Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Henry Ward Beecher

A sturdy tree, standing alone in a vast field, suggesting strength, growth and independence, and regarded both as a landmark and a shelter; withstanding alike the heats of summer and wrestling with and throwing off the blasts of winter; drawing from Nature her myriad stores of nutrition and giving back to Nature a wealth of power and grace in return; seemed Henry Ward Beecher, in his youth of old age, to the observation of men. Original orator, advocate, poet, humorist, agitator, rhetorician, preacher, moralist and statesman. The greatest preacher of modern times, possibly of all times, the man was one of the wonders of America; one of the marvels of the world.

Henry Ward Beecher’s career has been phenomenal for the activity and variety of its achievements. Coming from a long line of mentally alert and physically vigorous ancestors, he was richly endowed with the qualities going to make up the highest type of human nature. He was handicapped only in being the son of a man whose fame was world-wide; a preacher of such intensity of spirit and eloquence of expression that he stood at the head of, if not above, all of his contemporaries. Yet, while Dr. Lyman Beecher will always hold an honored place in American history and biography, who can deny that his fame has been far outshone by that of his brilliant son? It may be truly said, therefore, that Henry Ward Beecher won a double triumph. He emerged from the comparative obscurity in which he dwelt, behind the shadow of his father’s greatness, and he lived to see his own name emblazoned more brightly and engraved more indelibly upon the records of time than that of his noble father.

He was born at Litchfield, Connecticut, June 24th, 1813. His father was a busy minister, and the mother divided her time among several children, so that no especial attention was paid to Henry Ward, nor was he considered more promising than some of the others. He was not, by any means, fond of books in early life. He gives the following sketch of himself in one of his personal writings: ‘A hazy image of myself comes back to me—a lazy, dreamy boy, with his head on the desk, half-lulled asleep by the buzzing of a great blue-bottle fly, and the lowing of the cows, and the tinkling of their bells, brought into the open door, across the fields and meadows.’ Through the advice of his father, he attended Mount Pleasant Academy. Afterwards he attended Amherst College where he graduated in 1834. During his last two years of school, Beecher followed the example of many another young man who has since attained eminence in his chosen profession, and taught in district schools. With the money thus obtained he laid the foundation upon which he built that splendid superstructure which is recalled at the sound of his name.

Dr. Lyman Beecher meanwhile had accepted a professorship at Lane Seminary, Cincinnati, and having decided to follow the ministry, the son went West this same year and began the study of theology under his father. He finished his course three years later, married, and accepted the first charge offered him; a small Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceburg, a little town on the Ohio river, near Cincinnati. Of this dismal beginning of his illustrious career he said:

“How poor we were! There were only about twenty persons in the flock. I was janitor as well as pastor of the little white-washed church. I bought some lamps and I filled them and lighted them. I swept the church and dusted the benches, and kindled the fire, and I didn’t ring the bell, because there wasn’t any; did everything in fact but come to hear myself preach, that they had to do. It doesn’t occur to me now that Lawrenceburg was remarkable for anything but a superabundance of distilleries. I used to marvel how so many large distilleries could be put in so small a town. But they were flourishing right in the face of the Gospel, that my little flock and I were preaching in the shadows of the chimneys. My thoughts often travel back to my quaint little church and the big distilleries at Lawrenceburg. Well, my next move was to Indianapolis. There I had a more considerable congregation, though I was still far from rich in the world’s goods. I believe I was very happy during my eight years out there. I liked the people. There was a hearty frankness, a simplicity in their mode of life, an unselfish intimacy in their social relations that attracted me. They were new people—unharrowed and uncultured like the land they lived on—but they were earnest and honest and strong. But the ague shook us out of the State. My wife’s health gave out and we were forced to come East.”

From this it would seem that chills and fever were the means used by Providence for bringing Henry Ward Beecher and Plymouth Church together. The church came into existence on the 8th of May, 1847, when six gentlemen met in Brooklyn at the house of one of their number, Mr. Henry C. Bowen, the present proprietor of the Independent, and formed themselves into a company of trustees of a new Congregational Church, the services of which they decided to begin holding at once in an edifice on Cranberry street, purchased from the Presbyterians. The following week Mr. Beecher happened to speak in New York, at the anniversary of the Home Missionary Society. He had already attracted some attention by his anti-slavery utterances, and the fearless manner in which he had preached against certain popular vices.

The founders of the new congregation invited him to deliver the opening sermon on the 16th. A great audience was present, and shortly afterwards the young preacher was asked to become the first pastor of the organization. He accepted, and on the 10th of the following October he entered upon the term of service which lasted until the day of his death. And what a pastorate that was! The congregation readily grew in numbers and influence until Plymouth Church and Henry Ward Beecher became household words all over the land, and a trip to Brooklyn to hear the great preacher grew to be an almost indispensable part of a stranger’s visit to New York.

At the opening of the civil war, in 1861, Mr. Beecher undertook the editorship of the Independent which, like the church under his administration, speedily became a power in the country. In addition to all this work he was continually delivering speeches; for from the firing of the first gun on Fort Sumpter on April 12th, Plymouth’s pastor was all alive to the needs of the nation. With voice and pen he pointed out the path of duty in that dark and trying hour, and his own church promptly responded to the call by organizing and equipping the First Long Island regiment. But the strain of this threefold service—preaching, speaking and editing, was too much for his strength, powerful and well-grounded, as he was, physically. His voice gave out at last, and doctors imperatively demanded rest. This brought about the trip to Europe which was destined to be remembered as the most remarkable epoch in the remarkable career of this man.

Decidedly the most memorable oratorical success ever achieved by an American citizen abroad, in behalf of the name and honor of his country, was that by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, which he achieved during this trip. Undertaking the journey for recreation and recuperation he was bitterly opposed by his friends in his decision, but he saw there was work to be done, and felt that he must do it. Beginning at Manchester, October 9th, Mr. Beecher delivered five great speeches in the great cities of the kingdom, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and London, each speech being devoted to some special train of thought and argument bearing upon the issues involved in the momentous contest; and the whole series taken together did more for the Union cause in Great Britain than all that had before been said or written. Possessing the faculty beyond any other American orator of combining close, rapid, powerful, practical reasoning with intense passion—his mind always aglow with his subject—the effect of Mr. Beecher’s speaking was to kindle sympathy, even if it did not flash conviction. It is this quality, according to the opinion of those best acquainted with Mr. Beecher’s oratory, which combined with his marvelous power of illustration, marvelous alike for its intense vividness and unerring pertinency, and his great flexibility whereby he seemed to adapt himself completely to the exigency of the instant gave him rare command over a popular assemblage.

Mayor Carrington, of Richmond, tells the following: “He went to Richmond in 1881, his first appearance there after the war, and he was somewhat doubtful as to the reception he would get. He walked onto the stage where he was to lecture, before a crowded house, and was not greeted with the slightest welcoming applause. Immediately in front of the stage facing Mr. Beecher were several leading ex-generals of the Confederate army, among them General Fitz-Hugh Lee. Mr. Beecher surveyed the cold and critical audience for a moment, and then stepping directly in front of General Lee, he said, ‘I have seen pictures of General Fitz-Hugh Lee, and judge you are the man; am I right?’ General Lee was taken aback by this direct address, and nodded stiffly, while the audience bent forward breathless with curiosity as to what was going to follow. ‘Then,’ said Beecher, his face lighting up, ‘I want to offer you this right hand which, in its own way, fought against you and yours twenty-five years ago, but which I would now willingly sacrifice to make the Sunny South prosperous and happy. Will you take it, General?’ There was a moment’s hesitation, a moment of death-like stillness in the hall, and then General Lee was on his feet, his hand was extended across the footlights, and was quickly met by the preacher’s warm grasp. At first there was a murmur, half surprise, half-doubtfulness, by the audience. Then there was a hesitating clapping of hands, and before Mr. Beecher had loosed the hand of Robert E. Lee’s nephew,—now Governor of Virginia—there were cheers such as were never before heard in that hall, though it had been the scene of many a war and political meeting. When the noise subsided, Mr. Beecher continued: ‘When I go back home I shall proudly tell that I have grasped the hand of the nephew of the great Southern Chieftain; I shall tell my people that I went to the Confederate capitol with a heart full of love for the people whom my principles once obliged me to oppose, and that I was met half way by the brave Southerners who can forgive, as well as they can fight.’ That night Beecher entered his carriage and drove to his hotel amid shouts, such as had never greeted a Northern man since the war.”

The famous Beecher-Tilton trial began in a series of whispers. With such an immense congregation, with everybody in Brooklyn familiar with his affairs, and with the whole community seemingly resolved into an immense gossiping committee, it was no wonder that rumors and report went flying about until at last, in the summer of 1874, Plymouth Church appointed a committee to investigate the charges preferred by Theodore Tilton against Mr. Beecher.

Mr. Tilton read a sworn statement detailing his charges and specifying the actions of Mrs. Tilton and Mr. Beecher during the previous two years. This was on July 28th, and on the next day Mr. Beecher made his speech declaring the innocence of Mrs. Tilton; and she, too, testified in her own defense. Mr. Beecher made an elaborate statement before his congregation, August 14th, denying all immorality. Mr. and Mrs. Tilton were subjected to a most thorough examination and cross-examination, and then Mr. Francis D. Moulton, the famous mutual friend, came into the matter with his story of a most remarkable series of confessions and letters. The committee reported its findings at the weekly prayer-meeting, August 28th. Mr. Beecher was acquitted, and Mr. Moulton was most vigorously denounced, and when he left the meeting it was under police protection, because of the fury of the friends of the pastor. Before this Mr. Tilton had concluded to go to the courts, and on August 19th opened a suit for $100,000 against Mr. Beecher. It was not until October 17th that Judge Neilson granted an order for a bill of particulars against the plaintiff, and William M. Evarts, for Mr. Beecher, and Roger A. Pryor for Mr. Tilton, carried the case up to the Court of Appeals, where the decision of the general term was reversed, and on December 7th, the new motion for a bill was granted.

It was on January 4th, 1875, that the case was taken up in the City Court of Brooklyn. For Mr. Tilton appeared General Pryor, ex-Judge Fullerton, William A. Beach and S. D. Morris; while on the other side were William M. Evarts, General Benjamin F. Tracy and Thomas G. Shearman. The first witness was Editor Maverick, who testified on the 13th of January to the Tilton marriage. Mr. Tilton took the stand on January 29th, and Mr. Evarts objected to his being sworn, and took several days to state his objections. From February 2nd to February 17th, Mr. Tilton was on the stand, and the case for the defense opened on February 25th, and the first witness took the stand March 2nd. Mr. Beecher took the stand April 1st, and affirmed his testimony. He kept the stand until April 21st, and on May 13th the testimony on both sides closed after the examination of one hundred and eleven witnesses, and the consumption of four and one-half months of time. Mr. Evarts took eight days for his summing up, and other counsel for the defense six more. Mr. Beach talked for nine days, and Judge Neilson, on June 24th, charged the jury, which, after a consultation of eight days, reported on July 2nd, that they were unable to agree. All through the trial Mrs. Beecher sat beside her husband in court. The court was packed day after day, and in the daily papers thousands of columns were consumed in reporting every word uttered. It was never tried again.

The enormous expense of the defense was met by a generous subscription. Mr. Beecher’s letters were remarkable productions for any man other than Beecher to pen, and the explanation of them so that the jury-men, and men generally, could comprehend them was the task of his counsel. Mr. Tilton is now in Europe, and Mrs. Tilton is in this country. Mr. Beecher passed through the ordeal of his life in safety, and since the trial he has been watched as no man ever has been before or since.

He was unquestionably one of the most able, if not the ablest, preacher the world ever knew, and it is not strange that the country should be startled at the announcement of his sudden death on march 7th, 1887, at his home in Brooklyn.

Henry Ward Beecher is already as historical a character as Patrick Henry; with this exception, that whereas there are multitudes living who have seen and heard Mr. Beecher, and many who knew him personally; there are few, if any, who can remember Patrick Henry. Mr. Beecher was the most versatile and ready orator this country has ever produced,—a kind of Gladstone in the pulpit. He was a master of every style; could be as deliberate and imposing as Webster; as chaste and self-contained as Phillips; as witty and irregular as Thomas Corwin; as grandiloquent as Charles Sumner; as dramatic as father Taylor, and as melo-dramatic as Gough.

To attempt to analyze the sources of his power is like exhibiting the human features separately, in the hope of giving the effect of a composite whole; for whether he moved his finger, elevated his brow, smiled, frowned, whispered or vociferated, each act or expression derived its power from the fact that it was the act and expression of Henry Ward Beecher. His oratory was marked by the entire absence of trammels, of rhetoric gesture or even grammar. Not that his style was not ordinarily grammatical and rhetorical, but that he would never allow any rules to impede the expression of his thought and especially of his feelings, nor was he restrained by theological forms, and always appeared independent and courageous. He believed in the absolute necessity of conversion and a thorough change of heart; he taught the beauty of living a religious life, for the nobleness of the deeds rather than for the purpose of escaping a future punishment, and his sayings in this connection were often misconstrued.

He stimulated the intellect by wit; he united the heart and mind by humor; he melted the heart by un-mixed pathos. He was characterized by the strange power of creating an expectation with every sentence he uttered, and though he might on some occasions, when not at his best, close without meeting the expectations aroused, no dissatisfaction was expressed or apparently felt by his hearers. In personal appearance he was remarkable, chiefly for the great transformation of his countenance under the play of emotion.

On the platform of Plymouth Church he was as a king upon his throne, or the commander of a war-ship in victorious action. His manners in private life were most ingratiating. His writings can impart to coming generations no adequate conception of his power as an orator. His career in England during those five great speeches were worth 50,000 soldiers to the National government, and probably had much to do with the prevention of the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by European nations. It was a triumph of oratory; he literally compelled a vast multitude, who were thoroughly in opposition to him, to take a new view of the subject.

A Metropolitan in the pulpit, a magician on the platform, a center of life and good cheer in the home, a prince in society possessed of exhaustive vitality, warmth and energy, he suggested to any one who gazed upon him the apostrophe of Hamlet to the ideal man: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” Such a piece of work was Henry Ward Beecher. He had no predecessor, and can have no successor till a similar ancestry and life; the one coeval with birth, and the other running parallel with the lusty youth of such a nation, and a similar life and death struggle, both in a conflict of moral principles fought out under a Democratic form of Government, shall combine to evolve a similar career. The course of human history does not furnish a probability of another coincidence of elements so extraordinary.

In this advanced age we know the power of steam, and what a great factor it is as a help in carrying on the daily work of life. Yet, it is only during the last century that men have discovered to how many purposes it can be applied.

James Watt, the great utilizer of steam, was born in Greenock, Scotland, January 19th, 1736. His father was a carpenter and general merchant in Greenock, and seems to have been highly respected, for he was long a member of the council, and for a time, magistrate. James was a sickly child, unable to attend school with regularity, hence was left to follow his own inclinations; becoming his own instructor, to a great extent. The boy was early furnished with tools by his father, and with them found amusement and instruction. He early manifested a taste for mathematics and mechanics, studied botany, chemistry, mineralogy, natural philosophy, and at fourteen constructed an electrical machine.

At the age of eighteen he was sent to Glasgow to learn to make mathematical instruments, but for some reason he went to London the same year, engaging with one Morgan, working at the same trade. Ill-health, however, compelled his return home about a year later. He had made great use of his time while in London, and after his health had improved somewhat he again visited Glasgow with the desire of establishing himself there, but met with opposition from some who considered him an intruder upon their privileges. The Principal of the college, appreciating his fine tact and ingenuity, offered him protection and gave him an apartment for carrying on his business within their precinct, with the title of “Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University.” But this location was unfavorable for his business. He was scarcely able to make a living, however, the five or six years he passed in those quarters were well employed in investigations, and during the time he unmistakably manifested rare ability.

As soon as possible he secured a better situation in town, and after this change did much better, still it is said: “He had to eke out his living by repairing fiddles, which he was able to do, though he had no ear for music,” also, in doing any mechanical piece of work that came in his way; no work requiring ingenuity or the application of scientific knowledge seems to have baffled him. But he kept studying, devoting his evenings and spare moments to the mastery of German, Italian, mastered some of the sciences, learned to sketch, was a superior model-maker; and, if his profession had been defined at the time he first turned his attention to steam, having constructed an improved organ, he would have been spoken of as a musical-instrument maker.

In 1858 he began his experiments with steam as a propelling power for land carriages, which he temporarily abandoned, and did not patent a road engine until 1784. In 1767 he assumed a new occupation, for in that year he was employed to make the surveys and prepare the estimates for a projected canal to connect the Forth and Clyde. This project fell through for the time being, as it failed to gain the sanction of Parliament, but Watt had now made a beginning as civil engineer, and henceforth he obtained a good deal of employment in this capacity. He superintended the surveys and engineering works on the Monkland Collieries Canal to Glasgow, deepening the Clyde, improving the harbors of Ayr, Port, Glasgow, and Greenock; building bridges and other public works his final survey being for the Caledonia Canal.

During this period he had invented an improved micrometer, and also continued his experiments with steam as a motive power. Perhaps it would be interesting to some of our readers to know how Watt tested the power of steam. The implements with which he performed his experiments were of the cheapest kind. Apothecaries’ vials, a glass tube or two, and a tea-kettle enabled him to arrive at some very important conclusions. By attaching a glass tube to the nose of the tea-kettle he conducted the steam into a glass of water, and by the time the water came to the boiling point, he found its volume had increased nearly a sixth part; that is, one measure of water in the form of steam can raise about six measures of water to its own heat. It would be impossible in our allotted space to tell fully of the many experiments James Watt made. It is needless to say that his success came by slow and discouraging channels, so slow, indeed, that most men would have given up long before.

His reputation was assailed by jealous rivals, his originality denied, and his rights to various patents vehemently contested. He was many times disappointed in the workings of his own machines, and was obliged to throw away pieces of machinery from which he had expected much, while with others he had perfect success. His experiments finally resulted in his invention of the condensing engine. Now, he struggled for years, through poverty and every imaginable difficulty, to make a practical application of his improvements, doing work as a surveyor in order to support himself.

In 1769 he became a partner of Mathew Boulton, a large hardware dealer and manufacturer, of Birmingham, England. Previously Mr. Boulton had built engines after the plans of Savery, hence, he undoubtedly discerned the great improvement over all engines then in use, that this new discovery was sure to prove. He was a man of wealth, and, in all probability, his personal knowledge of such matters greatly aided his faith. No other can be given, for he was obliged to advance over $229,000 before Watt had so completely perfected his engine that its operations yielded profit. But his confidence was not misplaced. The immense Birmingham manufactory, which employed over one thousand hands, was ultimately driven to its utmost capacity to supply the constantly increasing demand for steam engines. It was first applied to coinage in 1783, from thirty to forty thousand milled coins being struck off in an hour as a test. Boulton & Watt sent two complete mints to St. Petersburg, and for many years executed the entire copper coinage of England.

Watt was the first to conceive the idea of warming buildings by steam. He was the first to make a copying-press; he also contrived a flexible iron pipe with ball and socket joints, to adapt it to the irregular riverbed, for carrying water across the Clyde. At the time of his death he was fellow of the Royal Societies of London, and Edinburgh correspondent of the French Institute, and foreign associate of the Academy of Sciences. He was buried beside Boulton, in Handsworth Church; his statue, by Chantery, is in Westminister Abbey. The pedestal bears the following inscription:—

“Not to perpetuate a name Which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, But to show That mankind have learned to honor those Who best deserve their gratitude, The King, His Ministers, and many of the Nobles And Commoners of the Realm, Raised this Monument to James Watt, Who, directing the force of an original Genius, Early exercised in philosophic research, To the improvement of The Steam Engine, Enlarged the resources of his Country, Increased the power of man, and rose to an eminent place Among the most illustrious followers of Science And the real benefactors of the World. Born at Greenock, MDCCXXXVI, Died at Heathfield, in Staffordshire, MDCCCXIX.”

The properties of steam had been known to a certain extent for centuries. In the seventeenth century attention was frequently directed by ingenious workers to the uses of steam in performing simple but laborious occupations, such as pumping water out of the mines. To other purposes steam was imperfectly applied, but it remained for Watt to make more practical and efficient use of it.

This, indeed, is the history of almost every useful art. A discovery, which, after it is known, seems so simple that every one wonders why it remained hidden for so many years, yet proves simple enough to immortalize the name of the fortunate inventor. It is said there was hardly a physical science or one art with which Watt was not intimately acquainted. His philosophical judgment kept pace with his ingenuity. He studied modern languages, and was acquainted with literature. His memory was extremely tenacious, and whatever he once learned he always had at his command; and yet this brave earnest worker and gifted man was a sufferer from ill-health all his life. With constitutional debility, increased by anxiety and perplexity during the long process of his inventions, and the subsequent care of defending them in court; yet, through constant temperance and watchfulness over his peculiar difficulties, his life was preserved to the great age of eighty-three years. He had in his character the utmost abhorrece for all parade and presumption, and, indeed, never failed to put all such imposters out of countenance by the manly plainness and honest intrepidity of his language and manner. In his temper and disposition he was not only kind and affectionate, but generous and considerate of the feelings of all around him, and gave the most liberal assistance and encouragement to all young persons who proved any indication of talent, or applied to him for patronage or advice. He was twice married, and left his two sons, long associated with him in his business, to carry out some of his plans and discoveries of the great utility and power of steam. All men of learning and science were his cordial friends, and such was the influence of his mild character and perfect firmness and liberality, even to pretenders of his own accomplishments, that he lived to disarm even envy itself, and died the peaceful death of a Christian without, it is thought, a single enemy.