The Life of Benjamin R. Tucker
Disclosed by Himself
3. Boyhood in New Bedford
While my parents were establishing themselves in New Bedford, they got
me out of their way temporarily by sending me on a visit to the house of
my grandfather Cummings, occupying on County Street the entire front extending
from Clinton Street to Arnold Street. These premises, then the property
and residence of Benjamin Cummings, are sill, sixty-seven years later,
the property and residence of Benjamin Cummings. The present owner, however,
is not my grandfather, but his namesake, my own cousin. Of him the reader
will learn more later, as he has made more noise in the world than ever
his grandfather did. I remember very well my grandfather's personal appearance,
but otherwise can recall nothing of him save that, during this visit, he
gave me twenty-five cents to induce me to address him as "Sir." The old
gentleman little realized then that he was getting lip-service from an
incipient anarchist at a very low price. Had he realized it, perhaps the
knowledge would have given him comfort, for he is believed to have taken
no little pride in being good at a bargain. It is a singular coincidence
that at an early age I was made an object of bribery by grandparents on
both sides of the house. My paternal grandfather paid me for the privilege
of bestowing a name upon me, while my maternal grandfather
paid me for the practice of bestowing a title upon him. I
have never heard that my grandfather Cummings was a hard master in his
household, but there is reason to believe that he preferred to hold the
purse-strings. When he married Cynthia Smith, she brought into the family
some money, which she promptly placed in her husband's name. Being cautioned
against this, she responded rather indignantly that she would be ashamed
to refuse to trust her money to a man to whom she was willing to trust
herself. Later in life she became a stout champion of women's independent
ownership, and I suspect that experience was as influential as thought
in inducing this change of view; not that her husband had administered
his trust unwisely, but that she perhaps, at times, had felt a certain
annoyance in not having her means immediately at her command.
As I must have been at least ten or eleven years old at the time of
my grandfather's death, I can account for my failure to recall him more
clearly only by the fact that my uncommonly good memory has sometimes played
me curious tricks. He had two brothers and a sister living almost side
by side in the village of North Dartmouth. His bachelor brother William
and his maiden sister Hetty lived together in a small house, while two
or three doors away lived his brother John (who was also my father's brother-in-law),
in a larger house, with his wife Elizabeth and a large family of children.
Benjamin, dying in 1865 or thereabouts, left an estate of some importance,
but William, with whom he was closely associated in real estate interests,
left a very much larger one, principally because he had no immediate family
and spent little or nothing, dying many years later in a condition of absolute
senility. (Though John was not rich, his children, like Benjamin's, inherited
from their uncle William. There were many heirs, but the property, for
those days, was large. Of course, my mother was one of the beneficiaries,
-- a fact that, because of its importance in the shaping of my career,
justifies this interruption of my story, which I now resume.
A Neglected Lesson in Self-Determination.
On County Street, two doors to the south of my grandfather's house, lived
a family by the name of Ricketson, with which the Cummings family was on
very friendly terms. There were three generations in the Ricketson house,
but it was spacious and there were rooms to spare. The head of the household,
being engaged in invention, was always on the eve of wealth, but never
witnessed prosperity's dawn. The necessity of eking out a too slender income
induced him to accept my father and his family as boarders until a favorable
opportunity for leasing a house should present itself. This ended my visit
at my grandfather's. I must have rejoined my parents in the early spring,
for it seems to me that we were in the Ricketson house when my father,
returning from his business, brought the news that Sumter had been fired
upon. Interesting though the news was, it seemed tome that it produced
an agitation disproportionate. Even at that age I was strong enough in
geography to know that Sumter was a long way off, and I saw no occasion
for immediate worry. My view of the matter did not prevail; it even took
four years for the excitement to wear off. Fortunate it was for me that
the affair occurred in 1861 instead of a dozen years later. Had the date
been 1873, I could hardly have escaped with anything less than a coat of
tar and feather, for by that time I had become a champion of self-determination,
-- the doctrine that Woodrow Wilson re-discovered more than forty years
afterwards, only to toy with it after all. Being myself an intrepid thinker,
I started with A and went to Z, without lingering over the Ps and Qs. Wilson,
on the other hand, being a self-seeking politician, was already to stop
with any intermediate letter of the alphabet, if that stage happened to
find him at the head of the procession.
Wilson's doctrine was presented to New Bedford just before the firing
on Sumter, and, if I had been older, I could have appreciated its force.
In a speech delivered in that city on April 9, 1861, in the presence of
a hissing audience, no less a person than Wendell Phillips said: "Here
are a series of States guiding the Gulf, who think that their peculiar
institutions require that they should have a separate government. They
have a right to decide that question, without appealing to you or me. A
large body of people, sufficient to make a nation, has come to the conclusion
that they will have a government of a certain form. Who denies them the
right? Standing with the principles of '76 behind us, who can deny them
the right?....I maintain, on the principles of '76 that Abraham Lincoln
has no right to a soldier in Fort Sumter.....Understand me: I believe in
the Union, exactly as you do, in the future. This is my proposition: 'Go
out, gentlemen; you are welcome to your empire; take it.' Let them try
the experiment of cheating with one hand and idleness with the other. I
know that God has written bankruptcy over such an experiment....When the
battles of Abraham Lincoln are ended, New England may claim the right to
It is little wonder that these sentiments were greeted with hisses.
In New Bedford, in 1861, even moderate self-determinationists had a
hard road to hoe. They were known as "copperheads," and among them were
some of the best men in the city. I was too young to realize their value.
My school days were beginning, during which I was to acquire the rudimentary
knowledge that would enable me to study for myself self-determination and
Directly across the street from the Ricketson house there was a private
school for juveniles, kept by a tall, plain, and effusive young woman,
Miss Ellen T. Congdon. Her father, James B. Congdon, was the City Treasurer,
and her uncle, Charles P. Congdon, was our editorial writer of no mean
ability on the staff of the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley.
She was my first school-teacher, and I doubt if the benefit of her tuition
amounted to more than a strengthening of my grasp upon such knowledge as
my mother had already imparted. When I was withdrawn from her school at
the end of a year, my principal feeling was one of relief at being freed
from the necessity of kissing twice a day a woman upon whom nature had
cruelly bestowed a luxuriant black moustache. Possibly this experience
helped to make me backward about killing the girls for long, long years
The Firm of Tucker & Cummings.
On or before our arrival in New Bedford, Tucker & Cummings had established
themselves as wholesale grocers at the foot of Union Street, near the wharves.
The venture was unfortunate, and soon ended in a bankruptcy. But the firm
succeeded in re-establishing itself (in what year I am unable to state;
probably about 1863) as a large grocery house, principally retail, in a
building which the brothers, Benjamin and William Cummings had just erected
on the corner of Purchase and William Streets, one of the best sites in
the city. This building, known from the start as Cummings Building, is
still standing, -- the property of an organization styled The Cummings
Estate Trust. The new grocery proved an instant success, but its history
may more properly be told at a later stage of my narrative.
In May 1861, my mother gave birth to another daughter, Alice, who lived
but little more than a year. She was named for my father's aunt, Mrs. Alice
Peckham, who lived in Westport with her husband, Peleg Peckham. They were
an old and childless couple, and had some property. I do not recollect
that I ever saw them. They died during the sixties, and their estate fell
to their neighbors (the Church family already spoken of) and to my father
and his family. In the distribution the younger generation was not forgotten.
My share, I believe, was one thousand dollars, which went into the bank
to keep company with the hundred given to me at my birth.
Summer in the Green Mountains.
Early in 1862 my father effected a three-year lease of a house at the southern
end of the city, on the corner of Bonney and Grinnell Streets. The premises
included an orchard. Leaving the Ricketson house, we were soon installed
in our new home. That spring my mother had an attack of rheumatism, and
the baby, Alice, was far from well. My mother, up to the time of her marriage,
had been sickly. My grandmother said that she had rarely known of so constant
a sufferer during the first thirty years of life. Marrying, however, at
the age of thirty-two, she became immediately a well woman, and, barring
this period of rheumatism in 1862, she remained in good health until her
final illness in 1903-4. With the approach of summer in 1862, my mother's
rheumatism lingering and the baby's condition not improving, my father
decided that the family must pass the months of July and August in the
Green Mountains of Vermont. It proved the first of a series of summer vacations
continuing through fifteen years. Summer tourism had not yet become a fashion
in the United States, and the civil war now being on, the tendency to remain
at home was stronger than before. Unable to afford the luxury of an established
resort, my father, by correspondence, contracted for a stay of two months
at a farm-house in the town of Middlesex, about six miles from Montpelier,
the capital of Vermont. The farmer made great preparations, and went, no
doubt, to some expense. Nevertheless, on our arrival, my mother, who was
always a bad traveller and who in this instance was of course the first
person to be considered, found the conditions too primitive to be tolerable,
and at once it was decided that we must move on. After considerable discussion
it was agreed that the payment of a certain sum should procure the cancellation
of the contract, but it was easy to see that the farmer's wife had her
opinion of "these stuck-up city folks." We had heard of a small town fifteen
miles farther north, Stowe, which, though not on the railway line, boasted
of a brick hotel, and we decided to try it. The hotel was small, but we
found the accommodations excellent. We were almost the only guests. Near
the foot of Mount Mansfield, which competed with the adjacent Camel's Hump
for the honor of being the highest peak in the range, we had a choice of
many beautiful excursions in large wagons drawn by four horses, -- to Montpelier,
or through Smugglers' Notch, or up the mountain itself. The region was
notable for its fine horses. In the stable belonging to the hotel was kept
a handsome black stallion, whose services were required almost daily by
the farmers thereabout. Thus the youth of the neighborhood, myself included,
were afforded abundant opportunity for close observation of the method
by which the equine race is perpetuated; and, reasoning by analogy, I arrived
at satisfactory conclusions concerning the survival of the human species.
It has always been characteristic of my mental make-up to put two and two
together. Here I may say, parenthetically, that in later life I chanced
to be one of a party of journalists invited by the management of Barnum's
circus to witness the manufacture of a baby elephant. In more ways than
one I have been a darling of the gods.
My father came from New Bedford for several week-ends, and once for
a fortnight's stay. We're returned early in September, my mother nearly
well, but Alice worse. Comfortable transportation was then unknown, and
the baby had no rest during the tedious journey, the cars were filled with
drunken and ill-behaved soldiers. As a result, she died before the month
Despite this untoward termination of our summer, my father, an enthusiast
by nature, lost thereafter no opportunity to sing the praises of Stowe.
All his friends in New Bedford heard of it; those in Boston also. And the
summer of 1863 saw the little brick hotel filled to overflowing. We passed
three successive summers there, -- that of 1864 in a large, new, wooden
hotel accommodating several hundred guests. The resort has been prosperous
ever since, and it may fairly be said that it owes its fortune to my father.
The Friends' Academy.
In the autumn of 1862, I think, I was placed in my second school, again
a private school, which had been carried on for many years by Mrs. Sylvia
Gerrish, an elderly lady who had not the kissing habit. There I really
began to learn. In fact, my progress was so rapid that in a year's time
I was ready, at the age of nine, to enter the Friends' Academy, the crack
school of New Bedford, corresponding in grade to the High School, opposite
which, at that period, it stood. Generally no pupils under the age of eleven
were accepted there, but an exception was made in my case. Mrs. Gerrish
insisted that I was ready, and put me through special examinations to prove
it. I remember, for instance, that in geography, then my favorite study,
I knew the entire text-book by heart, word for word.
The Friends' Academy, as its name implies, was founded by the Quaker
element in New Bedford, and stood in large grounds extending from Morgan
Street, the girls' side, to Elm Street, the boys'. The boys' playground
was especially spacious. The sexes were separated according to Quaker practice,
but pupils were received regardless of religious profession. Probably the
Unitarian denomination was represented among the pupils more largely than
any other. I do not remember that religious ceremonies played the least
part in the school exercises. In 1863 the institution was in charge of
two brothers, T.P. and Edward A.H. Allen, members of a large family of
pedagogues, seven or eight in all. T.P., as he was called, had charge of
the boys. The lowest class, in which I was placed, comprise about a dozen
members, all my mates being from one-and-a-half to three years older than
myself. I have two school reports rendered by T.P. to my parents, one dated
October 30, 1863, the other March 4, 1864. The first reads as follows:
"Reading: remarkably good. Spelling: excellent. Writing: painstaking
and improving. Drawing: excellent. Geometry: very faithful and studious.
Geography: entirely satisfactory. General Exercise: attentive and interested.
Written exercise very creditable.
"Benjamin's mind is not so mature as the other boys', and does not grasp
a subject quite so quickly; but he is exceedingly faithful, learns his
lessons well, and is making good progress. "
In my view, the ratings for drawing and geometry should have been transposed.
For drawing, I have no talent at all, whereas in geometry, from the moment
that I began its study, my mind grasped instantly every elementary problem
that I lacked the self-possession shown by boys two years my senior, but
I venture the opinion that a boy of nine who, competing with a boy of eleven,
does not lag behind, shows, in proportion to his years, the greater maturity.
The second report simply lists the studies without special comments,
and concludes thus:
"Benjamin continues to give us entire satisfaction. He appears interested
in his work and to understand thoroughly what he is about. The whole class
to which he belongs is an uncommonly pleasant and intelligent one, and
I think his progress in connection with it cannot but be rapid and solid."
In the second report grammar is listed among the studies. This is certainly
a mistake. Never in my life have I had a set lesson in English grammar,
strange as the fact may seem. My study of grammar began when I took up
Latin, and was confined to the structure of that language. At that time,
the architecture of speech came to me as a complete revelation. Subsequently
I studied it in connection with other tongues. But my sole instruction
in English grammar has consisted in correction of grammatical errors in
written exercises, unaccompanied by explanation or statement of rules.
In this branch my real knowledge has been acquired by constant reading
of good literature, as is indicated by the fact that I write correctly,
while my speech is far from what it should be. Through reading too has
come the art of composition, so far as I possess it.
My First Composition.
Only two or three times in my life has the task of writing a composition
been imposed upon me by a teacher. The first of these efforts, and the
only one preserved for posterity, bears no title or date, but as the words
"Very good," in T.P.'s handwriting, appear on the back of the short manuscript,
and as it deals with matters auditory, I infer that T.P. must have instructed
me in 1863 to prepare a paper on the subject of acoustics. I give it entire,
exactly as written, without T.P.'s corrections. The very poor English bears
out my statement that I had received no instruction in grammar. But the
essay is perhaps of interest as an exhibition of the curious conceits that
were then running riot in my youthful brain.
"The structure of the ear is the most difficult to find out about, of
any of the organs of the body. When a man makes a speech, that is so long
that it takes an hour and a half to make it to twenty thousand people,
every word of that speech falls distinctly, and at the same instant, on
every one of those forty thousand ears. If you are in a room all alone,
and you are turning your attention chiefly to a book and a person should
come into the room, and speak to you five or six times in a loud tone,
you would not hear him, because you was paying so much attention to the
book. When you are walking about on the busy streets of a city, where there
is a continual buzz and whir, and yet you could turn your attention to
one particular noise, so that you would not be conscious of hearing the
other noises. If two persons go into the water and are a half a mile apart,
and one of the persons puts his hands into the water, and strikes two stones
together in the water, the other one would hear it. Whispering Galleries
are rooms which are so well constructed, that if you put your ear to a
certain point in the wall, and another man goes a long distance away, and
makes a slight noise, the other person could hear it. If a man took a long
stick, and put one end to a man's ear, and made such a slight noise on
the other end that he could not hear it himself, the other person would
hear it. If a person was in a church where there were two hundred persons
singing, and fifty musical instruments besides an organ, he could turn
his attention to one particular instrument, and if the man that played
the organ was playing with all his fingers and both feet at the same time,
he could turn his attention to any one of the fingers, and not be conscious
of hearing any of the others."
T.P. Allen resigning in 1864, Edward A.H. Allen became principal of
the two schools, with Edwin P. Seaver, a Harvard graduate, as first assistant
in special charge of the boys. In 1865 Mr. Seaver accepted a position of
more importance in Boston, and was succeeded by John Tetlow, a Brown graduate.
Still later, through the retirement (or possibly the death) of Mr. Allen,
Mr. Tetlow became principal, with Andrew Ingraham as first assistant. Of
all these gentlemen Mr. E.A.H. Allen was the mildest, Mr. Seaver the handsomest,
Mr. Tetlow the most efficient, and Mr. Ingraham the most cultured. I got
on very well with all of them. During the successive stages there was a
steady trend toward co-education of the sexes. As a first step, they mingled
in the class-rooms only; later all pupils had their desks in the largest
room, up one flight, originally devoted to the girls exclusively, but Quakerism
still kept the boys on one side and the girls on the other Such was the
status when I left in 1870. Heaven knows what goes on there now, in this
year of our Lord, 1928! Very likely, at recess, they dance the black bottom
to the music of a jazz band.
At recess in my time the boys did little but play ball. The balls used,
however, were of three sizes -- footballs, baseballs, and marbles. My preference
was for marbles. Like most people, I prefer to do that which I can do well.
That I could play marbles well is established by the fact that at the end
of the marble season I was always the proud possessor of two-third of the
marbles. That I was good for nothing at football or baseball is indicated
by the fact that, avoiding those games, I had at the end of the season
neither broken bones nor bruises. A long life has shown me that, as a rule,
only those who are strong love to fight. Of course this must be qualified
by the fact that the mentally weak are often unconscious of their weakness,
while the physically weak know their's only too well. I am strong mentally,
and since the age of eighteen have been engaged in mental warfare. Some
of those who have watched my career are willing to declare that I never
lost a battle. Muscularly I am weak, and, if in muscular warfare I have
never lost a battle, it is because I never fought one to the finish. I
either kept away or ran away. In the games of which I was fond, balls of
three sizes figured also, -- marbles, billiard balls, and bowls. All of
these I manipulated with more or less skill. At bowling and billiard I
was perhaps a little better than the average. At fifteen-ball pool I was
a good deal better than the average. During the eighties, when I was on
the staff of the Boston Globe, I frequently spent a portion of my
luncheon hour in playing pool at near-by Young's Hotel, entering the open
game with competitors ranging in number from three to fifteen. The man
with the lowest score had to pay. If I got caught (which rarely happened),
it was usually because ill-luck in the drawing had given me the last chance
at the balls. On the other hand, when I had the good luck to draw first
or second chance, it not infrequently occurred that I pocketed the fifteen
balls without a break. Thus compelling the house to follow its rule of
opening champagne for all concerned. My most glorious exploit, however,
was achieved at the old Parker House in New Bedford, when I was about fifteen,
-- a few months after I had begun to play billiards. Three of my New Bedford
cousins, ranging from seventeen to nineteen years of age, had been playing
the game for some years. Theretofore in nearly all their sports I had figured,
deservedly, as an almost negligible quantity. But they were planning a
billiard tournament, and, needing a fourth cue, they invited me to participate.
It was summer, and all of us were free. A week was to be devoted to the
affair, and twelve games were to be contested, each player meeting each
of the others twice. They play was to take place in the Parker House billiard
room, -- one game each forenoon and one each afternoon. To the astonishment
of all, myself included, I carried off the honors. At the time, my victory
did not cause me to swell with pride, realizing, as I did that, were there
to be a second tournament, the result might be very different. In fact,
years passed, and I had quite forgotten my success. Then, on of these cousins,
returning to the East after a quarter of a century in the Far West, referred
to the affair one day, when we were exchanging reminiscences. "Best," I
asked, "are you quite sure that I was the winner?" "Oh, yes," he replied;
"we never could get over it." And, on the strength of that assurance, I
procured a brilliant feather to add to my panache.
My Debt to Unitarianism.
Coincident with my schooling, another and still stronger influence on my
mental development came into play, on our removal to New Bedford, through
the decision of my parents to become members of the Unitarian Church which,
under the leadership of its pastor, Rev. William J. Potter, also a Dartmouth
boy of Quaker origin, was not only the most radical, but, strange to say,
the richest and most influential religious body in the city. Whether in
this matter my parents were moved more by their own proclivities or by
the example of their New Bedford relatives, nearly all of whom were Unitarians,
I cannot say. In either case the step was a very fortunate one for me,
for I am persuaded that I owe to the preaching of Mr. Potter, my first
perceptions of the importance of mental emancipation. The emphasis laid
upon independent judgment was always foremost in his gospel. At first,
of course, I was too young to perceive and measure this trend, but, by
the time that I was ten, I began to feel its influence, especially as Mr.
Potter himself was steadily advancing. One of his first innovations was
the dropping of the communion service. It took his fold some time to recover
from that shock. Then he began to read from other scriptures than the Christian,
and to suggest that the histories of all the great religions revealed striking
similarities. And finally, at about the time of the formation of the Free
Religious Association, which for a generation cut a considerable figure
in the intellectual life of New England, he refused to call himself a Christian
at all. He never went so far as to drop the prayer, but I remember that
he became less and less lavish of advice to Omniscience and less and less
pressing for the favors of Omnipotence. Through him too I first heard of
the great thinkers and emancipators of the world. In short, my years at
the Unitarian Church in New Bedford constituted the primary course in the
education for my high calling, -- the Apostate of Liberty. I am aware that
I am placing a grave responsibility of the shoulders of that institution,
of which perhaps it would like to be relieved. But I am not disposed to
afford such relief. Consequently, when I learned early in 1927, that the
present pastor, Rev. E. Stanton Hodgin, D.D., had been preaching a series
of seven sermons on "Damaged Isms," the titles of which ran thus: "A Good
Word for Materialism," "A Good Word for Paganism," etc. and that he had
said no word for Anarchism at all, I wrote him the following letter:
Feb. 25, 1927
Receiving no reply, I forwarded a copy of the letter to the New Bedford
Daily Standard, which printed it in its issue of June 12, 1927.
In a later issue appeared a letter from Dr. Hodgin, of which the opening
"To the Editor of the Standard:
Your interesting programme of sermons on "Damaged Isms" falls under
my eye very tardily. But I hope that it is not too late to suggest that,
in view of the fact that the man who is credited (or debited perhaps),
whether deservedly or not, with being the leading American Anarchist was
raised in the parish over which you now preside, and during his ten most
formative years sat steadily under the remarkable preaching of one of the
greatest of your predecessors, and furthermore, just fifty years ago. At
the age of twenty-three, though known as an Atheist and Materialist, was
invited by that courageous, distinguished, and highly revered clergyman
to take a class in his Sunday School (said invitation nevertheless being
gratefully declined on the ground that such a bull in such a china shop
must inevitably do irreparable damage to the porcelain), it is almost ungenerous
on your part to neglect to say a "God Word" for Anarchism, when you are
showering your "Good Words" so lavishly upon almost all the other Isms,
including Anarchism's direct opposite, Communism.
Perhaps, however, in the foregoing criticism, I am unjust to you. Indeed,
I cherish the hope that you look upon Anarchism as the only
Ism that, despite all the furiously insane assaults upon it, remains undamaged,
and therefore is in no need of your assistance. And I make bold to say
that it will so continue, with or without your "Good Word."
Benjamin R. Tucker"
My only excuse for not replying to B.R. Tucker's friendly letter concerning
my "Damaged Isms" is a rather poor one. I am so much of an anarchist in
matters of letter-writing that, unless a letter calls for an immediate
or specific reply, it is apt to be relegated to that long list of good
intentions that seldom finds fulfillment in action. This is one of the
besetting sins that have brought not a little chaos into my individual
"It may be of interest to Mr. Tucker and other to know that, when the
thought of speaking on some of the "Damaged Isms" occurred to me, I immediately
wrote on the back of an old letter some of the "Isms" about which it might
be possible to say some good words. The list contained twenty-one subjects,
and were as follows in the order first written: Materialism, Paganism,
Scepticism, Agnosticism, Atheism, Dogmatism, Anarchism, Fanaticism, Communism,
Behaviorism, Fundamentalism, Indifferentism, Capitalism, Aeseticism, Cynicism,
Fatalism, Commercialism, Secularism, Pacifism, Pessimism, and Positivism.
I had seven Sundays to devote to that type of subject, as I had programmed
my year's work, and I consequently selected the seven subjects from the
twenty-one that seems to me to balance up the best: Materialism, Paganism,
Agnosticism, Communism, Fanaticism, Fundamentalism, and Indifferentism,
leaving our Anarchism, must to the disapprobation of Mr. Tucker. I kept
the others in reserve, thinking that I should use some of them at some
future time. It is possible that I may say a "good word for Anarchism,"
along with other kindred subjects sometime next year."
The remaining paragraphs of Dr. Hodgin's reply contain kindly references
to my personality, as well as comments on my views partly complimentary,
partly critical. I omit them as unrelated to my present purpose. My own
letter gave Dr. Hodgin a good reason why he should have included Anarchism
in his programme. He saw fit to ignore this reason, making no comment upon
it whatever. Instead, he offered his reason for excluding Anarchism, --
namely, that it would have thrown his programme out of balance. To this
I rejoin that the motive of balance decidedly favored the inclusion of
Anarchism, since its exclusion left "Communism," its diametrical opposite
unbalanced by anything whatever. His hint of "A Good Word for Anarchism"
as among the possibilities may result in further light. Meanwhile I insist,
and offer my own case as illustration, that the seeds of radical Unitarianism,
implanted in a young and strong mind, are apt to result in Anarchism as
flower and fruit. If there is any power in my contention, Unitarianism
in general and Dr. Hodgin in particular are bound in fairness to give public
consideration to the contingency. In this connection it is not out of place
to state that about forty years ago, when Dr. Hodgin's parish was in charge
of Dr. Paul Frothingham, I, in response to invitation, read in the Unitarian
Chapel at New Bedford my essay (then still unprinted) on "State Socialism
and Anarchism," generally considered my most important single contribution
to sociological literature. Those were days when serious matters still
commanded a certain amount of attention. Now, looking week by week at the
Saturday issue of the New Bedford Standard and noting the disgraceful
scramble of all denominations (Catholics excepted and Quakers included)
to secure patronage by every variety of sensationalism, I say to myself
that, if this is what "mass production" brings to us, it may be advisable
to slacken our industrial activities. I observe with some pleasure, however,
that the Quakers content themselves with indicating that Mr. Mostrom (the
name of a Quaker preacher well known in New Bedford) will mount the rostrum,
remaining sufficiently prudent and consistent to refrain from promising
that the Spirit will move him to open his mouth. Probably the Quakers still
adhere also to their principle that preachers should not be paid. The New
Bedford Standard of August 10, 1926, printed a letter from me under
the caption, "Not a Question for Quakers," in which I refer to this tenet.
As the letter contains also an anecdote concerning Rev. William J. Potter,
whose name will figure again in my narrative, I give it below in full:
"To the Editor of the Standard:
In your issue of June 20 you ask Senator Reed: 'If it is wrong to speak
for God and morality for a price, what of ministers who are paid salaries
for that very thing?' For myself I find no fault with your question, having
always contended that one is justified in accepting payment, if he sees
fit, for doing or saying anything that he is entitled to do or say. But
I do not understand the confidence with which you ask it in the city of
New Bedford. Do you forget that a large and influential section of your
readers belong to a religious denomination that looks upon the practice
of paying preachers as positively shocking? And do you remember the story
that used to be told of Rev. William J. Potter, for so many years the pastor
of the Unitarian Church on Union Street? He was a Dartmouth boy and belonged
to a Quaker family, but at an early age departed from the faith to study
for the Unitarian ministry. Seeking a parish at the conclusion of his studies,
he had a choice between two offers. In a state of uncertainty, he appealed
to his father for counsel. The answer came quickly: "Well, William James,
if thee is determined to peach for money, I advise thee to go where thee
can get the most." Probably Senator Reed would have been of the same opinion.
Benjamin R. Tucker"
The attentiveness with which I, even as a youngster, followed Potter's
preaching is attested by a little incident that occurred one Sunday at
the house of my grandmother, when I was about twelve years old. She lived
not far from the church and it was the custom of some of her friends to
drop in for a few minutes on their way home from the morning services.
Occasionally I was present, but sat silent, my halting tongue and my shy
nature disinclining me to conversation. On the Sunday in question a lady
just under thirty and belonging to one of the first families asked innocently:
"What could Mr. Potter have meant this morning by his reference in his
sermon, to 'ex-Jesus'?" I saw a look of bewilderment pass of the faces
of those thus addressed, but observed no disposition to offer an explanation
of the puzzle. At last, feeling that such an opportunity for enlightenment
should not be wasted, I piped up: "I don't remember any mention of 'ex-Jesus'
in the sermon, but I did hear the word 'exegesis'." By the expressions
of amazement and the shouts of laughter that greeted this little speech,
who was the more abashed, the lady or myself, it would be difficult to
My Escape from Sunday School.
But, if my interest in the sermons was great, the same could not be said
of my interest in the Sunday School, which was nil. John Tetlow, my teacher
at the Friends' Academy, was my Sunday School teacher also. Coming to New
Bedford a Baptist, he had fallen in with the Unitarian element among the
parents of his pupils, and, being a sincere man with an open mind, he too
had broadened under Mr. Potter's influence, and finally had taken a class
in the Sunday School. One Sunday, in the course of the lesson, he asked
me a question on which I fell down. "Benjamin, how long did you study this
lesson?" he inquired. "About five minutes, sir," was the reply. "How much
time each day do you give to your daily lessons, outside of the regular
school sessions?" "About two hours, I think." "Well, Benjamin, could you
not give at least two hours a week to your Sunday School lesson, which
is of so much greater importance than your daily lessons?" I am afraid
that this question was met with an equivocal answer, and it is safe to
assume that I did not reform. Instead, I began to wonder whether I really
was learning at the Sunday School anything worth while, and as a result,
again at the age of twelve, or possibly thirteen, I decided to insist upon
ceasing my attendance. In the following autumn, therefore, on the arrival
of the Sunday when the School was to be resumed (after the summer vacation,
I went, after the morning service, directly to my grandmother's, availing
myself of the standing invitation for Sunday luncheon open to any grandchildren
desiring to come. It was my hope that my parents would forget about the
Sunday School, which was to assemble at three o'clock in the afternoon.
But m y mother had a never-failing memory. Toward the hour my father appeared,
with directions to send me to Sunday School. On learning that I had other
views about the matter, he said that he must take me home for consultation
with my mother. So home we went. My astonished mother argued and pleaded
in vain. I was adamant, and finally carried the day, because my parents,
having confidence in my earnestness, saw that nothing was to be accomplished
by attempting to thwart so firm a resolution, I never went to Sunday School
again. Some years later, at a Unitarian parish meeting, John Tetlow moved
that the Sunday School be discontinued, on the ground that it had become
a useless institution. The notion was not carried, but I heard the news
of its presentation with a satisfaction natural under the circumstances.
The New Bedford Lyceum.
Another shaping influence in my early days was the institution then so
widely known in New England as the Lyceum. The New Bedford Lyceum had as
its presiding officer, my uncle, Charles Almy, an Abolitionist of long
standing. From the early days of Garrison's warfare upon negro slavery
New Bedford had been a hotbed of abolition and the terminus of the Underground
Railroad by which so many fugitive slaves found their way to freedom, becoming,
with their descendants, a notable part of the city's population. One of
these was the well-known negro orator, Frederick Douglass, who lived there
for a time. He was one of the lecturers to grace the platform of the New
Bedford Lyceum during its winter courses, which I began to attend shortly
after the end of the civil war. The spirit of the Abolition movement was
felt for many years in the framing of these lecture courses, which were
given in a hall directly opposite Cummings Building. Its name was Liberty
Hall. The boy who passed within its walls some of the most inspiring moments
of his life fancies at times that in its name may be found a pointer to
the fact that a decade or two later he was to found the paper, Liberty,
on whose history rests the claim to such fame as he has won. However, that
maybe I listed there to voices that filled me with libertarian aspirations,
-- the voices of Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, George William
Curtis, Anna Dickinson, and many others. Of course none of these can be
counted as a signal contributors to the world's intellectual stove, but
none the less were they great stimulating forces. It seems to me impossible
that anyone at all susceptible to the influence of personal nobility could
listen to, or long look at Wendell Phillips without experiencing a sense
of impetus and uplift. Among the hundred and twenty millions now living
in the United States perhaps less than a hundred thousand ever heard him
address an audience. Rarely do I meet one of those fortunate beings. But
I treasure the memory of at least fifty of his speeches heard by me in
New Bedford and in Boston, one of the last being his wonderful farewell
to Garrison delivered as he leaned over his old comrade's coffin. I have
listened to many orators of high repute, -- Ingersoll, Bradlaugh, Jaures,
Gough, Bryan, for example, -- but Phillips stands apart, of quite another
type, unique and unapproachable. Often, too, did I meet him on the streets
of Boston, and always halted to watch him disappear from sight, filled
as I was with the consciousness that unassuming majesty had just passed
by. Two or three times I met him ever at his own home in Essay Street.
Once, I remember, when I had asked him to participate in some demonstration
then in prospect, he, regretfully declining, accompanied me to the door
with his hand upon my shoulder, saying at the last: "My race is nearly
run; from now on the brunt of the battle falls on you younger men." Anna
Dickinson also was among those whom I met personally, as she, when lecturing
in New Bedford, was usually a guest at the house of my grandmother. Most
notable, however, among these New Bedford platform memories was my hearing,
not at the Lyceum, but in the Unitarian Chapel, of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He alone among those mentioned was a real world figure, transcending his
generation; and, moreover, a specifically Anarchistic force, though, at
the moment, my own thought was not sufficiently developed to appreciate
this. Later, one of his sayings became one of my watchwords: "It can never
make any difference to a hero what the laws are."
School, Church, Platform, all were forceful in my fashioning, but perhaps
more potent than any was that Fourth Estate, the Press. A voracious reader
of newspapers from the age of ten until the present day, I had also until
the age of twenty-five an appetite for books that was no less ravenous,
but that slackened later through comparative disuse from lack of time to
grant it satisfaction. Naturally I began with juveniles, -- Mayne Reid,
Oliver Optic, Ballantyne, and others, with, for magazine, Our Young
Folks. From these the next step was to fiction: nearly everything of
Dickens, "The Tale of Two Cities" topping all the others; much of Scott,
with "The Antiquary" as favorite; a good deal of Fenimore Cooper, "The
Two Admirals" making a special impression; a single work of Huge, "Les
Miserables", monumental, unrivalled in its line; and, with great difficulty
and patience, "Vanity Fair," of Thackeray, an author whom I cannot abide.
While continuing the fiction, I turn my attention to science and philosophy.
The reading of Darwin's "Origin of Species" and "Descent of Men," followed
by Spencer's "First Principles," constituted an event in my life and virtually
completed my acquaintance with books up to the finish of my school days
in New Bedford. Nearly all the works just mentioned, as well as many single
volumes besides, I obtained from the city's public library and from a circulating
library in Cummings Building. My newspaper reading up to the age of twelve
was confined to the two dailies of New Bedford, the Mercury and
the Standard, and to the Boston Journal, to which my father
was a subscriber. Shortly before my twelfth birthday, being asked by my
parents what I would like for a birthday present, I expressed a preference
for a year's subscription to Horace Greeley's journal, the New York Tribune.
My wish was granted, and from that day I read the Tribune religiously until
Greeley's death about seven years later. This fine gift, received in the
spring of 1866, was followed in the autumn by another still more notable
and from the same source, -- a set of the "New American Cyclopedia," edited
by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana, in sixteen large volumes, bound in
sheep. To me these books have been, as still are (though out of date) of
invaluable service. It speaks highly for the wisdom and the generosity
of my parents that they, not "bookish" themselves, were willing and glad
to indulge my literary tastes. The home library was not large. My mother
read the better novels of the day and some poetry. As for my father, he
read the daily newspapers with a degree of regularity, but, so far as I
know, the only book that he ever read was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They were
subscribers, however, to the Independent, a weekly which I enjoyed
because of Theodore Tilton's brilliant editorial writing.
New Bedford Homes.
During the operation of the four influences just outlines, united in pushing
me on to a dethronement of all the gods, not even my tutelar deities were
suffered to remain undisturbed.
Between 1862 and 1868 the Tucker household knew two removals. On the
expiration of the Bonney Street lease in 1865, my father effected a new
three-year lease of a large house on the corner of School and Sixth Streets,
near the centre of the city and about a quarter of a mile from his place
of business. It was an old, roomy, and comfortable structure, known as
the Howland house, having no grounds, but wasting a stable that was anything
but stable, as will be seen presently. Late in 1867 we moved again, to
a house two blocks distant, which may mother purchased for six thousand
dollars. It was on the corner of Spring and Seventh Streets, the Spring
Street number being 93. This house, too, was a survival. At the present
day it must, I think, be nearing the end of its second century. It was
build by an old physician, Dr. Spooner, and was long know by his name.
His idea of convenience must have been primitive. Several of the rooms
were inaccessible except by passage through others, and the toilet facilities
certainly were afterthoughts. Yet there were delightful features, -- among
them an immense square living room having no less than six windows, two
on each of three sides, and in which I did nearly all my reading.
In 1904 this house became my property through inheritance. In the meantime
the population of the city had tripled. Yet, strange to say, this piece
of real estate, situated but one short block from the principal business
street, had gained very little in value. I sold it at auction (in 1907,
I believe) for eight hundred dollars in excess of the figure paid by my
mother. The buyer was my cousin, Benjamin Cummings. A few years ago he
in turn sold it to an undertaker, at what price I do not know. Doubtless
at a good one, for everything that he touches turns to gold. But is it
one of the little ironies of Fate that my old dwelling place should have
passed out of the hands of my cousin, who hardly can pass a cemetery without
roundly cursing such abominable waste of valuable land to be advertised
daily in the New Bedford newspapers as "WS Dillingham's Colonial Funeral
Home." (This additional advertisement is purely gratuitous.)
Dancing and Riding.
It was during our years in the Holland house that I was sent to dancing
school, much to my disgust though less repellent than the Sunday School;
it was not at all to my liking. I hardly know whether I ought to congratulate
myself, in view of this repugnance, on the fact that as a dancer I proved
a shining success. That such was the case was shown in the selection of
myself, from a class of about sixty, to dance, in Pierian Hall, at the
final exhibition, before a large audience, the Sailor's Hornpipe, and,
in conjunction with my partner, to lead a stately Spanish Quadrille. In
both I appeared in costume. For some time thereafter, in the event of social
festivities at home, no opportunity was lost to "show me off." I was relieved
when at last the furore subsided, and I strove to forget the past. Strive
as I may, I find, after all, that I do look back with pleasure upon at
least one dance, -- the jolly Virginia Reel, a thing never heard of now
but in these days I rarely venture a reference to my Terpsichorean exploits.
The look of scepticism that passes over the faces of my hearers when I
boast that for a brief period in my life I developed a certain degree of
grace and agility is proof that appearances are against me.
In such a case I endeavor to regain their confidence by recounting a
disastrous equestrian adventure that befell me contemporaneously. It occurred
in the unstable stable. My Westport cousin, Christopher Church, was visiting
us at the time and had brought his pony with him. As my father kept no
horses then, we had not tested the old stable, but it was decided that
we could safely give the pony accommodation. On the afternoon following
Christopher's arrival, no one being at home except the domestics and my
sister Julia, then seven years old, I concluded that the moment was auspicious
for venturing a short ride. So Christopher saddled and bridled the pony,
and I mounted him in the middle of the stable floor. Just at that moment
a domestic came running in, carrying Julia in her arms. This sudden appearance
frightened the pony, and he reared. As his forelegs came down with force
upon the rotten floor, the timbers gave way, and the pony and I dropped
about four feet into the cellar, floundering among broken beams. After
several frantic efforts, the terrified animal, with a vigorous leap, recovered
sound footing, and I clambered off his back. The pony rushed into his stall,
I began to scold the servant, Julia began to cry, and Christopher viewed
the hole in the floor with blank dismay. What happened after the return
of the family I do not remember nor what disposal was made of the pony,
but it is safe to say that for some time to come, I preferred dancing to
riding. Glory is not always agreeable, but ignominy is ever intolerable.
Death of Sister Julia.
Soon after the removal to 93 Spring Street the family suffered a severe
blow in the sudden death of Julia at the age of ten, -- an event entirely
unexpected. The previous evening I had been playing with her on the floor
of the living room and our good-night kiss as my mother led her upstairs
to bed was my last communication with her. During the night she was seized
with an exceptionally virulent attack of scarlet fever. When I saw her
the next day, she was oblivious of her surroundings and in the evening
she passed away. It was a tragedy in the life of my mother, who was a very
undemonstrative, but highly emotional, women. I recall my astonishment
when in the afternoon she caught her child's almost lifeless form from
the bed and held it tightly to her breast, for such a manifestation was
a thing unknown in the Tucker household. The usual formalities of greeting
and farewell were observed invariably, but spontaneous caresses were withheld.
My father was fond by nature, but I never saw him kiss or caress my mother,
except ceremoniously. She shrank from such testimonies, and did not offer
them herself. But in all other way she showed constantly her affection,
the depth of which was great. And by way of further contrast her tears
flowed easily. This weakness so incapacitated her for the narration of
an emotional event that at times it sorely taxed my patience. I know now,
however, from my own experience, that the phenomenon is physical, and intensifies
with age in the cases of those afflicted. For the last ten years or more
I have been unable to read aloud a passage of prose or poetry that especially
appeals to me by its essential nobility without blubbering like a baby.
The misfortune, it seems to me, is a measure, not of emotional intensity,
but of impairment of the tear duct, and is often a family trait. Self-consciousness
also plays its part therein. After repeated experiences, one is likely
to blubber from fear lest he may blubber.
Julia was a child of promise. Not exactly beautiful, her features nevertheless
were remarkably sympathetic. After her death the leading crayon artist
of the day made a life-size bust-portrait of her from a tin-type. It is
still in my possession and strangers sometimes ask if it is a likeness
of myself as a child. I often wonder whether, had she lived, her intellectual
bent would have corresponded with my own. That she was not exactly stupid
is shown by a little incident that occurred some weeks before her death.
Among local political issues that of prohibition versus license was prominent.
The State law permitted each community to exercise local option annually.
The friends of license were banded in an organization styling itself the
Personal Liberty League, the members being known familiarly as P.L.L.s.
In New Bedford the municipal election was approaching, and the P.L.L. candidate
for mayor was a near neighbor of ours, Andrew G. Pierce, on of the most
staid, sober, and substantial citizens of the community. One morning, at
the breakfast table, the campaign was under discussion. The P.L.L.s being
referred to as members of the Personal Liberty League, Julia looked surprised.
"Why!" she exclaimed, "I thought those letters meant 'Pierce Loves Liquor'."
Our neighbor was much amused when my father told him the story.
Joyous Memories of the Great.
As a result of Julia's death, common sense and conventionalism came to
grips in the school and in the home. In the school conventionalism triumphed;
in the home, common sense held its own. In my view, death should not be
permitted, except in the degree that necessity may dictate, to interfere
with life's daily procedure. Concealment of grief is preferable to its
parade. A show of cheerfulness sufficient to avert a cloud of gloom is
a justifiable pretence. Such, however, was not the opinion of John Tetlow,
principal of Friends' Academy. In that institution, I had made a reputation
as a reciter of comic poetry, and accordingly had been assigned the leading
part in a humorous scene from Shakspere [sic] to be given at an approaching
school exhibition. Julia's death intervening, Mr. Tetlow decided that my
appearance in such a role would be an incongruity, and struck my name from
the programme. I was delighted at my escape, but disgusted with the motive
that led to it. Almost at the same moment the same issue confronted the
family. Charles Dickens was then giving his farewell reading tour in America,
two years before his death. He was billed to read in Liberty Hall his "Christmas
Carol" and the Trial Scene from "Pickwick Papers." For me, it was the opportunity
of a lifetime. Conventionalism would have had me sacrifice it. Again my
parents, after much consideration, showed good sense. They booked a seat
for me, near the front row, and sent me, along, to fill it. I placed myself
at the top of the long flight of stairs leading to the hall, to see the
great man come up, wrapped in a huge overcoat suited to the biting winter
night. Then I hastened to my seat, and presently saw him almost dance across
the platform to his reading desk, the inevitable bouquet in his button-hole.
That exciting evening was to me, in its entirely, a "thing of beauty" that
will remain a joy while memory lasts.
Strangely enough, I am writing this paragraph just after returning from
a lecture delivered here in Monaco by an Englishwomen on "Humor Among the
English People." Nine-tenths of the audience were English, some of them
white-haired. Dickens, of course, was spoken of with warmth. I wondered,
as I listened, whether, should the lecturer ask of her audience: "Who among
you all ever saw Charles Dickens's face?" I should not be the only one
to rise. It would indeed be delightful to find some one now and then with
whom to share this joyous memory, but there is also a certain selfish pleasure
in my singularity. Realization of this has led me to the conclusion that
parents should take pains to store the minds of children with similar recollection,
and I have heeded the lesson the case of my own daughter, Oriole. I am
sure that the experiment will not prove a failure, but at least in one
instance it led to a ludicrous result. In the year 1920 we were living
in Nice, and Oriole was not yet twelve years old. About the theatre she
knew next to nothing, little opportunity for dramatic entertainment having
been afforded during the war. Suddenly announcement was made that Sarah
Bernhardt was coming to Nice to share with the public her reminiscences
of Edmond Rostand, who had died some months before. For years Bernhardt
had been in rebellion against old age, but had not been able to defy it.
She was little more than a reminder of her former self, her marvelous voice
had lost is charm, and, having suffered an amputation of one of her legs,
she could appear only under circumstances that permitted concealment of
her infirmity. Seated behind a draped reading desk, she could relate and
recite, and whatever she could do she was determined to do until the last.
Oriole was told of her great career, but could form little conception of
it. To some extent I enlisted her interest by informing her that I had
known the artist personally and had been her guest. As Oriole understood
and spoke French, it was sure that Bernhardt's efforts, however imperfect,
would leave some impress on her youthful mind. Accordingly we attended
the recital. The result was sufficient to inspire Oriole with a desire
to convey her impressions to the readers of her favorite magazine, St.
Nicholas, and she began her letter with the statement that she had
"been to see Sarah Bernhardt, the great one-legged actress." At the risk
of darkening her enthusiasm, she was persuaded that, while her letter was
worthy of preservation among her own memoirs, it had been await publicity
on a more suitable occasion Which occasion, so far the phrase cited is
concerned, now presents itself.
Earning My Pocket-Money.
Again my parent showed good judgment in their manner of dealing with the
question of my personal expenditures. Very liberal, as has been shown already,
in providing me with educational resources of a character befitting my
inclinations, they rarely supplied me with spending-money. Whatever I had
in that line I was obliged to earn. My father was in the habit of sending
loads of old boxes from the store to the house, the chopping of which for
kindling was a duty that devolved upon me, and that yielded me an income
of twenty-five cents a load. Besides this, I often earned something on
Saturday, the school holiday and the store's busy day, by serving as sales-clerk
in the day-time and as cashier in the evening, the capacity of the staff
being taxed to the utmost until nearly midnight by the requirements of
the mill operatives, who thronged to the centre of the city from its extremities
to get rid of the contents of their pay-envelopes, and thus kept the cashier
especially busy. That I showed celerity and accuracy in the handling of
the money is proved by the fact that my services squeezed a compliment
from my father's partner, my uncle, whom I was never able to count as one
of my ardent admirers. My accuracy was due to my native skill in mental
arithmetic; my celerity, to my refusal to follow the routine usually observed
in making change. As a rule, when a cashier is presented with a five-dollar
bill and a slip indicating that he is to take $1.67 out of it, he lays
down three cents and say "one seventy," than a nickel and says "one seventy-five,"
then a quarter and says "two dollars," and finally three dollar bills,
saying "in conclusion, "three, four, five dollars." My method in such a
case was to subtract mentally $1.67 from $5.00, and, thus finding that
I must return $3.00, to take that sum from the till, beginning with the
dollars and ending with the cents, and lay the whole before the customer
or the salesmen, saying simply "three thirty-three." I admit that my method
is less logical in appearance, but I found it much more expeditious; and
it worked, because in those days I did not make mistakes. Doubtless in
my old age I should have proved less successful.
My Unique Cousin.
During my store service, however, I was once put to shame by my cousin,
Benjamin Cummings, a boy of almost exactly my own age, then a clerk in
the establishment and now its principal owner. His personality beggars
description, but, as he has already been referred to twice and must figure
again later, an effort should be made to acquaint the reader with his qualities,
especially as we are said to resemble one another in personal appearance.
He was reared on the Russells Mills farm, and his early life planted within
him the seeds of perfect health, which no bad habits have ever impaired.
Moreover, he has the muscular strength of an ox. His father died at middle
age, being prevented by reckless gluttony from sharing the Cummings longevity.
Before dying, he sent his oldest son to New Bedford to enter the employ
of Tucker & Cummings, giving him a parting admonition in words that
ran about as follows: "You know, Ben, that I've been the black sheep of
the family [not quite true, by the way]. Now it's up to you to redeem our
branch by making good." Though Ben's fleece is not quite as white as that
of Mary's lamb, it cannot be denied that in some important respects he
has "made good." He arrived in the city determined to own the County Street
residence of his grandfather and the William Street sore of his two uncles.
Having attained this height of his original ambition, he refused to stop.
He now owns no inconsiderable portions of Dartmouth, Westport, and New
Bedford, including the Russells Mills farm and a big garage, and probably
much else of which I have no knowledge. In short, he ranks among the very
rich men of a very rich city. As a boy, he attended for some time a Quaker
school in Providence (Rhode Island) but, not taking to books, never learned
much there. His education was very meagre, though his knowledge of figures
is sufficient evidently for success in business. He has a keen eye for
the main chance, and is a shrewd judge of land values. His vocabulary,
if not large, is picturesque. He dwells in the realm of the superlative.
As a rule, his tongue is a lash which he applies with little discrimination,
and which drips profanity with every stroke; yet at times he scatters kindly
word, and even inordinate compliment, with prodigal profusion. He claims
to be a rabid Republican, but knows little of Republicanism except that
it stands for a protective tariff, which makes it good enough for him.
The lists published in the newspapers show that the amount of taxes that
he pays is large; the amount that he doesn't pay has never been stated.
He is a stout upholder of law and order, but his name occasionally figures
in the court reports. Withal, he enjoys great popularity. The late Thomas
M. Stetson, a very prominent New Bedford lawyer and father-in-law of a
delightful cousin of ours, being asked where he bought his groceries, answered:
"At Cummings's. I would rather be cheated by Ben Cummings than treated
justly by any other grocer in town." That is a story which I should hardly
venture to tell (misrepresenting as it does the deserved reputation of
the Cummings firm for reliable dealing) but for the fact that I have heard
Ben himself tell it with great pride. Another aspect of his delicious impudence
is seen in the appalling familiarity with which he treats the mighty. On
one occasion a congressional committee was sitting in New Bedford for the
consideration of some practical measure. Ben's opinion was asked. He said
that he had no advice to offer. But he added, pointing at the imposing
chairman of the committee (I quote him from memory of a newspaper report):
"I'm sure that, if the matter is left to that elegant gentleman over there,
everything will be all right." "Elegant" by the way, next to "damn," is
the most overworked word in Ben's vocabulary. Again, no respect for the
proprieties intimidates him. When his wife, of whom he was very justly
proud, was still living, they took a trip to Washington, accompanied by
another New Bedford couple. As they were strolling through Corcoran's Art
Gallery, Ben, a little in advance of the others, suddenly spied Powers's
nude statue, "The Greek Slave." Turning towards his friends in the rear,
he shouted: "why, there's my Mary!" I do not know whether he has quieted
any during the twenty-off years that have passed since I saw him, but I
remember him as a whirlwind of energy and activity. Upon me he has always
made the impression of one of nature's elemental forces. And I hope that
I may be pardoned for this portrayal of his Brobdingnagian [sic] proportions,
which enables me to tell with more composure the little story of my own
A Debate and a Victory.
One day the question whether he or I could make the better package was
under discussion. Finally Ben said: "Let's each of us do up a pound of
granulated sugar in a paper bag tied with string and leave the decision
to Uncle Abner. Of course nothing could be fairer, and I assented. Straightway
we made the packages, and it took but a glance for me to see that I was
beaten. Just then my father, who thus far had heard nothing of the contest,
happened along, and the two packages were placed before him for his decision,
He knew very well which was mine as he had taught me his own method, which
I had followed. But he, as well as I, saw that Ben's was the better, and,
honest man that he was, he promptly said so. I saw from his expression
that he shared my chagrin, yet each of us found compensation in the knowledge
that justice had been done. But, though Ben excelled me as a purveyor of
foodstuffs, I was sure that I could outdo him as a consumer thereof, and
was eager to demonstrate my superiority. Opportunity soon offered. At times
he was invited to pass a few days at our Spring Street home. In the winter
we often had for breakfast buckwheat cakes, of which both Ben and I were
very fond. They were made in the form of flapjack, -- round, about three
inches in diameter, and perhaps an eighth of an inch in thickness, -- and
were brought in from the kitchen hot, about a dozen at a time, to be eaten
with butter and maple syrup. One morning the challenge passed between us,
and the contest began. My mother, who was a small eater herself, but always
insisted that others must eat whether or not, looked on with satisfaction
at a struggle which, viewed from a dietetic standpoint, was almost criminal.
When I had eaten thirty-six, Ben took a walk around the table, and then
worried down his thirty-sixth also. But, when he saw my thirty-seventh
disappear, he threw down his knife and fork. Thenceforth honors were easy.
In later life, however, progress in the knowledge of hygienic living convinced
me that my victory in the second contest was much more discreditable than
my defeat in the first. Nevertheless it was established that, tough Ben
Cummings was Brobdingnargian, Ben Tucker at least was Gargantuan.
Diet, Disease, and Death.
Appetite and its satisfaction have been important factors in my life, both
for good and evil. For good because, liking almost everything, I have never
lacked any of the food constituents essential to health. For evil, because
my unchecked voracity finally made me so dangerously fat that, had I not
taken warning just in season, I should not have reached the age of sixty.
At the stage of my narrative where I attain the critical period I shall
deal with this matter in detail. Looking back now, I may trace what seems
to me the effect of ignorance of dietetics upon my immediate relatives.
My father, like myself, was very fond of the table, and was a heavy eater.
Luckily his tastes led him to avoid sweets and starches, the fattening
foods and, as a result, he remained thin all his life, his weight ranging
from 135 to 145 pounds, while his height was above the average. His staple
foods were meat and fish, but the injurious effects of his excessive consumption
were largely counteracted by the large quantities of raw salads and green
vegetables with which he accompanied them. For many years his excess of
protein caused no perceptible suffering beyond frequent sick headaches,
but finally heart trouble ensued, carrying him off at the age of sixty-seven,
after some years of invalidism. It was not a short life, but it could easily
have been a very long one. My half-sister was less fortunate. "No grass
for me!" was her motto. She did not eat as heavily as her father, but,
like him, was afflicted with sick headaches, and, as a result of her carnivorous
tastes, was found dead in bed one morning in her fiftieth year. My half-brother
(for what reason I do not know) became dyspeptic early in life. Otherwise
he might not have reached his seventieth years, which he attained through
moderate eating as a matter of necessity and through very moderate working
as a matter of choice. Of all the members of the family, my mother lived
in the manner most conducive to longevity. An all inclusive diet, unaccompanied
by excess in any direction, carried her well past the age of eighty-two,
when she died from accidental causes. A fortunate appetite rather than
hygienic knowledge proved her salvation, despite her sickly youth and her
attack of rheumatism at middle age.
As for myself, I was born with a constitution and a power of digestion
that easily entitled me to a century of life. At the age of seventy-four
I cannot "read my title clear" to such a rounding, let alone the "mansions
in the skies." I had nearly all the usual children's diseases, which in
those benighted times were looked upon as more desirable than dangerous.
Fortunately I had them lightly. Later I was troubled a little by repeated
attacks of tonsillitis, which I got rid of in my twenty-fifth year by growing
a full beard, never shaving again until my fiftieth year. At the age of
thirty-five a mild but persistent siege of rheumatic fever, caused by insufficient
sleep resulting from a combination of day and night work, haunted me for
nine weeks. Apart from these, I enjoyed more than half a century of the
most perfect health imaginable, rarely suffering pain in any form. I hardly
know what it is to have a headache. The comparative absence of pain still
continues, but fifty years of heavy eating destroyed the stability of my
equilibrium, in the of which now lies my chief danger.
I was not only gourmand but to an extent gourmet. In my
boyhood my father often took me with him on his buying trips to Boston,
so highly did he value my services as a taster of butter, for which I was
always well paid by an abundant and toothsome luncheon at Boston's most
famous restaurant, Parker's. It was my father's opinion, frequently expressed,
that I could "digest a board nail." We always had a good table at home.
It pleased my mother to provide it and it pleased the rest of us to consume
it. What she could not endure with perfect equanimity was failure to appear
punctually at the festive board. Every member of the household was expected
to be ready for breakfast at the appointed hour, with no evidence of neglect
Punctuality and Self-Help.
My mother herself set the example. She was always the first to rise in
the morning and the last to retire at night. In case of failure of the
part of the others, she did not storm or scold, but her fretfulness was
sufficiently prolonged to produce the desired effect. At least on all of
us except my father, whose duties at the store compelled him often to be
late at dinner or suffer. Her lamentations on these occasions alone disturbed
the peace of our exceptionally harmonious home. Not that he failed to receive
them with equanimity but that his indisposition to reform served to perpetuate
her plaint. I used to think that she was a bit too insistent, but I see
now that she was entirely in the right. Her passion for punctuality was
an Anarchistic lesson to all of us. She saw instinctively that tardiness
is invasive, authoritarian, -- an encroachment on the time of other in
violation of a contract tacit or explicit. She would not be guilty of it
herself, and she could not endure it patiently in her associates.
Moreover, this was not the only way in which, without knowing it, she
prepared me for my Anarchistic career. She taught me self-help also. We
always had two domestics, but she would never allow me to call upon them.
"They have their appointed work," she would say to me; "it is for you to
leave them free to do it. If you want extra service, perform it yourself."
And here again she set the example. Even in her very old age she would
always climb one or two flights of stairs herself rather than allow another
to going her stead. By nature she was a remarkable woman, respected and
loved by all, ever ready to help, never ready to be helped.
The range of my appetite was wide enough to include sweetmeats, and I was
lucky enough to find special opportunity for indulgence. I had only to
leap a fence at the rear of my father's store to find myself at a basement
back door opening into the manufacturing department of a well-known confectioner,
William M. Bates, who worked there personally, assisted by his brother,
Orrin Bates, and another man known as Bennie Green. I think that it was
during my thirteenth and fourteenth years that I made this leap nearly
every day and for a double purpose, -- first to consume the stray bits
of candy that each operation left behind as tempting refuse, and, second,
to satisfy my passion for talking politics. That was period when the humorist,
Petroleum V. Nasby, was writing his letters from Confederate Cross-Roads,
which appeared in the newspapers at regular intervals. Present-day octogenarians
may remember the drunken village loafer of Northern extraction, Joe Bigler,
who figured in those letters, and who had the habit of interrupting the
conversation of his Confederate townsmen with awkward questions and reflections.
His witticisms as well as the political news of the day constituted scraps
of information, which I passed on to the candy-makers in return for the
scraps of candy. They seemed to find delight in the exchange, and after
a time they fastened on me the nickname "Joe Bigler." Many years later,
Ben Cummings, reminding Orrin Bates of this peculiar commerce, drew from
him the remark: "That boy certainly knew more about politics than any man
in New Bedford."
Trip to Washington.
Doubtless my political enthusiasm was a factor in inducing my father to
invite me to accompany him on a trip to Washington in March 1869, to witness
the inauguration of General Grant as president. I believe this to have
been the first time that I passed the limited of New England, though it
is possible that I had been taken once to the City of New York on a previous
occasion. I remember the interest with which I watched the speedy change
from winter to spring as we went through Delaware and Maryland. In Washington
we stopped at Willard's, but had to content ourselves, in common with a
score of other guests, with accommodations on the floor of one of the large
public rooms. On the second morning, as we were dressing, my father fell
into conversation with the gentleman who had risen from the neighboring
mattress. It transpired that he was from New York and that we were from
New Bedford. "Indeed!" said the gentleman; "that interests me, since I
enjoy the honor of having my name attacked to a whaling vessel belonging
to that port." Like a flash my father turned toward him: "Elliot C. Cowdin?"
"The same," replied the gentleman, apparently as pleased as Punch at the
quick identification. "Well," said my father, "I built that ship." Whereupon
the joyful surprise was doubled. Let the present generation has forgotten,
I may state that Elliot C. Cowdin was a prosperous and highly honored merchant,
who was talked of at the moment as a possible member of the president's
cabinet. The little scene made a great impression on my youthful mind.
The inauguration ceremonies we watched at long range. From the point where
we stood in the enormous crowd, Grant's face seemed little more than a
speck. In the evening we attended the inauguration ball held in the Treasury
Building, where for the first time I witnessed the public exhibition of
the female bosom. Perhaps in this is to be found the explanation of my
inability to distinguish, in point of priority in time, between my Washington
visit and my first New York visit, when at Niblo's Garden, where "The Black
Crook" was running, I saw my first leg-show. I am quite unable to say which
of the two spectacles was the earlier or the more pleasing. More vivid
than either, however, though not comparable in beauty, is my recollection
of Horace Greeley's face, which I saw at the ball for the only time in
my life, It came into view a few hours before dawn when, in the confusion
of a swamped cloak-room, he was clamoring for his famous white hat and
I for my less conspicuous black one. My equanimity exceeded him for he
was swearing like a trooper, and all to no avail. Each of us departed with
uncovered heads. Whether he received subsequent satisfaction, I do not
know, but I at any rate, on returning to the Treasury Building toward noon,
had the liberty of choice among several hundred hats, of all sizes and
shapes, heaped indiscriminately upon the floor. Our arrival at New Bedford
found me in a contented frame of mind, for I still had a hat and had seen
the editor of my beloved Tribune.
First Play and First Opera.
Though New York introduced me to the ballet, my home town afforded me theatrical
opportunities. My first play, "Still Waters Run Deep," I saw in Liberty
Hall. It was by no means a bad beginning and the cast was really admirable,
including J.W. Wallack and E. L. Davenport. In New Bedford too I once saw
Edwin Forrest, and several time Laura Keene, the actress whose performance
Abraham Lincoln was enjoying at the time of his assassination, and who
had a summer residence in Fairhaven, opposite New Bedford. I heard good
music also, but did not appreciate it, my taste in that direction developing
in later years. Parepa [sic] Rosa's wonderful voice, which I heard, I think
in "The Barber of Seville" (my first grand opera), I remember chiefly as
proceeding from a personality of enormous physical proportions. Camilla
Urso lingers in my memory as well, principally, I imagine, because a lady
violinist was then a sort of freak. Within my reach, however, were the
comic songs of Henry C. Barnabee, to which I looked forward from winter
Few of the sports enjoyed by boys in general had any attraction for me.
I did not swim, or skate, or hunt, or "hike," or box, of "bike," or ride,
or drive. Household games interested me a little. I was good at cribbage,
which I played by the hour with my mother, who was an inveterate card-player.
Good also at poker, though I never played it much. Fair at whist and euchre.
Not much at checkers. As for chess, I never had the courage to try to understand
it. A hundred times I have been told that I would have made a wonderful
chess-player. It is a mistake. I am devoid of strategy. Even in polemics,
in which I have made my greatest reputation, I have rarely laid a trap.
My methods are straightforward, my thrusts direct. I trample upon my opponents;
I do not mislead them. Chess, a crafty game, is not for me. Oh! I know
the answer. "Poker is a crafty game, and yet you play it well." Yes, but
I do not play it craftily. I keep a steady face, and play my hand for its
true value. In the long run it is a winning policy.
Still less than sports in general did society pleasures charm me. When
I curled up in an easy chair at home, reading Herbert Spencer, it was a
difficult thing to drive me out of our house to enter another where I might
be expected to talk with a girl having nothing but beauty to recommend
her, and perhaps very little of that. As for dancing parties, which were
common in New Bedford, they were the bane of my existence. The "German"
was the fashionable dance then, and an invitation to a party imposed upon
the boy receiving it the duty of hunting a partner. How I used to pity
the girl who, too truthful to declare that she was already under pledge,
and too polite to say that she preferred to be a "wall flower," was obliged
to answer me with a smiling "Yes" that at once cast doubt upon her honesty.
A Momentous Decision.
However, it was a very contented boyhood that was now coming to an end.
The spring of 1870 was to precipitate an issue to which I had been looking
forward with some anxiety. In our circle it was the common thing for a
graduate of the Friends' Academy to enter Harvard. My parents had taken
it for granted that my case was to be no exception to the rule. My studies
had gone on satisfactorily, including four or five years of Latin and a
year of Greek. The time to make the change was approaching. But I had other
designs. Though having no partiality for divinity, I viewed the "humanities"
with little interest. James Russell Lowell, their devout worshipper, had
done his cult a very bad turn by convincing me that "Time makes ancient
good uncouth." I felt the call of modern god instead, and, to answer it,
I desired to launch at once upon an independent career. To the manner by
which I should earn my living I had given little or not thought, but I
was perfectly confident that I should find a way, and that, my living assured,
I should have spare moments in which to serve my ideals as occasion offered.
It was shortly after my sixteenth birthday that I announced my purpose
to the consternation of my parents. Seeing that something must be done
at once, they summoned the principal of the Academy, Mr. Tetlow, to the
house that he might spend an evening in an effort to convince me of my
error. There was a vigorous battle, which resulted in a compromise. At
the moment I viewed the situation with no little dissatisfaction, but now
I look back at that evening's decision as the greatest favor that Fortune
ever did me. It being evident that I was determined no to go to Harvard,
the suggestion was made that I go instead to the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, then a comparatively young, but promising, school of industrial
science. This in itself did not appeal to me, as I am lacking in mechanical
faculty, and therefore could not hope for success in a technical career.
But the plan had incidental aspects not unpleasing, and I saw, moreover,
that its adoption would, perhaps, prevent my parents' hearts from breaking
altogether. Such scientific training as I might acquire would never come
amiss and a series of years in the heart of Boston was tempting to a boy
of my tastes, offering me in a tenfold degree such opportunities as in
New Bedford had already been the object of my choice. Those who find it
contradictory that a boy averse to "the humanities" should gravitate to
the "Athens of America" (I pray forgiveness for recalling a title once
deserve, but now a misnomer) may be reminded that in Athens the Agora was
as important as the Academy.
Influenced by these consideration, whether contradictory of not, I gave
assent, and was at once rewarded by Mr. Tetlow's assurance that my curriculum
would be revolutionized directly, in order to fit me for the Institute's
entrance examinations that were to take place only six weeks latter, in
the month of June. Accordingly he handed me over to his chief assistant,
Mr. Andrew Ingraham, who gave me special lesson; and, that I might concentrate
my attention upon these, I was relieved of all other studies and school
exercises of whatever nature.
Last Day at Friends' Academy.
Mr. Ingraham and I did the "stunt" so successfully that a day came which
found me, half an hour before the closing of the day's session, sitting
idle at my desk, the first in the last row of the main school-room, --
the post of honor which my seven years at the Academy had won me. To this
last half-hour was allotted a singing exercise, led by Mr. Tetlow. At the
end of the first selection I incautiously whispered something to my next
neighbor, -- by the way, a cousin of mine, Clarence Almy. Mr. Tetlow caught
me in the act. Always a bit stern, he happened in this occasion to be in
severer mood than usual. "Benjamin," said he "take out your singing-book,
and join in the singing." "But, sir," I answered, "I am excused from singing."
"Then," said he again, "take out your textbooks, and go to studying. And
I again rejoined: "My lessons are completed; so I have nothing to study."
"Then, Benjamin," he said, with an air of finality, "take all your books,
and go home." I obeyed instanter. [sic] Within arm's reach was a door opening
on a flight of stairs that led to the boys' exit. Loaded with books, I
hurried down the stairs, grabbed my hat, and scampered home at top speed,
in a state of high elation. Never again was I insider the Friends' Academy;
never afterward did I see John Tetlow's face.
It was a rather shabby part that I played on this occasion, I confess.
For poor excuse I offer my age, -- that age, which in its ebullient onrush
knows no pity, no consideration. Not only was I in error, but I sacrificed
an opportunity. If I had simply walked to the front of the school-room,
extended my hand to my teacher, thanked him publicly for his kindness,
and bidden him a respectful farewell, perhaps his would have been the shame
for a severity hardly called for by so trivial an offence committed by
a pupil of long standing and creditable record, who was not given to misbehavior.
As it is, all that I can say, with the little Latin that this record left
me, is Mea Culpa.
Billy Rip's Hasty Conclusion.
It was the following Monday, I think, that I took an early train for Boston,
where I was met by my cousin, Walter Almy, who had just finished his first
year at the Institute of Technology, but had concluded to go to Utah to
begin a mining career without completing his technical education. The meeting
gave me courage for the examination ordeal, as Walter, who had been through
it himself, was able to reassure me and to inform me as to the procedure.
To each study was allotted a special room in charge of an instructor or
assistant professor who distributed the question papers. Nowhere was I
confronted by my formidable difficulty, and least of all in the last room
visited, where the subject was algebra. Glancing over the questions, I
saw that they were very simple, and in quick time, hardly more than ten
minutes I should think, I wrote out all the solutions. Rising with paper
in hand, I went to the instructor's desk, where sat Mr. William Ripley
Nichols, who, as I learned month later, was the assistant professor of
chemistry and was very unpopular with the students, by whom he was usually
spoke of as Billy Rip. As I laid my paper on his desk, where no other candidate
had preceded me, he looked up at me with a pitying deprecatory smile, saying,
"Oh! I wouldn't give it up so." "But I haven't given it up, sir, " I answered.
"The paper is finished." The speed with which his pity vanished in an apologetic
gasp of confusion was so embarrassing that I did not linger longer than
was necessary in order to avoid the appearance of unbecoming haste. I learned
subsequently that it was the policy of the Institute in its early days,
when it needed students to make the entrance examinations easy, thereby
insuring a larger class for the first year, and to weed out the unpromising
by severe annual examinations, with the result that the graduating group
was always creditable. At a later stage in the Institute's life this policy
became unnecessary. Fortunately the explanation did not reach me in season
to spoil the pride with which I received, in due time, the notice that
I had passed successfully.
My studies, of course, were not to begin till the following autumn.
About two months of the intervening summer I passed in the little town
of Northville, near Cayuga Lake, in New York State, where I visited a distant
cousin on my father's side, Arthur E. Slocum, who had inherited a moderate
fortune, and was beginning a farmer's career at the age of twenty. I found
my relatives there most agreeable and hospitable people, who took care
that I should pass a delightful vacation, the only drawback being that
politeness compelled me to attend a Presbyterian church every Sunday, where
a preacher young enough to know better drummed into my disgusted ears doctrines
worthy of the Dark Ages. I had not yet read Frances Wright's work, "A Few
Days in Athens," so inspiring to all Rationalists, but the belated and
benighted puritanism of this officious prig led me to look forward with
ever-growing eagerness to a few years in the "Athens of America,"
then a city which Epicures would have loved.
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