J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

William Wirt’s Schooldays

William Wirt (1772-1834) was an author, biographer of Patrick Henry, lawyer, and U.S. Attorney General for nearly twelve years.

Shortly before dying, Peter H. Cruse (1795-1832) wrote a biographical sketch of Wirt that was published in a volume of early newspaper essays. It included the following anecdote from Wirt’s schooldays.

At the age of eleven, Wirt had started to study with the Rev. James Hunt (1731-1793) in Montgomery County, Maryland. By reading the minister’s books, the young scholar discovered literature—and literary ambitions.
The discovery that [Alexander] Pope began to compose at twelve years of age, begat in our student the same sort of emulation as the like example in [Abraham] Cowley did in Pope. He reproached himself for his backwardness when he was now already thirteen.

The first attempt was a little discouraging. It was in verse, and he was embarrassed as usual by the awkward alternative of sacrificing the rhythm to the thought, or (which is the usual preference in such cases,) the thought to the rhythm. He came to the disappointing conclusion that he was no poet, but indemnified himself by more lucky efforts in prose, one of which falling into the hands of Mr. Hunt, he expressed his favourable surprise, and exhorted the adventurer to persevere, who thus encouraged became a confirmed reader and author.

One of these juvenile essays was engendered by a school incident, and was a piece of revenge, more legitimate than schoolboy invention is apt to inflict when sharpened by wrongs real or imaginary. There was an usher [i.e., assistant master] at the school, and this usher, who was more learned and methodical than even-tempered, was one morning delayed in the customary routine by the absence of his principal scholar, who was young Wirt himself. In his impatience he went often to the door, and espying some boys clinging like a knot of bees to a cherry-tree not far off, he concluded that the expected absentee was of the number, and nursed his wrath accordingly.

The truth was, that the servant of a neighbour with whom Wirt was boarded at the time, had gone that morning to mill, and the indispensable breakfast had been delayed by his late return. This apology, however, was urged in vain on the usher, who charged in corroboration the plunder of the cherry-tree; and though this was as stoutly as truly rejoined to be the act of an English school hard by, the recitation of master Wirt proceeded under very threatening prognostics of storm.

The lesson was in Cicero, and at every hesitation of the reciter, the eloquent volume, brandished by the yet chafing tutor, descended within an inch of his head, without quailing his facetiousness however, for he said archly, “take care, or you’ll kill me.” We have heard better timed jests since from the dexterous orator, for the next slip brought a blow in good earnest, which being as forcible as if Logic herself, with her “closed fist,” had dealt it, felled our hero to the ground.

“I’ll pay you for this, if I live,” said the fallen champion, as he rose from the field.

“Pay me, will you?” said the usher, quite furious; “you will never live to do that.”

“Yes, I will,” said the boy.
TOMORROW: Billy Wirt’s revenge.

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