At the World’s Fair in New York in 1853 President Pierce might have been seen watching a young man exhibiting a patent rat trap. He was attracted by the enthusiasm and diligence of the young man, but never dreamed that he would become one of the richest men in the world. It seemed like small business for Jay Gould to be exhibiting a rat trap, but he did it well and with enthusiasm. In fact he was bound to do it as well as it could be done. Young Gould supported himself by odd jobs at surveying, paying his way by erecting sundials for farmers at a dollar apiece, frequently taking his pay in board. Thus he laid the foundation for the business career in which he became so rich.
Fred. Douglass started in life with less than nothing, for he did not own his own body, and he was pledged before his birth to pay his master’s debts. To reach the starting-point of the poorest white boy, he had to climb as far as the distance which the latter must ascend if he would become President of the United States. He saw his mother but two or three times, and then in the night, when she would walk twelve miles to be with him an hour, returning in time to go into the field at dawn. He had no chance to study, for he had no teacher, and the rules of the plantation forbade slaves to learn to read and write. But somehow, unnoticed by his master, he managed to learn the alphabet from scraps of paper and patent medicine almanacs, and no limits could then be placed to his career. He put to shame thousands of white boys. He fled from slavery at twenty-one, went North and worked as a stevedore in New York and New Bedford. At Nantucket he was given an opportunity to speak in an anti-slavery meeting, and made so favorable an impression that he was made agent of the Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts. While traveling from place to place to lecture, he would study with all his might. He was sent to Europe to lecture, and won the friendship of several Englishmen, who gave him $750, with which he purchased his freedom. He edited a paper in Rochester, N. Y., and afterward conducted the _New Era_ in Washington. For several years he was Marshal of the District of Columbia. He became the first colored man in the United States, the peer of any man in the country, and died honored by all in 1895.
“What has been done can be done again,” said the boy with no chance who became Lord Beaconsfield, England’s great prime minister. “I am not a slave, I am not a captive, and by energy I can overcome greater obstacles.” Jewish blood flowed in his veins, and everything seemed against him, but he remembered the example of Joseph, who became prime minister of Egypt four thousand years before, and that of Daniel, who was prime minister to the greatest despot of the world five centuries before the birth of Christ. He pushed his way up through the lower classes, up through the middle classes, up through the upper classes, until he stood a master, self-poised upon the topmost round of political and social power. Rebuffed, scorned, ridiculed, hissed down in the House of Commons, he simply said, “The time will come when you shall hear me.” The time did come, and the boy with no chance but a determined will, swayed the sceptre of England for a quarter of a century.
“I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day,” said William Cobbett. “The edge of my berth, or that of the guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board lying on my lap was my writing table, and the task did not demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candles or oil; in winter it was rarely that I could get any evening light but that of the fire, and only my turn, even of that. To buy a pen or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of my food, though in a state of half starvation. I had no moment of time that I could call my own, and I had to read and write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling, and bawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of their freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the _farthing_ I had to give, now and then, for pen, ink, or paper. That farthing was, alas! a great sum to me. I was as tall as I am now, and I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money not expended for us at market was _twopence a week_ for each man. I remember, and well I may! that upon one occasion I had, after all absolutely necessary expenses, on a Friday, made shift to have a half-penny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a red herring in the morning, but when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my half-penny. I buried my head under the miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child.
“If I, under such circumstances, could encounter and overcome this task,” he added, “is there, can there be in the world, a youth to find any excuse for its non-performance?”
“I have talked with great men,” Lincoln told his fellow-clerk and friend, Greene, according to _McClure’s Magazine_, “and I do not see how they differ from others.”