Self-Denial – No Boy Can Grow Up to Be a Hero Without It

In our earliest years we must train ourselves to forego little things for the sake of others. If we do so, we shall find it much easier to bear the heavier disappointments of maturer years. It will greatly help us if we try to practice at least one distinct act of self-denial every day; and we must not forget that these acts must be both voluntary and cheerful if they are to be of real benefit either to ourselves or to others…

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






Self-denial is the essence of heroism.


True self-denial involves personal sacrifice for the good of others.

–Dr. Momerie

To give up interest for duty is the alphabet of morals.

–James Hinton

A man of self-denial has the true ring which
distinguishes the genuine from the counterfeit.

–Prof. Seeley

The worst education which teaches self-denial is better
than the best which teaches everything else, and not that.

–John Sterling


It is a mistake to imagine that self-sacrifice and self-denial are precisely the same. Many persons seem to think that because self-sacrifice is a noble thing, everything in which self is given up must be noble. Self may sometimes be sacrificed when it ought to be maintained; and sometimes we sacrifice our interest to save ourselves a little trouble, or to get rid of some petty annoyance. We say, “Well, I have a right to do this, but, let it go;” and then we fancy that we have performed a noble deed, whereas, we have really been serving our own selfishness and love of ease.

True self-denial is the result of a calm and deliberate attachment to the highest good, and consists in the giving up of everything which stands in the way of its attainment, no matter what it may cost us either in suffering or loss.

In our earliest years we must train ourselves to forego little things for the sake of others. If we do so, we shall find it much easier to bear the heavier disappointments of maturer years. It will greatly help us if we try to practice at least one distinct act of self-denial every day; and we must not forget that these acts must be both voluntary and cheerful if they are to be of real benefit either to ourselves or to others.

The burdens which boyhood and girlhood must bear in acquiring an education, learning a trade, resisting temptations, and building spotless characters, demand the constant exercise of self-denial. Many people, young and old, know what duty is, but fail to do it for the want of decision. They know very well what labors and self-denials are necessary to obtain an education, master a trade, or attain to excellence in any pursuit; but their ignoble indecision, which is a sort of mental and moral debility, disqualifies them for the undertaking. “The will, which is the central force of character, must be trained to habits of decision; otherwise, it will neither be able to resist evil, nor to follow good.”

Our subject brings to mind many heroes of all kinds, to whose lives we would gladly refer, if our space permitted. They are found in all stations of life. There have been railway engineers, who, when they saw that a collision could not be avoided, have stood at their place to lighten, if possible, the shock, and have been killed; sea captains, who have remained at their posts till all others had left, and have gone down with their ships; physicians and nurses, and sisters of charity, who have not shrunk from pestilence in order to save life, or to comfort the dying. There was Father Damien, a Catholic priest, who so pitied the lepers that were confined to an island, deprived alike of the comforts of this world and of the consolations of religion, that he went and lived with them. He knew that when he once joined them he would probably take their disease, and, in any case, could never leave them. But he went, shared their lot, lived and died among them; seeking to do them good.

Historic illustrations of self-denial, still fresh in the memories of many citizens, are to the point here. General Grant had been for several months in front of Petersburg, apparently accomplishing nothing, while General Sherman had captured Atlanta, and completed his grand “march to the sea.” Then arose a strong cry to promote Sherman to Grant’s position as lieutenant-general. Hearing of it, Sherman wrote to Grant:

“I have written to John Sherman [his brother] to stop it. I would rather have you in command than any one else. I should emphatically decline any commission calculated to bring us into rivalry.”

General Grant replied:

“No one would be more pleased with your advancement than I; and if you should be placed in my position, and I put subordinate, it would not change our relations in the least. I would make the same exertions to support you, that you have done to support me; and I would do all in my power to make our cause win.”

Two great souls striving to be equally magnanimous! Could anything be more beautiful or noble in public life, where jealousy, and selfishness and double-dealing appear to rule the hour?

One or two other illustrations must suffice us. The captain of a ship was absent from it one day, being on board another vessel. While he was gone, a storm arose, which in a short time made an entire wreck of his own ship, to which it had not been possible for him to return. He had left on board two little boys, the one four years old and the other six, under the care of a young servant. The people struggled to get out of the sinking ship into a large boat; and the poor servant took the captain’s two little children, tied them in a sack, and put them into the boat, which was by this time quite full. He was stepping into it himself, but was told by the officer that there was no room for him,– that either he or the children must perish, for the weight of all would sink the boat. The heroic servant did not hesitate a moment. “Very well,” said he; “give my love to my master, and tell him I beg pardon for all my faults;” and then he went to the bottom, never to rise again till the sea shall give up its dead.

The power and influence of self-denial are well set forth in the
following incident:

At a time of great scarcity in Germany, a certain rich man invited twenty poor children to his house, and said to them, “In this basket there is a loaf of bread for each of you; take it, and come again every day at this hour until the coming of better times.”

The children seized upon the basket, wrangled and fought for the bread, as each wished to get the best and largest loaf; and at last they went away without even thanking him.

Frances alone, a poor but neatly dressed child, stood modestly at a distance, took the smallest loaf that was left in the basket, thanked the gentleman, and went home in a quiet and orderly manner.

On the following day the children were just as ill-behaved; and poor Frances this time received a loaf which was scarcely half the size of the rest; but when she came home, and her mother began to cut the bread, there fell out of it a number of bright new silver coins.

Her mother was perplexed and said, “Take back the money this instant; for it has no doubt, got into the bread through some mistake.”

Frances carried it back. But the benevolent man said, “No, no! it was no mistake. I had the money baked in the smallest loaf in order to reward you, my dear child. Remember that the person who is contented with the smallest loaf, rather than quarrel for the largest one, will find blessings still more valuable than money baked in bread.”

All these incidents reveal the value of this trait in real life; and also serve to show how it is regarded by others than ourselves. It will more than repay us for its cultivation, both by the increase of our own happiness, and in the large amount of enjoyment it will put into the lives of those about us.




Charles Lamb was a writer of charming essays, full of wit and fancy. He seemed to the world as far as possible from a hero; yet his life was heroic in an unusual degree.

He was the son of a clerk in the London Law Courts, and the youngest child in a family of three. He had a brother, John, who was twelve years, and a sister Mary, ten years older than himself. At the age of seventeen he became a clerk in the Accountant’s Office of the East India Company. There was a kind of insanity in the family, and in September, 1796, Charles Lamb came home from his office-work to find that his sister had wounded her father in the forehead and had stabbed her mother to the heart. The inquest on the mother, held next day, was closed with a verdict of insanity, and Mary Lamb was placed in a lunatic asylum.

John Lamb, the elder brother, offered no aid to the family. Charles loved his sister, and cared for her with a beautiful devotion. The combined earnings of Charles and his father were less than two hundred pounds a year, but Charles so arranged matters that sixty pounds a year was devoted to her support. Others of the family, especially her brother John, opposed Mary’s discharge from the asylum; but Charles obtained her release by solemnly promising that he would take care of her.

Although he was engaged to be married to a woman whom he tenderly loved, he gave up all for Mary’s sake, and literally filled her life with his love. First he placed her in a lodging at Hackney, and spent all his Sundays and holidays with her. Then they lived together; he watching the moods that foreshadowed a mad fit, and taking her when needful, a willing patient, to the Hoxton asylum till the fit was over. It was a sad sight to see the brother and sister walking across the fields to the hospital together, when she felt that the trouble was coming on; but through the long period of forty years his love never once failed, and his devotion increased to the very end.

His whole life developed into one of singular kindness and self-sacrifice. He is known to have worn a coat six months longer than he otherwise would have done, in order that he might spare a little money to help some one less fortunate than himself. One of his many friends, speaking of him said, “Of all the men of genius I ever knew, the one most intensely and universally to be loved was Charles Lamb.”

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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Filed under 19th Century, 4th of july, advice, america, american culture, american history, american rebirth, american tradition, antiquarian, books, boy scout, boy scouting, boys, boys into men, character, character building, Charles Lamb, chivalry, christian parenting, citizenship, conservatism, conservative, cub scouting, cub scouts, cultural renewal, culture, educating children, education, family, fatherhood, fathers and sons, great american, heroes, history, home schooling, homeschooling, homestead, homesteader, homesteading, independence day, independent scouting, kids, learning, manners, moral kids, morals, new american revolution, old books, old days, old ways, parenting, parenting advice, patriot, patriotism, practical advice, raising boys, raising sons, renew america, renewing america, school, scout, scout movement, scouting, self denial, single parenting, sons, success for kids, successful kids, teaching kids self-denial, traditional conservatism, traditional parenting, traditional scouting, Uncategorized, values, victorian, vintage, virtue, wisdom, wise words, young adults, youth

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