The chemist Vauquelin was the son of a peasant of Saint-André-d’Herbetot, in the Calvados. When a boy at school, though poorly clad, he was full of bright intelligence; and the master, who taught him to read and write, when praising him for his diligence, used to say, “Go on, my boy; work, study, Colin, and one day you will go as well dressed as the parish churchwarden!” A country apothecary who visited the school, admired the robust boy’s arms, and offered to take him into his laboratory to pound his drugs, to which Vauquelin assented, in the hope of being able to continue his lessons.
But the apothecary would not permit him to spend any part of his time in learning; and on ascertaining this, the youth immediately determined to quit his service. He therefore left Saint-André and took the road for Paris with his havresac on his back. Arrived there, he searched for a place as apothecary’s boy, but could not find one. Worn out by fatigue and destitution, Vauquelin fell ill, and in that state was taken to the hospital, where he thought he should die. But better things were in store for the poor boy. He recovered, and again proceeded in his search of employment, which he at length found with an apothecary.
Shortly after, he became known to Fourcroy the eminent chemist, who was so pleased with the youth that he made him his private secretary; and many years after, on the death of that great philosopher, Vauquelin succeeded him as Professor of Chemistry. Finally, in 1829, the electors of the district of Calvados appointed him their representative in the Chamber of Deputies, and he re-entered in triumph the village which he had left so many years before, so poor and so obscure.
England has no parallel instances to show, of promotions from the ranks of the army to the highest military offices; which have been so common in France since the first Revolution. “La carrière ouverte aux talents” has there received many striking illustrations, which would doubtless be matched among ourselves were the road to promotion as open. Hoche, Humbert, and Pichegru, began their respective careers as private soldiers.
Hoche, while in the King’s army, was accustomed to embroider waistcoats to enable him to earn money wherewith to purchase books on military science. Humbert was a scapegrace when a youth; at sixteen he ran away from home, and was by turns servant to a tradesman at Nancy, a workman at Lyons, and a hawker of rabbit skins. In 1792, he enlisted as a volunteer; and in a year he was general of brigade. Kleber, Lefèvre, Suchet, Victor, Lannes, Soult, Massena, St. Cyr, D’Erlon, Murat, Augereau, Bessières, and Ney, all rose from the ranks. In some cases promotion was rapid, in others it was slow.
Saint Cyr, the son of a tanner of Toul, began life as an actor, after which he enlisted in the Chasseurs, and was promoted to a captaincy within a year. Victor, Duc de Belluno, enlisted in the Artillery in 1781: during the events preceding the Revolution he was discharged; but immediately on the outbreak of war he re-enlisted, and in the course of a few months his intrepidity and ability secured his promotion as Adjutant-Major and chief of battalion. Murat, “le beau sabreur,” was the son of a village innkeeper in Perigord, where he looked after the horses.