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Chapter XII -
Example --- Models.
“Ever their phantoms rise before us,
Our loftier brothers, but one in blood;
By bed and table they lord it o’er us,
With looks of beauty and words of good.” --- John Sterling.
“Children may be strangled, but Deeds never; they have an indestructible life, both in and out of our consciousness.” --- George Eliot.
“There is no action of man in this life, which is not the beginning of so long a chain of consequences, as that no human providence is high enough to give us a prospect to the end.” --- Thomas of Malmesbury.
Example is one of the most potent of instructors, though it teaches without a tongue. It is the practical school of mankind, working by action, which is always more forcible than words. Precept may point to us the way, but it is silent continuous example, conveyed to us by habits, and living with us in fact, that carries us along. Good advice has its weight: but without the accompaniment of a good example it is of comparatively small influence; and it will be found that the common saying of “Do as I say, not as I do,” is usually reversed in the actual experience of life.
All persons are more or less apt to learn through the eye rather than the ear; and, whatever is seen in fact, makes a far deeper impression than anything that is merely read or heard. This is especially the case in early youth, when the eye is the chief inlet of knowledge. Whatever children see they unconsciously imitate. They insensibly come to resemble those who are about them --- as insects take the colour of the leaves they feed on. Hence the vast importance of domestic training. For whatever may be the efficiency of schools, the examples set in our Homes must always be of vastly greater influence in forming the characters of our future men and women. The Home is the crystal of society --- the nucleus of national character; and from that source, be it pure or tainted, issue the habits, principles and maxims, which govern public as well as private life. The nation comes from the nursery. Public opinion itself is for the most part the outgrowth of the home; and the best philanthropy comes from the fireside. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society,” says Burke, “is the germ of all public affections.” From this little central spot, the human sympathies may extend in an ever widening circle, until the world is embraced; for, though true philanthropy, like charity, begins at home, assuredly it does not end there.
Example in conduct, therefore, even in apparently trivial matters, is of no light moment, inasmuch as it is constantly becoming inwoven with the lives of others, and contributing to form their natures for better or for worse. The characters of parents are thus constantly repeated in their children; and the acts of affection, discipline, industry, and self-control, which they daily exemplify, live and act when all else which may have been learned through the ear has long been forgotten. Hence a wise man was accustomed to speak of his children as his “future state.” Even the mute action and unconscious look of a parent may give a stamp to the character which is never effaced; and who can tell how much evil act has been stayed by the thought of some good parent, whose memory their children may not sully by the commission of an unworthy deed, or the indulgence of an impure thought? The veriest trifles thus become of importance in influencing the characters of men. “A kiss from my mother,” said West, “made me a painter.” It is on the direction of such seeming trifles when children that the future happiness and success of men mainly depend. Fowell Buxton, when occupying an eminent and influential station in life, wrote to his mother, “I constantly feel, especially in action and exertion for others, the effects of principles early implanted by you in my mind.” Buxton was also accustomed to remember with gratitude the obligations which he owed to an illiterate man, a gamekeeper, named Abraham Plastow, with whom he played, and rode, and sported --- a man who could neither read nor write, but was full of natural good sense and mother-wit. “What made him particularly valuable,” says Buxton, “were his principles of integrity and honour. He never said or did a thing in the absence of my mother of which she would have disapproved. He always held up the highest standard of integrity, and filled our youthful minds with sentiments as pure and as generous as could be found in the writings of Seneca or Cicero. Such was my first instructor, and, I must add, my best.”
Lord Langdale, looking back upon the admirable example set him by his mother, declared, “If the whole world were put into one scale, and my mother into the other, the world would kick the beam.” Mrs. Schimmel Penninck, in her old age, was accustomed to call to mind the personal influence exercised by her mother upon the society amidst which she moved. When she entered a room it had the effect of immediately raising the tone of the conversation, and as if purifying the moral atmosphere --- all seeming to breathe more freely, and stand more erectly. “In her presence,” says the daughter, “I became for the time transformed into another person.” So much does she moral health depend upon the moral atmosphere that is breathed, and so great is the influence daily exercised by parents over their children by living a life before their eyes, that perhaps the best system of parental instruction might be summed up in these two words: “Improve thyself.”
There is something solemn and awful in the thought that there is not an act done or a word uttered by a human being but carries with it a train of consequences, the end of which we may never trace. Not one but, to a certain extent, gives a colour to our life, and insensibly influences the lives of those about us. The good deed or word will live, even though we may not see it fructify, but so will the bad; and no person is so insignificant as to be sure that his example will not do good on the one hand, or evil on the other. The spirits of men do not die: they still live and walk abroad among us. It was a fine and a true thought uttered by Mr. Disraeli in the House of Commons on the death of Richard Cobden, that “he was one of those men who, though not present, were still members of that House, who were independent of dissolutions, of the caprices of constituencies, and even of the course of time.”
There is, indeed, an essence of immortality in the life of man, even in this world. No individual in the universe stands alone; he is a component part of a system of mutual dependencies; and by his several acts he either increases or diminishes the sum of human good now and for ever. As the present is rooted in the past, and the lives and examples of our forefathers still to a great extent influence us, so are we by our daily acts contributing to form the condition and character of the future. Man is a fruit formed and ripened by the culture of all the foregoing centuries; and the living generation continues the magnetic current of action and example destined to bind the remotest past with the most distant future. No man’s acts die utterly; and though his body may resolve into dust and air, his good or his bad deeds will still be bringing forth fruit after their kind, and influencing future generations for all time to come. It is in this momentous and solemn fact that the great peril and responsibility of human existence lies.
Mr. Babbage has so powerfully expressed this idea in a noble passage in one of his writings that we here venture to quote his words: “Every atom,” he says, “impressed with good or ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base; the air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are written for ever all that man has ever said or whispered. There, in their immutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest as well as the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled; perpetuating, in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will. But, if the air we breathe is the never-failing historian of the sentiments we have uttered, earth, air, and ocean, are, in like manner, the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done; the same principle of the equality of action and reaction applies to them. No motion impressed by natural causes, or by human agency, is ever obliterated. . . . If the Almighty stamped on the brow of the first murderer the indelible and visible mark of his guilt, He has also established laws by which every succeeding criminal is not less irrevocably chained to the testimony of his crime; for every atom of his mortal frame, through whatever changes its severed particles may migrate, will still retain adhering to it, through every combination, some movement derived from that very muscular effort by which the crime itself was perpetrated.”
Thus, every act we do or word we utter, as well as every act we witness or word we hear, carries with it an influence which extends over, and gives a colour, not only to the whole of our future life, but makes itself felt upon the whole frame of society. We may not, and indeed cannot, possibly, trace the influence working itself into action in its various ramifications amongst our children, our friends, or associates; yet there it is assuredly, working on for ever. And herein lies the great significance of setting forth a good example, --- a silent teaching which even the poorest and least significant person can practise in his daily life. There is no one so humble, but that he owes to others this simple but priceless instruction. Even the meanest condition may thus be made useful; for the light set in a low place shines as faithfully as that set upon a hill. Everywhere, and under almost all circumstances, however externally adverse --- in moorland shielings, in cottage hamlets, in the close alleys of great towns --- the true man may grow. He who tills a space of earth scarce bigger than is needed for his grave, may work as faithfully, and to as good purpose, as the heir to thousands. The commonest workshop may thus be a school of industry, science, and good morals, on the one hand; or of idleness, folly, and depravity, on the other. It all depends on the individual men, and the use they make of the opportunities for good which offer themselves.
A life well spent, a character uprightly sustained, is no slight legacy to leave to one’s children, and to the world; for it is the most eloquent lesson of virtue and the severest reproof of vice, while it continues an enduring source of the best kind of riches. Well for those who can say, as Pope did, in rejoinder to the sarcasm of Lord Hervey, “I think it enough that my parents, such as they were, never cost me a blush, and that their son, such as he is, never cost them a tear.”
It is not enough to tell others what they are to do, but to exhibit the actual example of doing. What Mrs. Chisholm described to Mrs. Stowe as the secret of her success, applies to all life. “I found,” she said, “that if we want anything done, we must go to work and do: it is of no use merely to talk --- none whatever.” It is poor eloquence that only shows how a person can talk. Had Mrs. Chisholm rested satisfied with lecturing, her project, she was persuaded, would never have got beyond the region of talk; but when people saw what she was doing and had actually accomplished, they fell in with her views and came forward to help her. Hence the most beneficent worker is not he who says the most eloquent things, or even who thinks the most loftily, but he who does the most eloquent acts.
True-hearted persons, even in the humblest station in life, who are energetic doers, may thus give an impulse to good works out of all proportion, apparently, to their actual station in society. Thomas Wright might have talked about the reclamation of criminals, and John Pounds about the necessity for Ragged Schools, and yet done nothing; instead of which they simply set to work without any other idea in their minds than that of doing, not talking. And how the example of even the poorest man may tell upon society, hear what Dr. Guthrie, the apostle of the Ragged School movement, says of the influence which the example of John Pounds, the humble Portsmouth cobbler, exercised upon his own working career: ---
“The interest I have been led to take in this cause is an example of how, in Providence, a man’s destiny --- his course of life, like that of a river --- may be determined and affected by very trivial circumstances. It is rather curious --- at least it is interesting to me to remember --- that it was by a picture I was first led to take an interest in ragged schools --- by a picture in an old, obscure, decaying burgh that stands on the shores of the Frith of Forth, the birthplace of Thomas Chalmers. I went to see this place many years ago; and, going into an inn for refreshment, I found the room covered with pictures of shepherdesses with their crooks, and sailors in holiday attire, not particularly interesting. But above the chimney-piece there was a large print, more respectable than its neighbours, which represented a cobbler’s room. The cobbler was there himself, spectacles on nose, an old shoe between his knees --- the massive forehead and firm mouth indicating great determination of character, and, beneath his bushy eyebrows, benevolence gleamed out on a number of poor ragged boys and girls who stood at their lessons round the busy cobbler. My curiosity was awakened; and in the inscription I read how this man, John Pounds, a cobbler in Portsmouth, taking pity on the multitude of poor ragged children left by ministers and magistrates, and ladies and gentlemen, to go to ruin on the streets --- how, like a good shepherd, he gathered in these wretched outcasts --- how he had trained them to God and to the world --- and how, while earning his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, he had rescued from misery and saved to society not less than five hundred of these children. I felt ashamed of myself. I felt reproved for the little I had done. My feelings were touched. I was astonished at this man’s achievements; and I well remember, in the enthusiasm of the moment, saying to my companion (and I have seen in my cooler and calmer moments no reason for unsaying the saying) --- ‘That man is an honour to humanity, and deserves the tallest monument ever raised within the shores of Britain.’ I took up that man’s history, and I found it animated by the spirit of Him who ‘had compassion on the multitude.’ John Pounds was a clever man besides; and, like Paul, if he could not win a poor boy any other way, he won him by art. He would be seen chasing a ragged boy along the quays, and compelling him to come to school, not by the power of a policeman, but by the power of a hot potato. He knew the love an Irishman had for a potato; and John Pounds might be seen running holding under the boy’s nose a potato, like an Irishman, very hot, and with a coat as ragged as himself. When the day comes when honour will be done to whom honour is due, I can fancy the crowd of those whose fame poets have sung, and to whose memory monuments have been raised, dividing like the wave, and, passing the great, and the noble, and the mighty of the land, this poor, obscure old man stepping forward and receiving the especial notice of Him who said ‘Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these, ye did it also to Me.’”
The education of character is very much a question of models; we mould ourselves so unconsciously after the characters, manners, habits, and opinions of those who are about us. Good rules may do much, but good models far more; for in the latter we have instruction in action --- wisdom at work. Good admonition and bad example only build with one hand to pull down with the other. Hence the vast importance of exercising great care in the selection of companions, especially in youth. There is a magnetic affinity in young persons which insensibly tends to assimilate them to each other’s likeness. Mr. Edgeworth was so strongly convinced that from sympathy they involuntarily imitated or caught the tone of the company they frequented, that he held it to be of the most essential importance that they should be taught to select the very best models. “No company, or good company,” was his motto. Lord Collingwood, writing to a young friend, said, “Hold it as a maxim that you had better be alone than in mean company. Let your companions be such as yourself, or superior; for the worth of a man will always be ruled by that of his company.” It was a remark of the famous Dr. Sydenham that everybody some time or other would be the better or the worse for having but spoken to a good or a bad man. As Sir Peter Lely made it a rule never to look at a bad picture if he could help it, believing that whenever he did so his pencil caught a taint from it, so, whoever chooses to gaze often upon a debased specimen of humanity and to frequent his society, cannot help gradually assimilating himself to that sort of model.
It is therefore advisable for young men to seek the fellowship of the good, and always to aim at a higher standard than themselves. Francis Horner, speaking of the advantages to himself of direct personal intercourse with high-minded, intelligent men, said, “I cannot hesitate to decide that I have derived more intellectual improvement from them than from all the books I have turned over.” Lord Shelburne (afterwards Marquis of Lansdowne), when a young man, paid a visit to the venerable Malesherbes, and was so much impressed by it, that he said, --- “I have travelled much, but I have never been so influenced by personal contact with any man; and if I ever accomplish any good in the course of my life, I am certain that the recollection of M. de Malesherbes will animate my soul.” So Fowell Buxton was always ready to acknowledge the powerful influence exercised upon the formation of his character in early life by the example of the Gurney family: “It has given a colour to my life,” he used to say. Speaking of his success at the Dublin University, he confessed, “I can ascribe it to nothing but my Earlham visits.” It was from the Gurneys he “caught the infection” of self-improvement.
Contact with the good never fails to impart good, and we carry away with us some of the blessing, as travellers’ garments retain the odour of the flowers and shrubs through which they have passed. Those who knew the late John Sterling intimately, have spoken of the beneficial influence which he exercised on all with whom he came into personal contact. Many owed to him their first awakening to a higher being; from him they learnt what they were, and what they ought to be. Mr. Trench says of him: --- “It was impossible to come in contact with his noble nature without feeling one’s self in some measure ennobled and lifted up, as I ever felt when I left him, into a higher region of objects and aims than that in which one is tempted habitually to dwell.” It is thus that the noble character always acts; we become insensibly elevated by him, and cannot help feeling as he does and acquiring the habit of looking at things in the same light. Such is the magical action and reaction of minds upon each other.
Artists, also, feel themselves elevated by contact with artists greater than themselves. Thus Haydn’s genius was first fired by Handel. Hearing him play, Haydn’s ardour for musical composition was at once excited, and but for this circumstance, he himself believed that he would never have written the ‘Creation.’ Speaking of Handel, he said, “When he chooses, he strikes like the thunderbolt;” and at another time, “There is not a note of him but draws blood.” Scarlatti was another of Handel’s ardent admirers, following him all over Italy; afterwards, when speaking of the great master, he would cross himself in token of admiration. True artists never fail generously to recognise each other’s greatness. Thus Beethoven’s admiration for Cherubini was regal: and he ardently hailed the genius of Schubert: “Truly,” said he, “in Schubert dwells a divine fire.” When Northcote was a mere youth he had such an admiration for Reynolds that, when the great painter was once attending a public meeting down in Devonshire, the boy pushed through the crowd, and got so near Reynolds as to touch the skirt of his coat, “which I did,” says Northcote, “with great satisfaction to my mind,” --- a true touch of youthful enthusiasm in its admiration of genius.
The example of the brave is an inspiration to the timid, their presence thrilling through every fibre. Hence the miracles of valour so often performed by ordinary men under the leadership of the heroic. The very recollection of the deeds of the valiant stirs men’s blood like the sound of a trumpet. Ziska bequeathed his skin to be used as a drum to inspire the valour of the Bohemians. When Scanderbeg, prince of Epirus, was dead, the Turks wished to possess his bones, that each might wear a piece next his heart, hoping thus to secure some portion of the courage he had displayed while living, and which they had so often experienced in battle. When the gallant Douglas, bearing the heart of Bruce to the Holy Land, saw one of his knights surrounded and sorely pressed by the Saracens, he took from his neck the silver case containing the hero’s bequest, and throwing it amidst the thickest press of his foes, cried, “Pass first in fight, as thou wert wont to do, and Douglas will follow thee, or die;” and so saying, he rushed forward to the place where it fell, and was there slain.
The chief use of biography consists in the noble models of character in which it abounds. Our great forefathers still live among us in the records of their lives, as well as in the acts they have done, which live also; still sit by us at table, and hold us by the hand; furnishing examples for our benefit, which we may still study, admire and imitate. Indeed, whoever has left behind him the record of a noble life, has bequeathed to posterity an enduring source of good, for it serves as a model for others to form themselves by in all time to come; still breathing fresh life into men, helping them to reproduce his life anew, and to illustrate his character in other forms. Hence a book containing the life of a true man is full of precious seed. It is a still living voice; it is an intellect. To use Milton’s words, “it is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Such a book never ceases to exercise an elevating and ennobling influence. But, above all, there is the Book containing the very highest Example set before us to shape our lives by in this world --- the most suitable for all the necessities of our mind and heart --- an example which we can only follow afar off and feel after,
“Like plants or vines which never saw the sun,
But dream of him and guess where he may be,
And do their best to climb and get to him.”
Again, no young man can rise from the perusal of such lives as those of Buxton and Arnold, without feeling his mind and heart made better, and his best resolves invigorated. Such biographies increase a man’s self-reliance by demonstrating what men can be, and what they can do; fortifying his hopes and elevating his aims in life. Sometimes a young man discovers himself in a biography, as Correggio felt within him the risings of genius on contemplating the works of Michael Angelo: “And I too, am a painter,” he exclaimed. Sir Samuel Romilly, in his autobiography, confessed himself to have been powerfully influenced by the life of the great and noble-minded French Chancellor Daguesseau: --- “The works of Thomas,” says he, “had fallen into my hands, and I had read with admiration his ‘Eloge of Daguesseau;’ and the career of honour which he represented that illustrious magistrate to have run, excited to a great degree my ardour and ambition, and opened to my imagination new paths of glory.”
Franklin was accustomed to attribute his usefulness and eminence to his having early read Cotton Mather’s ‘Essays to do Good’ --- a book which grew out of Mather’s own life. And see how good example draws other men after it, and propagates itself through future generations in all lands. For Samuel Drew avers that he framed his own life, and especially his business habits, after the model left on record by Benjamin Franklin. Thus it is impossible to say where a good example may not reach, or where it will end, if indeed it have an end. Hence the advantage, in literature as in life, of keeping the best society, reading the best books, and wisely admiring and imitating the best things we find in them. “In literature,” said Lord Dudley, “I am fond of confining myself to the best company, which consists chiefly of my old acquaintance, with whom I am desirous of becoming more intimate; and I suspect that nine times out of ten it is more profitable, if not more agreeable, to read an old book over again, than to read a new one for the first time.”
Sometimes a book containing a noble exemplar of life, taken up at random, merely with the object of reading it as a pastime, has been known to call forth energies whose existence had not before been suspected. Alfieri was first drawn with passion to literature by reading ‘Plutarch’s Lives.’ Loyola, when a soldier serving at the siege of Pampeluna, and laid up by a dangerous wound in his leg, asked for a book to divert his thoughts: the ‘Lives of the Saints’ was brought to him, and its perusal so inflamed his mind, that he determined thenceforth to devote himself to the founding of a religious order. Luther, in like manner, was inspired to undertake the great labours of his life by a perusal of the ‘Life and Writings of John Huss.’ Dr. Wolff was stimulated to enter upon his missionary career by reading the ‘Life of Francis Xavier;’ and the book fired his youthful bosom with a passion the most sincere and ardent to devote himself to the enterprise of his life. William Carey, also, got the first idea of entering upon his sublime labours as a missionary from a perusal of the Voyages of Captain Cook.
Francis Horner was accustomed to note in his diary and letters the books by which he was most improved and influenced. Amongst these were Condorcet’s ‘Eloge of Haller,’ Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘Discourses,’ the writings of Bacon, and ‘Burnet’s Account of Sir Matthew Hale.’ The perusal of the last-mentioned book --- the portrait of a prodigy of labour --- Horner says, filled him with enthusiasm. Of Condorcet’s ‘Eloge of Haller,’ he said: “I never rise from the account of such men without a sort of thrilling palpitation about me, which I know not whether I should call admiration, ambition, or despair.” And speaking of the ‘Discourses’ of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he said: “Next to the writings of Bacon, there is no book which has more powerfully impelled me to self-culture. He is one of the first men of genius who has condescended to inform the world of the steps by which greatness is attained. The confidence with which he asserts the omnipotence of human labour has the effect of familiarising his reader with the idea that genius is an acquisition rather than a gift; whilst with all there is blended so naturally and eloquently the most elevated and passionate admiration of excellence, that upon the whole there is no book of a more inflammatory effect.” It is remarkable that Reynolds himself attributed his first passionate impulse towards the study of art, to reading Richardson’s account of a great painter; and Haydon was in like manner afterwards inflamed to follow the same pursuit by reading of the career of Reynolds. Thus the brave and aspiring life of one man lights a flame in the minds of others of like faculties and impulse; and where there is equally vigorous efforts like distinction and success will almost surely follow. Thus the chain of example is carried down through time in an endless succession of links, --- admiration exciting imitation, and perpetuating the true aristocracy of genius.
One of the most valuable, and one of the most infectious examples which can be set before the young, is that of cheerful working. Cheerfulness gives elasticity to the spirit. Spectres fly before it; difficulties cause no despair, for they are encountered with hope, and the mind acquires that happy disposition to improve opportunities which rarely fails of success. The fervent spirit is always a healthy and happy spirit; working cheerfully itself, and stimulating others to work. It confers a dignity on even the most ordinary occupations. The most effective work, also, is usually the full-hearted work --- that which passes through the hands or the head of him whose heart is glad. Hume was accustomed to say that he would rather possess a cheerful disposition --- inclined always to look at the bright side of things --- than with a gloomy mind to be the master of an estate of ten thousand a year. Granville Sharp, amidst his indefatigable labours on behalf of the slave, solaced himself in the evenings by taking part in glees and instrumental concerts at his brother’s house, singing, or playing on the flute, the clarionet or the oboe; and, at the Sunday evening oratorios, when Handel was played, he beat the kettle-drums. He also indulged, though sparingly, in caricature drawing. Fowell Buxton also was an eminently cheerful man; taking special pleasure in field sports, in riding about the country with his children, and in mixing in all their domestic amusements.
In another sphere of action, Dr. Arnold was a noble and a cheerful worker, throwing himself into the great business of his life, the training and teaching of young men, with his whole heart and soul. It is stated in his admirable biography, that “the most remarkable thing in the Laleham circle was the wonderful healthiness of tone which prevailed there. It was a place where a new comer at once felt that a great and earnest work was going forward. Every pupil was made to feel that there was a work for him to do; that his happiness, as well as his duty, lay in doing that work well. Hence an indescribable zest was communicated to a young man’s feeling about life; a strange joy came over him on discerning that he had the means of being useful, and thus of being happy; and a deep respect and ardent attachment sprang up towards him who had taught him thus to value life and his own self, and his work and mission in the world. All this was founded on the breadth and comprehensiveness of Arnold’s character, as well as its striking truth and reality; on the unfeigned regard he had for work of all kinds, and the sense he had of its value, both for the complex aggregate of society and the growth and protection of the individual. In all this there was no excitement; no predilection for one class of work above another; no enthusiasm for any one-sided object: but a humble, profound, and most religious consciousness that work is the appointed calling of man on earth; the end for which his various faculties were given; the element in which his nature is ordained to develop itself, and in which his progressive advance towards heaven is to lie.” Among the many valuable men trained for public life and usefulness by Arnold, was the gallant Hodson, of Hodson’s Horse, who, writing home from India, many years after, thus spoke of his revered master: “The influence he produced has been most lasting and striking in its effects. It is felt even in India; I cannot say more than that.”
The useful influence which a right-hearted man of energy and industry may exercise amongst his neighbours and dependants, and accomplish for his country, cannot, perhaps, be better illustrated than by the career of Sir John Sinclair; characterized by the Abbé Gregoire as “the most indefatigable man in Europe.” He was originally a country laird, born to a considerable estate situated near John o’ Groat’s House, almost beyond the beat of civilization, in a bare wild country fronting the stormy North Sea. His father dying while he was a youth of sixteen, the management of the family property thus early devolved upon him; and at eighteen he began a course of vigorous improvement in the county of Caithness, which eventually spread all over Scotland. Agriculture then was in a most backward state; the fields were unenclosed, the lands undrained; the small farmers of Caithness were so poor that they could scarcely afford to keep a horse or shelty; the hard work was chiefly done, and the burdens borne, by the women; and if a cottier lost a horse it was not unusual for him to marry a wife as the cheapest substitute. The country was without roads or bridges; and drovers driving their cattle south had to swim the rivers along with their beasts. The chief track leading into Caithness lay along a high shelf on a mountain side, the road being some hundred feet of clear perpendicular height above the sea which dashed below. Sir John, though a mere youth, determined to make a new road over the hill of Ben Cheilt, the old let-alone proprietors, however, regarding his scheme with incredulity and derision. But he himself laid out the road, assembled some twelve hundred workmen early one summer’s morning, set them simultaneously to work, superintending their labours, and stimulating them by his presence and example; and before night, what had been a dangerous sheep track, six miles in length, hardly passable for led horses, was made practicable for wheel-carriages as if by the power of magic. It was an admirable example of energy and well-directed labour, which could not fail to have a most salutary influence upon the surrounding population. He then proceeded to make more roads, to erect mills, to build bridges, and to enclose and cultivate the waste lands. He introduced improved methods of culture, and regular rotation of crops, distributing small premiums to encourage industry; and he thus soon quickened the whole frame of society within reach of his influence, and infused an entirely new spirit into the cultivators of the soil. From being one of the most inaccessible districts of the north --- the very ultima Thule of civilization --- Caithness became a pattern county for its roads, its agriculture, and its fisheries. In Sinclair’s youth, the post was carried by a runner only once a week, and the young baronet then declared that he would never rest till a coach drove daily to Thurso. The people of the neighbourhood could not believe in any such thing, and it became a proverb in the county to say of an utterly impossible scheme, “Ou, ay, that will come to pass when Sir John sees the daily mail at Thurso!” But Sir John lived to see his dream realized, and the daily mail established to Thurso.
The circle of his benevolent operation gradually widened. Observing the serious deterioration which had taken place in the quality of British wool, --- one of the staple commodities of the country, --- he forthwith, though but a private and little-known country gentleman, devoted himself to its improvement. By his personal exertions he established the British Wool Society for the purpose, and himself led the way to practical improvement by importing 800 sheep from all countries, at his own expense. The result was, the introduction into Scotland of the celebrated Cheviot breed. Sheep farmers scouted the idea of south country flocks being able to thrive in the far north. But Sir John persevered; and in a few years there were not fewer than 300,000 Cheviots diffused over the four northern counties alone. The value of all grazing land was thus enormously increased; and Scotch estates, which before were comparatively worthless, began to yield large rentals.
Returned by Caithness to Parliament, in which he remained for thirty years, rarely missing a division, his position gave him farther opportunities of usefulness, which he did not neglect to employ. Mr. Pitt, observing his persevering energy in all useful public projects, sent for him to Downing Street, and voluntarily proposed his assistance in any object he might have in view. Another man might have thought of himself and his own promotion; but Sir John characteristically replied, that he desired no favour for himself, but intimated that the reward most gratifying to his feelings would be Mr. Pitt’s assistance in the establishment of a National Board of Agriculture. Arthur Young laid a bet with the baronet that his scheme would never be established, adding, “Your Board of Agriculture will be in the moon!” But vigorously setting to work, he roused public attention to the subject, enlisted a majority of Parliament on his side, and eventually established the Board, of which he was appointed President. The result of its action need not be described, but the stimulus which it gave to agriculture and stock-raising was shortly felt throughout the whole United Kingdom, and tens of thousands of acres were redeemed from barrenness by its operation. He was equally indefatigable in encouraging the establishment of fisheries; and the successful founding of these great branches of British industry at Thurso and Wick was mainly due to his exertions. He urged for long years, and at length succeeded in obtaining the enclosure of a harbour for the latter place, which is perhaps the greatest and most prosperous fishing town in the world.
Sir John threw his personal energy into every work in which he engaged, rousing the inert, stimulating the idle, encouraging the hopeful, and working with all. When a French invasion was threatened, he offered to Mr. Pitt to raise a regiment on his own estate, and he was as good as his word. He went down to the north, and raised a battalion of 600 men, afterwards increased to 1000; and it was admitted to be one of the finest volunteer regiments ever raised, inspired throughout by his own noble and patriotic spirit. While commanding officer of the camp at Aberdeen he held the offices of a Director of the Bank of Scotland, Chairman of the British Wool Society, Provost of Wick, Director of the British Fishery Society, Commissioner for issuing Exchequer Bills, Member of Parliament for Caithness, and President of the Board of Agriculture. Amidst all this multifarious and self-imposed work, he even found time to write books, enough of themselves to establish a reputation. When Mr. Rush, the American Ambassador, arrived in England, he relates that he inquired of Mr. Coke of Holkham, what was the best work on Agriculture, and was referred to Sir John Sinclair’s; and when he further asked of Mr. Vansittart, Chancellor of the Exchequer, what was the best work on British Finance, he was again referred to a work by Sir John Sinclair, his ‘History of the Public Revenue.’ But the great monument of his indefatigable industry, a work that would have appalled other men, but only served to rouse and sustain his energy, was his ‘Statistical Account of Scotland,’ in twenty-one volumes, one of the most valuable practical works ever published in any age or country. Amid a host of other pursuits it occupied him nearly eight years of hard labour, during which he received, and attended to, upwards of 20,000 letters on the subject. It was a thoroughly patriotic undertaking, from which he derived no personal advantage whatever, beyond the honour of having completed it. The whole of the profits were assigned by him to the Society for the Sons of the Clergy in Scotland. The publication of the book led to great public improvements; it was followed by the immediate abolition of several oppressive feudal rights, to which it called attention; the salaries of schoolmasters and clergymen in many parishes were increased; and an increased stimulus was given to agriculture throughout Scotland. Sir John then publicly offered to undertake the much greater labour of collecting and publishing a similar Statistical Account of England; but unhappily the then Archbishop of Canterbury refused to sanction it, lest it should interfere with the tithes of the clergy, and the idea was abandoned.
A remarkable illustration of his energetic promptitude was the manner in which he once provided, on a great emergency, for the relief of the manufacturing districts. In 1793 the stagnation produced by the war led to an unusual number of bankruptcies, and many of the first houses in Manchester and Glasgow were tottering, not so much from want of property, but because the usual sources of trade and credit were for the time closed up. A period of intense distress amongst the labouring classes seemed imminent, when Sir John urged, in Parliament, that Exchequer notes to the amount of five millions should be issued immediately as a loan to such merchants as could give security. This suggestion was adopted, and his offer to carry out his plan, in conjunction with certain members named by him, was also accepted. The vote was passed late at night, and early next morning Sir John, anticipating the delays of officialism and red tape, proceeded to bankers in the city, and borrowed of them, on his own personal security, the sum of 70,000l., which he despatched the same evening to those merchants who were in the most urgent need of assistance. Pitt meeting Sir John in the House, expressed his great regret that the pressing wants of Manchester and Glasgow could not be supplied so soon as was desirable, adding, “The money cannot be raised for some days.” “It is already gone! it left London by to-night’s mail!” was Sir John’s triumphant reply; and in afterwards relating the anecdote he added, with a smile of pleasure, “Pitt was as much startled as if I had stabbed him.” To the last this great, good man worked on usefully and cheerfully, setting a great example for his family and for his country. In so laboriously seeking others’ good, it might be said that he found his own --- not wealth, for his generosity seriously impaired his private fortune, but happiness, and self-satisfaction, and the peace that passes knowledge. A great patriot, with magnificent powers of work, he nobly did his duty to his country; yet he was not neglectful of his own household and home. His sons and daughters grew up to honour and usefulness; and it was one of the proudest things Sir John could say, when verging on his eightieth year, that he had lived to see seven sons grown up, not one of whom had incurred a debt he could not pay, or caused him a sorrow that could have been avoided.
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