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ISAIAH THOMAS, LL. D.,
FOUNDER AND FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN
BY SAMUEL M. BURNSIDE, Esq.
It is a prominent principle in the structure of all free governments, like that of the United States, that their strength and their durability are founded in the intelligence and virtue of the people. In the talents and moral worth of every citizen, then, the government have a deep interest; an interest, which the public good demands should be cherished and improved, by judicious means, to its utmost extent.
There exists consequently, a corresponding obligation in every individual to consider his endowments as the gist of Heaven for the service of his country; and to be developed with untiring zeal for that purpose, and consecrated with unwavering firmness to that object. It is a prevalent, but most unhappy mistake among the youth of our republic, and 100 much countenanced, if not encouraged, by their parents and their teachers, that the chief end of education is to furnish facilities for the acquisition of wealth, influence, and power, for their personal gratification, rather than to sustain, persect, and perpetuate, the institutions of that country, which gave them birth, and insured the means of knowledge and usefulness.
The duty of self-devotion to the claims of country cannot be unheeded or undervalued by any one, without incurring the imputation of great criminality. Nor can a disregard of it find justification or apology in the fact, that nature has not been liberal in bestowing her favors.
The most ordinary, and the most gifted intellect, belong alike to the commonwealth, and each is necessary to her growth and prosperity. And, notwithstanding our admiration of a few exalted minds, and the distinguished benefits they sometimes confer on society, it is, after all, ordinary minds which constitute most of our physical strength, and moral power, and intellectual riches; it is these principally, which give health, and activity, and energy to the body politic. The boundless philanthropy of Howard will ever be a theme of grateful praise to afflicted humanity; and the never-ceasing benevolence of Oberlin will ever be remembered, with profound veneration, by the people of his charge ; yet neither of these could claim a high standing among the gifted men of their time; and, in our own country, there have been many among the most forward of those who are constantly engaged in devising and executing plans of reformation and improvement, who are distinguished for successful efforts in doing good, rather than for rare endowments of mind, or attainments in knowledge.
In this latter class of citizens may be ranked the subject of this memoir ; a man, possessed of a strong and discriminating intellect, but of none of those commanding powers or splendid talents, which often delight and astonish the world. With few of the ordinary means of education, he yet acquired, by a diligent use of time, an extent of knowledge, which few of the most favored have equalled; and by industry and frugality, a fortune not often exceeded, which he liberally devoted to the cause of learning, of private charity, and public beneficence. It is useful to trace progress
of such a man from the restlessness of childhood to the serenity of old age, and to mark his advances from a condition of dependence to one of opulence, and from the obscurity of an humble apprentice to the distinction of a founder of one of the most valuable institutions in the western world. It will thus be seen, that, in our country at least, the character, the reputation, and the destiny of every youth are generally subject to the decisions of his own will; and how much society is often indebted for its privileges to the influence and labors of men, who never shared its applause or participated its honors. The principal portion of the following sketch of his life and character is taken from an address delivered at his funeral by the late Isaac Goodwin, Esq.
Isaiah Thomas was born in Boston, January 19th, 1749. His ancestors emigrated from England at an early period in the settlement of Massachusetts. His grandfather, Peter Thomas, was a merchant, and died in 1746, leaving four sons and two daughters. Moses, the second son, and father of the subject of this notice, resided partly at Long Island, and partly in Boston, and died at sea, leaving a destitute widow and five children, of whom Isaiah was the youngest. At the age of six years, he was apprenticed to Zachariah Fowle, a printer of ballads in Boston. Instead of being sent to school, he was placed in the printing-office; and, to enable him to set his types for the small works executed at the press, he was elevated upon a bench raised eighteen inches from the floor. The composing stick he then used, is still preserved, with a specimen of this early attempt at typography. Without the assistance of any one, as he himself often declared, in this shop, he not only acquired a knowledge of the elementary branches of learning, but was so far competent to write, that, at the age of seventeen, he was enabled to take charge of a newspaper at Halifax, in Nova Scotia, to which place he went, upon a disagreement with his master. During his residence at this place, the memorable Stamp Act took effect in the colonies. To send out a newspaper with this odious badge of servitude was repugnant to the feelings of the young NewEngland man, as he was then called.
An editorial paragraph caused the printer to be summoned before the public authority. He exculpated himself by casting the blame upon his apprentice, who had the charge of the paper. A second paragraph occasioned a call upon the young man himself, who was finally dismissed with a slight reprimand, and with an admonition to remember, that he was not in Boston. The reams of paper in the office were secretly divested of the stamps, and the Gazette was afterwards issued without this obnoxious mark. In March, 1767, he left Halifax, and, after working some time in New Hampshire, returned to the employment of his foriner master in Boston. He separated from him again, by agreement, and attempted to establish himself at Wilmington, North Carolina. From this place he went to Charleston, South Carolina, where he worked for two years. In consequence of declining health, he abandoned a project he had formed of going to England to acquire a more perfect knowledge of his trade.
In 1770 he returned to his native town, and in connexion with Z. Fowle, commenced the “Massachusetts Spy," then a small paper, published three times a week. Three months after this he purchased the establishment and issued the paper upon a half sheet, until December of that year, when it was discontinued.
On the 7th of March, 1771, he commenced the present “ Massachusetts Spy,” which he published weekly upon a large sheet. Although firmly attached to the popular side in the rising political contest, Mr. Thomas opened his columns to both parties ; but the Royalists soon withdrew their patronage, and the paper was thereupon devoted exclusively to the Whig interest. Overtures were made by the Royalists to obtain his influence, but were rejected. Attempts were then made to coerce him, by embarrassing the pecuniary concerns of the establishment. The interposition of friends prevented any