Many men have been obscure in their origin and birth, but great and glorious in life and death.
They have been born and nurtured in villages, but have reigned and triumphed in cities. They
were first laid in the mangers of poverty and obscurity, but have afterwards become possessors
of thrones and palaces. Their fame is like the pinnacle which ascends higher and higher, until
at last it becomes a most conspicuous and towering object of attraction.
Columbus was the son of a weaver, and a weaver himself. Cervantes was a common soldier.
Homer was the son of a small farmer. Moliere was the son of a tapestry maker. Demosthenes
was the son of a cutler. Terrence was a slave. Oliver Cromwell was the son of a London brewer.
Howard was an apprentice to a grocer. Franklin was the son of a tallow-chandler and soap
boiler. Dr. Thomas, Bishop of Worcester, was the son of a linen-draper. Daniel Defoe, was a
hostler and son of a butcher. Whitfield was the son of an inn-keeper. Virgil was the son of a
porter. Horace was the son of a shop keeper. Shakespeare was the son of a wood stapler.
Milton was the son of a money scrivener. Robert Burns was a plowman in Ayrshire.
Mohammed, called the prophet, was a driver of asses. Madame Bernadotte was a
washerwoman of Paris. Napoleon was of an obscure family of Corsica. John Jacob Astor once
sold apples on the streets of New York. Catherine, Empress of Russia, was a camp-follower.
Cincinnatus was plowing in his vineyard when the dictatorship of Rome was offered him. Elihu
Burritt was a blacksmith. Daniel Webster, while young, worked on a farm. Henry Clay was
"the mill-boy of the slashes."
The young man who thinks of taking a short cut to fortune, should deliberately write down the
names of a dozen of our richest men, and he will find that the largest part of the wealth of the
Astors and Browns and Stewarts and Vanderbilts was accumulated after they had passed their
"Without fame or fortune at forty, without fame or fortune always" is the sentiment of many,
oftener expressed by the saying, that if a man is not rich at forty, he never will be. It was after
forty that Sir Walter Scott became the great unknown; it was after forty that Palmerston was
found to be England's greatest prime minister of the century. At that age, many who now
appear prominently in our political history were obscure citizens. Howe, of the
sewing-machine, was utterly destitute at thirty-five, a millionaire six years later.
A long time ago, a little boy, twelve years old, on his road to Vermont, stopped at a country
tavern, and paid for his lodging and breakfast by sawing wood, instead of asking for food as a
gift. Fifty years later, the same boy passed that same little inn as George Peabody, the banker,
whose name is the synonym of magnificent charities - the honored of two hemispheres. He was
born poor in Danvers, Mass., and by beginning right and pursuing a course of strict honesty,
integrity, industry, activity and Christian benevolence, he has been able to amass great wealth.
Some years since he made a generous gift to his native town; and also remembered the city of
Baltimore, Maryland, where he long resided, by a liberal donation. For nearly twenty-five
years, having done business in London, and being past sixty years old, he had given 150,000
Lyra - nearly $750,000 - to be devoted to the benefit of the poor of that city.
When Cornelius Vanderbilt was a young man, his mother gave him fifty dollars of her savings
to buy a small sail-boat, and he engaged in the business of transporting market-gardening from
Staten Island to New York city. When the wind was not favorable he would work his way over
the shoals by pushing the boat along by poles, putting his own shoulder to the pole, and was
very sure to get his freight to market in season. This energy gave him always a command of full
freights, and he accumulated money. After awhile he began to build and run steamboats, and
he died worth more than eighty-five millions of dollars.
Mr. Tobin, formerly President of the Hudson River Railroad Company, is a millionaire. He is
not yet forty years of age. He began life as a steamboat clerk with Commodore Vanderbilt.
When he took his position the Commodore gave him two orders: first, to collect fare of
everybody and have no deadheads on the boat; second, to start the boat on time, and wait for
nobody. The Commodore then lived at Staten Island. Tobin obeyed his orders so literally that
he collected fare of the Commodore the first evening, and left him on the wharf the next
morning, as the boat could not wait. The Commodore was coming down the wharf leisurely,
and supposed, of course, the boat would wait for him. He proved a man after Vanderbilt's own
heart. He became his confidential clerk and broker, bought and sold Harlem and made for
himself a fortune.
Stephen Girard left his native country at the age of ten or twelve years, as a cabin boy on a
vessel. He came to New York in that capacity. His deportment was distinguished by such
fidelity, industry and temperance, that he won the attachment and confidence of his master,
who generally bestowed upon him the appellation of "my Stephen." When his master gave up
business he promoted Girard to the command of a small vessel. Girard was a self-taught man,
and the world was his school. It was a favorite theme with him, when he afterwards grew rich,
to relate that he commenced life with a sixpence, and to insist that a man's best capital was his
industry. All professions and all occupations, which afforded a just reward for labor, were
alike honorable in his estimation. He was never too proud to work.
In the time of the yellow fever, in 1793, when consternation had seized the whole population of
the city of Philadelphia, Stephen Girard, then a rich merchant, offered his services as a nurse
in the hospital. His offers were accepted, and in the performance of the most loathsome duties,
he walked unharmed in the midst of the pestilence. He used to say to his friend, "When you are
sick, if anything ails you, do not go to a doctor, but come to me, I will cure you."
Far back in the teens of the present century, a young man asked for employment in the
Springfield armory; but he was poor and modest, and had no friends, so he went away without
it; but, feeling the man within him, he sought work until he found it. An age later, he visited
that armory a second time, not as a common day-laborer, but as the ablest speaker of the
House of Representatives, and for many years Governor of Massachusetts.
Of P. R. Spencer, the author of the Spencerian system of penmanship, it is said that, "the
smooth sand beach of Lake Erie constituted the foolscap in and on which, for want of other
material, he perfected essentially the system which meets such general favor in our common
and commercial schools, and in our business and literary circles." When we reflect upon the
immense popularity of his system, which, passing beyond the limits of our own country, has
been re-engraved in England, is used in the model counting rooms of London, Liverpool and
Manchester, and is also the adopted system of the English Department of the University of
Zurich, in Switzerland, we must accord to its honored author chaste and elevated powers of
conception, with bold and tireless grasp, of just apprehension, and agree that the barefooted
boy of fifty years ago must have been thinking, and thinking aright, and thinking with no
ordinary mind, when he gave to his coinings in the sands such vitality of science that the world
has adopted and embalmed them as the most beautiful imagery of "the art."
Masons and bricklayers can boast of Ben Jonson, who worked at the building of Lincoln's Inn
with a trowel in his hand and a book in his pocket; Edwards and Telford, the engineers; Hugh
Miller, the geologist, and Allen Cunningham, the writer and sculptor. John Hunter, the
physiologist, Ronevey and Opie, the painters, Professor Lee, the orientalist, and John Gibbons,
the sculptor, were carpenters. Wilson, the ornithologist, Dor. Livingstone, the missionary
traveler, and Tannahill, the poet, were weavers. Samuel Drew, the essayist, and Gifford, the
editor of the "Quarterly Review," were shoemakers. Admiral Hobson, one of the gallantest of
British seaman, was originally a tailor.
It is not good for human nature to have the road of life made too easy. Better to be under the
necessity of working hard and fairing meanly, than to have everything done ready to our hand,
and a pillow of down to repose upon. Indeed, to start in life with comparatively small means
seems so necessary as a stimulus to work, that it may almost be set down as one of the essential
conditions to success in life. Hence an eminent judge, when asked what contributed most to
success at the bar, replied, "Some succeed by great talent, some by high connections, some by
miracle, but the majority by commencing without a shilling." So it is a common saying that the
men who are most successful in business are those who begin the world in their shirt sleeves;
whereas, those who begin with fortunes generally lose them. Necessity is always the first
stimulus to industry, and those who conduct it with prudence, perseverance and energy will
rarely fail. Viewed in this light, the necessity of labor is not a chastisement, but a blessing ---
the very root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations. It
may, indeed, be questioned whether a heavier curse could be imposed on man than the
complete gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes,
desires, or struggles. The feeling that life is destitute of any motive or necessity for action, must
be, of all others, the most distressing and the most insupportable to a rational being.
Poor Boys and Great Eminence
The Royal Path of Life - Aims and Aids to Success and Happiness - 1882 by T.L. Haines & L.W. Yaggy