One morning, about a hundred years ago, a farmer lad with a basket on his arm was waling to the village store in Franklin, Massachusetts. He was probably fourteen years of age, although you would have guessed him to the older. His face was pale and bore the saddened look of a child who had never known what it was to play. His clothing of home-made stuff was tattered and worn. His whole appearance told of poverty and hard work.
Some village boys saw him and shouted, "There goes Horace. Let's have some fun with him."
They pelted him with mud. They threw stones into his basket.
"Hello, girly!" said one, "have you washed the breakfast dishes yet?"
"How much straw can you plait in a day, Horry?" asked another.
Then they all hooted, "Girl-boy! Girl-boy! Girl-boy! Helps the women in the kitchen!" and they pranced around him in great glee.
But the lad walked on silently, seeming not to notice their ill-mannered taunts. At the store he was greeted kindly by the man behind the counter.
"Some more straw braid to-day, Horace?"
"Yes, sir," was the answer. "There's not so much as I hoped to bring, but I shall do better next week."
The storekeeper took the rolls of plaited straw from the basket, and soon figured up their value.
"One shilling and sixpence. And what will you buy to-day?"
"Half of it is mother's," answered Horace, "and half of it is mine. Mother will come in to-morrow and get what she needs. For my part, I want the arithmetic book that I was looking at last week."
"The price is one shilling," said the storekeeper.
"I know," said Horace, "and I lack threepence of having so much. I only want to ask if you will not lay the book aside for me until next week, when I shall have more than enough to pay for it."
"You may take the book now," said the man, "and I will trust you for the balance till you have some more braid ready."
The lad thanked him, and tucked the precious book under his coat. Then taking up his empty basket, he went out to meet the taunts of the street boys again.
"That's right, girly!" they shouted after him. "Run home now, and wash the breakfast dishes. Run home and plait some more straw."
"That lad will make his mark in the world," said the storekeeper to the group of loafers who were lounging at the door. "The boys make fun of him because he makes straw braids and helps his mother with her housework. But they'll be glad enough to do him honor by and by."
"Has he no father?" asked one.
"Ah, no. His father died two years ago, and the boy has been the mainstay of the family ever since. And work! Why, he's never known anything but work. That boy never played a day in his life. He's at work on the farm whenever the weather will let him. And then of evenings and on rainy days he's always plating straw. Why, he plaits more straw than any woman or girl in Franklin. The hat makers say that his braids are the best of any that I send them.
"School? No, he never has time to go to school much. I guess he goes seven or eight weeks in midwinter, when he can't do anything on the form. But they do say that he knows more than the teacher, young as he is.
"Books? Well, I should reckon. He's read everything in the Franklin library, and he ahs a few books of his own. They say that he sits up and reads when everybody else is in bed. Sometimes he sits up till long after midnight. And they're so poor up at this house that I guess they can't afford to buy many candles, either."
Such was the boyhood of Horace Mann. It was a boyhood of labor unrelieved by any of the joys which children commonly know. He never knew a holiday. Marbles and kites and tops never came his way, for he had no time to spend with them. As for playing ball, he was too busy even to think of it. In fact, he never had any kind of plaything that he could call his own.
As he neared the age of manhood, however, he contrived to give more time to the study of books. Through his industry and self-denial his mother was at length quite well provided for. Why should he not now indulge himself with a little of that learning for which he had always had such hungering and craving?
One day when he was twenty years old, a school teacher whose name was Barrett surprised him by saying,—
"Horace, you must go to college!"
What a strange idea to put into the head of a young man who had neither money nor opportunities!
"Why, Mr. Barrett," said Horace, "I don't know enough to enter college. I have never studied Latin, and as for Greek I have yet to see the first book in that language. It is useless to think of such a thing."
"Not so useless as you suppose," answered Mr. Barrett. "I have said that you must go to college and I mean it. I myself will prepare you."
Horace did not require much persuasion, for all his ambition pointed that way. He set to work with a will, and so did Mr. Barrett. Within six months the young man mastered more Greek and Latin than most students learn nowadays in three years. Before he was twenty-one he passed the examinations and entered the sophomore class of Brown University.
He had no money. He had no wealthy friends to help him along. But he was resolved to make his own way. He earned what he could by doing any odd job that turned up. For a few weeks in each year he taught a country school, keeping up his studies and passing the examinations as they came. He took care of his own room. He sometimes cooked his own meals. He lived sparingly.
At first, his classmates were disposed to laugh at him. Yet he was so gentle in his manners, so brilliant of mind, so studious and earnest, that he finally won the admiration of all the students and the respect of all the professors. No finer classical scholar ever passed through Brown University. At the end of three years he graduated at the head of his class.
Long before Horace Mann left college he had made up his mind to be a lawyer, at that time all the brightest young men in the country were preparing for the profession of law. It was the profession that would give the freest scope to the exercise of genius; it was the profession that offered the surest promise of fame and fortune.
There was a very famous law school at Litchfield, Connecticut, and thither at the age of twenty-four went Horace Mann. As a matter of course, he was not long in pushing to the front. With his tireless energy and his natural brilliancy of intellect, his progress was but a series of intellectual triumphs. He soon became known as not only the best student, but the best lawyer in the school.
At the age of twenty-six he was admitted to the state bar of Massachusetts. The road to honor and distinction was open before him. As an attorney he had all the practice that he could manage. He was assured of a steady and increasing income. At thirty years of age he was chosen a member of the state legislature. He became known as, next to Daniel Webster, the best public speaker in Massachusetts. At length he was elected to Congress to succeed Ex-President John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. Surely, but few men at his age have ever had brighter prospects before them.
But, notwithstanding his success, Horace Mann was ill at ease. "I ought to be doing more for humanity," he said.
The schools of Massachusetts, indeed of the whole country, were at that time very poorly managed and very inefficient. People felt but very little interest in education. The public schools were attended by only a few pupils and these were of the poorer class. Thousands of children were growing up in ignorance and vice.
"This is not as it should be," said Horace Mann; and he began to study the subject with all his accustomed thoroughness.
"The children must be better cared for," he said. "The state must provide for the instruction of all. We must have more schools and better schools."
He brought the matter before the legislature. His arguments were so clear and convincing that a law was passed providing for the general improvement of the schools in the state. More than this, Horace Mann himself was appointed Secretary of the Board of Education, and it was made his duty to see that the provisions of the law were carried out. All his friends were astonished when he accepted the position.
"It is the work of my life," he said.
He closed his law office. He sold his law library.
"The bar is no longer my forum," he said. "I have betaken myself to the larger sphere of mind and morals."
The salary was small. The honors were few. The labor was great. Yet cheerfully did Horace Mann take hold of the work that was assigned him, and manfully did he carry it forward.
He visited Europe and studied the best systems of education there. He lost no effort to make the schools of Massachusetts the best in the world. "We must have better teachers, better buildings, better schoolbooks, longer terms of school," he said; and for the procurement of these he toiled unweariedly.
The result is now to be seen in the high character and wonderful efficiency of the public schools all over the country. The good work which Horace Mann began in Massachusetts soon had its influence in other states. That good work, once begun, has never been abandoned or neglected, but it still goes on. All that is best in the public schools of to-day may be traced to the influence and work of this man, who was willing to sacrifice ease, honor, and fame in order to promote the welfare of the children.
Nowadays there are comparatively few people who remember the name of Horace Mann, and fewer still who are acquainted with his history. But every child in the public schools of the United States should know that he owes very much of his own happiness to the energy and generous self-sacrifice of the boy who braided straw and helped his mother.
"Be ashamed to die," he once said, "until you have won some victory for humanity."