction of Mr. Wood, at Boscawen, and completed his preparation for college. It is hardly necessary to say, that the preparation was imperfect. There is probably no period in the history of the country at which the standard of classical literature stood lower than it did at the close of the last century. The knowledge of Greek and Latin brought by our forefathers from England had almost run out in the lapse of nearly two centuries, and the signal revival which has taken place within the last thirty years had not yet begun. Still, however, when we hear of a youth of fifteen preparing himself for college by a year's study of Greek and Latin, we must recollect that the attainments which may be made in that time by a young man of distinguished talent, at the period of life when the faculties develop themselves with the greatest energy, studying night and day, summer and winter, under the master influence of hope, ambition, and necessity, are not to be measured by the tardy progress of the thoughtless or languid children of prosperity, sent to school from the time they are able to go alone, and carried along by routine and discipline from year to WOL. I. c

year, in the majority of cases without strong personal motives to diligence. Besides this, it is to be considered that the studies which occupy this usually prolonged novitiate are those which are required for the acquisition of grammatical and metrical niceties, the elegancies and the luxuries of scholarship. Short as was his period of preparation, it enabled Mr. Webster to lay the foundation of a knowledge of the classical writers, especially the Latin, which was greatly increased in college, and which has been kept up by constant recurrence to the great models of antiquity, during the busiest periods of active life. The happiness of Mr. Webster's occasional citations from the Latin classics is a striking feature of his oratory. Mr. Webster entered college in 1797, and passed the four academic years in assiduous study. He was not only distinguished for his attention to the prescribed studies, but devoted himself to general reading, especially to English history and literature. He took part in the publication of a little weekly newspaper, furnishing selections from books and magazines, with an occasional article from his own pen. He delivered addresses, also, before the college societies, some of which were published. The winter vacations brought no relaxation. Like those of so many of the meritorious students at our places of education, they were employed in teaching school, for the purpose of eking out his own frugal means and aiding his brother to prepare himself for college. The attachment between the two brothers was of the most affectionate kind, and it was by the persuasion of Daniel that the father had been induced to extend to Ezekiel also the benefits of a college education. The genial and companionable spirit of Mr. Webster is still remembered by his classmates, and by the close of his first college year he had given proof of powers and aspirations which placed him far above rivalry among his associates. “It is known,” says Mr. Ticknor, “in many ways, that, by those who were acquainted with him at this period of life, he was already regarded as a marked man, and that to the more sagacious of them the honors of his subsequent career have not been unexpected.” Mr. Webster completed his college course in August, 1801, and immediately entered the office of Mr. Thompson, the nextdoor neighbor of his father, as a student of law. Mr. Thompson was a gentleman of education and intelligence, and, at a later period, a respectable member, successively, of the House of Representatives and Senate of the United States. He maintained a high character till his death. Mr. Webster remained in his office as a student till, in the words of Mr. March, “he felt it necessary to go somewhere and do something to earn a little money.” In this emergency, application was made to him to take charge of an academy at Fryeburg in Maine, upon a salary of about one dollar per diem, being what is now paid for the coarsest kind of unskilled manual labor. As he was able, besides, to earn enough to pay for his board and to defray his other expenses by acting as assistant to the register of deeds for the county, his salary was all saved, – a fund for his own professional education and to help his brother through college. Mr. Webster's son and one of his friends have lately visited Fryeburg and examined these records of deeds. They are still preserved in two huge folio volumes, in Mr. Webster's handwriting, exciting wonder how so much work could be done in the evening, after days of close confinement to the business of the school. They looked also at the records of the trustees of the academy and found in them a most respectful and affectionate vote of thanks and good-will to Mr. Webster when he took leave of the employment." These humble details need no apology. They relate to trials, hardships, and efforts which constitute no small part of the discipline by which a great character is formed. During his residence at Fryeburg, Mr. Webster borrowed (he was too poor to buy) Blackstone's Commentaries, and read them for the first time. “Among other mental exercises,” says Mr. March, “he committed to memory Mr. Ames's celebrated speech on the British treaty.” In after life he has been heard to say, that few things moved him more than the perusal and reperusal of this celebrated speech. In September, 1802, Mr. Webster returned to Salisbury, and resumed his studies under Mr. Thompson, in whose office he remained for eighteen months. Mr. Thompson, though, as we have said, a person of excellent character and a good lawyer, yet seems not to have kept pace in his profession with the progress of improvement. Although Blackstone's Commentaries had been known in this country for a full generation, Mr. Thompson still directed the reading of his pupils on the principle of the hardest book first. Coke's Littleton was still the work with which his students were broken into the study of the profession. Mr. Webster has condemned this practice. “A boy of twenty,” says he, “with no previous knowledge of such subjects, cannot understand Coke. It is folly to set him upon such an author. There are propositions in Coke so abstract, and distinctions so nice, and doctrines embracing so many distinctions and qualifications, that it requires an effort not only of a mature mind, but of a mind both strong and mature, to understand him. Why disgust and discourage a young man by telling him he must break into his profession through such a wall as this 2° Acting upon these views, even in his youth, Mr. Webster gave his attention to more intelligible authors, and to titles of law of greater importance in this country than the curious learning of tenures, many of which are antiquated, even in England. He also gave a good deal of time to general reading, and especially the study of the Latin classics, English history, and the volumes of Shakspeare. In order to obtain a wider compass of knowledge, and to learn something of the language not to be gained from the classics, he read through attentively Puffendorff's Latin History of England. In July, 1804, he took up his residence in Boston. Before entering upon the practice of his profession, he enjoyed the advantage of pursuing his legal studies for six or eight months in the office of the Hon. Christopher Gore. This was a fortunate event for Mr. Webster. Mr. Gore, afterwards Governor of Massachusetts, was a lawyer of eminence, a statesman and a civilian, a gentleman of the old school of manners, and a rare example of distinguished intellectual qualities, united with practical good sense and judgment. He had passed several years in England as a commissioner, under Jay's treaty, for liquidating the claims of citizens of the United States for seizures by British cruisers in the early wars of the French Revolution.

* The old school-house was burned down many years ago. The spot on which it stood belongs to Mr. Robert J. Bradley, who has inherited from his father a devoted friendship for Mr. Webster, and who would never suffer any o: building to be erected on the spot, and says that none shall be during his ife.

« AnteriorContinuar »