LEARNS TO SET TYPE
1856-1857 AGE, 17-18
In this little back-attic bed room all the boys at times gathered and talked about books or public affairs or boyish amusements, and it was Henry George's habit, while engaging in conversation, to throw himself down on his bed, and frequently while the discourse was raging he would sink into placid slumbers. It was common enough for the family to see the boys come down stairs alone and hear the explanation: "Oh, Hen's asleep and we think it is time to go."
Thus the home life had much attractiveness for young George, yet he found it full of restrictions, for with all the heavy toil and hard discipline of sea life, there was during the preceding year and a quarter complete freedom of thought, and of actions, too, in the hours off duty. And now to come back to conditions where the most innocent of card-playing was regarded as an evil and riding in a public conveyance on Sunday as a desecration of the Lord's Day, made the energetic, masterful boy, or rather youth, for he was now in his eighteenth year, see new charms in the sea life; and for a time, all efforts failing in the search for employment ashore, his thoughts reverted to the water. Learning of this inclination, Captain Miller, before sailing on a new voyage in the Hindoo, wrote to him:
The boy's parents were most anxious not to have him again go to sea, and at last in the fall the father through his former book publishing connections obtained a situation for his son with the printing firm of King & Baird, at that time one of the important printing houses in Philadelphia. The father's idea in putting his son there was threefold: to keep the boy at home, to give him a trade and to teach him to spell. This latter short-coming in the boy was very conspicuous, requiring a second draft or fair copy of letters to insure the correct spelling of many even common words, as drafts of such letters that have survived show.
Learning to set type effected a marked improvement, and the printer's experience later in California perfected it. In after years his letter-writing, at times revealed lapses in spelling, but these, as was manifest on the surface, arose from habits of abstraction.
This learning to set type marked another distinct step in the education of Henry George for his life work. Not that it lay so much in type-setting itself, or in correcting his spelling; but rather in bringing him into familiar contact with another field of human activity – among type setters, who, as a class of men, if they belong to a trade, possess, as a rule, much correct general information and are given to habits of intelligent thought. Edmund Wallazz, who was a type-setter at King and Baird's in 1856, said in after years: "Henry George was a remarkably bright boy, always in discussion with the other boys in the office. He got in the habit of appealing to me (I am seven or eight years older) for support as to his dates and facts, historical and political." Thus through the channel of polemics he was acquiring knowledge of various kinds, and was also learning to observe and to present his thoughts. He had a habit of stowing away things in his memory that would have passed another – things that in his matured years often found expression in his writings. To this period he assigned the first puzzling question in political economy. An old printer observed to him one day that while in old countries wages are low, in new countries they are always high. The boy compared the United States with Europe, and then California and Australia with Pennsylvania and New York, and the old printer's words seemed true enough, though neither the printer nor he could explain why. The thing stuck in his mind and kept rising for answer.
This propensity for investigating and arguing showed itself wherever he happened to be, when with old or with young, abroad or at home. As his Uncle Joseph Van Dusen said: "Henry is not tongue-tied."
For years stories of slave auctions in the South, friction over the return of runaway slaves in the North, the hot agitation of Garrison and Phillips in the East, and conflicts in "Bleeding Kansas" and through the West kept public thought seething. In 1850 appeared Mrs. Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and later arose the Republican party with its anti-slavery proclivities and that in 1856 forced the issue and ran John C. Fremont for President. Though James Buchanan, the Democratic pro-slavery candidate, was elected, the new party had waged a fierce fight, and four years later was to elect Abraham Lincoln.
Young George soon after returning from sea showed a lively interest in the slavery question, and, although his father was a Democrat and inclined to support Buchanan, the boy independently took the anti-slavery side, which he discussed with his mother. In the interest of peace and of "property rights," and doubtless supported in mind by what she regarded as the sanction of the Scriptures, she upheld slavery, not perhaps as a good thing in itself, but because of the great cost of disestablishment. The mother in repeating this conversation in after years to her son's wife said that in arguing she held that the hardships of slavery "were exaggerated," for, "while some of the slave owners might be brutal, the majority were not likely to be so," most of them doubtless being the same kind of "humanely-disposed people" as she herself. The boy stoutly held to his position and answered that her argument rested "on policy, not principle"; that she spoke of what slave owners "seemed likely to do," he of what they "could do"; "for if slaves were property, their masters, having the right to do what they pleased with their own property, could ill-treat and even kill them if so disposed."
The argument seemed sound enough to the parents, but the boy was still a boy to them. One night soon after returning from sea he came home late and his father reproved him. The boy hotly said that he was a child no longer and then went off to bed. Reflection cooled the father's anger. He realized that his son was, in mind at least, maturing to manhood, and that the reproof was not quite just or wise. He concluded that in the morning he would talk to his son about it. But when morning came the son was first to speak, saying that he had thought upon what had happened, and that while he regarded his conduct in remaining out as in itself innocent enough, he now recognised what he had not before observed – his father's right to object – and that being conscious of having been impudent, he asked his father's pardon. The father strained his son to his bosom and thereafter gave him more domestic freedom.
High strung and impetuous, Henry George was at this period prone to sudden resolves. From September, 1856, to June, 1857, he worked steadily at type-setting at King & Baird's, when one afternoon, having a quarrel with Mr. Scott, foreman of the job-room, he left the house's employ. When he told of what had happened, his father found for him an opening with Stavely & McCalla, printers, who offered $2.25 a week for the first year, and afterwards as much as he could earn, providing he remained until twenty-one. The pay was so small that he hesitated. Just then a boy friend, John Hasson, sent word of a strike in the "Argus" newspaper office. George applied for and obtained employment. To Emma Curry, a girl friend, he wrote (June 29, 1857) explaining some of these matters:
"During the six days I worked there I made $9.50, the largest sum of money I have ever made in the same time. I had also the satisfaction of seeing that I was but very little inferior to any of the journeymen, my bill for the week being as large as any of theirs, with the exception of a couple who had worked in the evenings also. I believe that I can set on an average of 5,000 ems of solid matter a day, including distributing and correcting, which according to the prices you tell me the printers get in Oregon, would be worth nearly $4."
Emma Curry, her sisters, Martha and Florence, and their widowed mother, Rebecca D. Curry, had been neighbours of the George family. They had early in the year gone to Oregon Territory to join the widow's nephew, George Curry, who had been appointed Governor. Mrs. Curry was a bright, discerning woman. Her brother, William D. Kelley, from 1846 to 1856 was Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia and afterwards represented one of the Philadelphia districts in Congress for almost thirty years and was commonly known as "Pig Iron" Kelley. Henry George had had many a long, earnest talk with Mrs. Curry, who took a deep interest in him. In a letter to her (April 3, 1857) he said:
"I commenced last evening to take lessons in penmanship, and if all the old fellow (I mean teacher) says is true, by the time I write my next letter to you my chirography will be so much improved that you will hardly recognise the hand. I have taken your advice and am trying to improve myself all I can. I shall shortly commence to study book-keeping. After I get through that I shall be Jack of three different trades, and, I am afraid, master of none.
"I am still of the same determination in regard to going West.... I only wait for your promised account of Oregon, and advice, to determine where and when I shall go."
Before receipt of his letter, Mrs. Curry had already written (April 19):
Emma Curry wrote in a similar strain, and to her the boy replied (June 29):
But the "lucky windfall" in Philadelphia showed no signs of coming. The boy vainly looked for permanent employment. He obtained a position on a weekly paper called "The Merchant," but this proved only temporary, and he became restless and thought the more earnestly of Oregon, and also of California, where he had a cousin, son of his Uncle Dunkin George. But these places seeming remote, again he thought of the sea, if only as a means of livelihood for the time being. He probably was the more restless because of the reaction from the old home rigorous beliefs and restraints. A blank book with some diary entries covering a few days during this period contains this:
It was at this time that the boys – Jeffreys, Jones, Horner, Walton, Harrison, George and the others – formed "The Lawrence Literary Society" and met in a small building which once had been a church. Two original essays by "Hen" George are still preserved, one on "The Poetry of Life" and the other on "Mormonism," a very hostile view. There also exists a contribution from the pen of Charley Walton treating of the wide-spread industrial depression then prevailing and ascribing its rise to "extravagance and speculation which have since the revolution characterised the American people." But starting with this self-improving literary idea, the "Lawrence" came in the course of things to have other characteristics which Walton later described in a letter to "Hen" (July 29, 1863):
But however innocent all this may have been, the fact of knowing anything whatever about liquor or of card playing was significant of the break-down of the old home influences; and it partly explains, with the loss of employment and the ambition to be independent, the return of a desire for the sea. At any rate, Henry George embarked on a topsail schooner laden with coal and bound from Philadelphia for Boston. Often afterwards, even towards the end of his life, he spoke with pride of the compliments he received on that voyage. For when he applied as ordinary seaman, the captain measured him with something like contempt and asked what he could do.
"I can handle, reef and steer," was the answer.
"You can't steer this schooner," returned its commander, "but nevertheless I'll try you."
Notwithstanding George's short stature and light weight, the captain found him so useful that at the end of the voyage he paid him off at the full rate of an able seaman, saying that he had been of as much use as any man aboard.
The outlook ashore seemed even worse when he got back from this short schooner trip, as may be seen from a letter to one of his young friends (B.F. Ely, September 30):
Subsequently (October 5) he wrote a letter to Congressman Thomas B. Florence of his district asking his support.
Much to his delight, he not only was accepted for the Shubrick, but received the appointment of ship's steward, or storekeeper, at forty dollars a month; though like every one else on board, he was compelled to sign the ship's articles for one year's service, and not for the voyage to California alone, which was all that he wished to do. On December 22, 1857, he said farewell to his loved ones, and the little vessel under Commander John DeCamp of the U.S. Navy steamed down the Delaware River and started on her long journey around the southern extremity of South America.