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An essay by George William Curtis

Francis George Shaw

Title:     Francis George Shaw
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]


IN beginning his tender and charming paper upon Washington Irving and Macaulay, Thackeray recalls the beautiful story of which he was so fond, of Sir Walter Scott's last words to his son-in-law Lockhart: "Be a good man, my dear; be a good man." It was a soft autumnal day. The windows were wide open. The low sound of the rippling Tweed stole into the chamber. The most renowned and the most widely beloved of living men lay dying, after a career of admiration and adulation, and of gratified ambition almost unexampled, and in the clear and serene light of the moment that shows things as they are, the one lesson and moral garnered by that marvellous life is spoken in the simple words, "Be a good man, my dear." ...

There are men whose simplicity and dignity and strength and purity of character, whose sound judgment and supreme common-sense, dispose of sophistry and artifice in all relations and pursuits, as surely and completely as the sun dries the dew. They are gentlemen, because they know other men only as men, touching electrically whatever of manhood there may be in them, and whose contact is a silent and consuming rebuke of pretence and falsehood. Whatever his own advantage or attraction or position or grace, the man of this quality takes hold of the reality in other men, man meeting man, as when the grave William of Orange, in his plain serge coat, met the brilliant Philip Sidney in his gold-flowered doublet, and neither was troubled by the clothes of the other.

Such a man lately died. The mingled strength and simplicity and sweetness of his nature, the lofty sense of justice, the tranquil and complete devotion to duty, the large and humane sympathy, not lost in vague philanthropic feeling, but mindful of every detail of relief--the sound and steady judgment, the noble independence of thought and perfect courage of conviction, the blended manliness and modesty of a life which was unstained, and of a character which seemed without a flaw, all belonged to what we call the ideal man.

Passing from college to the counting-room of a great commercial business, his sagacity, energy, and executive power were all brought into successful action. He went to Europe and to the West Indies, but much of the spirit of trade and many of its practices were uncongenial to him, and he quietly withdrew, despite wonder and affectionate remonstrance, to lead his own life in his own way. By taste and temperament an out-door man, he made his home in the rural neighborhood of Boston, busy with country cares and various studies, but interested chiefly in helping other men. He was allied by sympathy more than by much previous actual association with the founders of Brook Farm. But when they chose the site for their enterprise not far from his house, he was soon in the pleasantest relations with the leaders, for their spirit and purpose were in harmony with his own. He was a parishioner and warm personal friend of Theodore Parker, who lived near him, and his keen common-sense and mastery of practical affairs were most useful to Parker as to Ripley. Indeed, the hospitality of such a man for every generous endeavor and for all new and humane ideas was a happy augury for the philanthropic pioneers, because it seemed to promise the final approval and adhesion to their cause of the most conservative and substantial sentiment of the community.

Such a man was, of course, an abolitionist in the days when the name was as repugnant to what is called "society" as the name Christian was to the Jewish Sanhedrim or Methodist to the English Establishment a century and a half ago. He generously aided the cause, which seemed to him that of practical Christianity and of American patriotism, and he held most friendly relations with its chief representatives, who were ostracized and denounced. But his sympathy was not an abstract regard for man rather than for men, and his interest in the effort to help a race and to forecast a happier social organization did not dull his heart or close his hand to the necessities of his neighbor. His life, indeed, was a prolonged charity, but a charity directed by a singularly calm and shrewd judgment. His exhaustless generosity was not the sport of wayward impulse. It was not a well-meaning weakness, but a wise force which helped others to help themselves, but knew also when such self-help was impossible.

Yet the strength and reserve and independence of his character were such that the man was never lost in the reformer. His fine nature instinctively asserted his own individuality. He quietly shunned the wearisome artificiality of society, but he did not merge his own home in the general home of his friends and neighbors at Brook Farm, and his house was always a glimpse of the social refinement and grace, the mental and moral charm, to which the dreams of social regeneration and the elaborate fancies of Fourier pointed--fancies which greatly interested him as hints of a happier social order.

Long absence with his family in Europe, and a long and final residence upon Staten Island, only matured and developed the man, in whom not only was there no guile, but in whom even the most intimate eye could not note a fault. Clarendon might have studied from him his portrait of Falkland: "his inimitable sweetness of, and delight in, conversation; his flowing and obliging humanity; his goodness to mankind; and his primitive simplicity and integrity of life." Disinclined to public life of every kind, he was yet full of the highest public spirit, and it was but natural that his only son should have been selected by Governor Andrew to command the first colored regiment that marched from Massachusetts in the war. In his young person all that was best in the New England youth of his time, all the strength of the elder colonial and Revolutionary day, blended with all the grace and tenderness and gentleness of its modern life, the stern old Puritan softened into a humaner Bayard, was typified. It was the flower of Essex that two hundred years ago was withered in the fatal Indian ambush in the Deerfield Meadows. It was the flower of New England that fell upon a hundred redder fields within a score of years.

But no sorrow could fatally chill a faith which was reflected in the perpetual summer of the father's presence and temperament. The frank urbanity of his greeting, the hearty grasp of his hand, the lofty simplicity of his courtesy, were but the signs of that unwasting freshness of sympathy which held him true to the ideals and aims of earlier life. His helping hand reached invisibly into a hundred homes, and upheld a hundred faltering lives. But, besides this, as president of the Freedman's Aid Association his administrative skill and his wise benevolence enabled him to bear a most effective part in the great settlement of the war. His invincible modesty and scorn of ostentation veiled his beneficent activities, public and private. But nothing could veil the pure and steadfast and unwearying devotion to the well-being of other men. Kindly but firmly he protected his own seclusion, and he permitted no man, in Emerson's phrase, to devastate his day. The freshness of feeling which keeps the heart young was unwasted to the end. His full life brimming purely to the sea reflected heaven as clearly when at last it mingled with the main as when it ran a limpid rivulet from its spring. Young and old, man and boy, he was still the simplest, noblest, most devoted, best. How truly he was the man that every thoughtful man secretly wishes he might be, those only know who knew Francis George Shaw.

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George William Curtis's essay: Francis George Shaw