Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/03


Legal Experiments.—1855-6

THOSE happy days could not last forever. On the contrary, I felt it to be my duty all the time to keep looking about for a suitable position. I consulted with my uncle and my other relatives regularly in regard to my hopes and wishes in that respect, and they were likewise on the lookout. As I could hardly expect anything but ordinary manual employment, I was anxious to find it out side and away from Belleville, as the social position of my relatives would have made it embarrassing to all. Week after week elapsed, however, without my obtaining any thing to do. One Saturday, in the latter part of March, 1855, my cousin Scheel informed me that an American acquaintance of his, a Mr. Case, who held in Clinton County, Illinois, the same official position that Theodor Engelmann had — that is, Circuit Court Clerk and Recorder of Deeds — had requested him to find him a clerk to copy deeds in the records. He thought that I might serve the purpose. I had doubts as to my qualifications, inasmuch as, firstly, I had made but little progress in English, owing to my wholly German surroundings, and, secondly, because my handwriting was very bad. But he felt sure that I knew enough to enable me to copy instruments in writing. So we agreed that he should write and inquire about terms. Mr. Case replied that the copying would be paid for at the rate of twenty-five cents a page. I at once made a trial in Theodor Engelmann's office as to the time it would take me to write a page of one of the ponderous record-books, and found that I could write one in less than an hour. After further deliberation, it was decided that I should accept the offer. Accordingly, on the morning of March 23, I left Belleville for Carlyle, the county-seat of Clinton County, on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, about fifty miles eastward, with a letter of introduction from Cousin Scheel to “Zophar Case, Esq.,” in my pocket. I need not say that it was with a very heavy heart I left the haven of rest in which I had found a spiritual restoration, and said good-bye to the dear family to which I had become attached almost as to my own.

The train left me in what was more of a village than a town. In fact, there were not more than three dozen buildings in it, and they were scattered over a good deal of space. I was taken to the only hotel in the place, a shabby and even dilapidated-looking frame building, whose interior appointments, including furniture and everything else, were in keeping with the exterior. After dinner, I went to the court-house, a good-sized building in the Grecian-temple style at one time in vogue in the United States, to find my employer. His office was locked, and it was only on my third attempt to enter, after three o'clock, that I found him in. He was seated in an arm-chair, with his feet on the edge of a large coal-stove in the middle of the room. He wore a dirty slouch hat, which did not change its place although I removed mine on entering; likewise, a long, light-blue woollen coat, such as Western farmers are in the habit of wearing, a very dirty shirt without a tie, and vest and trousers of coarse cloth full of grease-spots. The trousers were tucked into the red tops of boots that seemed never to have been blacked.

Such was the appearance of my master to be. He did not utter a word until he had read my letters of introduction, and then only saying, “Oh, it is you,” he rose, showing that he was a powerful six-footer, and added, “I will show you your work.” He stepped to the large writing-table, pointed to some books standing upright upon it, and opened a large drawer filled with bundles of paper tied with red tape, which he explained were the documents to be copied. I asked whether he wished me to begin at once, and he replied, “The sooner, the better,” as the records were very much behindhand. I said that I was ready, whereupon he opened the books and explained in which the different classes of instruments were to be copied. He gave me pen and ink and then resumed his seat, leaving me to begin as best I could. I felt a little embarrassed and nervous, but first went through the book of deeds in order to see the method of copying, and, at the end of an hour, mustered up courage enough to begin writing. In the meantime, several persons came into the office to file instruments and to have a chat with the clerk. At half-past four, the latter left, telling me that I need not stay later than five o'clock, when I must lock the office and take the key with me. He added that the regular office-hours would be from nine till twelve and from one till five, and that he expected me to sweep the office at least three times a week. The last part of his instructions rather surprised me, as he had not referred to such duties in his correspondence about me. As I had long before got over my former prejudices against that kind of service, and knew that it was a very common thing for professional men in the West to sweep out their own offices, I was perfectly willing to comply. The office certainly needed sweeping badly. It really looked as if neither broom nor duster had been used in it for months.

In a few days I became perfectly familiar with my work. It called for no exercise of intelligence, but only careful coöperation between hands and eyes. It was, indeed, the merest mechanical drudgery. The only stimulus I felt was that my daily earnings depended on the number of pages I copied. During the first week I succeeded in copying only a single page in an hour, as it was absolutely necessary to avoid mistakes; corrections not being admissible in records. But I could copy seven pages a day in the second week, and finally even nine in seven hours' work. My master turned out to be an excessively uncouth, but at the same time a very good-natured man, full of that humor that finds vent in the West in anecdotes and stories. He was laziness itself. After I had learned the full routine of the office, which included the reception of instruments for file and record, and of legal papers, and the fees therefor from the attorneys in the suits pending in the Circuit Court, he left everything to me, and he hardly did anything more than talk and joke with the people who called. But he offered me three dollars a week extra for taking charge of everything. The first month I managed to earn about forty dollars, and afterwards between fifty-five and sixty-five dollars a month.

Besides ensuring the means of self-support, my stay in Carlyle had the other great advantage for me that I was compelled to use the English language exclusively. While at my uncle's in Belleville, I hardly ever heard a word of English, for there was not a single American there. Now, with continued practice in speaking and systematic reading in the evening, I made rapid progress. After the lapse of six weeks, I had no difficulty in understanding ordinary conversation and in making myself understood. Having got so far, I made it a point to converse as much as possible, and for that purpose I tried to enter into social relations. There was not much choice in the town in that respect. The population did not exceed two hundred people, and consisted of a few merchants, the county officials, several doctors, not less than a dozen lawyers, who practised in the county circuit courts, and the usual complement of mechanics, with their respective families. The landlord's handsome daughter and two other young ladies constituted the greatest female attractions of the place. The former was very bright in conversation, and took particular pains to help me along in English, so that my calls on her were as good as lessons for me. The social centre of Carlyle was the house of Judge Sidney Breese, formerly United States Senator, then holding the office of Judge of the Supreme Court of the State. There were no young people in his family, but I ventured to call on him, as Mr. Koerner had given me a letter of introduction to him. His manner was rather cold and distant, and I could not get very near to him, though I saw him frequently in the court house. He was a man of great natural ability and was considered an eminent jurist. His figure was short and stout, with a large head, short red hair and round face, a good deal like Mr. Case; and he wore large gold spectacles. Upon the advent of warm weather he always wore a blue swallow-tail, brass-buttoned dress-coat, yellow nankeen trousers and vest, and a stove-pipe hat, presenting a truly comical appearance. Like nearly every other man, he had the nasty habit of tobacco-chewing.

I witnessed the monthly sittings of the probate courts and the semi-annual sessions of the Circuit Court, saw some curious illustrations of Western character, and listened for the first time to examples of forensic eloquence. There were among the attending lawyers men of evidently remarkable talent as speakers. I was astonished at the flood of words they managed to pour out. Sometimes the oratorical outbursts seemed to be indulged in on very slight provocation, and hence were rather ludicrous. What struck me particularly was the easy, informal way in which the proceedings were carried on. There was an abandon as regarded manners, too, that could not but shock me, accustomed as I was to the dignified ways of German courts. Several times some of the counsel were in a half-tipsy condition, and became colloquial in their arguments, as if they believed themselves to be in a bar-room. The term of the Circuit Court was held during a very hot spell in June. The judge presided without his coat and with unbuttoned shirt thrown wide open. He sat thus disarrayed, tipped back in his arm-chair, with his legs on the desk before him. The attorneys naturally followed his example and made themselves as cool as possible. One marked incident has remained fixed in my mind. While one of the most loquacious attorneys was making a fiery argument, he was interrupted by the judge, who called out to him: “Jim, you had better keep cool in this hot weather and give me a bite of your tobacco.” The pleader stopped, pulled out his plug and carried it to the judge, who took a hasty bite, whereupon the proceedings were resumed.

At the end of three months, my work became very slack. I had worked up the arrearages in recording, extending over nearly six months, and the new filings were so limited that I had only from three to five pages to copy daily. It became, indeed, more and more apparent from day to day that the regular work could yield me only a bare subsistence. I discussed the subject with Mr. Case, and he admitted that this was the fact. The prospect of a necessary change of occupation was thus presented to me. It was delayed for two months by my acting as temporary substitute for another county official who was compelled to go on a long journey. But, after this respite, about the middle of August, with the consent of my uncle, I returned to the farm.

I cannot say that I felt much regret when I turned my back on Carlyle. The life there had, after all, been too monotonous and unattractive, and there certainly was not the remotest chance for any sort of career for me in such a community. I left with sixty dollars in my pocket, my savings after I had provided myself with a modest outfit of summer clothing. I had already learned enough of affairs in this country to know that of all the professions the legal played the most important part, publicly and otherwise. This observation, together with my intimacy with members of the legal profession in Carlyle, made me conceive the notion that the best thing I could do would be to become a lawyer myself. The idea soon took deep root, and I communicated it, shortly after my return, to my uncle Theodor. He at once approved of it, but showed me that my plan could not be carried out without the consent of my father, as he would, of course, have to furnish me with means of support during my study of the law. He kindly offered to write to him in advocacy of my wishes, and it was arranged that I should continue to be his guest until a reply to his letter was received. Accordingly I resumed my former ways, helping all I could on the farm, and varying farm life with visits to relatives and friends.

When my father's answer came, it brought a prompt and favorable acknowledgment of my proposition, and offered to allow me a certain sum annually, for two years, which would enable me to live modestly and devote myself entirely to study. I was overflowing with happiness and enthusiasm because of what I considered an assured and bright future. I saw myself in imagination a successful lawyer and rising politician. The next day we drove to Belleville to consult with Mr. Koerner as to the best course to pursue in preparation for the profession. He at first suggested that I should attend one of the several law schools in this country for a couple of years, and then enter the office of some prominent lawyer to learn the practice. When the question of ways and means was considered — that is, that my father had agreed to provide for me for but two years — it became clear that the only way open to me was the one usually followed in the West up to that time, to begin the study of theory and practice combined, under a practitioner. The conclusion was not satisfactory to me, but I had to accept it. Mr. Koerner offered to give me a desk in his office, but, with reference to my knowledge of English, advised me strongly to try to get a place with a native lawyer. He kindly promised to look about for me among his colleagues in Belleville and St. Louis. A few days later I received a note from him, informing me that he had succeeded in securing my admission into the office of a leading lawyer in Belleville, George Trumbull (a brother of Lyman Trumbull, who afterwards obtained such high distinction as United States Senator from Illinois), and said that I might enter at once. The question of a suitable boarding-place in Belleville was solved by Cousin Scheel's kind invitation to me to become an inmate of his spacious home.

Mr. Trumbull was a descendant of the well-known Connecticut family of that name. In appearance and by nature he was a typical New Englander — keen, nervously active, wholly absorbed in his calling, not even caring for politics, and more reticent than genial. He occupied a small one-story brick building on the public square as an office, having two small front and rear rooms. I was assigned to a desk in the former. At first I had no other duty to perform than to ascertain the wants of callers, if he were out. I was at liberty to devote all the rest of my time to the study of Blackstone, which he placed in my hands and which I attacked vigorously. After a few weeks, the conviction was forced upon me that circumstances worked so much against regularity in that office as to render it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to make much headway in the law. The location was convenient, not only for clients, but for idlers and gossips; Belleville, like most small towns, containing an abundance of them. Altogether too many “dropped in” upon Mr. Trumbull and myself. This annoyance increased steadily as the weather grew cold in the fall and our warm stove became a point of attraction. Then, again, Belleville proved more and more to be a poor place for one so eager as I to perfect myself in the use of the English language. It was as plain as day to me that a mastery of English was the essential condition of success in this country. I had even engaged an American common-school teacher to instruct me in the proper pronunciation of English vowels, consonants, syllables, and words, just as beginners learn spelling, for I saw that most of my employers had failed to acquire it. I labored diligently with the teacher from one to three hours a day, but the benefit I received from his instruction was neutralized by my great want of practice and lack of opportunity to hear or speak English and so get my ear accustomed to it.

Thus, by degrees, I made up my mind to talk with my relatives about the advisability of pursuing my studies at another place, away from the disadvantages referred to. They consented to the change, after due consideration, and Mr. Koerner again kindly undertook to find what I wanted. About the middle of November it was settled that I should enter the office of a well-known law-firm, Manning & Merriman, in Peoria, Illinois, and I made my arrangements accordingly. I started for Peoria on November 20, and took, in St. Louis, one of the steamboats which regularly ran up the Illinois River. We made such slow progress, owing to numerous stoppages and obstructions because of low water, that we reached our destination only on the third day. Peoria was then, and I believe is now, a beautiful city, rising amphitheatrically from the west bank of the Illinois River, or rather lake into which the river widens at that point. It had about twenty thousand inhabitants in 1855 (over forty thousand now), and was laid out in the usual rectangular way. I stopped over night at a hotel, and next morning presented my letter of introduction to Messrs. Manning & Merriman. I was kindly received, and, after a brief colloquy, assigned to a desk in the office and instructed as to my duties. At first I was simply to copy legal papers drawn up by the principals. I was to receive no compensation, but had the privilege of “reading” in the office when I was not otherwise occupied. I soon got on very good terms with the two partners, and felt entirely at home in their office.

By chance I secured board and lodging in the house of the captain of the boat upon which I had arrived. He was absent most of the time, and his wife, who had the care of several small children, was anything but a good housekeeper, so that I did not fare very well, either as regards regularity or quality of meals. The house, too, was very cold, and, as the winter of 1855-6 was unusually severe, I suffered no little discomfort on that account. There was but one other boarder, a mercantile clerk, a few years my senior, who had recommended the place to me, as he was a relative of the only family in the town to which I had letters of introduction. He was a good-enough fellow, but with very limited mental resources, and was also a strong churchman. He urged me every Sunday to attend divine service with him, but without success. I then first discovered, by a very common experience, that non-church-going is a great social obstacle in this country. From the moment the family to which I presented my letters of introduction found out that I was a free-thinker, they dropped me entirely. I made hardly any other acquaintances than those mentioned. My social isolation made me often feel very lonesome, especially when I thought of the pleasant circle in which I had lived during the previous winter.

Months went by, and the spring approached without my having made much progress in legal lore under the guardianship of Messrs. Manning & Merriman. My one fellow-student, David McCullough, had to confess the same fact as to himself. We agreed, too, entirely, as to the causes of our slow advance. We found the same difficulty that had troubled me in Mr. Trumbull's office: there was not enough privacy for study. Not only clients, but politicians, came to consult with Mr. Manning. It was very entertaining to listen to him, whether he talked law or politics, but also irresistibly diverting from our studies. With the greatest determination, it was impossible to fix one's mind upon the contents of Blackstone, Chitty, and Story, while so much loud talking and joking was going on about us. Thus, McCullough and I daily looked at each other with despair, sighed and then listened perforce, yet often willingly, for the adroit and humorous way in which Mr. Manning answered the questions of the clients as to what he charged for his professional advice, was always very amusing. As day after day passed by with the same discouraging result, the conviction that I could never finish my studies under such circumstances, and that I was, indeed, continually wasting most of my time, gradually forced itself upon me, just as it did in Belleville. McCullough shared this view, and we both arrived at the conclusion that we must make a change.

In the course of the winter, I conceived the idea of writing some letters for publication in the columns of the Zeitung that appeared daily and weekly in Belleville. I had retained all along my old faith in my ability to write well. The editor, Dr. Wenzel, a German-Bohemian and political refugee, a man of uncommon talents and acquirements, seemed to take quite a fancy to me, and I felt sure that he would be glad to publish any of my contributions. So I concocted two letters of a partly descriptive and partly philosophic-æsthetic character — at least I considered them such — and sent them to him. They were poor attempts, in imitation of Heine and Boerne, rather stilted and labored. Still, they were printed, and Dr. Wenzel complimented me upon them in his letters of acknowledgment. Unfortunately, I had indulged in some rather sarcastic remarks upon the “German philistinism” that was manifested in a great many ways in Belleville. Letters from my relatives soon informed me that my criticisms had stirred up a good deal of ill-feeling against me. My uncle was particularly sharp in his censure of the license of my pen. I certainly had no deliberate intention to offend anybody, but I had, no doubt, been guilty of a pertness that was unbecoming my years, and decidedly improper in view of the circumstances under which I had gone to Belleville, and the cordiality with which I had been received. This untoward production was my first formal attempt at journalism. To be frank about it, while its effect troubled me in no small degree, the attention it attracted rather flattered my vanity.

This incident helped to mature the resolution that the drawbacks to my law-reading were evolving in me. I reasoned myself into the assumption that it would be futile to expect that such studies as I should be able to pursue in the office would make a good lawyer of me in a short or a long time. Mr. Koerner was right, after all, in his original advice to me to spend two years at a law school, had my father's allowance permitted it. Would it not be creditable, then, I asked myself, to try and earn enough in addition to enable me to go to a law school? Would such a resolute and independent course not also be the best means of dispelling the prejudices that my article had revived against me? Such was my argument, and theoretically I was no doubt right. But the real test would, after all, be the proof of my ability to make the money needed.

While I was casting about in my mind as to ways and means regarding it, I came upon what seemed to be a proper solution. I read in the daily papers long and glowing advertisements of a new work, a ‘History [or Encyclopædia] of American Literature.’ The value of the work was endorsed strongly by literary men of national reputation. It was to be published in three large volumes for five dollars each, and sold by subscription. The advertising firm, well-known Chicago booksellers, invited enterprising young men of good address to enter into communication with them, and offered to assign certain parts of the country exclusively to persons considered suitable canvassers, and otherwise to make the most liberal arrangements with them.

I thought, here is the right thing for me. Why should it be difficult to sell any number of copies of so well recommended a book, especially when there would be no competition in the sale of it? Why should it not be possible, with a strong will and proper push, to dispose of enough copies in a few months to earn enough to go, perhaps, to the Harvard Law School in the fall? The scheme took complete possession of me. I felt too impatient merely to write to the Chicago firm, and, towards the end of February, 1856, got a week's leave of absence, packed my trunk, and went by train to Chicago.