Affection: Key to Character (with Abraham Lincoln as the Example)

An Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith

Entry #6 in the Raising Great Americans Project! Click Here to learn More!






Gratitude is the music of the heart.

–Robert South.

The best way of recognizing a benefit is never to forget it.

–J. J. Barthelmey

The affection and the reason are both necessary factors in morality.


True love burns hottest when the weather is coldest.


The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.

–F. W. Bourdillon


One of the most powerful forces in the building of character is affection; and one of the most common forms of its manifestation is gratitude. The exercise of affection makes us tender and loving toward all living persons and creatures about us; while the exercise of gratitude usually results in making them tender and loving toward us.

Every boy and girl should endeavor to cultivate this spirit of affectionate consideration for the feelings of others, and should be careful not to speak any word, or do any act, or even give any look which can cause unnecessary pain. And yet there are many young people, who have never been taught better, who take exceeding pleasure in causing annoyance and even suffering to all with whom they have to do. This is done with the simple idea of having a little fun; but it is one of the worst habits we can possibly form, and should be carefully avoided by all who would command the respect and esteem which every young person should desire to possess.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the youth who, while walking out with his tutor, saw a pair of shoes that a poor laborer had left under a hedge while he was busied with his work. “What fun it would be,” exclaimed the young man, “to hide these shoes, and then to conceal ourselves behind the hedge, and see the man’s surprise and excitement when he cannot find them.” “I will tell you what would be better sport,” said the tutor; “put a piece of money into one of the shoes, and then hide and watch his surprise when he finds it.” This the young man did; and the joy and wonder of the poor laborer when he found the money in his shoe was as good fun as he wanted.

We all know what the feeling of gratitude is. We have said “Thank you,” a great many times; and have often felt really grateful in our hearts for gifts and favors received. But we are too apt to forget that we have any one to thank for the most important benefits of our lives. When we stop to think, we see that all we have done or can do for ourselves is very little indeed in comparison with what has been done for us.

How much we owe to our parents! What other creature in the world is so helpless as the human infant? Leave a little baby to take care of itself, and how long do you suppose it would live? How many of us would be alive today, if in our earliest years we had not been provided for and watched over with tender care? But the outward benefits for which children have to thank their parents are of less value than the lessons of truth and goodness which are never so well taught as by the lips of a faithful and devoted father and mother. To these lessons the greatest and best men generally look back with the deepest gratitude.

A child’s affection for his parents ought to make him tender toward them when age or disease has made them irritable or complaining. A love that only accepts, and never gives, is not worthy of the name.

Sometimes we hear of old men and women who are left to die alone, whose children have deserted them, and who have no friends in the world. These cases seem pitiful enough, and it breaks our hearts to think of them. But usually the men and women who are left desolate in their old age are those who have been unloving in their youth. “A man that hath friends must show himself friendly,” and an aged man or woman who has made friends through life, and been full of love and affection toward others, is tolerably sure to be tenderly cared for in later years. But true affection is never eager for returns. We love because we must love; never because we expect to be loved in return. We do for others because we wish to make them happy; and not because we wish them to do for us.

Kindness and generosity have their place in the playground. There may be thoughtfulness for one who is weaker than the rest, or who is a newcomer, or who, for any reason, is neglected by others. There is an opportunity to stand up for those who are ill-used. There is a generous sympathy for those who, in any way, are having a hard time.

In all these ways boys and girls, when they are at play, show pretty well what they are going to be in later life. When Napoleon was at a military school, the boys were one day playing at war. One set of them held a fort which the others were trying to capture. The boy, Napoleon, led the attacking party. In the midst of the fight there was a flourish of trumpets, and a party of officers entered, who had come to inspect the school. The boys that held the fort forgot their play, and stood staring at the entering group. Napoleon did not lose his head for a moment. He kept his party up to their work. He took advantage of the interruption, and when the besieged recovered their wits, their fort was captured. He was already the Napoleon who in the real battles of later years knew how to turn so many seemingly adverse circumstances to good account.

We always think of Sir Walter Scott as a very affectionate man; but once when he was a boy he saw a dog coming toward him and carelessly threw a stone at him. The stone broke the dog’s leg. The poor creature had strength to crawl up to him and lick his feet. This incident, he afterward said, had given him the bitterest remorse. He never forgot it. From that moment he resolved never to be unkind to any animal. We know that he kept that resolution, for he wrote many of his novels with his faithful dogs Maida, Nimrod, and Bran near him. When Maida died he had a sculptured monument of her set up before his door.

We all know boys who throw stones at animals from pure thoughtlessness and love of fun. But no boy with a really affectionate nature can bear to make an animal or a human being suffer pain. A boy who begins by being cruel to animals usually ends by being cruel to women and children. A girl who habitually forgets to feed her kitten or her canary birds, will be apt to forget her child later in life.

Half a century ago there lived in the state of Massachusetts a very remarkable man named Henry David Thoreau. This man became so deeply interested in the animal world that he built a little hut for himself near Walden Pond, and he there lived in the closest sympathy with the birds and animals for more than two years. It is said that even the snakes loved him, and would wind round his legs; and on taking a squirrel from a tree the little creature would hide its head in his waistcoat. The fish in the river knew him and would let him lift them out of the water, and the little wood-mice came and nibbled at the cheese he held in his hand. It was Thoreau’s love for the little wild creatures which drew them to him, for animals are as responsive to love as are human beings.

John Howard gave his life to the work of improving the condition of prisons all over the world, and finally he died alone in Russia of jail fever. He was followed in his labors by Elizabeth Fry in England, and by Dorothea Dix in America. These noble philanthropists were filled with unselfish love toward suffering humanity. They devoted their lives to the neglected and forsaken, including the whole world in their generous hearts; and their names and deeds will never be forgotten.

There are two principal ways in which our kindly feelings may be made known:

First, in our words. It is pleasant to those who do us favors to know that we appreciate their kindness, and we should never fail to tell them so. This is often all the return that they expect or ask; besides, it is good for us. We strengthen our feelings by giving them suitable expression. Loveless at last is the home in which no word of love is ever heard. The grateful feeling to which one gives utterance kindles the same feeling in the hearts of those who hear.

Second, in our deeds. If we are really grateful we are not satisfied with simply saying, “Thank you,” to those who have been kind to us, even when we know this is all they expect. We wish to render them some service in return. In the case of our parents, as long as they are with us, we can best do this by doing cheerfully what they ask us to do, by thoughtfully anticipating their wishes, and by trying to be as pure and good as we know they want us to be.




Abraham Lincoln was a poor boy. His early life was full of hardships; but many a kind friend helped him in his struggle against poverty4. Among these friends of his early youth was one, Jack Armstrong, of New Salem, Illinois, whose kind, good-hearted wife performed for Lincoln many a motherly act of kindness. She made his clothes and “got him something to eat while he rocked the baby.” Years passed by. Lincoln became a successful lawyer. Soon after he had entered upon the practice of his profession at Springfield, his old friend, Jack Armstrong died. The baby whom Lincoln had rocked grew into a stout but dissolute young man. He was arrested, charged with the crime of murder. “Aunt Hannah,” as Lincoln used to call her, was heartbroken with sorrow for her poor, misguided boy. In her grief she appealed to the “noble, good Abe,” who had rocked her son when he was a baby. The appeal brought tears to the eyes of Lincoln. His generous heart was touched. He resolved to discharge the debt of gratitude which neither his great success in life nor the intervening years had erased from his memory. He pledged his services without charge.

“Aunt Hannah” believed that her boy was innocent and that others wished to fasten the crime upon him because of his bad reputation. The circumstances of the case were as follows: While Armstrong was in the company of several fast young men, they became intoxicated. A “free fight” ensued in which a young fellow named Metzgar was killed. After hearing the facts, Lincoln was convinced that the young man was not guilty, and resolved to do his best to save him from the gallows.

Lincoln secured a postponement of the trial and spent much time in tracing the evidence. He labored as hard to pay his old debt of gratitude as he would have done if he had been offered a five thousand dollar fee.

The day for the trial came. Lincoln threw his whole soul into the effort to defend the life of his client. He succeeded in proving his innocence beyond the shadow of a doubt. The closing of his plea was a marvel of eloquence. He depicted the loneliness and sorrow of the widowed mother, whose husband had once welcomed to his humble home a strange and penniless boy. “That boy now stands before you pleading for the life of his benefactor’s son.”

When the jury brought in the verdict, “not guilty,” a shout of joy went up from the crowded court room. The aged mother pressed forward through the throng and, with tears streaming from her eyes, attempted to express to Lincoln her gratitude for his noble effort.

Some months afterward Lincoln called to see her at her home. She urged him to take pay for his services. “Why, Aunt Hannah,” he exclaimed, “I shan’t take a cent of yours; never! Anything I can do for you, I will do willingly, and without any charge.”

True gratitude never forgets. No one can possess too much gratitude any more than he can have too much honesty or truthfulness. It was a “pearl of great price” in Lincoln’s heart. He was truer and nobler for it; and it did much to endear him to the American people, by whom he is still remembered as one of the most large-hearted and liberal-minded men our country has produced.


This Article is an Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith, which is available from Better Days Books in quality hardbound, sturdy trade paperback and convenient .PDF e-book editions starting at just $4.95.

Industry, Ambition, Self Control, Self-Respect, Courtesy, Faithfulness, Courage, Duty, Honesty, Enthusiasm, Humility, Patriotism… In every era of our Nation’s history, the true alchemy by which ordinary boys have been transformed into Great American Men has always and only occurred where these indispensible moral principles have been successfully applied. In an age like our own, where such manly ideals are openly mocked and derided by our popular culture, it’s time to turn to the past to recapture a clear vision of what it takes to be a Great American, and the true moral and ethical ladder that leads reliably to its attainment.

You Can Be a Great American: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness was first published in 1900, under the title The True Citizen, How to Become One, and contains 39 essential lessons in manhood tailored to each age and transition in a boy’s life, from infancy to adulthood. It is the clearest roadmap to American Greatness ever compiled for the youth of our Nation, and remains as life-changing today as it was when first published, over 100 years ago.

Whether you are an adult raising boys in a Traditional family setting, the single parent of a son, or a boy abandoned to no or poor parenting, left to grab your own bootstraps and lift yourself up to a life of achievement, success and All-American Greatness (or an adult who knows a boy in such sad straits), You Can Be a Great American!: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness is the only guidebook you’ll ever need.

Also available through in quality trade paperback and Kindle e-book download editions.


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