Help Yourself to Greatness!

Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives himself…

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






Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to Heaven.


Be sure, my son, and remember that the best men always make themselves.

–Patrick Henry.

God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.

–J. G. Holland

Every person has two educations, one which he receives
from others, and one, more important, which he gives himself.


In battle or business, whatever the game,
In law, or in love it is ever the same:
In the struggle for power, or the scramble for pelf,
Let this be your motto, “Rely on yourself.”

–J. G. Saxe

History and biography unite in teaching that circumstances have rarely favored great men. They have fought their way to triumph over the road of difficulty and through all sorts of opposition. Boys of lowly origin have made many of the greatest discoveries, are presidents of our banks, of our colleges, of our universities. Our poor boys and girls have written many of our greatest books, and have filled the highest places as teachers and journalists. Ask almost any great man in our large cities where he was born, and he will tell you it was on a farm or in a small country village. Nearly all the great capitalists of the city came from the country.

Frederick Douglass was born a slave, reared in bondage, liberated by his own exertions, educated and advanced by sheer pluck and perseverance, to distinguished positions in the service of his country, and to a high place in the respect and esteem of the whole world.

Chauncey Jerome, the inventor of machine-made clocks, started with two others on a tour through New Jersey, they to sell the clocks, and he to make cases for them. On his way to New York he went through New Haven, Connecticut, in a lumber wagon, eating bread and cheese. He afterward lived in a fine mansion in that city, and stood very high among its people.

Men who have been bolstered up all their lives are seldom good for anything in a crisis. When misfortune comes, they look around for somebody to lean upon. If the prop is not there down they go. Once down, they are helpless as capsized turtles. Many a boy has succeeded beyond all his expectations simply because all props were knocked out from under him and he was obliged to stand upon his own feet. “Poverty is uncomfortable, as I can testify,” said James A. Garfield; “but nine times out of ten the best thing that can happen to a young man is to be tossed overboard and compelled to sink or swim for himself. In all my acquaintance I have never known a man to be drowned who was worth the saving.”

What is put into the first of life is put into the whole of life. The great London preacher, Mr. Spurgeon, once said “Out of a church of twenty-seven hundred members, I have never had to exclude a single one who was received while a child;” and in other respects it is equally true that our earliest impressions and habits most powerfully influence our later life.

Washington, at thirteen, copied into his commonplace book one hundred and ten maxims of civility and good behavior, and was most careful in the formation of all his habits. Franklin, too, devised a plan of self-improvement and character-building. No doubt the noble characters of these two men, almost superhuman in their excellence, are the natural result of their early care and earnest striving toward perfection.

But the opposite truth needs to be quite as fully considered. “Many men of genius have written worse scrawls than I do,” said a boy at Eugby, when his teacher remonstrated with him for his bad penmanship; “it is not worth while to worry about so trivial a fault.” Ten years later, when he had become an officer in the Crimea, his illegible copy of an order caused the loss of many brave men.

The insidious growth of the power of habit is well illustrated by the old fable which says that one of the Fates spun filaments so fine that they were invisible, and then became a victim of her own cunning; for she was bound to the spot by these very threads.

There is also a story of a Grecian flute-player who charged double fees for pupils who had been taught by inferior masters, on the ground that it was much harder to undo bad habits than to form good ones.

“Conduct,” says Matthew Arnold, “is three fourths of life;” but conduct has its source in character. Right conduct in life is to be secured by the formation of right character in youth. The prime element in character, as related to conduct, is the power of self-directions and hence the supreme aim of school discipline is to prepare the young to be self-governing men and women.

An easy and luxurious existence does not train men to effort or encounter with difficulty; nor does it awaken that consciousness of power which is so necessary for energetic and effective action in life. Indeed, so far from poverty being a misfortune, it may, by vigorous self-help, be converted into a blessing.

A young man stood listlessly watching some anglers on a bridge. He was poor and dejected. At length, approaching a basket filled with fish, he sighed, “If now I had these I would be happy. I could sell them and buy food and lodging.” “I will give you just as many and just as good,” said the owner, who chanced to overhear his words, “if you will do me a trifling favor.” “And what is that?” asked the other. “Only to tend this line till I come back; I wish to go on a short errand.” The proposal was gladly accepted. The old man was gone so long that the young man began to get impatient. Meanwhile the fish snapped greedily at the hook, and he lost all his depression in the excitement of pulling them in. When the owner returned he had caught a large number. Counting out from them as many as were in the basket, and presenting them to the youth, the old fisherman said, “I fulfill my promise from the fish you have caught, to teach you whenever you see others earning what you need, to waste no time in foolish wishing, but cast a line for yourself.”

After a stained-glass window had been constructed for a great European cathedral, an artist picked up the discarded fragments and made one of the most exquisite windows in Europe for another cathedral. So one boy will pick up a splendid education out of the odds and ends of time which others carelessly throw away, or he will gain a fortune by saving what others waste.

There is an English fable that is worthy of special attention. The story is as follows:

Some larks had a nest in a field of grain. One evening the old larks coming home found the young ones in great terror. “We must leave our nest at once,” they cried. Then they related how they had heard the farmer say that he must get his neighbors to come the next day and help him reap his field. “Oh!” cried the old birds, “if that is all, we may rest quietly in our nest.” The next evening the young birds were found again in a state of terror. The farmer, it seems, was very angry because his neighbors had not come, and had said that he should get his relatives to come the next day and help him. The old birds took the news easily, and said there was nothing to fear yet. The next evening the young birds were quite cheerful. “Have you heard nothing today?” asked the old ones. “Nothing important,” answered the young. “It is only that the farmer was angry because his relatives also failed him, and he said to his sons, ‘Since neither our neighbors nor our relations will help us, we must take hold tomorrow and do it ourselves!'” The old birds were excited this time. They said, “We must leave our nest to-night. When a man decides to do a thing for himself, and to do it at once, you may be pretty sure that it will be done.”

If you have anything to do, do it yourself; for that is both the surest and the safest way to permanent success.




We present by way of special illustration, a few incidents from the career of Stephen Girard.

A sloop was seen one morning off the mouth of Delaware Bay, floating the flag of France and a signal of distress. Girard, then quite a young man, was captain of this sloop, and was on his way to a Canadian port with freight from New Orleans. An American skipper, seeing his distress, went to his aid, but told him the American war had broken out, and that the British cruisers were all along the American coast, and would seize his vessel. He told him his only chance was to make a push for Philadelphia. Girard did not know the way, and was short of money. The skipper loaned him five dollars to get the service of a pilot who demanded his money in advance; and his sloop passed into the Delaware just in time to avoid capture by a British war vessel. He sold the sloop and cargo in Philadelphia, and began business on the capital. Being a foreigner, unable to speak English, with a repulsive face, and blind in one eye, it was hard for him to get a start. But he was not the man to give up.

There seemed to be nothing he would not do for money. He bought and sold anything, from groceries to old junk. Everything he touched prospered. In 1780, he resumed the New Orleans and San Domingo trade, in which he had been engaged at the breaking out of the War of the Revolution, and in one year cleared nearly fifty thousand dollars.

Everybody, especially his jealous brother merchants, attributed his great success to his luck. While, undoubtedly, he was fortunate in happening to be at the right place at the right time, yet he was precision, method, accuracy, energy itself. He left nothing to chance. His plans and schemes were worked out with mathematical care. His letters, written to his captains in foreign ports, laying out their routes and giving detailed instruction from which they were never allowed to deviate under any circumstances, are models of foresight and systematic planning.

Girard never lost a ship; and many times, what brought financial ruin to many others, as the War of 1812, only increased his wealth. What seemed luck with him was only good judgment and promptness in seizing opportunities, and the greatest care and zeal in personal attention to all the details of his business and the management of his own affairs.

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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