Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
 
XIX. George L. Stearns
 
  “WHO, when great trials come,
Nor seeks nor shunnes them; but doth calmly stay
Till he the thing and the example weigh:
  All being brought into a summe
What place or person calls for he doth pay.”
GEORGE HERBERT.    

WE 1 do not know how to prize good men until they depart. High virtue has such an air of nature and necessity that to thank its possessor would be to praise the water for flowing or the fire for warming us. But, on the instant of their death, we wonder at our past insensibility, when we see how impossible it is to replace them. There will be other good men, but not these again. And the painful surprise which the last week brought us, in the tidings of the death of Mr. Stearns, opened all eyes to the just consideration of the singular merits of the citizen, the neighbor, the friend, the father and the husband, whom this assembly mourns. We recall the all but exclusive devotion of this excellent man during the last twelve years to public and patriotic interests. Known until that time in no very wide circle as a man of skill and perseverance in his business; of pure life; of retiring and affectionate habits; happy in his domestic relations,—his extreme interest in the national politics, then growing more anxious year by year, engaged him to scan the fortunes of freedom with keener attention. He was an early laborer in the resistance to slavery. This brought him into sympathy with the people of Kansas. As early as 1855 the Emigrant Aid Society was formed; and in 1856 he organized the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, by means of which a large amount of money was obtained for the “free-state men,” at times of the greatest need. He was the more engaged to this cause by making in 1857 the acquaintance of Captain John Brown, who was not only an extraordinary man, but one who had a rare magnetism for men of character, and attached some of the best and noblest to him, on very short acquaintance, by lasting ties. Mr. Stearns made himself at once necessary to Captain Brown as one who respected his inspirations, and had the magnanimity to trust him entirely, and to arm his hands with all needed help.
  1
  For the relief of Kansas, in 1856–57, his own contributions were the largest and the first. He never asked any one to give so much as he himself gave, and his interest was so manifestly pure and sincere that he easily obtained eager offerings in quarters where other petitioners failed. He did not hesitate to become the banker of his clients, and to furnish them money and arms in advance of the subscriptions which he obtained. His first donations were only entering-wedges of his later; and, unlike other benefactors, he did not give money to excuse his entire preoccupation in his own pursuits, but as an earnest of the dedication of his heart and hand to the interests of the sufferers,—a pledge kept until the success he wrought and prayed for was consummated. In 1862, on the President’s first or preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation, he took the first steps for organizing the Freedman’s Bureau,—a department which has since grown to great proportions. In 1863 he began to recruit colored soldiers in Buffalo, then at Philadelphia and Nashville. But these were only parts of his work. He passed his time in incessant consultation with all men whom he could reach, to suggest and urge the measures needed for the hour. And there are few men with real or supposed influence, North or South, with whom he has not at some time communicated. Every important patriotic measure in this region has had his sympathy, and of many he has been the prime mover. He gave to each his strong support, but uniformly shunned to appear in public. For himself or his friends he asked no reward; for himself, he asked only to do the hard work. His transparent singleness of purpose, his freedom from all by-ends, his plain good sense, courage, adherence, and his romantic generosity disarmed, first or last, all gainsayers. His examination before the United States Senate Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion, in January, 1860, as reported in the public documents, is a chapter well worth reading, as a shining example of the manner in which a truth-speaker baffles all statecraft, and extorts at last a reluctant homage from the bitterest adversaries. 2  2
  I have heard, what must be true, that he had great executive skill, a clear method and a just attention to all the details of the task in hand. Plainly he was no boaster or pretender, but a man for up-hill work, a soldier to bide the brunt; a man whom disasters, which dishearten other men, only stimulated to new courage and endeavor.  3
  I have heard something of his quick temper, that he was indignant at this or that man’s behavior, but never that his anger outlasted for a moment the mischief done or threatened to the good cause, or ever stood in the way of his hearty coöperation with the offenders when they returned to the path of public duty. I look upon him as a type of the American republican. A man of the people, in strictly private life, girt with family ties; an active and intelligent manufacturer and merchant, enlightened enough to see a citizen’s interest in the public affairs, and virtuous enough to obey to the uttermost the truth he saw,—he became, in the most natural manner, an indispensable power in the state. Without such vital support as he, and such as he, brought to the government, where would that government be? When one remembers his incessant service; his journeys and residences in many states; the societies he worked with; the councils in which he sat; the wide correspondence, presently enlarged by printed circulars, then by newspapers established wholly or partly at his own cost; the useful suggestions; the celerity with which his purpose took form; and his immovable convictions,—I think this single will was worth to the cause ten thousand ordinary partisans, well-disposed enough, but of feebler and interrupted action.  4
  These interests, which he passionately adopted, inevitably led him into personal communication with patriotic persons holding the same views,—with two Presidents, with members of Congress, with officers of the government and of the army, and with leading people everywhere. He had been always a man of simple tastes, and through all his years devoted to the growing details of his prospering manufactory. But this sudden association now with the leaders of parties and persons of pronounced power and influence in the nation, and the broad hospitality which brought them about his board at his own house or in New York, or in Washington, never altered one feature of his face, one trait of his manners. There he sat in the council, a simple, resolute Republican, an enthusiast only in his love of freedom and the good of men; with no pride of opinion, and with the distinction, that, if he could not bring his associates to adopt his measure, he accepted with entire sweetness the next best measure which could secure their assent. But these public benefits were purchased at a severe cost. For a year or two, the most affectionate and domestic of men became almost a stranger in his beautiful home. And it was too plain that the excessive toil and anxieties, into which his ardent spirit led him, overtasked his strength and wore out prematurely his constitution. It is sad that such a life should end prematurely; but when I consider that he lived long enough to see with his own eyes the salvation of his country, to which he had given all his heart; that he did not know an idle day; was never called to suffer under the decays and loss of his powers, or to see that others were waiting for his place and privilege, but lived while he lived, and beheld his work prosper for the joy and benefit of all mankind,—I count him happy among men.  5
  Almost I am ready to say to these mourners, Be not too proud in your grief, when you remember that there is not a town in the remote State of Kansas that will not weep with you as at the loss of its founder; not a Southern State in which the freedmen will not learn to-day from their preachers that one of their most efficient benefactors has departed, and will cover his memory with benedictions; and that, after all his efforts to serve men without appearing to do so, there is hardly a man in this country worth knowing who does not hold his name in exceptional honor. And there is to my mind somewhat so absolute in the action of a good man that we do not, in thinking of him, so much as make any question of the future. For the Spirit of the Universe seems to say: “He has done well; is not that saying all?”  6
 
Note 1. Mr. Stearns was born in Medford and made his home there throughout his life. He early went into business in Boston and was associated in the business of ship-chandlery with Albert Fearing. Later he was engaged in the manufacture of sheet and pipe lead. His great energy, clear head and integrity made him respected and highly successful in whatever business he undertook. He was an excellent citizen. A “Conscience Whig” in 1846, he of course became a “Freesoiler” in 1848, and thereafter in the midst of his busy life gave time and thought and money lavishly to the anti-slavery cause, and especially to aid Kansas in her struggle. At that time he became acquainted with John Brown. Not only did Mr. Stearns, in his capacity as on officer of the Kansas Aid Society, furnish him with rifles, ammunition and supplies, but he personally contributed Colt’s revolvers to the value of thirteen hundred dollars. He did not know of Brown’s design to make the Harper’s Ferry raid, but as an officer of the Kansas Aid Society, fearing that Brown might make some aggressive move into a slave state, wrote to remind him that he held his rifles in trust, only to be used in Kansas. While John Brown was undergoing his trial, Mrs. Stearns sent Brackett, the sculptor, to take the measurements and make the necessary sketches for a bust of the old warrior in the prison at Charlestown, Virginia. The bust still adorns the Stearns house in Medford.
  During the War of the Rebellion Mr. Stearns was a tireless and effective worker on the side of freedom, but, like his friend John M. Forbes, kept his name out of the papers. Yet he was the founder of the Commonwealth and The Right Way newspapers, and active in the Loyal Publication Society. He had urged the arming of negroes at a time when it was exceedingly difficult to recruit more white troops. When it was decided to raise colored regiments, Governor Andrew made Mr. Stearns chairman of a committee to do so. He assumed the most difficult and delicate part of the work, the recruiting negroes from Canada, and in the Southwest. In this he was wonderfully successful, and public opinion, at first hostile, rapidly changed. This committee raised the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments of infantry, and the 5th Massachusetts cavalry. Secretary Stanton commissioned Mr. Stearns a major, and he recruited for the regiments of United States colored troops.
  Major Stearns died in middle life in April, 1867. In a notice of his life in the Commonwealth it was truly said of him: “Major Stearns saw the working out and full consummation of the great principles to which his life was devoted; freedom everywhere, the slave free, and a citizen, and a soldier, and a voter—all this he saw before he passed on.” [back]
Note 2. In the Senate Document of the 36th Congress, No. 278, is the report of this committee. At the end of his long examination, fearlessly met, a senator asked Mr. Stearns, “Do you disapprove of such an action as that at Harper’s Ferry?” He answered: “I should have disapproved it if I had known of it in advance. Since then I have changed my opinion. I believe John Brown to be the Representative Man of this century, as Washington of the last. The Harper’s Ferry affair, and the capacity shown by the Italians for self-government, are the great events of the age; one will free Europe and the other America.” [back]
 
 
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