Great Achievements of Men Over Sixty

E. B. Simmons August 1 1908

Great Achievements of Men Over Sixty

E. B. Simmons August 1 1908

Great Achievements of Men Over Sixty

So Many Wonderful Things Have Been Accomplished by Men of More Than Three Score Years That it is Impossible to Enumerate Them All—Why Should Any One Feel Gloomy at the Approach of Age ?

E. B. Simmons in Munsey's Magazine.

OLD age is a subject in which we all feel a direct and personal interest, since those of us who are not already old are certain to become so if we go on living. Deep down in his inner consciousness, every human being doubtless hates the thought; and even when in the full tide of youth or in middle life, he feels at times a cold fear gripping at his heart, as if some one had said:

“Wait just a little while, and you will be sitting in the chimney-corner, quite out of the race, quite past the age of all achievement, and no longer, of any use.”

It is true that modern life is pushing back the period of old age. A man of forty is to-day much younger than was the man of forty a century ago, and a woman of forty is a girl compared with the Puritan dame at two score years. But, none the less, we know that old age still waits for us, even though it waits a little longer ; and most of us are secretly in dread of it, because we think that it will cripple our activities.

For this widespread notion the poets are

in part responsible, with their melancholy mention of “the sear and yellow leaf.” If we look upon recorded facts, however, old age need not be either sad or barren of achievement. A man who is sound of mind and body does not reach his full maturity until his fortieth year, just as a woman does not reach her full maturity before the age of thirty. The three decades which succeed the fourth ought, in the case of the normal man, to be the most fruitful ones of all. And this is an assertion of which the truth is amply and even overwhelmingly made clear by history.

Dr. William Osier, in his remarks upon the age-limit of usefulness, is said to have declared that a man has done his work at sixty, and is thereafter a negligible quantity. It is odd that a physician should set the age of sixty as the terminal of usefulness, when so many of the greatest members of his profession, from Hippocrates and Galen down to Abernethy and Lister, both lived and practised with great success for many years beyond that period. And

this is no more true of medicine than of every other sphere of human activity—war, statesmanship, art, literature and science.

It is an interesting and instructive thing to look into the later years of some of the long lives among the world’s great men. So many wonderful achievements have been accomplished by men of more than threescore that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Yet it is necessary to cite a comparatively full list of illustrious examples, so that no one may be able to declare that certain historic instances are exceptions to a general rule.


Warfare demands of those who would successfully conduct it both physical and mental powers of a very high degree. The bmin must be at every moment clear and swift in all its processes; the body must be strong enough to withstand exhaustion and fatigue. Both of these requirements were met in the German leader, Johann von Tilly, who, in the Thirty Years’ War, headed the forces of the Catholic League. Tilly was sixty-one when, in 1620, he buckled on

his sword and won the great battle of the

White Hill under the walls of Prague. He went on from victory to victory until, at the age of seventy-two, having succeeded Wallenstein in full command of the imperial forces, he stormed the town of Magdeburg.

In “Childe Harold” Byron speaks of— Blind old Dándolo,

The octogenerian chief, Byzantium’s conquering foe.

As a matter of fact, if the histories are right, the gallant Venetian soldier Enrico Dándolo was no less than ninety-six when he led his mailed hosts to storm the walls

of Constantinople.

Another instance worth recalling is that of the daring British general, Sir Ralph Abercromby, who at sixty-six directed the expedition of 1801 to Egypt, where he routed the French in the Battle of Alexandria. Old man though he was, when a bullet struck him in the thigh he made no sign, but cheered his soldiers on till victory was theirs. The Russian fieldmarshal, Kutusoff, was sixty-seven when, in 1812, he led the relentless pursuit of Napoleon’s shattered army through the snows of that terrible winter, and inflicted a disastrous defeat upon Davout and Ney at Smolensk.

Of Sir Charles James Napier, Carlyle wrote: “A lynx-eyed, fiery man—more of

a hero than any modern I have seen in a long time.” Napier was brave to rashness, and inspired by an energy which ill brooked control. He was in his sixtieth year when he took command of the British army in India, and conquered the Province of Sindh. In one fierce battle he hurled his force of two thousand men upon a native army of twenty thousand, and literally hewed them down, fighting himself in the forefront of the battle; for Napier was a general of the older type, assailing the enemy sword in hand. After the war ended, he served as Governor of the Province

for several years, quelling the hill tribes and bringing order out of chaos. At sixtysix he was sent out once more to India to put down an insurrection of the Sikhs.

American military history affords at least two illustrious examples of what old men can do in war. The first of these is General Winfield Scott, who in his sixtyfirst year took command of the American invasion of Mexico, and led the famous march from Vera Cruz to the capital, winning an unbroken series of victories over tremendous natural obstacles and against a foe who outnumbered his small army three to one. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott was commanding general at the age of seventy-five. Afflicted with the gout, he

was unable to take the field in person; yet he worked out a scheme for crushing the Confederacy, at which short-sighted theorists then laughed derisively. Scott was retired, and gave way to younger men; yet in the end the war was actually fought out in accordance with his so-called “anaconda plan,’’ which proved that while the old warrior's body was infirm, his military genius burned brightly to the last.

Scott’s rival and fellow soldier, General Zachary Taylor, won almost equal glory in the war with Mexico. He was sixty-two when he fought and won the bloody Battle of Buena Vista over Santa Anna, pitting his force of fewer than six thousand troops against a well-equipped and disciplined army of twenty-one thousand Mexicans, and shattering it to atoms. At sixty-four he was inaugurated President of the United States.

But it is modern Germany that has afforded the most remarkable instances of laurels won by veteran commanders. When Blucher helped Wellington to crush Napoleon at Waterloo, the Prussian marshal was well on in his seventy-third year, but still as keen and fiery as a youth. At Ligny, two days before, he had been caught in a sweeping charge of the French . cavalry ; his horse was shot, and fell, rolling over on its rider and leaving him senseless on the ground. He escaped capture only because Napoleon’s troopers did not recognize him in the darkness of evening. Carried off the field, and retreating with his beaten army, the splendid old soldier lost not an atom of his courage. On the morning of the next day but one, knowing that Wellington’s force had taken up its stand for a pitched battle, he insisted on mounting his horse, saying that he must get into the fight if he had to be tied upon his saddle. As the Prussians, moving toward the thunder of the cannon, dragged their artillery over the miry roads, the old man constantly urged them on with : “Forward ! For-

ward! I have given my word to Wellington. and I must keep it!”

An equally conspicuous and more modern example of what may be done in age is found in the career of Helmuth von Moltke, the Danish-born Prussian general. It was not until the sixty-fourth year of his life that Moltke’s name was known outside of army circles. Through all those years he had planned and organized for the victories that were to come when events should have ripened into opportunity. Aided by Count von Roon, himself a man of sixty, he had forged the sharp blade which was to set Prussia at the head of Europe. The first test came when Prussia and Austria massed their armies under Moltke and swept over Denmark in an irresistible tide of bayonets. This was but a small affair, a mere trial of the weapon. Two years later, Prussia faced Austria, and in a seven weeks’ campaign Moltke’s generalship brought the empire of Franz Josef to its very knees.

Four years later still. Moltke led the

German hosts to the conquest of France, which until then had been regarded as the first military power of Europe. In all that year of war he practically never lost a battle ; no one of all his complicated plans went wrong. Not since Napoleon had the world seen so great a soldier as this veteran of seventy. Even then he did not cease from his activities, but remained until his eightyeighth year at the head of the German army, acting besides as chairman of the committee of national defense—a post which he retained until his death at the age of ninety-one.

Among military engineers, perhaps, the best example is to be found in the French marshal and military engineer, Sebastien de Vauban, whose works on fortification have even now, two hundred years after his death, a definite value to military theorists. Vauban was made a marshal of France at seventy. When he died, zt seventy-four, he was busily engaged in writing on economic subjects, and was die first advocate of what has now come to be known as “the single tax.” Sir Mark Brunei completed the first tunnel under the Thames at the age of seventy-four. The American, Richard Gatling, at sixty-eight, invented a new gun-metal and was authorized by Congress to experiment on new methods of casting cannon.

Todleben, the Russian military engineer, was, it is true, a mere infant of thirty-seven when he devised the fortifications of Sebastopol in the Crimean War; but he was sixty years of age when, in the war between Russia and Turkey, he drew around Plevna the works which caused the downfall of that famous stronghold. And after the campaign was over, and peace declared, he served fortsome time as Governor of the conquered districts.

Still living is Britain's greatest general since Wellington—Lord Roberts, whom Kipling has made widely known under his army sobriquet of “Bobs.” After forty years’ service in India, Roberts had gone home to England, apparently to spend his latter days in retirement. He was in his

sixty-eighth year when there came the news that the army sent to South Africa to punish the' Boers had failed, that Buller had met humiliating defeat at Colenso, and that Roberts’ only son was among the slain. In the emergency, the veteran general was called to the front, where he speedily reversed the situation. Within a fw weeks Kimberley was relieved and Cron je captured, and within a few months Roberts had swept irresistibly over the veldt, scattering the enemy before him and occupying the capitals of both the Boer republics.

It is told of him that while riding in company with General Buller, in the outskirts of Pretoria, they came upon a fairly high rail fence.

“How about taking that fence?” asked Roberts.

Buller was seven years younger than his chief, yet he replied:

^ “I am too old for that, sir.”

Whereupon Lord Roberts, setting spurs to his horse, cleared the fence as neatly as though he were the youngest huntsman in a field at home.

Of naval heroes, David Farragut, greatest of American admirals, was nearly sixty-one when he ran his fleet through the fire of the Confederate forts defending the mouth of the Mississippi, and captured New Orleans; and he was sixty-three when he fought and won his desperate battle with the ironclad ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay.


The statesmen who became noted in their later years are too many to be enumerated. One famous instance was that of Benjamin Franklin, who was in his seventy-first year when he arrived in Paris as the first American ambassador to the court of France. Seventy-seven when he helped to negotiate the treaty that secured our national independence, minister at Paris until his seventy-ninth year, and after his return to his own country serving in various public capacities, surely Franklin proved that a man may be of use when he is past sixty. John Quincy Adams, at the age of sixtyfour. having been defeated for re-election to the Presidency, returned to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives. He served there, and served well, into his eight-first year, being fatally stricken while sitting at his desk in the Capitol.

No official station in the world entails a greater burden of work and responsibility than the Presidency of the United States. Of the twenty-five men who have held it, five—John Adams, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor and Buchanan—were over threescore when they took office. Six others—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Johnson—passed their sixtieth birthday while in office, and a seventh—Cleveland—missed doing so by only a few days. The physical labor of a Presidential campaign has become so enormous that of late it has been usual to choose younger men; yet in 1904 the Democrats nominated an octogenarian for the Vice-Presidency, and Speaker Cannon’s seventy-two years are not thought to disqualify him as a possible candidate at the approaching election.

England has had no “boy premier” since Pitt. The Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister at sixty-one, and held a Cabinet portfolio at seventy-seven. Of his thirteen successors to the present day, all but three held office beyond sixty, all but five beyond seventy, and two—Palmerston and Gladstone—beyond their eightieth year, Palmerston dying in harness two days before his eighty-first birthday, and Gladstone retiring, still vigorous at eighty-four.

Gladstone’s career was parallel in some ways, and strongly contrasted in others, to that of Bismarck. For nearly a third of a century, beginning nine years before that day in 1871 when he proclaimed William I. as German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles, the Prussian statesman carried a tremendous load of cares, “playing high,” as he once remarked, “with other people’s money.” He was forty-seven when he became Premier of Prussia; he was seventy-five when young William II. deprived him of the Chancellorship; and throughout that long period he had held the helm of State without a single interval of rest.

Two other famous veterans were Louis Adolphe Thiers, President of France, and Francesco Crispi, Premier of Italy. Both these men held the reins of Government in their seventy-seventh year, and Crispi was a member of the Italian Parliament in his seventy-ninth.

The turbulent political atmosphere of Haiti can hardly be regarded as conducive to longevity, but Nord Alexis, the present

autocrat of that dusky republic, is understood to be ninety years old ; and that he is still a man of vigor seems to be sufficiently proved by the highly unpleasant experiences of those who have dared to challenge his authority.

The history of the Papacy is full of proofs that old age need not be a period of weakness. Take, for instance, the last three names on the list of pontiffs—those of Pius IX., who died in his eighty-sixth year, after a life full of strife and stress till near its end : of Leo XIII., who lived to his ninety-fourth year, physically frail, but intellectually powerful ; and the present Pope, who at seventy-three promises to rival the longevity of his two famous predecessors.


Philosophers • and writers have often lived to achieve great things in their old age. Plato was more than seventy when he wrote his great work on the “Laws”; and when he died, at eighty, he was still the inspiration of the Academy which he had founded forty years before. Sophocles, the Athenian dramatist, was eighty ntthe time of his last contest; and in the preceding thirty-two years he had won the first prize from his rivals no less than twenty times. The Italian poet, Petrarch, wrote much lovely verse after he was sixty. Cervantes was sixty-seven when he produced the second part of “Don Quixote.” Dryden began his translation of Virgil at sixty-three and finished it at sixty-six; and to the latter year belongs his “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day,” the finest of his lyrics. Jeremy Bentham, whose works on ethics and political economy are classic, died at eighty-four, active and vigorous to the last.

One of the most striking examples of continued productiveness in old age is that of Voltaire. This great Frenchman, from the age of sixty-four until he was more than eighty, lived a many-sided existence on his estate at Ferney, where he managed the affairs of his domain in patriarchal fashion, built a private theatre and a church, and exercised a sumptuous hospitality, while all the time producing witty, epigrammatic letters and pamphlets on the questions of the day. At eighty-four he journeyed to Paris to witness the production of his play “Irene,” an event which forms an epoch in the theatrical history of France.

Another life filled to the brim with rich

creativeness was that of Goethe. To the very end of his eighty-two years, he preserved his youthfulness of spirit, kept hold of all his varied interests, and made of Weimar a famous literary landmark. It was only just before his death that he finished the second part of “Faust.”

Carlyle was almost seventy when he finished his monumental history of Frederick the Great. Victor Hugo was seventy-six when he completed his “Historie d’un Crime,” and when he died, at eighty-three, he was engaged upon a tragedy, working with all the energy of youth.

Two of Browning’s most vigorous volumes of verse were published after he was seventy-five, and Tennyson wrote continuously, with little sign of failing power, up to his death at eighty-three. Izaak Walton, best known as the author of “The Complete Angler,” published his “Life of Bishop Sanderson” at eighty-five, and Walter Savage Landor his “Heroic Idyls” at eightyeight. Nor should mention be omitted of the great John Wesley, who preached, taught and wrote till just before his death in his eighty-eighth year.

Swinburne, at seventy-one, has lately completed a new poetic drama. George Meredith, who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday, and Tolstoy, who will reach the same mile-stone in August, are also distinguished instances of mental fertility in old age.

Among playwrights and actors must be mentioned the name of Charles Macklin, who lived to his hundredth year, and who at ninety not only wrote “The Man of the World,” but appeared in it himself, creating the difficult part of Sir Pertinax Macsycophant.

Of Americans there are William Cullen Bryant, who at seventy-six finished his translation of the “Odyssey”; Emerson, who lectured with success when he was nearly seventy, and whose pen was busy till shortly before his death at seventy-nine ; Longfellow, who published four volumes after he was seventy; Whittier, who was revising his earlier poems and writing new ones after his eightieth year, and Walt Whitman, who produced “Sands at Seventy” when he was three-score and ten, and “November Boughs” two years later. Lowell, between sixty-one ánd sixty-six, not only wrote the verses that make up the volume “Heartsease and Rue,” but he also served his country most effectively as Minister to England. Later, after his return to America, he did some of his best work as a lecturer and an essayist.

Washington Irving finished his “Life of Washington” at seventy-six, and Oliver Wendell Holmes published his “Over the Teacups” at eighty-one. But perhaps the most remarkable case in American literary annals is that of John Bigelow, who in his ninety-first year is still the active head of the New York Public Library, and who has just finished his wock as the biographer of Samuel J. Tilden by publishing two volumes of Mr. Tilden’s letters.

Guizot, the French historian, was a busy statesman until he was past sixty. Having

fallen from power when Louis Philippe was dethroned, he turned to historical writing as a task for his old age, and devoted twenty-six years to it, working at his “History of France” till just before his death, at eighty-six.

It is nearly forty years since Emile Ollivier, Premier of France in the last days of the Second Empire, told his countrymen, on the outbreak of war with Prussia, that he drew the sword “with a light heart.” Many people who still remember that unlucky phrase do not know that Ollivier is still alive, and working away, in his eightythird year, at a bulky history of the great events in which he long ago took part.

Leopold von Ranke, whose new methods of treating historical materials mark an epoch in that field, was past eighty when he began the publication of his most ambitious work, the “Weltgeschichte,” and he reached the ninth volume before he laid down his pen.

Theodor Mommsen produced some of his best work after sixty, and long after that time he was an active worker in various liberal movements. He was a member of the Prussian Parliament until he was sixty-five, and secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences until he was seventyeight.

George Bancroft, the American, might have paraphrased George Eliot by saying that he began his “History of the United States” as a young man and finished it as an old one, for he was seventy-six before he completed the book that is his chief monument, and he continued to revise it for seven years more. Bancroft held public office, too, in his old age. He was seventy-three when his term as Minister to Germany expired.

Herbert Spencer was forty when he announced his intention of writing a series of books covering the whole field of philosophy. Though hampered by ill-health and lack of means, he pursued his self-appointed task for more than forty years, completing it just before his death. Only a volume of reminiscences, which he undertook as a relaxation from his more serious work, was left unfinished when he died in his eighty-fourth year.


Science affords many illustrious names to swell the list of veterans. Galileo, who formulated the correct theory of the earth’s motion, was sixty-nine when his bigoted persecutors forced him to abjure the truths he had announced ; yet the fire of his genius would not die. At seventy-two he wrote an important work on the new sciences ; and a year later, just before blindness sealed his eves, he made a valuable telescopic discovery in the sphere of lunar phenomena. Even when all was dark to him, the old man toiled on unwearied, thinking out the application of the pendulum to clock-work, and, through his secretary, carrying on an extensive scientific correspondence.

Sir Isaac Newton was made president of the Royal Society in his later years, a

long time after he had watched the apple

drop and had discovered gravitation. He was sixty when he took the office, he was eighty-four when death made him give it up ; and throughout the period of his tenure he was constantly at work for the advancement of science.

The French zoologist, Lamarck, the founder of organic evolution, died at eighty-five after a life of hard work and high thinking. His monumental “Histoire Naturelle” was not finished till he was seventy-seven. Laplace, the French astronomer, wrote his treatise the “Mécanique Celeste” between the ages of fifty and seventy-six. Buffon began the publication of his great book on natural history when he was sixty-four. When he died, in his eighty-first year, he had issued seventeen volumes and was preparing the eighteenth.

Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, who lived to be almost ninety, was seventy-five when the first part of his “Kosmos” appeared, and he continued to work at the book until just before his death. John James Audubon was sixty-two when he purchased an estate upon the Hudson, and settled down to write. There he completed his “Birds of America,” and still later, with the assistance of his sons and of John Bachman, wrote his treatise on “The Quadrupeds of North America.”

Michael Faraday, the English physicist, did some of his best work not very long before his death at seventy-five, even though mind and body were then failing. Louis Agassiz was sixty-six when he carried out his plan of establishing a summer school on Buzzard’s Bay, the first summer school ever opened in America, and the mother of all the summer schools that have been projected since. The “Descent of Man” was finished when Charles Darwin was sixty-two, and during the remaining eleven years of his life he compiled six more of his carefully wrought books, full of original observations of natural phenomena.

Jurists are. proverbially long-lived. Sir Edward Coke, as Lord Chief Justice of England, was sixty-one when King James I. gave him the appointment, hoping thereby to bend him to the royal will. But Coke was not to be suborned. He opposed the king and maintained the supremacy of the law, even though he was imprisoned in the Tower as a punishment for his obstinacy. He was seventy-six when, in the third Parliament of Charles I., he helped, by his wisdom and profound knowledge, to frame the Petition of Rights—courageous in old age as in his youth. John Marshall, probably the most famous of all our American jurists. presided over the Supreme Court of the United States until his death at the age of seventy-nine. Justice Stephen Field remained on the bench to his eighty-second year, and our present Chief Justice is past seventy-five.


Among artists, musicians as a rule have not lived and worked so long as painters, yet there are exceptions in the ranks of the composers. There was Handel, whose masterpiece, the "Messiah,” was written when he was not quite sixty, being finished in the incredibly short space of twenty-three days. The oratorio of "Judas Maccabaeus” was produced when he was sixty-two, and “Jephthah” when he was sixty-seven. Even when, a little later, blindness came upon him. he continued to compose and to perform in public. Bach, the fountain-head of German music, labored unceasingly until his death at the age of sixty-five. He was dictating the last notes of the chorale.

“When We Are in the Depths of Need,” 28

when he felt that his end was near. He told his secretary to change the inscription to “Herewith I Come Before Thy Throne”; and so died working.

To name a few more of the veterans of music, Rossini composed his “Messe Solennelle” at seventy-two, and Meyerbeer his master-work, “L’Africaine,” at the same age. Verdi finished his “Otello” at seventyfour, his “Falstafif” at eighty, and was still composing at eighty-five. Auber’s opera, “Le Reve d’Amour,” was produced at eighty-seven.

It is wonderful that the art of painting, which requires the steadiest of hands and the surest of eyes, should have among its great masters so many who have worked until an advanced age. There was old Giovanni Bellini, the founder of that school of Venetian colorists to which Titian and Giorgione are assigned. Bellini lived to be almost ninety, and painted to the end. His later work is characterized by more freedom of truth and by a deeper warmth of color, if anything, than that of his earlier periods.

But, of course, all other names are dim beside that of Michelangelo, who left his impress not only upon painting, but upon sculpture, architecture, and all the kindred arts. When Michelangelo was sixty, he had done what might well have been considered a full measure of work, yet Pope Paul III. sent for him to complete the decorations of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He was seventy-one when he finished the task; and his frescoes, including the mighty one of the “Last Judgment,” on the immense altar-wall, stand to tell succeeding generations what an old man can do. But further things this old man did, for in his seventy-second year he was appointed chief architect of St. Peter’s, a post which he held through the reigns of five Popes.

Even longer than he did the painter Titian live and work, being in his hundredth year, when, stricken by the plague, he laid down his brush. Titian was seventy when the Emperor Charles AT. summoned him to Augsburg, where he painted his wonderful characterization of that great but gloomy ruler—the equestrian portrait in full armor.

Sir Christopher Wren, the English archi-

tect, was just sixty-four when he designed Greenwich Hospital. At seventy-seven lie made the plans for Marlborough House, and at eighty for the towers on the west front of Westminster Abbey.


One of the most striking instances of activity extending over a very long life is to be found in Manuel Garcia. Garcia died two years ago at the extraordinary age of one hundred and one. He had been a profound student of voice-production, and had established several theories which are now generally accepted. He had taught and trained some of the great singers of the past century, and he was the inventor of the laryngoscope, an instrument of great importance to surgeons and specialists. To the last year of his life he retained a remarkable measure of physical and mental activity.

Another notable centenarian was Michel Eugene Chevreul, the French chemist, who published an important scientific treatise at ninety-two, and who was busy with pen and microscope until his one hundred and third year.

Occasionally in the past some pretender has arisen to assert that he had found the elixir of life, the magic liquid which would enable men to live forever. There have always been many eager hands to seize the flask, and yet it is doubtful if many men would really care to remain upon this earth forever. There is something almost appalling in the thought of an existence lasting much beyond the natural term of fourscore years, though we all long to have that span filled full with whatever work may be allotted to us here. The true life is like a sentence in the mouth of a good sneaker, well-rounded and carrying on its theme until the end, then closing with a clear-cut period, and not trailing off into ineffectual sounds. The records of the race show myriads of such lives: only a very few of them have been cited here. \\ hy, then, should one feel gloomy at the approach of age?