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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Saturday, August 26, 2017

“Very fit for a Saturday morning’s declamation”

Yesterday we left William Wirt at about age thirteen in 1785 or so, chafing at an unjust accusation and physical punishment by his school’s usher, or assistant master. Wirt was living with the master of his school, the Rev. James Hunt, and from his books had already developed literary ambitions.
Our youth was an author, be it remembered. and that is not a race to take an injury, much less an affront, calmly. The quill, too, was a fair weapon against an usher, and by way of vent to his indignation at this and other continued outrages, but with no view to what so seriously fell out from it in furtherance of his revenge, he indited some time afterward an ethical essay on Anger.

In this, after due exhibition of its unhappy effects, which, it may be, would have enlightened Seneca, though he has himself professed to treat the same subject, he reviewed those relations and functions of life most exposed to the assaults of this Fury. A parent with an undutiful son, said our moralist, must often be very angry;—a master with his servant, an inn-keeper with his guests;—but it is an usher that must the oftenest be vexed by this bad passion, and, right or wrong, find himself in a terrible rage; and so he went on, in a manner very edifying, and very descriptive of the case, character and manner of the expounder of Cicero.

Well pleased with his work, our author found a most admiring reader in an elder boy, who, charmed with the mischief as much as the wit of the occasion, pronounced it a most excellent performance, and very fit for a Saturday morning’s declamation. In vain did our wit object strenuously the dangers of this mode of publication. The essay was “got by heart,” and declaimed in the presence of the school and of the usher himself, who, enraged at the satire, demanded the writer, otherwise threatening the declaimer with the rod.

His magnanimity was not proof against this, and he betrayed the incognito of our author, who happened the same evening to be in his garret when master usher, the obnoxious satire in hand, came into the apartment below to lay his complaint before his principal. Mr. Hunt’s house was one of those one-story rustic mansions yet to be seen in Maryland, where the floor of the attic, without the intervention of ceiling, forms the roof of the apartment below, so that the culprit could easily be the hearer, and even the partial spectator, of the inquisition held on his case.

“Let us see this offensive libel,” said the preceptor, and awful were the first silent moments of its perusal, which were broken, first by a suppressed titter, and finally, to the mighty relief of the listener, by a loud burst of laughter. “Pooh! pooh! Mr. ——, this is but the sally of a lively boy, and best say no more about it; besides that, in foro conscientia, we can hardly find him guilty of the ‘publication.’”

This was a victory; and when Mr. Hunt left the room, the conqueror, tempted to sing his “Io triumphe” [a Roman cheer of victory] in some song allusive to the country of the discomfited party, who was a foreigner, was put to flight by the latter's rushing furiously into the attic, and snatching from under his pillow some hickories, the fasces of his office, and inflicting some smart strokes on the flying satirist, who did not stay, like Voltaire, to write a receipt for them. The usher left the school in dudgeon not long afterward… 
The literature that Wirt recalled from Hunt’s library included the classical historian Josephus, poet Alexander Pope, essayist Joseph Addison, and Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762), which seems to have been quite progressive in its time.

From “a carpenter in the employ of Mr. Hunt” young Wirt borrowed less formal literature: the play Guy, the Earl of Warwick and probably some of Tobias Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle.

[The image above comes from an 1857 elocution textbook. It shows the correct stance and gesture for an orator making an “indignant appeal.”]

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