Story type: Literature
“Jim, you’ve too good a head on you to be a wood chopper or a canal driver,” said the captain of the canal boat for whom young Garfield had engaged to drive horses along the towpath.
“Jim” had always loved books from the time when, seated on his father’s knee, he had with his baby lips pronounced after him the name “Plutarch.” Mr. Garfield had been reading “Plutarch’s Lives,” and was much astonished when, without hesitation or stammering, his little son distinctly pronounced the name of the Greek biographer. Turning to his wife, with a glow of love and pride, the fond father said, “Eliza, this boy will be a scholar some day.”
Perhaps the near approach of death had clarified the father’s vision, but when, soon after, the sorrowing wife was left a widow, with an indebted farm and four little children to care for, she saw little chance for the fulfillment of the prophecy.
Even in his babyhood the boy whose future greatness the father dimly felt had learned the lesson of self-reliance. The familiar words which so often fell from his lips–“I can do that”–enabled him to conquer difficulties before which stouter hearts than that of a little child might well have quailed.
The teaching of his good mother, that “God will bless all our efforts to do the best we can,” became a part of the fiber of his being. “What will He do,” asked the boy one day, “when we don’t do the best we can?” “He will withhold His blessing; and that is the greatest calamity that could possibly happen to us,” was the reply, which made a deep impression on the mind of the questioner.
In spite of almost constant toil, and very meager schooling,–only a few weeks each year,–James Garfield excelled all his companions in the log schoolhouse. Besides solving at home in the long winter evenings, by the light of the pine fire, all the knotty problems in Adams’ Arithmetic–the terror of many a schoolboy–he found time to revel in the pages of “Robinson Crusoe” and “Josephus.” The latter was his special favorite.
Before he was fifteen, Garfield had successfully followed the occupations of farmer, wood chopper, and carpenter. No matter what his occupation was he always managed to find some time for reading.
He had recently read some of Marryat’s novels, “Sindbad the Sailor,” “The Pirate’s Own Book,” and others of a similar nature, which had smitten him with a virulent attack of sea fever. This is a mental disease which many robust, adventurous boys are apt to contract in their teens. Garfield felt that he must “sail the ocean blue.” The glamour of the sea was upon him. Everything must give way before it. His mother, however, could not be induced to assent to his plans, and, after long pleading, would only compromise by agreeing that he might, if he could, secure a berth on one of the vessels navigating Lake Erie.
He was rudely repulsed by the owner of the first vessel to whom he applied, a brutal, drunken creature, who answered his request for employment with an oath and a rough “Get off this schooner in double quick, or I’ll throw you into the dock.” Garfield turned away in disgust, his ardor for the sea somewhat dampened by the man’s appearance and behavior. In this mood he met his cousin, formerly a schoolmaster, then captain of a canal boat, with whom he at once engaged to drive his horses.
After a few months on the towpath, young Garfield contracted another kind of fever quite unlike that from which he had been suffering previously, and went home to be nursed out of it by his ever faithful mother.
During his convalescence he thought a great deal over his cousin’s words,–“Jim, you’ve got too good a head on you to be a wood chopper or a canal driver.” “He who wills to do anything will do it,” he had learned from his mother’s lips when a mere baby, and then and there he said in his heart, “I will be a scholar; I will go to college.” And so, out of his sea fever and towpath experience was born the resolution that made the turning point in his career.
Action followed hot upon resolve. He lost no time in applying himself to the work of securing an education. Alternately chopping wood and carpentering, farming and teaching school, ringing bells and sweeping floors, he worked his way through seminary and college. His strong will and resolute purpose to make the most of himself not only enabled him to obtain an education, but raised him from the towpath to the presidential chair.