MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
Three Self-taught Scotch Lads
My dear brother,
You have good teachers and parents who delight in giving you all the books and all the instructions which you need. For these favors you ought to be thankful to your heavenly Father; and this should make you more diligent than you have ever been before. I wish to give you some account, at this time, of the way in which certain young people, without your advantages, became truly learned. I hope that when you see how much progress they made, with everything against them, you will be encouraged to greater perseverance
and improvement of your time.
Did you ever hear of a man named Edmund Stone? He was born about a hundred and thirty years ago, in Scotland. Edmund's father was gardener to the Duke of Argyle. This nobleman one day found on the grass a volume of a book called Newton's Principia, in Latin, and when he made inquiries, learned that it belonged to young Edmund. He was much astonished to find that his gardener's son could read Latin, or understand mathematics. He said to him, "But how did you gain the knowledge of all these things?" "A servant," said the youth, who was then in his eighteenth year, "taught me to read ten years ago. Does one need to know any thing more than the twenty-four letters in order to learn everything else that one wishes?" The duke was still more surprised; he sat down upon a bank, and received from Edmund the following account:
"I first learned to read," said he, "when the masons were at work upon your house. I approached them one day, and observed that the architect used a rule and compass, and that he made calculations. I inquired what might be the meaning and use of these things, and I was informed that there was a science called arithmetic, and I learned it. I was told there was another science called geometry; I bought the necessary books, and I learned geometry. By reading, I found that there were good books in these two sciences in Latin; I bought a dictionary, and I learned Latin. I understood, also, that there were good books of the same kind in French; I bought a dictionary, and I learned French. It seems to me that we may learn everything when we know the twenty-four letters of the alphabet." This man afterwards became well known as an author, and published a number of mathematical works.
I will now give you some account of another young Scotchman who was still more extraordinary. I mean the astronomer James Ferguson. He was born in 171O, in Banffshire. His father was a poor but pious day-laborer. James, by hearing his elder brothers taught, learned to read before his father supposed that he knew the letters. When he was seven or eight years old, he began to pay attention to mechanical contrivances, and actually discovered the principles of the lever, and of the wheel and axle. He was employed as a shepherd, and while his flock was feeding around him, he used to spend his time in making little mills, spinning-wheels, and the like. At night he used to busy himself in looking at the stars. He afterwards was employed by a farmer named Glashan, who was very kind to him. After his day's work, James used to go at night to the fields, with a blanket around him, and a lighted candle, and lie down on his back to examine the stars. "I used," says he, "to stretch a thread with small beads upon it, at arms length, between my eye and the stars; sliding the beads upon it, until they hid such and such stars from my eye, in order to take their apparent distances from one another; and then laying the thread down on a paper, I marked the stars thereon by the beads." Mr. Gilchrist, the minister, showed him how to draw maps, and gave him compasses, rulers, etc. In his twentieth year he went to live in the house of a Mr. Grant, whose butler taught him how to make dials, and also instructed him in arithmetic. After his return to his father's house, he procured a book of geography, and made a globe of wood, which he covered with paper, and drew a map of the world on it. This he did before he had ever seen an artificial globe. Next he was employed by a miller, and here he lived so poorly, that often his only fare was a little oatmeal and water. After being some time in the service of a physician, he returned home again, in ill-health. Here he made a wooden clock, and then a wooden watch, without the least assistance or instruction. From this he went on and made some dials. Afterwards he became a painter—but still gave most of his time to philosophy; so that in the end he was a distinguished author, and a member of the Royal Society.
Such accounts as these ought to make you ashamed to be idle. If a gardener and a shepherd's boy, in the midst of hard work, could learn so much without any teachers, how much might you acquire, who have nothing to do but to learn, and have the continual assistance of friends and teachers!
But there is still another Scotchman, whom I shall introduce to your acquaintance, namely, the late Dr. Alexander Murray. He was born in the shire of Kirkcudbright, in 1775, and was the son of a shepherd. He learned to write and read at once, for his father used to draw the letters for him on the board of an old wool-card, with a bit of burnt stick. Much of his time was passed in writing with coals, and he became wonderfully familiar with the Scriptures. When he was about nine years old, his mother's brother took him to New Galloway, to school, where he lost his health. For a number of years, his only reading was the Bible, and such penny ballads as are hawked about the streets. In 1787, he read Josephus, and Salmon's geography. He then undertook to teach the children of two farmers, and for a winter's work received sixteen shillings. He then went to school again, and learned arithmetic and bookkeeping.
The reading of Salmon's geography had led him to think much about foreign countries, and their languages. "I had," says he, "in 1787 and 1788, often admired and mused on the specimens of the Lord's prayer in every language, found in Salmon's grammar. I had read in the Magazine and Spectator that Homer, Virgil, Milton, Shakespeare, and Newton were the greatest of mankind. I had been early informed that Hebrew was the first language, by some good religious people. In 1789 an old woman showed me her psalm book, which was printed with a large type, had notes on each page, and likewise what I discovered to be the Hebrew alphabet, marked letter after letter in the 119th Psalm. I took a copy of these letters by printing them off in my old way, and kept them." He undertook to teach himself French, and from this he went to the Latin grammar, of which he borrowed a copy from a boy. And this extraordinary child, with hardly any assistance, was pursuing at one time the study of Latin, French, Greek, and Hebrew. But I cannot go on to mention all the languages he learned. There was probably no man living who knew so many, and in all of these he was self-taught. He wrote some of the most learned works which have ever appeared, and died at the early age of thirty-eight. It was his thirst for knowledge and his constant application which made him learned; and this shows the truth of what I before told you—that he who is really desirous of acquiring information will always succeed.
I might mention other instances. William Gifford, the late learned editor of the Quarterly Review, was first a sailor-boy on a coal vessel, and then a shoemaker. He used to learn mathematics while he was making shoes, and having no pen or paper, he beat out pieces of leather as smooth as possible, and wrought his problems on them with a blunted awl. In the same way he used to write Scripture verses. He afterwards became one of the most celebrated scholars. And there are many other such cases which I can point out for your perusal in various books. But I must now conclude, heartily wishing that you may profit by whatever is good in every example.
Your affectionate brother,