Hartford County, Connecticut
From life, by J. W. Allderige.
Was born in New Britain, Conn., December 8, 1810. Though his educational advantages during childhood were not great, his fondness for study and his eagerness to acquire knowledge were remarkable. At the age of eighteen he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, and in due time became an expert workman. His spare moments, early and late, were given to his books, and while laboring at the forge he subjected himself to severe mental discipline by working out intricate arithmetical problems. At the close of his apprenticeship he attended for three months an academy taught by an elder brother, although he could ill afford the consequent loss of wages. The greater part of the term was devoted to mathematics, but after returning to his anvil he took up Latin, Greek, and French, thus beginning a patient and persistent course of study, pursued indeed without any definite aim beyond the enjoyment which it afforded, the result of which was to make him one of the world's most noted linguists.
In the winter of 1831, desiring to spend another three months exclusively in study, he went to New Haven, where he could find superior facilities for so doing, made himself to some extent the master of several of the Continental languages, translated the Iliad without assistance, and began to learn Hebrew. Returning to New Britain, he tried teaching, but after a year he found that his health was suffering, and sought a more active occupation. He now became a travelling salesman for a manufacturer of his village, and after some time set up a grocery store on his own account; but in the general bankruptcy of 1837 his little capital was swept away. Forced by this disaster to resume his original calling, he proceeded on foot to Boston, where he proposed to take passage for some foreign port, but, not finding a suitable opportunity, he settled in Worcester, Mass., where he found both work and easy access to books. With one after another of the languages of Europe and Asia he became more or less familiar, until he was able to read in thirty-four of them, ancient and modern.
Such a remarkable intellectual development gave Mr. Burritt far more than a local reputation. In 1838 the Royal Antiquarian Society of France appropriately acknowledged the receipt of a communication from him, correctly written in the obscure Celto-Breton dialect. He was commonly spoken of as the " Learned Blacksmith," and is indeed most widely known under that appellation at the present day, although it was not as a linguist, but as a reformer that he won his most enduring laurels. He was proffered the advantages of Harvard University by Edward Everett and others, but regard for his health compelled him to decline. In 1839 he edited for a short time a periodical called the "Literary Gemini," designed to aid students in French, and printed partly in French and partly in English. In the following year he made his first appearance as a lecturer, his subject being "Application and Genius." He modestly instanced his own accomplishments in proof of his assertion that genius is a myth, and that by hard work and application alone can success be achieved. The lecture attracted marked attention, and was many times repeated, in various parts of the country.
It was not long after this that Mr. Burritt's attention was called, in an indirect way, to the subject which for many years lay nearest his heart,? the promotion of universal peace among the nations of the earth. Bidding a temporary adieu to his favorite studies, he devoted his time and energies to the welfare of his fellow-men with a forgetfulness of self which calls for the highest encomiums. In 1844 he established, in Worcester, the Christian Citizen, which he conducted for nine years, either personally or by means of assistants, in the interest of peace, anti-slavery, temperance, and like reformatory movements. He also made use of the lyceum platform to disseminate his principles, and sent out slips of paper containing brief printed essays devoted to the cause of peace to newspapers throughout the land for republication. These slips were headed by a dove and olive branch, and were known as "olive leaves." Some of them, finding their way across the water, fell into the hands of the advocates of peace in England, at a time when many hotheaded politicians were clamoring for war as the only means of settling the Oregon Boundary difficulties. Of course such a war would have been ruinous to the commerce of both countries, so some of the leading merchants, making common cause with those who opposed war from principle, resolved to send friendly addresses to the merchants of the American cities urging peaceful arbitration. Elihu Burritt was selected as the agent through whom to send these communications, and he received a cordial invitation to visit the mother country.
He had long cherished a desire to make a tour through England on foot, and it was in the expectation of realizing his hopes in this direction that he took passage on the Hibernia in June, 1846. Hardly had he landed on the other side, however, when it became apparent that he had found a new field of labor. He changed his plans entirely, and instead of a few months, he spent over three years in Europe, making public speeches, at first to small audiences in private houses, later to large and enthusiastic gatherings, editing and publishing periodicals, and endeavoring in all ways to advance the interests of peace and harmony between nations and individuals. For the next twenty-five years of his life Elihu Burritt was an "international man," and the greater part of his time was passed abroad; but this did not in any measure lessen his love for his own country, and he was everywhere received and honored as an American.
While making his way to London on foot he halted on the 29th of July at Pershore, in the midst of the fruit-producing district of Worcestershire, and there formed the nucleus of a society which was known as the "League of Universal Brotherhood," which came in time to include among its membership many of the most famous of England's philanthropists. The society was formally organized in London, in May, 1847. He addressed his first audience in the great metropolis in November, 1846. Unaccustomed to the peculiarities of a large English audience, he had much difficulty at first in making himself heard, and became well nigh discouraged, but was reassured by the hearty applause and expressions of approval which followed the close of his remarks. He was thenceforth a power among those whose noble aim?visionary as it then seemed, and may yet seem to many ? was to abolish war, with all its attendant train of evils. In the early part of the year 1847 he visited Ireland, and was an eye-witness of the desolation caused by the famine; and it was through his representations that large supplies of food were sent from the United States for the relief of the improvident peasantry. In September, 1847, he began to develop his scheme for facilitating intercourse between the Old and the New World, and thereby strengthening the ties of friendship, by reducing the ocean postage to a penny. He made public addresses on the subject in all parts of the British Islands, and without doubt aided materially in extending to international correspondence the postal reforms already effected by Rowland Hill in Great Britain.
Shortly after the deposition of Louis Philippe from the throne of France, in February, 1848, Elihu Burritt visited Paris, to assist in making arrangements for a "Peace Congress," which it was proposed to hold in that city. After remaining there a week he returned to England, and the following six months were spent in untiring efforts to interest the British public in the coming gathering, which, owing to the state of bloodshed and anarchy existing in Paris, it was finally decided to hold in Brussels. At the Belgian capital, in September, 1848, occurred the first Peace Congress, and, in spite of the discouraging aspect of affairs in Europe at that revolutionary period, it was well attended, Mr. Burritt being chosen vice-president for America. Prominence was given in the discussions to the idea of treaties of arbitration, which should do away with the necessity for appeals to arms among civilized people. In 1848 Mr. Burritt published in London a collection of his writings, under the title of "Sparks from the Anvil." He was a pleasing writer, and this work, as well as subsequent ones, had a wide circulation.
Mr. Burritt's genius for self-direction was as remarkable as his genius for self-education. While constantly cooperating with other reformers, both in America and Europe, he preferred individual methods of action, and rarely worked long in connection with any single associate. He was very strong-willed, and no amount of detail or drudgery could turn him from a purpose, once fixed. In April, 1849, he was again in Paris, conferring with prominent men with regard to a second Congress. In June, having spent several months in preparatory work, he took part in a monster demonstration at Exeter Hall, London, in favor of Richard Cobden's parliamentary resolution in favor of arbitration. In October he attended the Peace Congress at Paris, and was one of its secretaries. This notable gathering, which was presided over by Victor Hugo, was made up of delegates from all the leading nations of the earth, who were received with honor and treated with marked respect by the French Government. Soon after its close the distinguished Apostle of Peace returned to America, and was accorded a royal welcome by his friends and neighbors at New Britain.
In 1850, after attending to his business interests in Worcester, he undertook a lecturing tour, which included nearly every State in the Union. His theme was still Peace, in the near approach of whose reign his faith continued strong. So great had his fame now become, that it was no unusual thing for him to have hotel and steamboat accommodations placed freely at his disposal. He met and conversed with many of the leading statesmen of the day, who listened with respectful attention to the statement of his views, if they did not share his enthusiasm. While at Washington he listened to the eulogies upon John C. Calhoun, in the national House of Representatives. On the 15th of May he sailed from Boston for Liverpool, where he arrived a fortnight later, and immediately resumed his philanthropic labors. In August he attended a Peace Congress at Frankfort, after which he endeavored, in company with others, to bring about a reconciliation between the Danes and the people of Sleswick, who were then at war; and he actually succeeded in inducing the belligerents to consent to a conference. He remained upon the Continent for six months, and arranged with the publishers of a number of the leading journals for the insertion of timely articles bearing upon the question of universal peace. The expense of this enterprise was borne by an association of ladies, the "Olive-Leaf Mission," which he formed after his return to England in the spring of 1851.
During the two following years Burritt continued his labors in England and elsewhere, lecturing, writing and publishing. In 1850 he had issued another volume of miscellanies. He was a secretary of the fourth Peace Congress, held at London in July, 1851, simultaneously with the Great Exhibition, and in the ensuing year he was the bearer of fraternal addresses between English and French cities. In 1853 he was back in America, preaching peace and cheap ocean postage; but be found the people absorbed in the struggle over slavery, and he was himself drawn into the discussion. He assumed the editorship of the Citizen of the World, published at Philadelphia, and through its columns he for several years enthusiastically advocated the plan of compensated emancipation, until John Brown at Harper's Ferry, and the rebels at Sumter, made an end of his hopes of a peaceful solution of the vexed question. He went abroad again in 1854, and spent another year in England, Holland and Prussia. When the War of the Rebellion broke out, Elihu Burritt, saddened by the apparent fruitlessness of his twenty years of incessant toil, retired to his native village of New Britain, and devoted himself to the cultivation of the little farm of which he was the owner, and to the publication of a weekly paper called the North and South.
In 1863 Mr. Burritt went to England, and he resided in that country for the following seven years. His first summer was devoted to a pedestrian tour of the Island, from London northward, the next one to a similar tour in the southwestern counties. Two delightful volumes were the outcome of these tramps, the best-known and most interesting of his writings, his "Walk from London to John O'Groat's," and his "Walk from London to Land's End." In 1865 he was, much to his surprise, appointed United States Consular Agent for the Birmingham District. The duties of the office were not onerous, and during the four years of his incumbency he found time to resume his linguistic studies, as well as to engage in literary work. He was unmarried, and his establishment at Harborne, near Birmingham, the only real home he ever possessed, was presided over by two of his nieces. He also published several works while in England, the principal ones being the "Mission of Suffering," "Walks in the Black Country," and a collection of lectures and speeches. At the expiration of his term of office, he spent a few weeks at Oxford, and then crossed the ocean for the last time. Most of the remainder of his life was passed at the home of a sister in New Britain, his time being occupied in agricultural and literary pursuits. His pen was constantly active, and he occasionally made short lecturing tours. He took a lively interest in the affairs of the town, especially in matters relating to education, and he was ever watchful for opportunities to relieve distress and benefit his fellows. His death, which occurred March 6, 1879, was due to consumption. Well deserving of honor is the memory of this pure-minded scholar and writer, of whom the Poet Longfellow said, "Nothing ever came from his pen that was not wholesome and good." [Source: "Biographical Sketches of Preeminent Americans", Volume 3; By Frederick G. Harrison; Publ. 1893; Transcribed and submitted by Andrea Stawski Pack.]
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