December 8: “The Learned Blacksmith”


Elihu Burritt, a self-educated lecturer who was arguably the most famous pacifist of the 19th century, was born in New Britain, Connecticut on this day in 1810.  As the tenth child of a shoemaker, young Elihu (rhymes with “Tell-a-few”) was unable to devote much time to schooling; as a teenager, he apprenticed himself to a local blacksmith in order to help make ends meet for his family.  Following the advice of one of his older brothers, Elihu broke up the monotony of his daily manual labor at the forge by focusing on repetitive mental exercises like solving mathematical problems, though he soon found he preferred the study of linguistics.  Burritt displayed an uncanny talent for learning and memorization, teaching himself to read nearly fifty different languages while working as a blacksmith in his teens and twenties.

Elihu Burritt, the “Learned Blacksmith.” (Central Connecticut State University)

While working as a blacksmith in the greater Boston area, Burritt heard about the extensive collections located at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, and often walked several miles a day in order to visit the library and further his study of languages, mathematics, and world history.  He soon became known to Boston-area scholars as “The Learned Blacksmith,” and, after developing a reputation as an excellent writer and lecturer, decided to become a full-time advocate for education, abolition, and world peace — or, as he preferred to call it, “universal brotherhood.”

In the 1840s, Burritt began traveling around New England, lecturing against war and promoting the idea of “compensated emancipation,” which he considered the most peaceful way to bring about the end of slavery in the United States.  He took up a number of other popular moralist causes of the mid-19th century, including temperance and promoting the dignity of the working man.  In 1846, Burritt traveled to England, where he traveled extensively and founded the League of Universal Brotherhood, an association of peace activists.  Horrified at the deplorable conditions in Ireland following the potato famine, Burritt authored a pamphlet that was widely distributed in the United States and did much to raise American awareness and relief efforts for the Irish.  He was also instrumental in organizing international peace conferences in Europe in 1848 and 1849, when most of the continent was wracked by revolutions and internal strife.

Burritt then returned to the United States to find it on the brink of civil war due to the increasingly polarizing issue of slavery.   During the 1850s, Burritt traveled over 10,000 miles throughout the United States, tirelessly promoting his idea of compensated emancipation as a peaceful way to bring about the end of American slavery.  Once war finally broke out in 1861, Burritt’s staunch pacifism led some northerners to accuse him of being a southern sympathizer — but President Abraham Lincoln never doubted Burritt’s patriotism, and appointed him ambassador to England during the later years of the war.

After the war’s end, Burritt continued writing and lecturing about peace and universal brotherhood until his health caused him to retire to his hometown of New Britain.  There, after a lifetime of writing and advocating for the betterment of all mankind, he passed away in 1879 at the age of 69, and is buried in the city’s Fairview Cemetery.

Further Reading

Nancy Finlay, “Apostle of Peace: Elihu Burritt’s Quest for Universal Brotherhood,”

Biography: Elihu Burritt,” Central Connecticut State University