Autobiography of W. J. Stillman

A THEORY is advanced by some students of character that in what concerns the formation of the individual nature, the shaping and determination of it in the plastic stage, and especially in respect to the moral elements on which the stability and purpose of a man’s life depend, a man is indebted to his mother, for good or for ill. The question is too subtle for argument, but so far as my own observation goes, it tends to a confirmation of the theory. I have often noticed, in children of friends, that in childhood the likeness to the mother was so vivid that one found no trace of the father, but that in maturity this likeness disappeared to give place to that of the father. In my own case, taking it for what it is worth, I can only wish that the mother’s part had been more enduring ; not that I regret the effect of my father’s influence, but because I think my mother had some qualities from which my best are derived, and which I should like to see completely carried out in the life of a man, while I recognize in a certain vagarious tendency in my father the probable hereditary basis of the inconstancy of purpose and pursuit which may not have deprived my life of interest to others, but which has made it comparatively barren of practical result. As a study of a characteristic phase of New England life which has now entirely disappeared, I believe that a picture of my mother and her family will not be without interest.

My mother, Eliza Ward Maxson, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, as nearly as I can determine, in 1782, my father being seven years her senior. The childhood of both was therefore surrounded by the facts and associations of the war of American independence. My father in fact, as I have heard him say, was born under the rule of the king of England, and his father considered the Revolution so little justified that to the day of his death he refused to recognize the government of the United States; but, living a quiet life on his farm, he was never disturbed by the measures which exiled the noted and active Tories.

My mother’s earliest recorded ancestor was a John Maxson, one of the band of Roger Williams, driven by the Puritans out of Massachusetts into the wilder parts of “ Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” where they might worship God in the way their consciences dictated, free from the restrictions on the liberty of belief and practice imposed by the Pilgrim Fathers. There at last complete freedom of dissent was found, and one of the consequences was that the colony became a sort of field for Christian dialectics, where the most extreme doctrines on all points of Christian belief were discussed without more serious results of the odium theologicum than the building of many meeting houses and the multiplication of sects. Among these sects was one which played an important part in the local theology of that day, and for many years afterward, known as the Seventh-Day Baptist, to which, it seems, John Maxson belonged. It was not a new invention of the colonists, but had existed in England since the days of early dissent, and it is possible that John Maxson had brought the doctrine with him from England. Adhering to the practice of baptism by immersion, the sect also maintained the immutable obligation of the Seventh-Day Sabbath of the ten commandments, the Jewish day of rest.

The grave disabilities imposed upon them in Massachusetts by the obligatory abstention from labor on two days — on one day by conscience, and the other by the rigorous laws of the Puritans — made Roger Williams’s little state the paradise of the Sabbatarians, and the sect flourished greatly in it, while the social isolation consequent on the practice of contracting marriages only within their church membership (made imperative if family dissensions were to be avoided on a question of primary importance to that community, which had sacrificed all worldly advantages to what it believed to be obedience to the Word of God) at once knit together their church in closer relations, and drew to it others from the outside, attracted by the magnetism of a more ascetic faith.

Amongst the emigrants from England on the Restoration were a family by the name of Stillman, who having become involved with the Regicides went into what was then the most obscure and remote part of New England, and settled at Wethersfield in Connecticut. One of the brothers, George, hearing of this strange doctrine denying the sanctity of the “Lord’s Day,” came to Newport to convert the erring brothers ; but, convinced by them, remained in the colony, where he became a shining light. Thus it happened that both lines of my ancestry became involved in the mystic bonds of a faith which shut them off in a peculiar manner from all around them. The consequent isolation, I fear, made much for self-righteousness. In their eyes it was this observance which maintained continuity between the Christian church and the institutions imposed in Paradise, and therefore made them peculiarly the people of God. This amiable fanaticism, fervent without being uncharitable, interfered in nowise with the widest exercise of Christian sympathy with other sects, the observance of the Seventh-Day Sabbath not being held as an essential to godliness, or to Christian fellowship, the nonobservance being possibly only due to ignorance, so that the relations of the historic First Seventh-Day Baptist Church at Newport with the churches observing the “ Lord’s-Day ” Sabbath were always most kindly. The meeting house occupied by the Sabbatarians on the seventh day was occupied by one of the Sundayobserving sects on the first, and the preachers of one often officiated for the other. But the worldly advantage enjoyed by the Sunday keeper was so considerable that all who did not hold to the finest scruple of conscience in their conduct passed over to the majority and were excluded from the communion, as a precaution against the Sunday keepers becoming a majority in the church and taking it away from the Sabbath keepers, as did actually occur with one of their congregations in Vermont. In our community generally there was a most scrupulous avoidance of any occupation on Sunday which might annoy these who held it as Sabbath, and though in the state of New York the laws were extremely liberal in this respect, my father in my boyhood always made it a point not to allow in his workshop any work which would be heard by the neighbors. It can be readily understood that this continual selection of the most scrupulous consciences, the closest thinkers and the least worldly characters, in the church of my ancestors, must have developed a singularly fine and cuttingedge temper in its adherents ; and the succession of generations of men and women who had graduated in the school of Scripture dialectics, and knew every text and its various interpretations, made a community of Bible disputants such as even Massachusetts could not show.

My mother was the eldest of a family of five, left motherless when she was sixteen. Her father was the director of the smallpox hospital in Newport, then an institution of grave importance to the community, as the practice of obligatory inoculation prevailed, and all the young people of the colony had to go up in classes to the hospital and pass the ordeal. Her mother’s death left her the matron of the hospital and caretaker of her sister and brothers, and the stories of her life at that time which she told me now and then showed that with the position she assumed the effective authority, and ruled her brothers with a severity which my own experience of her maturer years enables me to understand. “ Spare the rod, and spoil the child,” was the maxim which flamed in the air before every father and mother of that New England, and my mother’s physical vigor at sixty, when her conception of authority began to relax, I being then a lad six feet high and indisposed to physical persuasion, satisfied me that when her duty had required her to assume the responsibility bequeathed her by her mother she was fully competent to meet it.

Accustomed to the hardest life, the most rigid economy in the household, and without servants, — for except rare and lately emancipated negro slaves there was then no servile class in that colony, — the children had to perform all the duties pertaining to the daily life, official or private, and my mother was able to pull an oar or manage the sailboat with her brothers, and catch the horses and ride them bareback from pasture, when necessary, for the daily work, which was not insignificant; for Newport was really the seaport of that section of the state, and being on an island of importance, the intercourse with the mainland called for sea and land service. The boys were all fishermen, for a large part of the subsistence of the family came from the fishing grounds outside the harbor; and as the oldest brother took early to the sailor’s life, my mother had to assume a larger share of all the harder services. The hospital was also the quarantine station, and received all the cases of smallpox which came to the port; and they must have been many and fatal, for I have heard her say that she had to go the rounds of the hospital at night, and that there would sometimes be more than one dead in the dead-room at once.

The first acquaintance of ray parents with each other was made in the inoculating class, my father being resident in Westerly, a town of Rhode Island, on the borders of Connecticut. The marriage must have taken place about two years later, on the second marriage of my grandfather Maxson to the daughter of Samuel Ward, one of the leading delegates from Rhode Island to the convention which drew up and promulgated the Declaration of Independence.1 The early days of their married life must have been passed in an extreme frugality. My father was one of a large number of children, and, after childhood on a farm, learned the trade of ship carpenter, which he alternated, as was often the habit of the young men of the New England coast, with voyages to the banks of Newfoundland in the codfishing season. Having in addition a share of Yankee inventiveness, he became interested in the perfecting of a fullingmachine, to introduce which into what was then the West he made a temporary residence in the state of New York at the old Dutch town of Schenectady, at that time an important entrepot of commerce between the Eastern cities and the state of New York, and the Northwest. Utica was a frontier settlement, Buffalo an outpost in the wilderness. The country was recovering from the war of 1812-15 between the United States and England, and enterprise was beginning to push through the thin lines of settlements along the valleys of the Mohawk and upper Hudson, westward by Buffalo and the Great Lakes, to Ohio, and northward to the valley of the St. Lawrence. Schenectady was the distributing point of this wagon-borne commerce and movement until the completion of the Erie Canal, which down to my own period of recollection was the quickest channel of communication westward, with its horse “ packets,” traveling at the creditable speed of four miles an hour, the traffic barges making scarcely more than two.

Hardly established in what was intended for a temporary visit, the residence of the family became fixed in New York state, owing to my father’s partner, who had been left to manage the business at Westerly, becoming involved in personal embarrassments, which brought on the bankruptcy of the firm and the seizure of all my father’s little property, and, what was worse, the risk of imprisonment for debt in the case of his returning home. Owing to the judgments hanging over him, which a succession of misfortunes prevented him from ever satisfying, it was late in my own remembrance — I think about 1848 or 1850 — before he was enabled to visit his early home. Hard times came on the whole people of that section, and the practical destruction of his business by the loss of all his capital drove him into seeking any employment which would give a momentary relief. Of this period of their existence my mother rarely spoke, and it must have been one of severe privations. She has told me that she often went to bed hungry, that the children might have enough to eat. She had no assistance in her domestic labors except that of her daughter, a girl of tender years, and, having her husband’s five journeymen as members of the household, with five children, of whom my sister was the second, she not only did the daily household duties, including washing and baking, but spun and wove the cloth for the clothes of her husband and children,cut them and made them up. Her cheerful faith in an overruling Providence must have been, in those days, a supreme consolation ; for even in recalling them in the days of my boyhood, the light of it still illumined her, and she never questioned that He who had led them into the wilderness would maintain them in it. She seemed to have but one care in her life while I knew her, — to know and do her duty. She found a special providence in every instance of relief from their pressing wants, and I recall the religious serenity with which she told me of the greatest strait of the hardest winter of that period, when resources had been exhausted almost to the last crumb, and they unexpectedly received from one of her half-brothers, who had gone further west, and lived in what was practically the wilderness, a barrel of salted pigeons’ breasts. There had been one of those almost fabulous flights of the now nearly extinct passenger pigeons which used to come north to breed, in such numbers that the forests where they colonized were so filled with their nests that the settlers went into them and beat the young down with poles, and the branches became so overloaded with the broods in their nests that their weight sometimes broke them down and threw the young on the ground. The birds bad that year chosen the forests in my uncle’s neighborhood for their nesting ground, and had been killed by thousands, and salted down for winter provision ; only the breast being used, owing to the superabundance of the birds. The gift came like the answer to a prayer, for there was hunger in the house, and the snow heavy on the ground, all the community being more or less in the same straits.

Being the youngest of nine children, I can only remember my mother in the days of comparative freedom from anxiety, when, the day’s work over and the house quiet, she used, as she sat by the fire with her knitting, — which occupied all the moments when her hands were not required for other duties, — to tell me incidents of her past life, mostly to show how kind God had been to her and hers, and how faith in His providence was justified in the event. Of herself she only spoke incidentally. Dominating every act and thought of her existence was the profoundest religious veneration I have ever met with, an openness of her mind upward, as if she felt that the Eternal Eye was on her and reading her thoughts. The sense of her responsibility was so serious that I think that only the absorbing activity of her daily life and the way in which every moment was occupied with positive duties prevented her from falling into religious insanity. Her life was a constant prayer, a wrestling with God for the salvation of her children. No image of her remains in my mind so clear as that in which I see her sitting by the fireside, in the dim light of our single homemade candle, her knitting needles flying, and her lips moving in prayer, while the tears stole down her cheeks, in the fervency of her devotion, until she felt that she was being noticed, when the windows of her soul were suddenly shut, and she turned to some subject of common interest as if ashamed to be discovered praying ; for she permitted herself no ostentation of devotion, but reserved it for her nights and solitary moments. Of her own salvation she had only a faltering hope, harassed always by a fear that she had at some time in her life unconsciously committed the unpardonable sin, the nature of which being unknown made it all the more fearful, — the terrible mystery of life and death. What I inherit from her, and doubtless the indelible impression of her fervent faith overshadowing my young life, produced a moulding of my character which has never changed. I lived in an atmosphere of prayer and trust in God which so impressed me, that to this day the habit of thought and conduct thus formed is invincible; and in all the subsequent modifications of the primitive and Hebraic conception of the spiritual life with which she inoculated me, an unconscious aspiration in prayer and an absolute and organic trust in the protection of the divine Providence persist in my character, though reason has long assured me that this is but a crude and personal conception of the divine law, — a conception which my reason repudiates.

My mother was also haunted by the dread of God’s wrath at her loving her children more than she did Him, for with all the fervency of her gentle devotion, she never escaped the ghastly Hebrew conception of a God, always in wrath at every omission or transgression of the law, who at the last great day would demand of her an account of every neglect of duty, every idle word and thought, and especially of the manner in which she had taught her children to obey His commandments. She seemed to scan her life continually to find some sin in the past for which she had not specifically repented, and at times, as I knew by her confidences to me in later years, when she would appeal to me for my opinion, the problem of the unpardonable sin became one of absorbing study, which she finally laid aside in the supreme trust in His goodness who alone knew her intentions and desire to be obedient to the Law. Every one of her sons, as they were born, she dedicated to the service of the Lord, in the ardent hope that one of them would become a minister, and over me, the last, she let her hopes linger longest, for, as I was considered a delicate child, unable to support the life of hard work to which my older brothers had taken one by one, she hoped that I might be spared for study. Only the eldest son ever responded to her desire by the wish to enter the service of the church, and he was far too important to my father’s little workshop to be spared for the necessary schooling. He struggled through night schools and in the intervals of day leisure to qualify himself to enter the College in our city. Before doing so he fell under the notice of old Dr. Nott, President of the College, who was, beside being a teacher of wonderful ability, a clever inventor, and, perceiving my brother’s mechanical capacity, persuaded him to abandon the plan of entering the ministry, and made him foreman of his establishment, the Novelty Iron Works, at New York, for many years known as the leading establishment of its kind in America. The next two brothers, having more or less the same gifts, followed the eldest to New York; the next, an incurable stammerer, was disqualified for the pulpit, and studied medicine, being moreover of a fragile constitution ; and the next, having the least possible sympathy for the calling, also took to medicine.

With the migration of the three older brothers to New York, the diminution of the family and the aid the brothers in New York were able to give the younger children at home, my mother’s life took on a new activity, in her resolute determination that the younger boys should have such an education as the College (Union) afforded them. This determination was opposed by my father, whose idea of the education needed by boys did not go beyond the elements, and who wanted them in the workshop. But it had become to my mother a conception of her duty, that as the relations between my eldest brother and the President of the College led to an offer of what was practically a free education, the younger boys should have equal advantages, and when duty entered her head there was no force capable of driving it out. Charles, the first of us to graduate, was, during his course, the College bell ringer, to pay his fees, but Jacob and myself were in turn dispensed even from this service. My father’s practical opposition, the refusal to pay the incidental expenses for what he always persisted in regarding as an useless education, was met in Charles’s case by my mother’s taking in the students’ washing to provide them. In the cases of Jacob and myself, this drudgery was exchanged for that of a students’ boarding house. In all the housework involved in this complication of her duties, she never had a servant until shortly before my birth, when she took into the house a liberated African slave, the only other assistance in the house in my childhood being a sister six years older than myself, and the daughter of one of our neighbors, who came as a “ help ” at the time of my birth, and subsequently married my second brother. My mother was also the family doctor, for, except in very grave cases, we never had any other physician. She pulled our teeth and prescribed all our medicines. I was well grown before I wore a suit which was not of her cutting and making, though sometimes she was obliged to have in a sewing woman for the light work. She made all the bread we ate, cured the hams, and made great batches of sausages and mince pies, sufficient for the winter’s consumption as well as huge pig’s-head cheeses. How she accomplished all she did I never understood.

But with all her passionate desire to see one of her boys in what she considered the service of God, there was never on my mother’s part the least pressure in that direction, no suggestion that the sacrifices she was making demanded any measure of deviation from our views as to the future. It was her hope that one of us would feel as she did, but she cheerfully resigned the hope, as son after son turned the other way. A brother born three years before me, and who was taken from her before my birth, was perhaps in her mind the fulfillment of her dedication, for he was, according to the accounts of friends of the family, a child of extraordinary intelligence, and she felt that God had taken him from her. In one of those moments of confidence in the years when I had become a counselor to her, I remember her telling me of this boy (known as little William to distinguish him from me) and the sufferings she endured through her doubts lest he should have lived long enough to sin, and had not repented; for, her dreary creed taught that the rigors of eternal damnation rested on every one who had not repented of each individual sin, and that adult baptism was the only assurance of redemption. All the rest of her children had professed religion and received baptism according to the rites of the Baptist Church, but little William left in her mother’s heart the sting of uncertainty. Had he lived long enough to transgress the Law and not repented ? This was to her an ever present question of terrible import. Years rolled by without weakening this torture of apprehension that this little lamb of all her flock might be expiating the sin of Adam in the flames of Eternity, a perpetual babyhood of woe. The depth of the misery this haunting fear inflicted on her can only be imagined by one who knew the passionate intensity of her love for her children, a love which she feared to be sinful, but could not abate. Finally one night, as she lay perplexing her soul with this and other problems of sin and righteousness, she saw, standing near her bed, her lost child, not as she supposed him to be, a baby for eternity, but apparently a youth of sixteen, regarding her silently, but with an expression of such radiant happiness in his face that the shadow passed from her soul forever. She needed no longer to be told that he was amongst the blessed. She told me this one day, timidly, as something she had never dared tell the older children, lest they should think her superstitious, or, perhaps dissipate her consolation by the assurance that she had dreamed.

In charity, comfort for the afflicted, help, — not in money, for of that there was little to spare, but in food; in watching with the sick, and consoling the bereaved in her own loving, sympathetic, mother’s way, she abounded. There was always something for the really needy, and I remember one of her most painful experiences from having refused food to a woman who came to beg, and to whose deathbed she was called the next day, — a deathbed of literal starvation. She recognized the woman, who had come to our house with a story of a family of starving children; but as my mother’s experienced eye assured her she had never been a mother, she refused to her, as a deceiver, what the honest poor always got. “ Why did you tell me you had children,” my mother asked her, “ when you came to me yesterday ? ” “It was not true,” said the dying woman, “ but I was starving and I thought you would be more willing to help me if you thought I had children.” And from that day no beggar was turned from our door without food. Silently and in secret she did what good works came to her to be done, letting not her right hand know what her left hand was doing, but all the poor knew her and her works. Silent, too, and undemonstrative in all her domestic relations she always was, and I question if to any other of her family than myself she ever confided her secret hopes or fears. And to me even she was so undemonstrative that I never remember her kissing me from a passing warmth ; only when I went away on a journey, or returned from one, did she offer to kiss me, and this was the manner of the family. Her maintenance of family discipline was on the same rigorous level, dispassionate as the Law. If I transgressed the commands of herself or of my father the punishment was inevitable, never in wrath, generally on the day after the offense, but inexorable ; she never meant to spoil the child by sparing the rod, but flogged with tears in her eyes and an aching heart, often giving the punishment herself to prevent my father from giving it, as he always flogged mercilessly and in anger, though if I could keep out of his sight till the next day he forgot all about it; she never forgot, and though the flogging might not come for a week, it was never omitted. And her worst severity never raised a feeling of resentment in me, for I recognized it as well deserved, while my father’s floggings always made me rebellious. I only remember one occasion on which I was punished unjustly by my mother. A neighboring farmer had asked me to go to his field close by and shake down the apples of two trees belonging to him. It was in the hour before dinner, and the regulations of the family were very severe about being at meals, and unfortunately I had, in my glee at having a job of paying work to do, infringed on the dinner time. In payment for my services I received from the farmer two huge pumpkins, charged with which I hastened home, looking forward to my mother’s praise and pleasure, but was met by her in the hall, strap in hand, with which she administered a solid flogging, explaining that my father was so angry at my being out at dinner that she gave me the punishment to forestall his, which would be, as I well knew, much severer. It is more than sixty years since that punishment fell on my shoulders, but the astonishment with which I received the flogging instead of the thanks I anticipated for the wages I was bringing her, the haste with which my mother administered it lest my father should anticipate her and beat me after his fashion, are as vivid in my recollection as if it had taken place last year. This was a sample of the family discipline : I was forbidden to walk with other boys when I drove the cow to pasture; forbidden to bathe in the millpond near by, except at stated times ; to play with certain children ; to amuse myself on the Sabbath, and other similar doings, —all to my childish apprehension harmless in themselves, and the punishment never failed to follow the discovery of the transgression. Naturally I learned to lie, a thing contrary to my inclination and nature, and a torture to my conscience, but I had not the courage to meet the flogging, or the firmness to resist temptation and the persuasion of my young companions who rejoiced in a domestic freedom of which I knew nothing. My father’s severity finally brought emancipation by its excess. He used to follow me to see if I obeyed his orders, and one day when I had been persuaded by some boys of our neighborhood to go and bathe in the forbidden hours, he found me in the pond, led me home, and, after cutting two tough pear-tree switches about the thickness, at the butt, of his forefinger, he took me down into the cellar, and, making me strip off my jacket, broke them up to stumps over my back, protected only by a cotton shirt. This was the deciding event which determined me to run away from home, which I did the next week, and though my escapade did not last beyond ten days, on my return the rod was buried.

Looking back at my mother, after the lapse of thirty-seven years since I saw her last, I am surprised at the largeness of character developed in the narrow and illiberal mould of the exclusive Puritanism of the church of her inheritance ; at her freedom from bigotry and the breadth of her knowledge of human nature, as well as at the justice of her instincts of religious essentials, which kept her cheerful and hopeful in spite of the gloomy doctrine imposed on her by her education and surroundings. Believing firmly in the eternity of hell fire, with the logical and terrible day of judgment casting its gloomy shadow over her life, she maintained an unbounded charity for all humanity except herself, admitting the extenuation of ignorance for all others, and condoning, in her judgment of those who differed from her, the offenses which for herself she would have thought mortal sins. In her own household, all latitude in religious observance was resisted with all her strength. In my paternal grandfather’s house the seventh day was a day of feasting, and after the church services all the connection went to the ancestral home to eat the most sumptuous dinner of the week. Against this infraction of the law which forbade on the Sabbath all work not of mercy ornecessity my mother set her face, and when this was done there was no long resistance possible and my father had to give way, so that on that day we had a cold dinner, cooked on Friday. At sunset on Friday all work and all secular reading or amusements ceased, and on Saturday only a Sabbath-Day’s journey was permitted so far as she could control. But my father was a rover from his youth, and Saturday being his only leisure day he used to take me with him on long walks in the woods and fields, according to the season ; and the weather and the length of the day were his only limitations. In the house she ruled, but out of it he made his own conscience, and so it happened that the only pleasures that I owe him, except the bringing me a few books when he came back from his business trips to New York to sell his machines, were these long walks in the face of nature. He was, in his family, apparently a cold, hard man, but out of it, kindly and benevolent, melting always to distress which came in his way, with a passionate love of animals and of nature. He was a poor business man, for he could never press for the payment of debts due him, and of an honesty so rigid that it became a proverb in our town that a man should “ be as honest as old Joe Stillman,” and his good name was all he gave or left his children.

My father died in one of my occasional absences in Europe, and when I saw my old mother in the black she never again laid off, she told me, tranquilly and with a firm voice, but with the tears running down her cheeks, how he died, and said, “ He was so handsome that I wanted to keep him another day.” The warmth of expression struck me strangely, for in all my home experience I had never heard before a word which could be taken as a token of conjugal tenderness, but when I reflected, I could see that it was and always had been the same with the children. Of the nine children she bore, five died before she did, including her second and, during my life, her only daughter, but in all the bereavements she retained her calm, self-contained manner, weeping silently, and tranquilly going about the house, comforting those who shared the sorrow, uncomplaining, reconciled in advance ; she had consigned her beloved to the God who gave them to her, and would have thought it rebellion to repine at any dispensation which He sent her. In the most sudden and crushing grief I remember her to have experienced, that which came with the news that my brother Alfred had been killed by the explosion of a boiler at New Orleans, there was one brief breakdown of her fortitude, an hour’s yielding, and then all her thought was for his widow and children. No detail of the household duties was neglected, and nothing was forgotten that concerned the comfort of others. She avoided all external signs of grief, and until my father died, she never wore mourning. Her bereavements and her prayers were matters that concerned only God and herself.

What I have said might give her the character of an ascetic, but nothing could be further from her. She was always optimistic as to earthly troubles, habitually cheerful, and fond of mild festivities. At times no one was more merry than she, and I have seen her laughing at a good joke or story till the tears ran down her cheeks.

Her ardent desire that her children should have a liberal education came to a climax on me, the last of them. She taught me my letters before I could articulate them, and when I was two I could read, and at three I was put on a high stool to read the Bible for visitors, so that I cannot remember when I could not read, and when not more than five or six I used to be at the head of the spelling classes and spelling matches, in which all the boys and girls were divided into equal companies, and the schoolteacher gave out the hardest words in the spelling book, to each side in turn, all who failed to spell their word sitting down, until the solitary survivor on one side or the other decided the victory; even before I was seven I was generally that survivor. I read insatiably all the good story books I was allowed to have, and I cannot recall the time at which any part of the Bible was new to me. With an incipient passion for nature and animal life, I read also all the books of natural history I could get, and I have heard in later years, that in all the community of Sabbatarianism I was known as a prodigy. Fortunately I was saved from a probable idiocy in my later life by a severe attack of typhoid fever at seven, out of which I came a model of stupidity, and so remained until I was fourteen, my thinking powers being so completely suspended, that at the dame’s school to which I was sent, I was repeatedly flogged for not comprehending the simplest things. I got through simple arithmetic as far as “ long division,” and there had to turn back to the beginning three times, before I could be made to understand the principle of division by more than one number.

In the humiliation of this period of my life, in which I came to consider myself as little better than a fool, my only consolation was the large liberty I enjoyed in the woods and fields either with my father on Saturdays, or my brothers Charles and Jacob on their long botanizing excursions, or in the moments of leisure when I was not wanted to turn the grindstone, or blow the bellows in the workshop. Those long walks in which I was indefatigable, and the days or nights when I went fishing with my brother Jacob, who was ten years older than myself, and who inherited the wandering and adventurous longings of my father, are the only things I can remember of this period which gave me any pleasure. I can see vividly the banks of the Mohawk where we used to fish for perch, bream, and pike-perch; I recall where my brother Charles and I found the rarer flowers of the valley, the cypripediums, the most rare wild ginger, only to be found in one locality, and the walking fern, equally rare.

The murmur of the west wind in the branches of the pine forests fascinated me more than any other thing in nature, and my first rapturous vision of the open sea comes back to me with the memory of the pines. I had gone with my father and mother to New York on a visit to my eldest brother who had just then finished the engines of the steamer Diamond, which was the first that by her build was enabled to run through from New York to Albany, past the “overslaugh ” or bar formed in the Hudson, which prevented the steamers of greater draught from getting up to the wharf at Albany, and he had profited by her first trip to visit home again, and take us back with him. My brother pointed out to me the Clermont, Fulton’s trial steamer, then disused and lying at Hoboken, but a cockboat to the Diamond, which was one of the great successes of the day. Machinery fascinated me, being of the mechanical breed, and I can recall the engines of the boat, which were of a new type, working horizontally, and so permitting larger engines in proportion to the draught of the steamer than had been before used. We all went one day to Coney Island on the southern shore of Long Island, since a much frequented bathing place for New York, but then a solitary stretch of seashore, with a few bathing boxes and a temporary structure where bathers might get refreshments. We drove out in my brother’s “ buggy,” and as, at a turn in the road, I caught a glimpse of the distant sea horizon, I rose in the buggy, shouting, “ The sea ! the sea!” and, in an uncontrollable frenzy, caught the whip from my brother’s hand and slashed the horse in wild delirium, unconscious of what I was doing. The emotion remains ineffaceable after more than threescore years, one of the most vivid of my life. And how ecstatic was the sensation of the plunge into the breakers while I held fast to my mother’s hand, and then the race up the beach before the next comber, trembling lest it should catch me, as if it were a living thing ready to devour me. They never come back, these first emotions of childhood, and though I have loved the sea all my life, I have never again felt the sight of it as then.

I remember, too, very well the grand occasion of the opening of the Hudson and Mohawk Railway, the first link in that line which is now the New York Central, and see vividly the curious old coaches, three coach bodies together on one truck. This was in 1832, when I was four years old. The road was, I believe, the first successful passenger railway in America, and was sixteen miles long, with two inclined planes up which the trains were drawn, and down which they were lowered, by cables. There was an opposition line of stagecoaches between Albany and Schenectady, running at the same price, and making the same time.

Before I was seven I began to try to draw, especially birds and beautiful forms, though years before I had been used to color the woodcuts in my books. My mother, who had an utterly uncultivated but most tender love of art, gave up finally the oft-renewed ambition to see one of her boys in the pulpit, and, I never quite understood why, made every opportunity for me to learn drawing, for my abilities in that line were little more than nine boys out of ten show. It was a fortunate thing for my after life that I lived so near the forests that all my odd time was spent in them and in the surrounding fields. I knew every apple tree of early fruiting for miles around, and every hickory tree whose nuts were choice. One of the joyous experiences of the time was the running down a young gray squirrel in the woods and catching him with my bare hands, which he bit sharply. I took him home and tamed him perfectly, and was very happy with him, my first pet. He used to come and sleep in my pocket and was never kept in a cage. My father one morning left the window of our room open and “Bob ” went out to explore, and when trying to find his way back again a dog of the neighborhood, as a neighbor told us, chased him away, and to my intense grief he was shot by a hunter a few days after in the adjoining forest. I cannot to this day see a squirrel without emotion and affectionate remembrance of Bob. The love of animals, which I inherited from my father, was one of the passions of my childhood, and I had an insatiate longing for pets.

Naturally my religious education during these early years was of the severest orthodox character, and my mother’s sincere, fervent, and practical piety brought home to me with the conviction of certainty the persuasion of its divine authority. Hell and its terrors were always present to me, and she taught me that the wandering suggestions of the childish imagination, the recurrence of profane expressions heard from others, and all forms of impious fantasies were the very whisperings of the Devil, to her as to me, consequently, an ever present spirit, perpetually tempting me to repeat and so make myself responsible for the wickedness in them. I was never allowed a candle to go to bed with, and as I slept in the huge garret, which formed the whole upper story of the house, I used to shut my eyes when I left the kitchen where we all sat in the evening, and grope my way to bed without ever again opening my eyes till the next morning, for fear of seeing the Devil. Awful spiritual presences haunted me always in the dark, when I passed a churchyard or an empty and solitary house. A deserted house stood in the pasture where I used to drive the cow, and when it happened that she had not come home at nightfall and I had to go to find her, the panic I endured from the necessity to search around this old dwelling no one can imagine but a boy naturally timid and accustomed to fancy ghosts and evil spirits in the dusk. But I kept my fears to myself, and always made a conscientious search.

The whole community in which we lived, with exception of a small Episcopal (Anglican) church, was nonconformist, with the same ideas of conversion and regeneration ; and a prominent feature in our social existence was the frequent recurrence of the great revival meetings in which all the rude eloquence of celebrated and powerful preachers, Baptist, Methodist, and of other sects, was poured out on excited congregations. There were “ protracted meetings,” or campaigns of prayer and exhortation, lasting often a fortnight, at which all the resources of popular theology were employed to awaken and maintain their audiences in a state of frenzy and religious delirium, in which conviction of sin was supposed to enter the heart more effectually.

To these meetings my mother used to send me, giving me a holiday for all the time the protracted meeting lasted. But conviction never came. I was honest with myself, and though the frenzied and ghastly exhortations harried my soul with dread, and I longed for the coming of the ecstasy which was the recognizable sign of the grace of God, I could not rise to the participation in it which the most material and hysterical of the congregation enjoyed, so that day after day I went home, saddened by the conviction that I was still one of the unregenerate. The sign never came, but several years later, I went to make a visit to my brother Charles, who had then removed to Plainfield, N. J., where he practiced medicine and was one of the main supports of our church in a community where the sect was large enough to have a constant worship, which it never had in Schenectady. Here I came under the influence of a beloved brother of my mother, one of the most earnest and humble Christians I have ever known, and here were gathered others of the denomination at a protracted meeting, at which some of my friends of my own age became seriously inclined, and we drifted together into the profession of Christian faith. But here there was nothing of the ghastly terrors of the great revival agitations. My uncle was a man of the world, had been all his early life a sailor, and had taken late to what, in his experiences of men and the vicissitudes of life, he considered the only reality, the duty of making known to his fellows the importance of the spiritual life. To fit himself for the ministry, he taught himself Hebrew and Greek as well as Latin, and many years later was chosen as one of the New Testament revisers for the American revision committee. But to him the profession of religion was an act of the reason, not of revival excitement, and in his ministrations he shunned carefully all the frenzied exhortation of the revivalists.

The movement at Plainfield, finding me in different surroundings from those in my native place, and under the influence of deliberate and sober-minded people, put the religious question in another light, but, being still under the persuasion, the natural result of my life’s training, that some special emotion or spiritual change was an indispensable sign of the “ change of heart ” which was desired, I was unhappy that no such sign appeared. I can distinctly remember that the desire to satisfy my mother’s passionate longing for what she considered my regeneration was a large part of my desire to meet the change and, if I might, provoke it. I longed for it, prayed for it, and considered myself forsaken of God because it would not come; but come it never did, and it seemed to me that I was attempting to deceive both my mother and the church when I finally yielded to the current which carried along my young friends, and took the grace for granted, since, as I thought, having asked the special prayers of the elders, men of God, and powerful in influence with Him, I had a right to assume the descent of the redeeming light on me, though I had never been conscious of that peculiar manifestation of it which my companions professed to have experienced, Still, I felt not a little twinge of conscience in assuming so much, but I could not consent to prolong my mother’s suspense and grave concern at the exclusion of one of her children from the fold of grace. I put down the doubts, accepted the conversion as logical and real, and went forward with the others. We were baptized, my companions and I, in the little river in midwinter after a partial thaw, the blocks of ice floating by us in the water. I must have been about ten or eleven when I went through this experience, and I never got rid of the feeling of a certain unreality in the whole transaction, but on the other hand I had the same feeling of unreality in the system of theology which led to it. I tried to do my best to carry out the line of spiritual duties imposed upon me. I made no question that I was a bad boy, but the conception of total depravity in the theological sense never gained a hold on me, and once inside the church there seemed to be a certain safeguard thrown over me. The sense of ecstasy (which my uncle William had experienced in his religious relation, the “power ” of the revivalists) I have since known in conditions of extraordinary mental exaltation, and understand it as a mental phenomenon, the momentary extension of the consciousness of the individual beyond the limitations of the bodily sense, — a being snatched away from the body and made to see and feel things not describable in terms of ordinary experience ; but in my religious evolution it had no place then or since.

The intellectual slowness of which I have spoken continued year after year. I had left the dame’s school where the rule of long division proved my pons asinorum, and went to a man’s school, where I earned my schooling by making the fires and sweeping the schoolroom, and here I learned by rote some Latin and the higher rules in arithmetic, always with the reputation of a stupid boy, good in the snowball fights of the intermissions, when we had two snow forts to capture and defend ; in running foot races the speediest, and in backhand wrestling the strongest, but mentally hopeless. All this period of my life seems dreary and void, except when I got to nature, and the delight of my hours in the fields and woods is all that remains to me of a childhood tormented by burthens of conscience laid on me prematurely, and by a severity of domestic discipline, which, with all the reverence and gratitude I bear my parents, I can hardly consider otherwise than gravely mistaken and disastrous to me. Our winters were long and hard, and I remember the snow falling on Thanksgiving Day (the last Thursday in November) and not thawing again until the beginning of March. The fall of snow was so heavy that the drift covered the house, and we had to tunnel a path to the barn door. The coming of spring was my constant preoccupation, and my joy was intense at the first swelling of the buds, the fresh color in the willow twigs, then the catkins, and at last the leaves. The long rains which carried off the snow were welcome as daylight after a weary night because they restored me to the forests and the wild flowers, the fields and the streams ; and for miles around I sought every sunny spot where came the first anemones, hepaticas, and, before all, the trailing arbutus, joy of my childhood, the little white violets, their yellow sisters, then the “ dogtooth violet,” and many another flower whose name I have long forgotten. Then began the excursions into the forests around us and the succession of new sights and sounds, the order of the unfolding of the leaves, from the willow to the oak, the singing of the frogs in the marshes, and of the birds in the copses and fields. I knew them all and when and where to hear them. The arctic bluebird, or blue robin as it was called in our neighborhood, was the first, and his plaintive song, the sweetest to memory of all nature’s voices, assured us that spring had really come. Then the robin (the migratory thrush), with his bold, cheery note, full of summer life ; and after these the chief was the bobolink, singing up into the sky the merriest and most rollicking of all bird songs, as that of the bluebird was the tenderest. Then came the hermit thrush, heard.only in the forest, shy and remote in his life and nesting, and the whip-poor-will, in the evening. Each was a new leaf turned over in my hook of life, the reading of which was my only happiness. What else, or more, could be expected of an existence hedged in by the terrors of eternity, the hauntings of an inevitable condemnation unless I could obtain some mysterious renovation only attainable through an act of divine grace which no human merit could entitle me to, and of which I tried in vain to win the benediction ? And how dreary seemed the heaven I was set to win ! No birds, no flowers, no fields or forests; only the eternal continuation of the hymn-singing and protracted meetings in which, in our system, consisted the glorification of God which was the end and aim of our existences. I wonder how many religious parents conceive the misery of child life under such influences !

The struggles of conscience through which I went in these days can be imagined by no one, and I can hardly realize them myself, except by recalling little incidents which show what the pressure must have been. I have mentioned an escapade of this period, connected with the last flogging my father gave me. It was a matter of conscience at bottom. My mother had, when I was about six years old, taken a little octoroon girl of three, — the illegitimate daughter of a quadroon in our neighborhood, — with the intention of bringing her up as a servant. The child was quickwitted and irrepressible, and disputes began between us as soon as she felt at home. Every outbreak of temper induced by her conduct toward me became occasion of a period of penitence, for I was taught that such outbreaks were sinful, and the self-reproaches that my conscience had to bear up under became an intolerable load. At this juncture came the brutal and, as I felt, most unmerited flogging of which I have told the story earlier : this precipitated a decision which had been slowly forming from my conscientious worries. I determined to go away from home and seek a state of life in which I could maintain my spiritual tranquillity. I discussed the subject with a playmate of my age, the son of a gardener living near us, and as his father had even a stronger propensity to the rod than mine, we sympathized on that ground and agreed to run away and work our passages on some ship to a land where we could live in a modified Robinson Crusoe manner, not an uninhabited land, but one where we could earn, by fishing and similar devices, enough to live on. I had been employed for a few months before in carrying to and fro the students’ clothes for a washerwoman, one of the neighbors, and had earned three or four dollars, which my mother had, as usual with any trifle I earned, put into the fund for the daily expenses. I do not know how it was with the elder boys, but for me the rule was rigid, — what I could earn was a part of the household income. I inwardly rebelled against this, but to no effect, so I never had any pocket money. I submitted, as any son of my mother must have done at my age, but on this occasion when money was indispensable to that expedition on which so much depended, I quietly reasserted my right to my earnings, and took the wages I had received from the drawer where they were kept. My companion had no money at all, and thus my trifle had to pay for both as far as it would go ; fortunately, perhaps, as it shortened the duration of the expedition. We went by train to Albany, where we took deck passage on a towing steamer for New York. The run was longer than that of a passenger steamer, so that the New York police, who were warned to look out for us by the post, had given us up before we arrived and search was diverted in another direction. When we reached New York my funds were already nearly exhausted by the food expenses en route, and my companion’s courage had already given out; he was homesick and discouraged, and announced his determination to return home. My own courage, I can honestly say, had not failed me, — I was ready for hardship, but not yet to go alone into a strange world. I yielded, and with the last few shillings in my pocket bargained for a deck passage without board on a barge back to Albany. It was midsummer, and the sleeping on some bags of wool which formed the better part of the deckload gave me no inconvenience, and the want of provisions of any sort was remedied as well as might be by a pile of salt codfish which was the other part of the deckload, and which afforded us the only food we had until our arrival at Albany, where we arrived at night after a voyage of twenty-four hours. We slept under a boat by the riverside that night until the rising tide drove us out, when we decided to take the road back to Schenectady on foot, through a wide pine forest that occupied the intervening country, a distance of about sixteen miles. Passing on the way a stable in which there was nobody, not even a beast, we turned in to sleep away the darkness, and I remember very well what a yielding bed a manger filled with salt gave me. With the dawn we resumed the journey, and by the way ate our fill of whortleberries with which the forest abounded. The joy of my mother at our unhoped-for arrival — for she had received no news of us since our departure —is easily imagined, but for me the failure of all my plans for an ascetic and more spiritual life was made more bitter by the fact that the little octoroon who had heard read the letter which I left for my mother, giving the motives for my self-exile, had repeated it to all the neighborhood, so that I had not only failed but became the butt of the jokes of the boys of the neighborhood who already looked askance on me for my serious ways and my habit of rebuking certain vices amongst them. I was jeered at as the boy “ who left his mother to seek religion,” and this made life for a time almost intolerable. But it was in part compensated for by the change in my situation in the household. Henceforth I was to be taken au sérieux, and reasoned with rather than flogged. I had escaped from the pupa stage of existence.

I still look back with surprise to the unflinching confidence in the future with which I committed myself to this escapade. I thought I was right, and that the aspiration for spiritual freedom which was the chief motive of my leaving home was certain to be supported by Providence, to whom I looked with serene complacence. If my companion had not deserted me I should not have turned back, but his defection destroyed all my plans. In several of my maturer ventures I can recognize the same mental condition of serene indifference to danger while doing what I thought my duty, owing perhaps in a great measure to ignorance or incapacity to realize the danger, but also largely to ingrained confidence in an overruling Providence which took account of my steps and would carry me through.

William James Stillman.

  1. Mr. Ward died just before the signing of the Declaration, so that his name does not figure in the list of signers.