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George S. Boutwell


GEORGE S. BOUTWELL was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, January 28th, 1818.  In April, 1820, his parents removed to Lunenburg, where they lived on a farm until 1863, when both died, his mother in March, and his father in July. His mother was of the Marshall family. Mr. Boutwell's father was a man of good abilities, and was twice a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1833. Mr. Boutwell learned to read at a very early age, standing at his mother's knee, while she read the large family Bible. The result was that he learned to read as the type setters read, "by the word method."

As he grew up he could not remember the time when he could not read. He went to the public school six or seven very brief summer terms, and to perhaps as many private schools, of a few weeks each, and usually kept by the same teacher. He attended winter schools until, and including, his sixteenth birthday. The next winter he taught a school in Shirley, Massachusetts.

At that time he had thoroughly mastered Arithmetic, and learned something of Latin, Algebra, Geometry, Astronomy, Natural Philosophy and History. He studied these branches, in school and out, under most unfavorable circumstances.   When nearly thirteen years old he went into a country store at Lunenburg and remained there four years. In March, 1835, he went to Groton, entering upon the mercantile business and continuing there as clerk or partner for several years. The early facility in reading, gained at his mother's knee, created a taste for study, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

In the second story of the store where he served as clerk, there was kept an old, but choice and well selected library. This was a mine of wealth to young Boutwell. In the absence of customers, and so far as fidelity to his employer permitted, he read during the day. But at nine o'clock, when the store closed, he repaired promptly to the library and there read till overcome by drowsiness, when he roused himself by some physical exercise, and continued his reading. When sleep again asserted its claims, he plunged his head in a pail of water, at hand for that purpose, and under that renewed stimulus read on till an unduly late hour of the night. The fact that at this early age, with such meagre school advantages, and while so closely occupied with farm work and clerk service, he had made so large attainments in the studies named, and that he was able to teach school at sixteen, shows his enthusiasm in the work of self-culture, his unusual quickness in learning, and invincible energy in pursuing his studies, in the face of manifold difficulties.

When only eighteen years of age he commenced, systematically, the study of law, and entered his name in an attorney's office, studying at odd times, chiefly nights. At the same time he renewed the study of Latin, under Dr. A. B. Bancroft, and read Virgil, and other Latin authors. While an active member of the Legislature, in the winter of 1812-43, he resumed the study of French under Count Laporte, which he had preciously pursued without a teacher, devoting for several months one half hour a day to this study. For six years his thirst for knowledge almost consumed him. He devoted every moment he could command to study, working till midnight, and often till one, two, or even three o'clock in the morning. This zeal was self-prompted, and without the stimulus of a teacher or any rival companions. This excessive labor injured his health, and in 1841-42, he was obliged to diminish his hours of study. At nineteen he delivered his first public lecture before the Groton Lyceum. In 1840, he entered the political contest in favor of Mr. Van Buren. At the age of twenty-one, he was elected a member of the school committee in Groton, a large town of more than usual wealth and culture. The esteem in which he was held by his fellow-townsmen is also shown by the fact that in the same year he ,was the candidate of the Democratic party for the Legislature and though defeated the first two years, continued to be their candidate for ten years. He was a member of the legislature in 1842, '43, '44, '47, '48,'49, and '50. He soon became a prominent and influential member, and surpassed all by his thorough mastery of the subjects which he discussed and by his readiness and ability in debate. He successfully advocated the questions of retrenchment of expenses, enlargement of the school fund, and Harvard college reform.

The legislation on these subjects, and especially in reference to Harvard college, was mainly clue to his efforts. Between 1842 and 1850, he was Railway Commissioner, Bank Commissioner, Commissioner on Boston Harbor, and a member of special State Committees upon the subject of Insanity, and upon the Public Lands in Maine. In all those years he gave numerous Lyceum lectures, and political addresses. In 1844, '46, and '48, he was the candidate of the Democratic party for Congress.

He was nominated for the office of governor, in 1819-50, and was elected to that office in 1851, and 1852. In the State Legislature and Constitutional Convention of 1853, he was early recognized as a leader. He was familiar with parliamentary rules, was always in order, never prolix, speaking merely to be heard or without something to say, but always aimed directly at the point, and of course at all times had the ear of the Convention. He united firmness with conciliation and exhibited fairness, tolerance, and courtesy to opponents.

In the Constitutional Convention, Rufus Choate was his leading opponent. Early in the session, Mr. Choate, by a most eloquent speech, had won the admiration of the Convention. The subject was "Town Representation." Mr. Boutwell rose to reply. His apparent temerity in meeting the most brilliant member on the Whig side, quite surprised those who did not know him. But the apprehension of a damaging comparison, or a failure, at once passed away. He enchained the attention of the Convention, and maintained his cause with signal ability. He prepared and reported the Constitution which was submitted to the people and adopted. The same year he became a member of the "State Board of Education." It was a deserved tribute to his clear judgment and substantial education, that Massachusetts, ever proud of her public schools, should call one without collegiate culture to succeed the classical Barnas Sears, and the eloquent and enthusiastic Horace Mann. He was connected with this board ten years, and, as its secretary for five years, acquitted himself with marked ability. His five annual reports, his commentary on the school laws of Massachusetts, and his volume on " Educational Topics and Institutions," rank high in the educational literature of the country. From 1851 to 1860, he was a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard college. In 1856, be was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 1861, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa of Cambridge, and delivered the commencement oration. Political subjects, according to usage and obvious propriety, are avoided on such occasions, but in this crisis of the nation, officers of college and of the society called upon the ex-governor to discuss freely the state of the country. His oration, after showing that slavery was the cause of the war, demonstrated the justice and necessity of emancipation. It was in advance of the times, and was severely censured, not only by Democrats but by many Republican leaders and papers. It was published entire in various journals, and circulated widely through the country, and hastened the great revolution of public sentiment on this subject more than any address by any American statesman during the first year of the war.

Immersed in public affairs since his majority, no other man of his age in Massachusetts has been so long and constantly in the public service. No other man living, in that State, has held so many, varied and responsible offices, in each of which his course has been marked by integrity, fidelity, and ability.

To the young his life is a fit example of the cardinal virtues of industry, uprightness, and frugality, of strict temperance, and unwearied perseverance.

Mr. Boutwell is not a politician, but a statesman. In all his history, his faith has been in truth, in right, in justice and principle, and not. in art and scheming, in management and chicanery. Fidelity to principle has marked his whole career. He has ever been an earnest and consistent advocate of the rights of man. He left the Democratic party upon the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, his last vote with that party being in 1853. He was a leader in the organization of the Republican party in Massachusetts, and was a delegate to the Baltimore Convention, in 1864; was a member of the Peace Congress in 1861; organized the new Department of Internal Revenue, and served as Commissioner until 1362, when he resigned to take his seat in the Thirty-eighth Congress. He served on the Judiciary Committee, in the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congress, and was one of the managers in the Impeachment case.

He was re-elected to the Forty-first Congress, and took his seat at the First Session, commencing March 4th, 1869, but on the 11th of March he was nominated by President Grant for Secretary of the Treasury, and has held that important and responsible office till the present time (1872.) In the management of the national finances, he has had many difficulties to contend with, both from the interference of others, and the novelty of his position, many of the emergencies he has been called to meet being entirely without precedent. 

His nature and habit incline him to, perhaps, an excess of caution ; and the petty details of his early experience in a country store are not, it may be, the best preparation for the comprehensive sweep and the vast movements of a national treasury, which disburses its four or five hundred millions or more annually. Yet his financial management has been, taken as a whole, a success. He has extinguished three hundred and thirty millions of the public debt; has made a very good beginning in funding the remainder at five per cent. or less; has kept down the price of gold, and when he deemed interference called for, has always interfered for the people and against the speculators.

Mr. Boutwell is a man of judicial mind, instinctive sagacity, strong memory, iron will, indomitable perseverance, great power of mental concentration, and entire self-command. His energies never seem to flag. His fine voice, distinct articulation and deliberate but earnest delivery, make him an impressive speaker. His style is clear and vigorous. He is too earnest to deal in sallies of wit, the play of imagination, or ornaments of rhetoric, but he is always sincere and impressive. His mind, while full of information, patient in details, and accurate in the minutest point, grasps easily great questions, and tends to broad and rapid generalizations. He has trained himself to "think on his legs.", He enjoys debate, excels in forensic contests, and seems always strongest in the closest grapple of mental combat.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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