I avow my adherence to the Union, with my friends, with my party, with my State; or without either, as they may determine; in every event of peace or war, with every consequence of honor or dishonor, of life or death.
—Speech in the United States Senate, 1860
When I was a freshman at the Little Red Schoolhouse, the last exercise in the afternoon was spelling. The larger pupils stood in a line that ran down one aisle and curled clear around the stove. Well do I remember one Winter when the biggest boy in the school stood at the tail-end of the class most of the time, while at the head of the line, or always very near it, was a freckled, check-aproned girl, who once at a spellin’-bee had defeated even the teacher. This girl was ten years older than myself, and I was then too small to spell with this first grade, but I watched the daily fight of wrestling with such big words as “un-in-ten-tion-al-ly” and “mis-un-der-stand-ing,” and longed for a day when I, too, should take part and possibly stand next to this fine, smart girl, who often smiled at me approvingly. And I planned how I would hold her hand as we would stand there in line and mentally dare the master to come on with his dictionary. We two would be the smartest scholars of the school and always help each other in our “sums.”
Yet when time had pushed me into the line, she of the check apron was not there, and even if she had been I should not have dared to hold her hand.
But I must not digress–the particular thing I wish to explain is that one day at recess the best scholar was in tears, and I went to her and asked what was the matter, and she told me that some of the big girls had openly declared that she–my fine, freckled girl, the check-aproned, the invincible–held her place at the head of the school only through favoritism.
I burned with rage and resentment and proposed fight; then I burst out crying and together we mingled our tears.
All this was long ago. Since then I have been in many climes, and met many men, and read history a bit–I hope not without profit. And this I have learned: that the person who stands at the head of his class (be he country lad or presidential candidate) is always the target for calumny and the unkindness of contemporaries who can neither appreciate nor understand.
Not long ago I spent several days at Auburn, New York, so named by some pioneer who, when the Nineteenth Century was very young, journeyed thitherward with a copy of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” in his pack.
Auburn is a flourishing city of thirty thousand inhabitants. It has beautiful wide streets, lined with elms that in places form an archway. There are churches to spare and schools galore and handsome residences. Then there are electric cars and electric lights and dynamos, with which men electricute other men in the wink of an eye. I saw the “fin-de-siecle” guillotine and sat in the chair, and the jubilant patentee told me that it was the quickest scheme for extinguishing life ever invented–patented Anno Christi Eighteen Hundred Ninety-five. Verily we live in the age of the Push-Button! And as I sat there I heard a laugh that was a quaver, and the sound of a stout cane emphasizing a jest struck against the stone floor.
“We didn’t have such things when I was a boy!” came the tremulous voice.
And then the newcomer explained to me that he was eighty-seven years old last May, and that he well remembered a time when a plain oaken gallows and a strong rope were good enough for Auburn–“provided Bill Seward didn’t get the fellow free,” added my new-found friend.