The Manly Virtue of Ambition

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






Hope without an object cannot live.


Have an aim in life, or your energies will all be wasted.

–M. C. Peters

Every one should take the helm of his own life, and steer instead of drifting.

–C. C. Everett

Ambition is to life just what steam is to the locomotive.

–J. C. Jaynes

No toil, no hardships can restrain ambitious men inur’d to pain.


Ambition is one of the great forces of human life. We may describe it as a strong, fixed desire in the heart to get honor, or to attain the best things. It is a kind of hunger or thirst for success that makes men dare danger and trial to satisfy it. A man is of little use in the world unless he have ambition to set him in motion. Small talent with great ambition often does far more than genius without it.

The severest censure that can be passed upon a man is that of the poet, “Everything by turns and nothing long.” The words contain a sad revelation of wasted opportunities, wasted powers, wasted life. These words apply, with a painful degree of exactness, to the career of Lord Brougham. Few men have been more richly endowed by nature. Few men have exhibited a greater plasticity of intellect, a greater affluence of mental resources. He was a fine orator, a clear thinker, a ready writer. It is seldom that a man who sways immense audiences by the power of his eloquence attains also to a high position in the ranks of literature. Yet Brougham did this; while, as a lawyer, he gained the most splendid prize of his profession, the Lord Chancellorship of England; and as a scientific investigator, merited and received the applause of scientific men.

All this may seem to indicate success; and, to a certain extent, Brougham was successful. Nevertheless, having been everything by turns and nothing long–having given up to many pursuits the powers which should have been reserved for one or two–he was on the whole, a failure. Not only did he fail to make any permanent mark on the history or literature of his country, but he even outlived his own fame. He was almost forgotten before he died. He frittered away his genius on too many objects.

It has long been a question of debate whether circumstances make men, or men control circumstances. There are those who believe that men are governed by their environments; that their surroundings determine their lives.

The other school of philosophers boldly assert the opposite view. Men may control their surroundings. They are not the sport of the winds of circumstance. Carlyle, who is a member of this school, does not hesitate, in one of his essays, to say that “there have been great crises in the world’s history when great men were needed, but they did not appear.”

This much is certain, we have many instances in which people have risen above their surroundings. Warren Hastings’s case is one in point. Macaulay tells the story with his accustomed brilliancy and attractiveness. When Hastings was a mere child, the ancestral estate, through some mismanagement, passed out of the hands of the family. Warren would often go–for the family remained in the neighborhood—and gaze through the bars upon what had once been his home. He registered a mental vow to regain that estate. That became the ambition of his life; the one great purpose to which he devoted all his energies. Many years passed; Hastings went to other climes; but there was ever with him the determination to get that estate; and he succeeded.

After all, would it not appear that the true theory is that of a golden mean between these two extremes? Circumstances sometimes control men or, at any rate, some kind of men; men, especially men of strong will power sometimes control their environments. Circumstances give men an opportunity to display their powers. The fuller study of this subject clearly shows the need of some principles of morality that are not dependent upon any chance companionship, and that may belong to the man himself, and not merely to his surroundings.

An ambition to get on in the world, the steady struggle to get up, to reach higher, is a constant source of education in foresight, in prudence, in economy, in industry and courage; in fact is the great developer of many of the strongest and noblest qualities of character.

The men at the summit fought their way up from the bottom. John Jacob Astor sold apples on the streets of New York; A. T. Stewart swept out his own store; Cornelius Vanderbilt laid the foundation of his vast fortune with a hundred dollars given him by his mother; Lincoln was a rail splitter; Grant was a tanner; and Garfield was a towboy on a canal.

By hard work and unconquerable perseverance you can rise above the low places of poverty. True, you may never shine in the galaxy of the great ones of this earth, but you may fill your lives and homes with blessings, and make the world wiser and better for your having lived in it. Cash cannot take the place of character. It is far better to be a man, than merely to be a millionaire.

A man who heard Lincoln speak in Norwich, Connecticut, some time before he was nominated for the presidency, was greatly impressed by the closely-knit logic of the speech. Meeting him next day on a train, he asked him how he acquired his wonderful logical powers and such acuteness in analysis. Lincoln replied: “It was my terrible discouragement which did that for me. When I was a young man I went into an office to study law. I saw that a lawyer’s business is largely to prove things. I said to myself, ‘Lincoln, when is a thing proved?’ That was a poser. What constitutes proof? Not evidence; that was not the point. There may be evidence enough, but wherein consists the proof? I groaned over the question, and finally said to myself, ‘Ah! Lincoln, you can’t tell.’ Then I thought, ‘What use is it for me to be in a law office if I can’t tell when a thing is proved?’ So I gave it up and went back home.

“Soon after I returned to the old log cabin, I fell in with a copy of Euclid. I had not the slightest notion what Euclid was, and I thought I would find out. I therefore began, at the beginning, and before spring I had gone through that old Euclid’s geometry, and could demonstrate every proposition like a book. Then in the spring, when I had got through with it, I said to myself one day, ‘Ah, do you know now when a thing is proved?’ And I answered, ‘Yes, sir, I do.’ ‘Then you may go back to the law shop;’ and I went.”

We may be rightly ambitious in various ways. It is right to be ambitious for fame and honor. The love of praise is not bad in itself, but it is a very dangerous motive. Why? Because in order to be popular, one may be tempted to be insincere. Never let the world’s applause drown the voice of conscience.

It is right to be ambitious to excel in whatever you do. Slighted work and half-done tasks are sins. “I am as good as they are”; “I do my work as well as they”; are cowardly maxims. Not what others have done, but perfection, is the only true aim, whether it be in the ball-field or in the graver tasks of life.

Many people think that ambition is an evil weed, and ought to be pulled up by the roots. Shakespeare makes Wolsey say,–

“I charge thee, fling away ambition
By that sin fell the angels.”

But the great cardinal had abused ambition, and had changed it into a vice. Ambition is a noble quality in itself, but like any other virtue it may be carried to excess, and thus become an evil. Like fire or water, it must be controlled to be safe and useful. Napoleon, while commanding armies, could not command his own ambition; and so he was caged up like a wild beast at St. Helena. A millionaire may be so ambitious for gain as purposely to wreck the fortunes of others. A politician may sell his manhood to gratify his desire for office. Boys and girls may become so ambitious to win their games, or to get the prizes at school, that they are willing to cheat, or take some mean advantage; and then ambition becomes to them not a blessing but a curse.

We ought now and then to stop and test our ambition, just as the engineer tries the steam in the boiler; if we do not, it may in some unexpected moment wreck our lives. There are two ways of finding out whether our ambition is too strong for safety. First, if we discover that ambition is hurting our own character, there is danger. Second, if we find ambition blinding us to the rights of others, it is time to stop. These are the two tests; and so long as your ambition is harming neither your own life nor the lives of others, it is good and wholesome, and will add value and brightness to your life.




Henry Havelock, commonly known as “The Hero of Lucknow,” was born in England, 1795, just about the time when Napoleon was beginning his brilliant career, and all Europe was a battlefield. As a boy he was rather serious and thoughtful, so that his school fellows used to call him “Old Phlos,” a nickname for Old Philosopher. And yet he loved boyish sports, and never was behind any of his companions in courage and daring.

He was not the first scholar in his class, but he was a great reader and took intense delight in stories of war and descriptions of battles. Napoleon was his hero, and he watched all his movements with breathless interest; and soon began to dream of being a soldier, too. Thus was born in the boy’s heart that ambition which afterward lifted the man into honor and fame.

At the age of sixteen Havelock began to study law, but he soon tired of it, and three years later obtained an appointment in the army. He now gave himself, with all the love and enthusiasm of his nature, to his chosen profession. He was to be a soldier; and he decided that he would be a thorough one, and would understand the art of war completely. He studied very hard, and it is said that it was his habit to draw with a stick upon the ground the plan of some historic battlefield, then, in imagination fight the battle over again, so that he might clearly see what made the one side lose and the other win.

After eight years of service in England, he was ordered to go to India. There he became a soldier in earnest. It would take too long to tell of the battles he was in, and of the terrible campaigns through which he served. It is enough to say that he always followed where duty led, and always seemed to know just what to do amid the confusion of the battlefield. It was the dream of his life to become a general, but he was doomed, year after year, to stand still and see untried, beardless men promoted above his head. This certainly was hard to bear, but he never lost heart, never sulked, never neglected any opportunity to serve his government. His ambition was to do his best; and this he did, whether the world saw and applauded or not.

Until he reached the age of sixty-two, he was scarcely known outside of India; but then came the occasion that made him famous. All India was in mutiny. The native soldiers, mad with power, were murdering the English in every city. Far up in the interior, at Lucknow, was a garrison of English soldiers, women, and children, hemmed in by thousands of these bloodthirsty Sepoys. To surrender meant a horrible death. To hold the fort meant starvation at last, unless rescue should speedily come.

Although, when the news reached him, he was hundreds of miles away, Havelock undertook to save that little garrison. It seemed an impossible task, and yet with a few hundred brave soldiers, in a country swarming with the enemy, through swamps, over swollen rivers, he fought his way to the gates at Lucknow. And then, beneath a hailstorm of bullets from every house-top, he marched up the narrow street, and never paused until he stood within the fortress walls, and heard the shout of welcome from the lips of the starving men and women. It was a wonderful march, and put him among the great soldiers of history; but it was the direct result of that powerful ambition which had influenced his entire career.

The world rang with applause of his heroism; but praise came too late; for while the queen was making him a baronet, and Parliament was voting him a princely pension, he was dying of a fever within the very city he had so bravely stormed. But his life-work was fully completed, and his name shines brightly among those of the great military heroes of his native land.

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under 19th Century, 4th of july, accomplishment, advice, affection, america, american culture, american history, american rebirth, american tradition, antiquarian, books, boy scout, boy scouting, boys, character, character building, conservatism, conservative, conservative idealogy, conservative movement, cub scouting, cub scouts, cultural renewal, culture, economics, economy, educating children, education, family, fatherhood, fathers and sons, get 'er done!, herbalism, heroes, history, home schooling, homeschooling, homestead, homesteader, homesteading, hot peppers, independence day, independent scouting, industry, kids, knowledge, knowledge is power, leadership, learning, make it yourself, manners, medeival, moral kids, morals, new american revolution, old days, old ways, organic, parenting advice, patriot, patriotism, Uncategorized, you're a great american, young adults, youth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s