Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Elizur Wright

The influence of Ohio in the United States of America during the past half century may be compared to that of Virginia during the first forty years of the Republic. All of our Presidents, elected as such since 1860, have come from Ohio, or adjacent territory. Cleveland came from beyond the Alleghenies, and Lincoln was born on the southern side of the Ohio River. General Grant and General Sherman came from Ohio; and so did Salmon P. Chase, and John Brown, of Harper’s Perry celebrity. Chase gave the country the inestimable blessing of a national currency; and even the Virginians admitted that John Brown was a very remarkable person.

The fathers of these men conquered the wilderness and brought up their sons to a sturdy, vigorous manliness, which resembles the colonial culture of Franklin, Adams, and Washington.

Sitting in the same school-house with John Brown, in 1816, was a boy named Elizur Wright who, like Brown, came from Connecticut, and to whom the people of this country are also somewhat under obligation. Every widow and orphan in the United States who receives the benefit of a life- insurance policy owes a blessing to Elizur Wright, who was the first to establish life insurance in America on a strong foundation, and whose reports on that subject, made during his long term as Insurance Commissioner for Massachusetts, have formed a sort of constitution by which the policy of all life-insurance companies is still guided. His name deserves a place beside those of Horace Mann and William Lloyd Garrison.

Apart from this, his biography is one of the most interesting, one of the most picturesque, when compared with those of the many brilliant men of his time. His grandfather was a sea captain, and his father, who was also named Elizur, was a farmer in Canaan, Connecticut. His mother’s name was Clarissa Richards, and he was born on the twelfth of February, 1804. In the spring of 1810 the family moved to Talmage, Ohio, making the journey in a two-horse carriage with an ox-team to transport their household goods. Their progress was necessarily slow, and it was nearly six weeks before they reached Talmage, as it was generally necessary to camp at night by the way-side. This romantic journey, the building of their log- cabin, the clearing of the forest, and above all his solitary watches in the maple-orchard (where he might perhaps be attacked by wolves), made a deep poetic impression on young Elizur, and furnished him with a store of pleasant memories in after life.

They lived at first in a log-cabin, and afterwards his father built a square frame-house with a piazza and veranda in front, which is still standing. The school where Elizur, Jr., met John Brown was at a long distance for a boy to walk. He does not appear to have made friends with John, remarkably alike as they were in veracity, earnestness, and adherence to principle; but John was somewhat the elder, and two or three years among boys counts for more than ten among grown people. In later life, however, Mr. Wright told an interesting anecdote of young Brown, which runs as follows:

John was the best-behaved boy in the school, and for this reason the teacher selected him to occupy a vacant place beside the girls. Some other boys were jealous of this, and after calling Brown a milk-sop, attacked him with snowballs. John proved himself as good a fighter then as he did afterwards at Black Jack. He made two or three snow-balls, rushed in at close quarters, and fought with such energy that he finally drove all the boys before him.

Elizur Wright may have taken note of this affair, and it served him when he entered Yale College in 1822. He had never heard of hazing, and when the Sophomores came to his room to tease him, he received them with true Western cordiality. He found out his mistake quickly enough, and at the first insult he rose in wrath and ordered them out with such furious looks that they concluded it was best to go.

He helped to support himself during his college course not only by teaching in winter, but by making fires, waiting on table, and ringing the recitation bell. In spite of these menial services, he was popular in his class and had a number of aristocratic friends,—among them Philip Van Rensselaer. He was one of the best scholars in his class,—first in mathematics, and so fluent in Greek that to the end of his life he could read it with ease.

He did not wait for graduation. In May, 1826, the Groton Academy suddenly wanted a teacher, and Elizur Wright was invited to take the position. The college faculty sent him his degree a month later,—which they might not have done if they had known how little he cared for it. In his school at Groton was a pretty, dark-eyed girl named Susan Clark, who, for two years previously, had been at school with Margaret Fuller and was very well acquainted with her. Elizur Wright became interested in Miss Clark, and three years later they were married.

One day, while he was living at Groton, Mr. Wright went by the Boston stage to Fitchburg, and on his return held a long conversation with a fellow-passenger, a tall, slender young man with aquiline features, who gave his name as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mr. Wright found him an exceedingly interesting gentleman, but of so fragile an appearance that it seemed impossible that he should live many years.

From this time the paths of these two young scholars diverged. Emerson became an idealist and an ethical reformer. Elizur Wright became a realist and a political reformer. Realism seems to belong to the soil of Ohio.

Ill health came next in turn, a natural consequence of his severe life at Yale College. He was obliged to leave his school, and for an occupation he circulated tracts for the American Congregational Society, making a stipulation, however, which was characteristic of him, that he should not distribute any that ran contrary to his convictions. In this itinerant fashion he became sufficiently recuperated at the end of a year to marry Miss Clark, September 13, 1829, and accept the professorship of mathematics at Western Reserve College, at Hudson, Ohio. There he remained till 1833, strengthening himself in the repose of matrimony for the conflict that lay before him,—a conflict that every justice-loving man feels that he will have to face at one time or another.

This probably came sooner than he expected. Some anti-slavery tracts, circulated by Garrison, reached Western Reserve College and set the place in a ferment. Elizur Wright became the champion of the anti-slavery movement, not only in the town of Hudson but throughout the State. What Garrison was in New England he became in the West. In the spring of 1833 he resigned his professorship and spent the next five months delivering lectures on the slavery question. In December of the same year the first national anti-slavery convention met in Philadelphia, and Elizur Wright was unanimously chosen secretary of it. After that he went to New York to edit a newspaper, the Anti-Slavery Reporter, remaining until 1839. During the pro-slavery riot in New York he was attacked on the sidewalk by two men with knives, but instantly rescued by some teamsters who were passing. When he reached his home in Brooklyn he found a note from the Mayor advising him to leave the city for some days; to which he replied advising the Mayor to stop the New York ferry-boats. Meanwhile, as Mrs. Wright was too ill to be removed, he purchased an axe and prepared to defend his house to the last extremity. The Mayor, however, adopted his advice, and by this excellent stratagem Brooklyn was saved from the fury of the mob. In 1837 he moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, to prosecute a similar work in Boston.

Nothing is more remarkable in Mr. Wright’s life than his perfect self- poise and peace of mind during such a long period of external agitation. It is doubtful, in spite of his highly nervous temperament, if he ever lost a night’s sleep. When he was editing the Chronotype, and waiting for the telegraphic news to arrive, he would sometimes lie down on a pile of newspapers and go to sleep in less than half a minute. For mental relaxation he studied the higher mathematics and wrote poetry— much of it very good. His faith in Divine Providence was absolute. He had the soul of a hero.

During his first years in Boston, Elizur Wright translated La Fontaine’s Fables into English verse,—one of the best metrical versions of a foreign poet,—and it is much to be regretted that the book is out of print. It did not sell, of course, and Elizur Wright, determined that neither he nor the publisher should lose money on it, undertook to sell it himself. In carrying out this plan he met with some curious experiences. He called on Professor Ticknor, who received him kindly, spoke well of his translation, offered to dispose of a number of copies, but—advised him to keep clear of the slavery question.

He went to Washington with the twofold object of selling his book and talking emancipation to our national legislators; and he succeeded in both attempts, for there were few men who liked to argue with Elizur Wright. His brain was a store-house of facts and his analysis of them equally keen and cutting. One Congressman, a very gentlemanly Virginian, said to him: “Mr. Wright, I wish you could go across the Potomac and look over my district. I think you will find that African slavery is not half as bad as it is represented.” Elizur Wright went and returned with the emphatic reply: “I find it much worse than I expected.” Having disposed of more than half of his edition in this manner, in the spring of 1842 he went to England, and with the kind assistance of Browning and Pringle succeeded in placing the rest of his books there to his satisfaction. Having a great admiration for Wordsworth’s poetry, he made a long journey to see that celebrated author, but only to be affronted by Wordsworth’s saying that America would be a good place if there were only a few gentlemen in it. With Carlyle he had, as might have been expected, a furious argument on the slavery question, and “King Thomas,” as Dr. Holmes calls him, encountered for once a head as hard as his own. The Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth, received him with true English hospitality. More experienced than Wordsworth in the great world, they recognized Elizur Wright to be what he was,—a man of intellect and rare integrity. Mr. Wright always spoke of Browning as one of the most satisfactory men with whom he had ever conversed.

In 1840, as is well known, the anti-slavery movement became divided into those who still believed in the efficacy of “moral suasion” and those who considered that the time had come for introducing the question into practical politics. The Texas question made the latter course inevitable, and Elizur Wright concluded that moral suasion had done its work. As he expressed it, in a letter to Mrs. Maria Chapman: “Garrison has already left his enemies thrice dead behind him.” He was a delegate to the convention of April 1, 1840, which nominated James G. Birney for the Presidency, and took an active share in the Free-soil movement of 1844,— a movement which produced exactly the opposite effect from that which was intended; for the defeat of Henry Clay opened the door for the Mexican war and the annexation of a much larger territory than Texas. If Clay had been elected, the history of the United States must have been different from what it has proved.

How Elizur Wright supported his family during this long period of philanthropy will always be a mystery, but support them he did. He had no regular salary like Garrison, but, in an emergency, he could turn his hand to almost anything, and earn money by odd jobs. Fortunately, he had a wife who was not afraid of any kind of house-work. He purchased his clothes of a tailor named Curtis, who kept a sailors’ clothing store on North Street, and his mode of living otherwise was not less economical.

That his children suffered by their father’s philanthropy must be admitted, but it is a general rule that the families of public benefactors also contribute largely to the general good. His eldest daughters inherited their father’s intellect, and as they grew up cheerfully assisted him in various ways.

When the Mexican war began there was great indignation over it in New England, and Lowell wrote his most spirited verses in opposition to it. Elizur Wright took advantage of the storm to establish a newspaper, the Chronotype, in opposition to the Government policy. He began this enterprise almost without help, but soon obtained assistance from leading Free-soilers like John A. Andrew, Dr. S. G. Howe, and especially Frank W. Bird, the most disinterested of politicians, who gave several thousand dollars in support of the Chronotype. The object of the paper, stated in Mr. Wright’s own words, was “To examine everything that is new and some things that are old, without fear or favor; to promote good nature, good neighborhood, and good government; to advocate a just distribution of the proper reward, whether material or immaterial, both of honest labor and rascally violence, cunning and idleness; last, but not least, to get an honest living.” In 1848 he had a list of six thousand subscribers; and his incisive pen was greatly feared. The Post, which was the Government organ in Boston, attacked him once, but met with such a crushing rejoinder that its editor concluded not to try that game again. His capacity for brain labor was wonderful. He could work fourteen hours a day, and did not seem to need recreation at all.

In the campaign of 1844 Elizur Wright made a number of speeches for the Free-soil candidate in various New England cities. One morning he was returning from a celebration at Nashua, when at the Lowell station Daniel Webster entered the train with two or three friends, and turned over the seat next to Mr. Wright. A newsboy followed Webster, and they all purchased papers. Elizur Wright purchased a Whig paper, and seeing a statement in it concerning the Free-soil candidate which he believed from internal evidence to be untrue, he said quite loud: “Well! this is the finest roorback I have met with.” Webster inquired what it was, and, after looking at the statement, pronounced it genuine. A short argument ensued, which closed with Webster’s proposing to bet forty pounds that the allegation was true. “I am not a betting man,” replied Wright, “but since the honor of my candidate is at stake, I accept your wager." Webster then gave him his card, and Wright returned it by writing his name on a piece of the newspaper.

Elizur Wright no sooner reached his office than he found letters and documents there disproving the Whig statement in toto, and later in the day he carried them over to Mr. Webster, who had an office in what was then Niles’s Block. Mr. Webster looked carefully through them, congratulated Mr. Wright on his good fortune, and handed him two hundred- dollar bills. Peter Harvey, who was in Webster’s office at the time, afterwards stopped Elizur Wright on the sidewalk and said to him: “Mr. Wright, you could have afforded to lose that wager much better than Webster could.”

It is remarkable how all the different interests in this man’s life— mathematics, philanthropy, journalism, and the translation of La Fontaine—united together like so many different currents to further the grand achievement of his life. While in England he had taken notice of the life-insurance companies there, which were in a more advanced stage than those in America. They interested him as a mathematical study, and also from the humanitarian point of view. He purchased “David Jones on Annuities,” and the best works on life insurance. These he read with the same ardor with which young ladies devour an exciting novel, and without the least expectation that they might ever bring dollars and cents to him; until one day in the spring of 1852 an insurance solicitor placed an advertising booklet in his hand as he was entering the office of the Chronotype.

Elizur Wright looked it over and perceived quickly enough that no company could undertake to do what this one pretended to and remain solvent. The booklet served him for an editorial, and before one o’clock the next day agents from every life company in Boston were collected in his office. They supposed at first that it was an attempt at blackmail, but soon discovered that Elizur Wright knew more about the subject than any of them. Neither threats nor persuasions had any effect on this uncompromising backwoodsman. Only on one condition would Mr. Wright retract his statements,—that the companies should reform their circulars and place their affairs in a more sound condition. The consequence of this was an invitation from the presidents of several of the companies for Mr. Wright to call at their offices and discuss the subject with them.

The situation was this, and Mr. Wright saw it clearly: the presidents of the companies were excellent men,—as honorable and trustworthy as the presidents of our best national banks,—and they knew how to organize and conduct their companies in all business matters, but of life insurance as a science they knew as little as they knew of Greek. In those days there was a prejudice against college graduates which prevented their obtaining the highest mercantile positions, and it is doubtful if there was any person connected with the life-insurance companies who could solve a problem in the higher mathematics. The consequence of this was that it placed the presidents quite at the mercy of their own accountants. Recent events have proved with what facility the teller of a bank can abstract twenty or thirty thousand dollars without its appearing in the accounts. Temptations and opportunities of this sort must have been much greater in life-insurance companies, as they were formerly conducted, than it is now in banks. Money may have been stolen without its having been discovered.

Besides this, the temptations of the companies to continually over-bid one another for public favor was another evil which, sooner or later, would lead some of them into bankruptcy. This danger could only be averted by placing their rates of insurance on a scientific basis, which should be the same and unalterable for all companies.

The charters of the companies had been drafted in the interest of the management, without much consideration for the rights or advantages of those who were insured. There were no laws on the statute book which would practically prevent directors of life-insurance companies from doing as they pleased with the immense trust properties in their possession. After two or three interviews with Elizur Wright the presidents of the companies came to the conclusion that he was exactly the man that they wanted, and they commissioned him to draw up a revised set of tables and rates which could serve them for a uniform standard. This work occupied him and two of his daughters for a full year, for which he was compensated with the paltry sum of two thousand dollars. The time was fast approaching, however, when Elizur Wright would be in a position to dictate his own terms to the insurance companies.

It was now that the Bird Club, the most distinguished political club of its time, became gradually formed out of the leading elements of the Free-soil party. At one time this club counted among its members two Senators, three Governors, and a number of Congressmen, and it was a power in the land. Elizur Wright’s services as editor of the Chronotype gave him an early entrance to it; and having life insurance on the brain, as it were, other members of the club soon became interested in the subject as a political question. In this way Mr. Wright was soon able to effect legislation. Sumner, Wilson, Andrew, and Bird gave him an almost unqualified support. In 1858 he was appointed Insurance Commissioner for Massachusetts, a position which he held until 1866. As Commissioner he formulated the principal legislation on life insurance; and his reports, which have been published in a volume, are the best treatise in English on the practical application of life- insurance principles.

In 1852 he resigned the editorship of the Chronotype, and from that time till 1858 he was occupied with life-insurance work, the editing of a paper called the Railroad Times, and making a number of mechanical inventions, most important of which was a calculating machine, enough in itself to give a man distinction.

This machine was simply a Gunther rule thirty feet in length wrapped on a cylinder and turned by a crank. Gunther’s rule is a measure on which logarithms are represented by spaces, so that by adding and subtracting spaces on this cylinder Mr. Wright could perform the longest sums in multiplication and division in two or three minutes of time.

Not only did the Massachusetts insurance companies come under Mr. Wright’s surveillance, but the New York Life, the Connecticut Mutual, and the Mutual Benefit of New Jersey, all large and powerful companies, were obliged to conform to his regulations, for their Boston offices were too lucrative to be surrendered. About this time Gladstone caused an overhauling of the English life-insurance companies, and a number which proved to be unsound were obliged to surrender their charters. Among these latter were two companies which held offices in Boston, and whose character had already been exposed by Elizur Wright.

In 1850, when he became Commissioner, Mr. Wright sent to their agents for a statement of their financial standing, and not receiving a reply requested them to leave the State. Finding that the matter could not be evaded, they at length forwarded two reports signed by two actuaries, both Fellows of the Royal Society, which were not of a satisfactory character, so that Mr. Wright insisted on his previous order. The agents then applied for support to Prof. Benjamin Pierce, the distinguished mathematician of Harvard University, and one of the most aggressively pro-slavery men about Boston. He probably looked upon Elizur Wright as a vulgar fanatic, and supposing that a Fellow of the Royal Society must necessarily be an honorable man, came forward in support of Messrs. Neisen and Woolhouse without sufficiently investigating the question at issue; and the result was a controversy between Elizur Wright and himself in which he was finally beaten off the field.

The statements of both Neisen and Woolhouse was proved to be fraudulent, and the two English companies were expelled from the State.

Mr. Wright’s insurance reports brought him such celebrity that all the companies wished to have his name connected with them. His son, Walter C. Wright, became actuary of the New England Life, and his daughter, Miss Jane Wright, was made actuary of the Mutual Union Company. Mr. Wright and his eldest son, John, set up a business for calculating the value of insurance policies, in which the logarithm machine helped them to obtain a large income. With his first ten thousand dollars Mr. Wright purchased a large house and a tract of land in Middlesex Fells, where his family still resides.

In 1865 the office of Life Insurance Commissioner was filched from him by a trade politician who knew as much of the subject as fresh college graduates do of the practical affairs of life. Mr. Wright always regretted this, for he felt that his work was not yet complete; and it is a fact that American life insurance, with its good and bad features, still remains almost exactly as he left it.

It was only after Elizur Wright had ceased to be Commissioner that he discovered a serious error in the calculation of the companies, which may be explained in the following manner:

In the beginning, nearly all the insurance policies were made payable at death, with annual premiums; but the introduction of endowment policies, payable at a certain age, effected a peculiar change in their affairs, of which the managers of the companies were not sensible. Elizur Wright perceived that there were two distinct elements in the endowment policies which placed them at a disadvantage with ordinary life policies, and he called this combination “savings-bank life insurance.” An endowment policy, being payable at a fixed date, required a larger premium than one which ran on indefinitely and by customary usage, and the agent who negotiated the policy received the same percentage for commission that he would on an ordinary-life policy; that is, he received a much larger commission in proportion. This evil was increased in cases where endowment policies were paid for, as often happened, in five or ten instalments; and where they were paid for in a single instalment the agent received four or five times what he was properly entitled to.

The same principle was observed by the companies in the distribution of their surplus, so that the holders of endowment policies were practically mulcted at both ends of the line.

In his reports as Insurance Commissioner Elizur Wright had recommended this class of policies as a salutary provision against poverty in old age, and he felt under obligations to the public to correct this injustice, [Footnote: On a policy of ten thousand dollars, it would amount to an appreciable sum.] but the insurance agents had also advocated them for evident reasons and were naturally opposed to any project of reform. The managers of the companies also treated the subject coldly, for the discrimination against endowments enabled them to accumulate a larger reserve which made them appear to better advantage before the general public. The numerous agents and solicitors formed a solid body of opposition and raised a chorus against Elizur Wright like that which the robins make when you pick your own cherries. This class of persons when they are actuated by a common impulse make a formidable impression.

Mr. Wright, after arguing his case with the insurance companies for nearly a year without effect, appealed to the public through the newspapers. This, however, had unexpected consequences. Mr. Wright’s letters produced the impression, which he did not intend at all, that the insurance companies were unsound, and policy-holders rushed to the offices to make inquiries. Many surrendered their policies.

In this emergency the officers of the companies went to the editors and explained to them that their business would be ruined if Mr. Wright was permitted to continue his attacks on them. They then made Mr. Wright what may have been intended for a magnanimous offer, though he did not look on it in that light,—namely, an offer of ten thousand dollars a year, if he would retire from the actuary business and not molest them any longer. [Footnote: These events took place thirty years ago and have no relation to the present condition and practice of American insurance companies.] Elizur Wright refused this, as he might have declined the offer of a cigar, and appealed to the Legislature. The companies then withdrew their business from Mr. Wright and thus reduced his income from twelve thousand dollars a year to about three thousand; but this troubled him no more than it would have Diogenes.

In the summer of 1872 a portly gentleman called at Elizur Wright’s office on State Street and introduced himself as the president of a well-known Western insurance company. As it was a pleasant day Mr. Wright invited his visitor to Pine Hill, where they could converse to better advantage than in a Boston office; but being much absorbed in his subject, while passing through Medford Centre, he neglected to order a dinner; and the consequence of this was that his portly friend was obliged to make a lunch on cold meat and potato salad. That same evening Mr. Wright’s daughter twitted him on his lack of forethought, and hoped such a thing would not happen again, to which he only replied: “The kindest thing you can do for such a man is to starve him.” Such was his philosophy on all occasions.

He devised a plan for combining life insurance with a savings bank, by which the laboring man could obtain a certain amount of insurance for his family (or old age) instead of interest upon his deposits. This was an admirable idea, and if he had undertaken to carry it out in the prime of life he might have succeeded in realizing it; but he was now upwards of seventy, and his friends concluded that the experiment would be a risky one, as a favorable result would depend entirely on Mr. Wright’s longevity. At the same time he had another enterprise in hand, namely, to convert the Middlesex Fells, in which Pine Hill is situated, into a public park. This was greatly needed for the crowded population on the northern side of Boston, and though the plan was not carried out until after his death, he was the originator and earliest promoter of it.

Elizur Wright’s most conspicuous trait was generosity. He lived for the world and not for himself. He was a man of broad views and great designs; a daring, original thinker. He respected Emerson, but preferred the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, from the study of which he became an advocate of free trade and woman suffrage.

He died November 21, 1885, in the midst of a rain-storm which lasted six days and nights. He lies interred at Mt. Hope Cemetery.


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

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