Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chevalier Howe

The finest modern statue in Berlin is that of General Ziethen, the great Hussar commander in the Seven Years’ War. [Footnote: Von Schlater’s statue of the Great Elector is of course a more magnificent work of art.] He stands leaning on his sabre in a dreamy, nonchalant attitude, as if he were in the centre of indifference and life had little interest for him. Yet there never was a man more ready for action, or more quick to seize upon and solve the nodus of any new emergency. The Prussian anecdote-books are full of his exploits and hairbreadth escapes, a number of which are represented around the base of the statue. He combined the intelligence of the skilful general with the physical dexterity of an acrobat.

Very much such a man was Samuel Gridley Howe, born in Boston November 10, 1801, whom Whittier has taken as the archetype of an American hero in his tune.

If a transient guest at the Bird Club should have seen Doctor Howe sitting at the table with his indifferent, nonchalant air, head leaning slightly forward and his grayish-black hair almost falling into his eyes, he would never have imagined that he was the man who had fought the Turks hand-to-hand like Cervantes and Sir John Smith; who had been imprisoned in a Prussian dungeon; who had risked his life in the July Revolution at Paris; and who had taken the lead in an equally important philanthropic revolution in his own country.

Next to Sumner he is the most distinguished member of the club, even more so than Andrew and Wilson; a man with a most enviable record. He does not talk much where many are gathered together, but if he hears an imprudent statement, especially an unjust estimate of character, his eyes flash out from beneath the bushy brows, and he makes a correction which just hits the nail on the head. He is fond of his own home and is with difficulty enticed away from it. Once in awhile he will dash out to Cambridge on horseback to see Longfellow, but the lion-huntresses of Boston spread their nets in vain for him. He will not even go to the dinner parties for which Mrs. Howe is in constant demand, but prefers to spend the evening with his children, helping them about their school lessons, and listening to the stories of their everyday experiences.

There never was a more modest, unostentatious hero; and no one has recorded his hairbreadth escapes and daring adventures, for those who witnessed them never told the tale, nor would Doctor Howe willingly speak of them himself. He was of too active a temperament to be much of a scholar in his youth, although in after life he went through with whatever he undertook in a thorough and conscientious manner. He went to Brown University, and appears to have lived much the same kind of life there which Lowell did at Harvard,—full of good spirits, admired by his classmates, as well as by the young ladies of Providence, and exceptionally fond of practical jokes; always getting into small difficulties and getting out of them again with equal facility. He was so amiable and warm-hearted that nobody could help loving him; and so it continued to the end of his life.

He could not himself explain exactly why he joined the Greek Revolution. He had suffered himself while at school from the tyranny of older boys, and this strengthened the sense of right and justice that had been implanted in his nature. He had not the romantic disposition of Byron; neither could he have gone from a desire to win the laurels of Miltiades, for he never indicated the least desire for celebrity. It seems more likely that his adventurous disposition urged him to it, as one man takes to science and another to art.

It was certainly a daring adventure to enlist as a volunteer against the Turks. Byron might expect that whatever advantage wealth and reputation can obtain for an individual he could always count upon; but what chances would young Howe have in disaster or defeat? I never heard that Byron did much fighting, though he spent his fortune freely in the cause; and Doctor Howe, as it happened, was not called upon to fight in line of battle, though he was engaged in some pretty hot skirmishes and risked himself freely.

He went to Greece in the summer of 1824 and remained till after the battle of Navarino in 1827. Greece was saved, but the land was a desert and its people starving. Doctor Howe returned to America to raise funds and beg provisions for liberated Hellas, in which he was remarkably successful; but we find also that he published a history of the Greek Revolution, the second edition of which is dated 1828. For this he must have collected the materials before leaving Greece; but as it contains an account of the sea-fight of Navarino, it must have been finished after his return to America. The book was hastily written, and hastily published. To judge from appearances it was hurried through the press without being revised either by its author or a competent proofreader; but it is a vigorous, spirited narrative, and the best chronicle of that period in English. Would there were more such histories, even if the writing be not always grammatical. Doctor Howe does not sentimentalize over the ruins of Sparta or Plato’s Academy, but he describes Greece as he found it, and its inhabitants as he knew them. He possesses what so many historians lack, and that is the graphic faculty. He writes in a better style than either Motley or Bancroft. His book ought to be revised and reprinted.

We quote from it this clearsighted description of the preparation for a Graeco-Turkish sea-fight:

“Soon the proud fleet of the Capitan Pashaw was seen coming down toward Samos, and the Greek vessels advanced to meet it. And here one cannot but pause a moment to compare the two parties, and wonder at the contrast between them. On one side bore down a long line of lofty ships whose very size and weight seemed to give them a slow and stately motion; completely furnished at every point for war; their decks crowded with splendidly armed soldiers, and their sides chequered with double and triple-rows of huge cannon that it seemed could belch forth a mass of iron which nothing could resist. On the other side came flying along the waves a squadron of light brigs and schooners, beautifully modelled, with sails of snowy white, and with fancifully painted sides, showing but a single row of tiny cannon. There seemed no possibility of a contest; one fleet had only to sail upon the other, and by its very weight, bear the vessels under water without firing a gun.

“But the feelings which animated them were very different. The Turks were clumsy sailors; they felt ill at ease and as if in a new element; but above all, they felt a dread of Greek fire-ships, which made them imagine every vessel that approached them to be one. The Greeks were at home on the waves,—active and fearless mariners, they knew that they could run around a Turkish frigate and not be injured; they knew the dread their enemies had of fire-ships, and they had their favorite, the daring Kanaris, with them.”


The heroic deeds of the modern Greeks fully equalled those of the ancients; and the death of Marco Bozzaris was celebrated in all the languages of western Europe. William Muller, the German poet, composed a volume of fine lyrics upon the incidents of the Greek Revolution; so that after his death the Greek Government sent a shipload of marble to Germany for the construction of his monument.

One day Doctor Howe, with a small party of followers, was anchored in a yawl off the Corinthian coast, when a Turk crept down to the shore and commenced firing at them from behind a large tree. After he had done this twice, the doctor calculated where he would appear the third time, and firing at the right moment brought him down with his face to the earth. Doctor Howe often fired at Turks in action, but this was the only one that he felt sure of having killed; and he does not appear to have even communicated the fact to his own family.

After Doctor Howe’s triumphant return to Greece with a cargo of provisions in 1828 he was appointed surgeon-general of the Greek navy, and finally, as a reward for all his services, he received a present of Byron’s cavalry helmet,—certainly a rare trophy. [Footnote: This helmet hung for many years on the hat tree at Dr. Howe’s house in South Boston.]

Doctor Howe’s mysterious imprisonment in Berlin in 1832 is the more enigmatical since Berlin has generally been the refuge of the oppressed from other European countries. The Huguenots, expelled by Louis XIV., went to Berlin in such numbers that they are supposed by Menzel to have modified the character of its inhabitants. The Salzburg refugees were welcomed in Prussia by Frederick William I., who had an official hanged for embezzling funds that were intended for their benefit. In 1770 Frederick the Great gave asylum to the Jesuits who had been expelled from every Catholic capital in Europe; and when the brothers Grimm and other professors were banished from Cassel for their liberalism, they were received and given positions by Frederick William IV. Why then should the Prussian government have interfered with Doctor Howe, after he had completed his philanthropic mission to the Polish refugees? Why was he not arrested in the Polish camp when he first arrived there?

The futile and tyrannical character of this proceeding points directly to Metternich, who at that time might fairly be styled the Tiberias of Germany. The Greek Revolution was hateful to Metternich, and he did what he could to prevent its success. His intrigues in England certainly delayed the independence of Greece for two years and more. He foresaw clearly enough that its independence would be a constant annoyance to the Austrian government,—and so it has proved down to the present time. Metternich imagined intrigues and revolution in every direction; and besides, there can be no doubt of the vindictiveness of his nature. The cunning of the fox is not often combined with the supposed magnanimity of the lion.

The account of his arrest, which Doctor Howe gave George L. Stearns, differs very slightly from that in Sanborn’s biography. According to the former he persuaded the Prussian police, on the ground of decency, to remain outside his door until he could dress himself. In this way he gained time to secrete his letters. He tore one up and divided the small pieces in various places. While he was doing this he noticed a bust of some king of Prussia on top of the high porcelain stove which forms a part of the furniture of every large room in Berlin. Concluding it must be hollow he tipped it on edge and inserted the rest of his letters within. The police never discovered this stratagem, but they searched his room in the most painstaking manner, collecting all the pieces of the letter he had torn up, so that they read every word of it. Whether his letters were really of a compromising character, or he was only afraid that they might be considered so, has never been explained.

The day after his arrest he was brought before a tribunal and asked a multitude of questions, which he appears to have answered willingly enough; and a week or more later the same examiners made a different set of inquiries of him, all calculated to throw light upon his former answers. Doctor Howe admitted afterwards that if he had attempted to deceive them they would certainly have discovered the fact. He was in prison five weeks, for which the Prussian government had the impudence to charge him board; and why President Jackson did not demand an apology and reparation for this outrage on a United States citizen is not the least mysterious part of the affair.

A good Samaritan does not always find a good Samaritan. After his return to Paris Doctor Howe went to England, but was taken so severely ill on the way that he did not know what might have become of him but for an English passenger with whom he had become acquainted and who carried him to his own house and cared for him until he was fully recovered. This excellent man, name now forgotten, had a charming daughter who materially assisted in Howe’s convalescence, and he said afterwards that if he had not been strongly opposed to matrimony at that time she would probably have become his wife. He was not married until ten years later; but he always remembered this incident as one of the pleasantest in his life.

The true hero never rests on his laurels. Doctor Howe had no sooner returned from Europe than he set himself to work on a design he had conceived in Paris for the instruction of the blind. Next to Doctor Morton’s discovery of etherization, there has been no undertaking equal to this for the amelioration of human misery. He brought the best methods from Europe, and improved upon them. Beginning at first in a small way, and with such means as he could obtain from the merchants of Boston, he went on to great achievements. He had the most difficulty in dealing with legislative appropriations and enactments, for as he was not acquainted with the ruling class in Massachusetts, they consequently looked upon him with suspicion. He not only made the plan, but he carried it out; he organized the institution at South Boston and set the machinery in motion.

The story of Laura Bridgman is a tale told in many languages. The deaf and blind girl whom Doctor Howe taught to read and to think soon became as celebrated as Franklin or Webster. She was between seven and eight years old when he first discovered her near Hanover, N. H., and for five years and a half she had neither seen nor heard. It is possible that she could remember the external world in a dim kind of way, and she must have learned to speak a few words before she lost her hearing. Doctor Howe taught her the names of different objects by pasting them in raised letters on the objects about her, and he taught her to spell by means of separate blocks with the letters upon them. She then was taught to read after the usual method of instructing the blind, and communicated with her fingers after the manner of deaf mutes. Doctor Howe said in his report of the case:

“Hitherto, the process had been mechanical, and the success about as great as teaching a very knowing dog a variety of tricks. The poor child had sat in mute amazement and patiently imitated everything her teacher did; but now the truth began to flash upon her; her intellect began to work; she perceived that here was a way by which she could herself make up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind, and at once her countenance lighted up with a human expression; it was no longer a dog or parrot,—it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!”

Finally she was educated in the meaning of the simplest abstract terms like right and wrong, happy and sad, crooked and straight, and in this she evinced great intelligence, for she described being alone as all one, and being together all two,—the original meaning of alone and altogether, which few persons think of. In trying to express herself where she found some difficulty she made use of agglutinative forms of speech. [Footnote: Like the Aztecs, Kanackers and other primitive races.]

The education of Laura has rare value as a psychological study; for it proves incontestably that mind is a thing in itself, and not merely a combination of material forces, as the philosophers of our time would have us believe. Laura Bridgman’s mind was there, though wholly unable to express itself, and so soon as the magic key was turned, she developed as rapidly and intelligently as other girls of her age. She soon became much more intelligent than the best trained dog who has all his senses in an acute condition; and she developed a sensibility toward those about her such as Indian or Hottentot girls of the same age would not have done at all. She soon began to indicate that sense of order which is the first step on the stairway of civilization. If these qualities had not been in her they never could have come out.

Why is it that so many superior women remain unmarried, and why do men of superior intellect and exceptional character so often mate themselves with weak or narrow-minded women? That a diffident man, with a taste for playing on the flute, should be captured by a virago, is not so remarkable,—that is his natural weakness; but it is also true that the worthiest man often chooses indifferently. This thing they call matrimony is in fact like diving for pearls: you bring up the oyster, but what it contains does not appear until afterward. A friend of Sumner, who imagined his wife had a beautiful nature because she was fond of wild- flowers, discovered too late that she cared more for botany than for her husband.

Chevalier Howe met with better fortune. He waited long and to good purpose. It was fitting that such a man should marry a poetess; and he found her, not in her rose-garden or some romantic sylvan retreat, but in the city of New York. Miss Julia Ward was the daughter, as she once styled herself, of the Bank of Commerce, but her mind was not bent on money or a fashionable life. She was graceful, witty and charming in the drawing-room; but there was also a serious vein in her nature which could only be satisfied by earnest thought and study. She went from one book to another through the whole range of critical scholarship, disdaining everything that was not of the best quality. She soon knew so much that the young men became afraid of her, but she cared less for their admiration than for her favorite authors. Above all, the deep religious vein in her nature, which never left her, served as a balance to her romantic disposition. Her first admirer is said to have been an eloquent preacher who came to New York while Miss Ward was in her teens.

Another man might have crossed Julia Ward’s path and only have remembered her as a Sumner friend. Doctor Howe recognized the opportunity, and had no intention of letting it slip. His reputation and exceptional character attracted her; and he wooed and won her with the same courage that he fought the Greeks. Her sister married Crawford, the best sculptor of his time, whom Sumner helped to fame and fortune.

Doctor Howe’s wedding journey, which included a complete tour of Europe, seems to have been the first rest that he had taken in twenty years. Such wedding journeys are frequent enough now, but it is a rare bride that finds the doors of distinguished houses opened to her husband from Edinburgh to Athens. Was it not a sufficient reward for any man’s service to humanity?

For that matter Doctor Howe’s lifelong work received comparatively slight recognition or reward. A few medals were sent to him from Europe,—a gold one from the King of Prussia,—and he was always looked upon in Boston as a distinguished citizen; but his vocation at the Blind Asylum withdrew him from the public eye, and the public soon forgets what happened yesterday. What a blaze of enthusiasm there was for Admiral Dewey in 1899, and how coldly his name was received as a presidential candidate one year later!

Doctor Howe was once nominated for Congress as a forlorn hope, and his name was thrice urged unavailingly for foreign appointments. He certainly deserved to be made Minister to Greece, but President Johnson looked upon him as a very “ultra man”,—the real objection being no doubt that he was a friend of Sumner, and the second attempt made by Sumner himself was defeated by Hamilton Fish. Doctor Howe was fully qualified at any time to be Minister to France, and as well qualified as James Russell Lowell for the English Mission; but the appointment of such men as Lowell and Howe has proved to be a happy accident rather than according to the natural order of events. What reward did Doctor Morton ever obtain, until twenty- five years after his death his name was emblazoned in memorial hall of Boston State House! It is an old story.

Yet Doctor Howe may well be considered one of the most fortunate Americans of his time. Lack of public appreciation is the least evil that can befall a man of truly great spirit,—unless indeed it impairs the usefulness of his work, and Edward Everett, who had sympathized so cordially with Doctor Howe’s efforts in behalf of the Greeks, could also have told him sympathetically that domestic happiness was fully as valuable as public honor. Fortunate is the man who has wandered much over the earth and seen great sights, only the better to appreciate the quiet and repose of his own hearth-stone! The storm and stress period of Doctor Howe’s life was over, and henceforth it was to be all blue sky and smooth sailing.

Sumner expressed a kind of regret at Doctor Howe’s marriage,—a regret for his own loneliness; but he found afterwards that instead of losing one friend he had made another. His visits to South Boston were as frequent as ever, and he often brought distinguished guests with him,— English, French, and German. There was no lady in Boston whom he liked to converse with so well as Mrs. Howe; and if he met her on the street he would almost invariably stop to speak with her a few minutes. He sometimes suffered from the keen sallies of her wit, but he accepted this as part of the entertainment, and once informed her that if she were president of the Senate it would be much better for the procedure of the public business.

George Sumner also came; like his brother, a man much above the average in general ability, and considered quite equal to the Delivery of a Fourth of July oration. He was the more entertaining talker of the two, and in other respects very much like Tom Appleton,—better known on the Paris boulevards than in his native country. Instead of being witty like Appleton he was brilliantly encyclopaedic; and they both carried their statements to the verge of credibility.

Doctor Howe organized the blind asylum so that it almost ran itself without his oversight, and as always happens in such cases he was idolized by those who were under his direction. There was something exceedingly kind in his tone of voice,—a voice accustomed to command and yet much subdued. His manner towards children was particularly charming and attractive. He exemplified the lines in Emerson’s “Wood-notes”:

  “Grave, chaste, contented though retired,
  And of all other men desired,”

applied to Doctor Howe more completely than to the person for whom they were originally intended; for Thoreau’s bachelor habits and isolated mode of life prevented him from being an attractive person to the generality of mankind.

It was said of James G. Blaine that he left every man he met with the impression that he was his best friend. This may have been well intended, but it has the effect of insincerity, for the thing is practically impossible. The true gentleman has always a kind manner, but he does not treat the man whom he has just been introduced to as a friend; he waits for that until he shall know him better. It is said of Americans generally that they are generous and philanthropic, but that they do not make good friends,—that their idea of friendship depends too much on association and the influence of mutual interests, instead of the underlying sense of spiritual relationship. When they cease to have mutual interests the friendship is at an end, or only continues to exist on paper. Doctor Howe was as warm-hearted as he was firm-hearted, but he never gave his full confidence to any one until he had read him through to the backbone. His friends were so fond of him that they would go any distance to see him. His idea of friendship seemed to be like that of the friends in the sacred band of Thebes, whose motto was either to avenge their comrades on the field of battle or to die with them.

He did not like a hypocritical morality, which he said too often resulted in the hypocritical sort. He complained of this in Emerson’s teaching, which he thought led his readers to scrutinize themselves too closely as well as to be too censorious of others; and he respected Emerson more for his manly attitude on the Kansas question than for anything he wrote.

He always continued to be the chevalier. He was like Hawthorne’s gray- haired champion, who always came to the front in a public emergency, and then disappeared, no one knew whither. When the Bond Street riot took place in 1837, there was Doctor Howe succoring the oppressed; in 1844 he joined the Conscience Whigs and was one of the foremost among them; he helped materially toward the election of Sumner in 1851, and for years afterwards was a leader in the vigilance committee organized to resist the Fugitive Slave law. He stood shoulder to shoulder with George L. Stearns in organizing resistance to the invasions of Kansas by the Missourians; and again in 1862 when Harvard University made its last desperate political effort in opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; but when his friends and his party came into power Howe neither asked nor hinted at any reward for his brilliant services.

Edward L. Pierce, the biographer of Sumner, was not above exhibiting his prejudices as to certain members of the Bird Club, both by what he has written and what he neglected to write. He says of the Chevalier: “Dr. Howe, who had a passion for revolutions and civil disturbances of all kinds, and had no respect for the restrictions of international law or comity, was vexed with Sumner for not promoting the intervention of the United States in behalf of the insurgent Cubans.”

This reminds one of Boswell’s treatment of Doctor Johnson’s friends. Like John Adams and Hampden, Doctor Howe was a revolutionary character,—and so were Sumner and Lincoln,—but he was a man in all matters prudent, discreet and practical. He was as much opposed to inflammatory harangues and French socialistic notions as he was to the hide-bound conservatism against which he had battled all his life. Like Hampden and Adams his revolutionary strokes were well timed and right to the point. Experience has proved them to be effective and salutary. It was the essential merit of Sumner and his friends that they recognized the true character of the times in which they lived and adapted themselves to it. Thousands of well-educated men lived through the anti-slavery and civil war period without being aware that they were taking part in one of the great revolutionary epochs of history. That Doctor Howe and Senator Sumner differed in regard to the Cuban rebellion is a matter of small moment. Howe considered the interests of the Cubans; Sumner the interests of republicanism in Spain and in Europe generally. Both were right from their respective standpoints.

At the beginning of the war he was sixty years of age,—too old to take an active part in it. This cannot be doubted, however, that if he had been thirty years younger he would either have won distinction as a commander or have fallen on the, field of honor. The best contribution from the Howe family to the war was Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The war was a grand moral struggle, a conflict of historical forces; and neither Lowell, Emerson, nor Whittier expressed this so fully and with such depth of feeling as Mrs. Howe. There are occasions when woman rises superior to man, and this was one of them. It was evidently inspired by the John Brown song, that simple martial melody; but it rises above the personal and temporal into the universal and eternal. Its measure has the swing of the Greek tragic chorus, extended to embrace the wider scope of Christian faith, and its diction is of an equally classic purity and vigor. The last stanza runs:

  “In the beauty of the lily Christ was born across the sea,
  With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.
  As he died to make men holy let us die to make men free;
         As we go marching on.”

This was the fine fruit of Mrs. Howe’s early religious faith. It welled up in her nature from a deep undercurrent, which few would have suspected who only met her at Sam G. Ward’s dinner parties and other fashionable entertainments. Yet, there was always a quiet reserve in her laughter, and her wittiest remarks were always followed by a corresponding seriousness of expression. Although she studied Spinoza, admired Emerson, and attended meetings of the Radical Club on Chestnut Street, she never separated herself from the Church, and always expressed her dissent from any opinion that seemed to show a lack of reverence.

On a certain occasion when a member of the club spoke of newspapers as likely to supersede the pulpit, Mrs. Howe replied to him: “God forbid that should happen. God forbid we should do without the pulpit. It is the old fable of the hare and the tortoise. We need the hare for light running, but the slow, steady tortoise wins the goal at last.” Religious subjects, however, were not so much discussed at the Radical Club as philosophy and politics,—and in these Mrs. Howe felt herself very much at home.

On another occasion, when a member of the club said that he was prepared, like Emerson, to accept the universe, Mrs. Howe interposed with the remark that it was Margaret Fuller who accepted the universe; she “was not aware that the universe had been offered to Emerson.” She said this because Margaret Fuller was a woman.

Once, when writing for the newspapers was under discussion, Mrs. Howe remarked that in that kind of composition one felt prescribed like St. Simeon Stylites by the limitations of the column.

One of the best of her witty poems describes Boston on a rainy day, and is called “Expluvior,” an innocent parody on Longfellow’s “Excelsior," which, by the way, ought to have been called Excelsius.

  “The butcher came a walking flood,
  Drenching the kitchen where he stood.
  ’Deucalion, is your name?’ I pray.
  ’Moses,’ he choked and slid away.

is one of the most characteristic verses; but in the last stanza she wishes to construct a dam at the foot of Beacon Hill and cause a flood that would sweep the rebel sympathizers out of Boston.

The office of the Blind Asylum was formerly near the middle of Bromfield Street on the southern side. This is now historic ground. Between 1850 and 1870 some of the most important national councils were held there in Dr. Howe’s private office. It was the first place that Sumner went to in the morning and the last place that Governor Andrew stopped before returning to his home at night. There Dr. Howe and George L. Stearns consulted with John Brown concerning measures for the defence of Kansas; and there Howe, Stearns, and Bird concerted plans for the election of Andrew in 1860, and for the re-election of Sumner in 1862. It was a quiet, retired spot in the midst of a hustling city, where a celebrated man could go without attracting public attention.

Chevalier Howe outlived Sumner just one year, and Wilson followed him not long after.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

[Buy at Amazon]
Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
At Amazon