Channeling Charlton Thomas Lewis I
Bill Long 7/28/11
From One Polymath to Another...
While at the Huntington Library in San Marino CA last week, I picked up their biannual Huntington Spectator which, among other things, announced the acquisition of 4,500 pages of writings of the 19th-early 20th century American polymath Charlton Thomas Lewis. I knew of him because of the "Lewis & Short" (Latin Dictionary) which I grew up on (since superseded by the Oxford Latin Dictionary), but I never realized, until going through the various activities of his life, that his and my interests overlap so completely as to be almost unnerving. These two essays provide a chronological sketch of his life with some words on the uncanny similarity to my own; perhaps some day I will try really to get to know him. Yale University has the major collection of his writings; now the Huntington has the rest.
Chronology of Lewis' Life (1834-1904)
1. He was born in West Chester PA on Feb. 25, 1834 to attorney Joseph Lewis (1801-83) and Mary Sinton (Miner) Lewis. His father distingushed himself by writing the first biography of Abraham Lincoln, published in February 1860, a biography that helped launch Lincoln in his successful Presidential campaign. Lewis Sr. was able to do this since a PA friend, Jesse Fell, had moved to IL and was a close acquaintance of Lincoln. After the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Fell approached Lincoln to have him write a brief biography for political purposes. Lincoln put him off for a year, but finally succumbed to his blandishments and wrote a 2 1/2 page autobiographical sketch in December 1859. Fell then rushed back to West Chester, where he gave Lincoln's writing over to Lewis, who used it as the basis of his brief biography. (A more detailed story is here). In gratitude for Lewis' work, Lincoln appointed him as first Commissioner for Internal Revenue in 1863. Most people who ever think about it think that the first IRS Commissioner must have been appointed after 1913--the date of the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment. But the first income tax was levied during the Civil War.. This material is helpful for understanding some of the son's career...
2. Charlton, thus, was born into an educated, legally-oriented family, and entered Yale in 1849, at age 15. He graduated in 1853 and was Class Poet. While at Yale he distinguished himself in mathematics. Dr. Bill Long entered Brown University and majored in mathematics...before pulling out of it my junior year.
3. After college, he studied law in his father's West Chester law office until spring 1854, when he entered the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church (today's United Methodists), and had three charges over the next four years. Hm....Dr. Bill Long went to divinity school upon completion of his education and was, for a time about equivalent to Lewis's pastoral service time, also a pastor.
4. From 1857-58 he taught Greek at the State Normal University of Illinois. Thus, he began teaching Greek at age 23. I taught Greek while in Seminary, but I didn't start doing this until I was 24.
5. He then moved to Troy University (defunct after the Civil War) in New York and was a professor of Mathematics and Greek/Classical Languages from 1858-62. From 1861-62 he was Acting President of the teetering school.
6. He followed his father to Washington DC in 1863 to become Deputy Commissioner of Internal Revenue. This job ended before the end of the Civil War.
7. In late 1864 Charlton moved to New York City, where he set up a law practice focusing, at first, on tax issues but then he became quite interested in insurance law. He was counsel for more than 20 years for the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. During his tenure as an attorney, he also taught at Cornell law school and Columbia. Later in his career he would teach law at Harvard, which awarded him an LL D in 1903. I, too, after my ministry experiences and teaching Greek, took up the practice and then the teaching of law. My focus in teaching was insurance law, and my online essays on insurance law have been used by hundreds in their work in the field. Lewis was, no doubt, more distinguished than I in all these endeavors, so maybe I am only "weakly" channeling him...but it is there, friends.
8. Early in his practice of law in New York City, when he was in his mid-30s, he became associated with William Cullen Bryant's Evening Post, joining the editorial staff in 1868 and serving as managing editor until 1871. He frequently wrote for the editorial page. I, also while in my early-mid 30s, took a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities to write editorials for the Oregonian, where I published dozens of editorials. In fact, we were both 33 when we began this activity.
9. He earned a Ph. D. from New York University in 1877, at age 34. At least I beat him on this one--earning mine when I was 30. There may be a problem here that would repay some study, since the Ph. D. was new in America in the 1860s, and I didn't think that NYU awarded it as early as 1877...
10. As one source says, "For many years, he made a study of the question of treament of criminals.." When I entered into legal practice, I published an award-winning book on criminal law, the Oregon death penalty. Lewis continued his commitment to issues of prison reform, and he held many offices in the New York Prison Association. He was also Delegate of the United States to the International Prison Congress at Paris in 1895, the same year he was Chairman of the Commission to Revise the Penal Laws of New Jersey.
One more essay completes my thoughts.