The main business of life is not to do something great, but to become great in ourselves…
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 #18 in the Raising Great Americans Project! Click Here to learn More!
Above all things reverence yourself.
No one can disgrace us but ourselves.
–J. G. Holland
Self-distrust is the cause of most of our failures.
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
these three alone lead life to sovereign power.
To thine own self be true; and it will follow, as
night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
There is around every man or woman, every boy or girl, a certain atmosphere that keeps him or her separate and distinct from all other persons. We realize the truth of this statement very early in life; and unless we can learn to respect and rely upon our own distinctive self-hood, our lives will never reach their largest possibilities.
There is, however, a real difference between self-reliance and self-respect, though each partakes of the nature of the other. Self-respect is the root of which self-reliance is the growth in various acts or plans. It is the general tone and spirit running through our view of life, of our nature, of our friends, of our privileges, of our personal gifts. It is the basis on which we build self-reliant conduct and self-reliant convictions.
It is generally the man who thinks well of himself who comes to be thought well of. But it is also true that when a man becomes perfectly satisfied with himself and his worldly surroundings, he has reached the first stage of decline. Self-confidence, backed by good common sense, is one of the most important of human attributes. But we must be careful not to exaggerate ourselves, or rate ourselves too highly. There are dangers attending every virtue. Pushed to excess, even conscience, justice, and earnestness, may become injurious. Self-respect must be guarded by common sense, love of humanity, and the spirit of reverence. But nothing can make good an absence of this quality.
The Chinese say, “It never pays to respect a man who does not respect himself.” If the world sees that you do not honor yourself, it has a right to reject you as an impostor; because you claim to be worthy of the good opinion of others when you have not your own. Self-respect is based upon the same principles as respect for others. The scales of justice hang in every heart, and even the murderer respects the judge who condemns him; for the still small voice within says, “That is right.”
Self-respect is a great aid to pure living. So long as a youth has true self-respect, vice has little attraction for him. It is when this sterling virtue is sacrificed, and the thoughtless or reckless one ceases to care what is thought of him, that vice claims its victim. He who cares not whether men think well or ill of him, does not possess self-respect; and so he is easily lured into evil, becoming more and more indifferent to the good-will of others, and more thoughtless and abandoned in his daily life. With the loss of self-respect, he is likely to lose all that makes manhood true and noble.
The key to John Bunyan’s career is found in the self-respect which began to govern his thoughts and acts in maturing youth, and which afterward enabled him to meet persecution victoriously and to develop his peculiar talent. If lie had been turned back by the scorn and contempt heaped upon him on account of his low condition, or if he had listened to critics who laughed at his simple, direct style in “Pilgrim’s Progress”; or if he had lost courage because he belonged to a despised religious sect; we should never have had his inspiring example.
The main business of life is not to do something great, but to become great in ourselves. Any action has its finest and most enduring fruit in character. Men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong. They, rather than the police, guarantee the execution of the laws. Their influence is the bulwark of good government.
Character gravitates upward, while mere genius, without character, gravitates downward. How often we see, in school or college, young men, who are apparently dull and even stupid, rise gradually and surely above others who are without character, merely because the former have an upward tendency in their lives, a reaching-up principle, which gradually but surely unfolds and elevates them to positions of honor and trust. There is something which everybody admires in an aspiring soul, one whose tendency is upward and onward, in spite of hindrances and in defiance of obstacles.
As illustrating the mighty results of character based upon a self-respecting love of honor, we may relate that when General Lee was in conversation with one of his officers in regard to a movement of his army, a plain farmer’s boy overheard the general’s remark that he had decided to march upon Gettysburg instead of Harrisburg. The boy telegraphed this fact to Governor Curtin. A special engine was sent for the boy. “I would give my right hand,” said the governor, “to know if this boy tells the truth.” A corporal replied, “Governor, I know that boy; it is impossible for him to lie; there is not a drop of false blood in his veins.” In fifteen minutes the Union troops were marching to Gettysburg, where they gained a glorious victory.
True self-respect challenges the admiration of others. No man has reason to claim the regard of his fellows unless he first respects himself, for this latter act is the outcome of the only elements of character that can command the sincere esteem of men. A mean man, a dishonest man, a lazy man, or a conceited man, does not respect himself. Unless he is living under the power of some strong delusion, he knows that he is not worthy of regard.
A young man was invited by a friend to attend an entertainment which he thought was objectionable. “I am not entirely clear that it is wrong,” he said, “and when I am in doubt, I think the safer course is to decline.”
“Perhaps you are right,” answered the friend; “but I think that people will respect you as much as ever if you go.”
“Possibly; but I want to respect myself,” replied the young man. “I should lose my self-respect by performing a doubtful act. My aim should be higher than that.”
Samuel Smiles expresses the truth well in this extract from “Character”:
“It is the great lesson of biography to teach what man can be and can do at his best. It may thus give each man renewed strength and confidence. The humblest, in sight of even the greatest, may admire and hope and take courage. These great brothers of ours in blood and lineage, who live a universal life, still speak to us from their graves, and beckon us on in the paths which they have trod.”
One of the last things said by Sir Walter Scott, as he lay dying, was this: “I have been, perhaps, the most voluminous author of my day, and it is a comfort to me to think that I have tried to unsettle no man’s faith, to corrupt no man’s principles, and that I have written nothing which, on my deathbed, I would wish blotted out.” To have lived such a life as he lived is more than to have reigned over a kingdom.
SIR WALTER SCOTT
We are glad to call special attention to Scott, because of his heroic struggle to maintain his good name. He was born in Edinburgh, August 15, 1771. He was the son of Walter Scott, an attorney at law; and Anne Rutherford, daughter of Dr. John Rutherford, professor of medicine in the University of Edinburgh, and a lineal descendant from the ancient chieftain Walter Scott, traditionally known as “Auld Walt of Harden.”
As a schoolboy Walter was very popular. He made himself respected for his courage and general ability to take care of himself. He was not considered a very bright scholar, although, even then, he gave evidence of his special delight in history, poetry, fairy tales, and fables. In 1783 he entered the university. He made little progress in the ancient languages, but was more successful in other studies. His time, however, was industriously employed in storing his mind with that great wealth of knowledge which afterward made him famous as a writer.
Scott was educated for a lawyer, but all his natural tastes were in the direction of literature. The greater part of his early life was an unconscious preparation for writing. He had been writing prose romances for several years with considerable success, when in January, 1805, he published “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” It at once became extremely popular. It sold more widely than any poem had ever sold before. This led him to decide that literature was to be the main business of his life. “Marmion,” which appeared in 1808, and “The Lady of the Lake,” in 1810, placed Scott among the greatest living poets. He touched then the highest point of happiness and prosperity.
Soon after this he entered into a business partnership with a publishing house, which resulted in his financial ruin. The failure left him partner to a debt of over one hundred thousand pounds. At the age of fifty-five, when all the freshness of youth was gone, he set himself the task of paying this enormous claim and winning back his ancestral estates. He went to work with a dogged determination to pay off his debt of honor. The heaviest blow was to his pride; yet pride alone never enabled any man to struggle so vigorously to meet the obligations he had incurred. It was rather that high feeling of self-respect which nerved his power to meet and try to overcome his great misfortune. His estates were conveyed to trustees for the benefit of his creditors, until such time as he could free them. Between January, 1826, and January, 1828, he earned forty thousand pounds by unremitting toil. Then his health broke down; yet he still struggled on with enfeebled constitution, but with an unbroken will, to discharge, if possible, his obligations, and leave to the world a respected name.
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.