Teaching Children to Follow Their Conscience

Conscience does not teach us what is right; we learn that from experience, and in many other ways. It simply tells us to do the best we know, and reproaches us when we do otherwise…

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






Conscientiousness is the underlying granite of life.

–Sir Walter Raleigh

When love of praise takes the place of praiseworthiness, the defect is fatal.

–S. Baring-Gould

When a man is dead to the sense of right, he is lost forever.

–James McCrie

Insincerity alienates love and rots away authority.


The value of conscientiousness is
principally seen in the benefits of civilization.

–Charles Kingsley


Conscientiousness is a scrupulous regard to the decisions of conscience. When we say a duty was performed “religiously,” it is the same as a duty done conscientiously. Conscience does not teach us what is right; we learn that from experience, and in many other ways. It simply tells us to do the best we know, and reproaches us when we do otherwise.

Some one has well said: “We can train ourselves to be conscientious, to be responsive to conscience, to obey it; but conscience itself cannot be educated. It is like the sun. We may so arrange our house as to receive the largest amount of sunlight; but the sun itself cannot be changed either for our advantage or disadvantage. As a house with ample windows is illuminated within by the rays of the sun, so is a well-trained life filled with the light of conscience.” We may therefore define conscientiousness as the inborn desire to do that which is right and just.

Conscientiousness, which is, as we have just seen, another name for justice, is a trait to be cultivated among young people in their sports, in family life, and in school. A boy is unjust who refuses to “play fair”; a girl is unjust who deprives a friend of anything properly hers. Young people may be unjust in their words, in their thoughts, or in their actions; and the greatest watchfulness is needed to prevent us from failing in this important matter.

One’s sense of justice may be increased by thoughtfulness as to his duty to himself, as well as to others; and by demanding very rigid observance of every law of conduct which commends itself as needful to ideal character. “There is only one real failure possible in life,” said Canon Farrar, “and that is, not to be true to the best one knows.”

“I can remember when you blackened my father’s shoes,” said one member of the British House of Commons to another in the heat of debate. “True enough,” was the prompt reply, “but did I not blacken them well?” The sense of right-doing was sufficient to turn an intended insult into a well-merited compliment, and to increase for him the esteem of his fellow-members.

“Whatever is right to do,” said an eminent writer, “should be done with our best care, strength, and faithfulness of purpose.”

Leonardo da Vinci would walk across Milan to change a single tint or the slightest detail in his famous picture of “The Last Supper.”

Rufus Choate would plead before a shoemaker justice of the peace, in a petty case, with all the fervor and careful attention to detail with which he addressed the United States Supreme Court.

“No, I can’t do it, it is impossible,” said Webster, when pressed to speak on a question soon to come up, toward the close of a Congressional session. “I am so pressed with other duties that I haven’t time to prepare myself to speak upon that theme.” “Ah, but Mr. Webster, you always speak well upon any subject. You never fail.” “But that’s the very reason,” said the orator, “because I never allow myself to speak upon any subject without first making that subject thoroughly my own. I haven’t time to do that in this instance. Hence I must refuse.”

Among the list of our great reformers, William Lloyd Garrison must always hold a very prominent place. The work he did was that of unselfish devotion to an overmastering sense of justice. He labored for those in bonds, as bound with them. Faithful, as but few others were faithful, he worked in season and out of season for human freedom. After great effort, Mr. Garrison succeeded in establishing an antislavery society, and he was made its agent to lecture for the cause. But the whole tone of society was against him. He was at the mercy of that prejudice which, at so many points, was ready to adopt mob violence. The discussion of slavery was taken up in educational institutions where, as in general society, but very few were found who believed in universal freedom. But still he never swerved from what he believed to be right. Justice was his plea; justice was his battle cry; and it came to be said of him that “He was conscience incarnated.”

A beautiful illustration of justice, and fairness of treatment, occurred at the opening of the great battle of Manila Bay, on May 1, 1898.

When the order was given to strip for action, one of the powder boys tore his coat off hurriedly, and it fell from his hands and went over the rail, down into the bay. A few moments before, he had been gazing on his mother’s photograph, and just before he took his coat off he had kissed the picture and put it in his inside pocket. When the coat fell overboard he turned to the captain and asked permission to jump over and get it. Naturally the request was refused. The boy then went to the other side of the ship and climbed down the ladder. He swam around to the place where the coat had dropped and succeeded in getting it. When he came back he was put in irons for disobedience. After the battle he was tried by a court-martial for disobedience, and found guilty.

Commodore Dewey became interested in the case, for he could not understand why the boy had risked his life and disobeyed orders for a coat. The lad had never told his motives. But when the commodore talked to him in a kindly way, and asked him why he had done such a strange thing for an old coat, he burst into tears and told the commodore that his mother’s picture was in the coat. Dewey’s eyes filled with tears as he listened to the story. Then he picked up the boy and embraced him. He ordered the little fellow to be instantly released and pardoned. “A boy who loves his mother enough to risk his life for her picture, cannot be kept in irons on this fleet,” he said.

Examples by the score crowd in upon our minds as we think more deeply into this subject, but space permits of only one more before passing to our special illustration:

When troubled with deafness, the Duke of Wellington consulted a celebrated physician, who put strong caustic into his ear, causing an inflammation which threatened his life. The doctor apologized, expressed great regrets, and said that the blunder would ruin him. “No,” said Wellington, “I will never mention it.” “But will you allow me to attend you, so that the people will not withdraw their confidence?” “No,” said the Iron Duke, “that would be lying.”

Enough has perhaps been said to show that conscientiousness and justice are not simply beautiful traits of character; but that they are absolutely necessary to the fullest advancement of the individual and of the race. We proceed to enforce this truth still more strongly, however, by a closing reference to the career of one of our greatest statesmen.




In using Mr. Sumner as our special illustration of conscientiousness, it is not because we lack other examples. On the contrary, they are all about us; and doubtless we could all mention excellent cases in our own homes, and among our own acquaintances, where conscientiousness has been vividly illustrated.

Charles Sumner was the eldest of nine children, and was born in Boston, on the sixth day of January, 1811. His father was a lawyer, and sheriff of Suffolk County, and was descended from the early colonists of New England. Even in childhood and youth he evinced the quiet, thoughtful, and serious temperament which was characteristic of the Puritans. As a boy he took little interest in games and frolics. He read much, and was reserved and awkward. Society to him, in early life, possessed no attractions; and while he was always studious and patient he never displayed any marked talent.

His progress in life was almost entirely due to his conscientious, persistent, untiring application to the acquisition of knowledge and the development of all his powers. He was in the highest sense a cultivated man. His mind became, through conscientious and laborious study, a great storehouse, filled with the richest materials and the power to use them.

But he did not seek these treasures of learning and power for the simple end of glorifying himself. His one great object in life was to benefit mankind. He said in an address, delivered just after he had begun the practice of law, speaking of conscience and charity: “They must become a part of us and of our existence, as present, in season and out of season, in all the amenities of life, in those daily offices of conduct and manner which add so much to its charm, as also in those grander duties whose performance evinces an ennobling self-sacrifice.” It was his own determined and unfaltering devotion to this lofty ideal, that led directly to the success of his great public career.

Charles Sumner was first elected to the Senate in 1851. Throughout his brilliant life his lofty character never forsook him; and if we will carefully examine the measures which he advocated, voted for, or opposed, from time to time, the discovery will be made that his conscience was his inevitable guide.

While he dearly loved peace, he was always in the midst of warfare. He constantly incurred the censure which arises from advocating unpopular measures. Childlike in his personal friendships, he often spoke about himself as he would speak of others,–revealing what others would have concealed. Frank, sincere, and pledged from youth to principles, rather than to persons, he was obliged to struggle against great obstacles. To him the slave was a human being with a soul, entitled to every right and privilege accorded to any American citizen. He devoted his energies to the cause of freedom down to the very last, and died in Washington, on March 11, 1874, exclaiming, “Don’t let my Civil Rights Bill fail!”

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 Amazon.com in quality trade paperback and Kindle e-book download editions.


1 Comment

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One response to “Teaching Children to Follow Their Conscience

  1. endithinks

    Thank you for talking a subject that has long been on my mind the reteaching of conscience to our children based on justice, truth and hard work. I appreciate that all the examples you gave were “regular” people whose conscious ruled their decisions.

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