Letters to Young Men



The labor we delight in physics pain.


Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow;
The rest is all but leather and prunello.


If there is anything in the world that a young man should be more grateful for than another, it is the poverty which necessitates starting life under very great disadvantages. Poverty is one of the best tests of man quality in existence. A triumph over it is like graduating with honor from West Point. It demonstrates stuff and stamina. It is a certificate of worthy labor, faithfully performed. A young man who cannot stand this test is not good for anything. He can never rise above a drudge or a pauper. A young man who cannot feel his will harden as the yoke of poverty presses upon him, and his pluck rise with every difficulty that poverty throws in his way, may as well retire into some corner, and hide himself. Poverty saves a thousand times more men than it ruins, for it only ruins those who are not particularly worth saving, while it saves multitudes of those whom wealth would have ruined. If any young man who reads this letter is so unfortunate as to be rich, I give him my pity. I pity you, my rich young friend, because you are in danger. You lack one great stimulus to effort and excellence which your poor companion possesses. You will be very apt, if you have a soft spot in your head, to think yourself above him, and that sort of thing makes you mean, and injures you. With full pockets and full stomach, and good linen and broadcloth on your back, your heart and soul will get plethoric, and in the race of life you will find yourself surpassed by all the poor boys around you, before you know it.

No, my boy, if you are poor, thank God and take courage; for he intends to give you a chance to make something of yourself. If you had plenty of money, ten chances to one it would spoil you for all useful purposes. Do you lack education? Have you been cut short in the text books? Remember that education, like some other things, does not consist in the multitude of things a man possesses. What can you do? That is the question that settles the business for you. Do you know your business? Do you know men, and how to deal with them? Has your mind, by any means whatsoever, received that discipline which gives to its action power and facility? If so, then you are more of a man, and a thousand times better educated, than the fellow who graduates from a college with his brains full of stuff that he cannot apply to the practical business of life — stuff the acquisition of which has been in no sense a disciplinary process, so far as he is concerned. There are very few men in this world less than thirty years of age, and unmarried, who can afford to be rich. One of the greatest benefits to be reaped from great financial disasters, is the saving of a large crop of young men. In regard to the choice of a profession, that is your business, and not mine, nor that of any of your friends. If you take to a trade or profession, don’t be persuaded out of it, until you are perfectly satisfied that you are not adapted to it. You will receive all sorts of the most excellent advice, but you must remember that if you follow it, and it leads you into a profession that starves you, those who gave the advice never feel bound to give you any money. You have got to take care of yourself in this world, and you may as well choose your own way of doing it, always remembering that it is not your trade nor your profession which makes you respectable. This leads me to a matter that I may as well dispose of here as anywhere.

I propose to explain what I meant in a previous letter by the counsel to “let no man know by your dress what your business is, You dress your person, not your trade.” As the proper explanation of this involves a very important principle, I will devote the rest of this letter to its development and illustration. The fault found with this counsel is that it has always been considered best to dress according to one’s business and position.

Manhood, and profession or handicraft, are entirely different things; and I wish particularly that every young man engaged in reading these letters should understand the reason why. God makes men, and men make blacksmiths, tailors, farmers, horse jockeys, trades men of all sorts, governors, judges, &c. The offices of men may be more or less important, and of higher or lower quality, but manhood is a higher possession than office. An occupation is never an end of life. It is an instrument put into our hands, or taken into our hands, by which to gain for the body the means of living until sickness or old age robs it of life, and we pass on to the world for which this is a preparation. However thoroughly acquired and assiduously followed, a trade is something to be held at arm’s length. I can illustrate what I mean by placing, side by side, two horses, — one, fresh from the stall, with every hair in its right place, his head up and mane flying, and another that has been worked in the same harness every day for three years, until the skin is bare on each hip and thigh, an inflamed abrasion glows on each side of the back-bone where the hard saddle-pad rests, a severe gall-mark spreads its brown patch under the breast collar, and all the other marks of an abused horse abound. Now a trade, or a profession, will wear into a man as a harness wears into a horse. One can see the “trade mark” on almost every soul and body met in the street. A trade has taken some men by the shoulders and shaken their humanity out of them. It has so warped the natures of others that they might be wet down and set in the sun to dry a thousand times without being warped back.

Thus, I say, a man’s trade or profession should be kept at arm’s length. It should not be allowed to tyrannize over him, to mould him, to crush him. It should not occupy the whole of his attention. So far from this, it should be regarded, in its material aspect, at least, only as a means for the development of manhood. The great object of living is the attainment of true manhood — the cultivation of every power of the soul and of every high spiritual quality, naturally inherent or graciously superadded. The trade is beneath the man, and should be kept there. With this idea in your minds — and you may be very sure that it is the correct idea — just look around you, and see how almost everybody has missed it. You and I both know physicians whose mental possessions, beyond their knowledge of drugs and diseases, are not worth anything. We are acquainted with lawyers who are never seen out of their offices, who live among pigeon-holes and red tape, and busy their minds with quirks and quarrels so unremittingly, that they have not a thought for other subjects. They are not men at all; they are nothing but lawyers. Often we find not more than five whole men in a town of five thousand inhabitants. Those who pass for men, and who really do get married and have families, are a hundred to one fractional men, or exclusively machines.

Elihu Burritt cultivated the man that was in him until his trade and his blacksmith’s shop would not stay with him. They ceased to be useful to him. He could get living in a way that was better for him. Benjamin Franklin was an excellent printer, but he used his trade only as a means. The development of his mind and his manhood went on above it. Printing with him was not an end of life. If it had been, we should have missed his words of wisdom ; some one else would have built the kite that exchanged the first kiss with electricity, and less able men would have been set to do the work which he did so creditably in the management of his country’s affairs. It is not necessary that you be learned blacksmiths or philosophical and diplomatic printers, but it is necessary that you be a man before your calling, behind your calling, above your calling, outside of your calling, and inside of it; and that that calling modify your character no more than it would were it your neighbor’s.

If I have made my point plain to you, you can readily see that I attach very little value to the distinctions in society based on callings, and still less to those based on office. If a man be a man, let him thank his stars that he is not a justice of the peace. Of all the appetites that curse young men, the appetite for office seems to me to be the silliest and the meanest. There is nothing which fills me with greater disgust than to see a young man eager for the poor distinction which office confers. An office seeker, for the sake of honor, is constitutionally, necessarily, mean. I have seen men begin at twenty-one as prudential committees in small school districts, and stick to office until everybody was sick of them. Whether it rained porridge or potatoes, paving stones or pearls, their dish was always out. They ; and their families always had to be cared for.

Office always brings obligation and a certain kind of slavery. It brings something more than this — it brings insanity. A young man who allows himself to get a taste of it very rarely recovers. It is like tobacco, or opium, or brandy, producing a morbid appetite; and we need all through the nation, a new society of reform. There should be a pledge circulated, and everywhere signed, promising total abstinence from office-seeking. To this every young man should put his name. There are chronic cases that may be considered hopeless, but the young can be saved.

Do not let me be misunderstood; I have spoken of the thirst for office for the sake of office. My belief is that office should neither be sought for nor lightly refused. The curse of our country is that office-seekers have made place so contemptible that good men will not accept it, but so far keep themselves removed from politics that all the affairs of government fall into unworthy hands. When a young man is sought for to fill a responsible place in public affairs — sought for and selected on the ground of fitness — he should decide whether he owes that duty to the public, and perform it well if he does. Office was properly regarded in the “good old colony times.” Then it was considered a hindrance to business, and almost or quite a hardship ; so much so that laws were passed, in some instances, compelling men to accept office, or pay a fine. So I would have you to do your duty to the public at all times, and especially in seeing that office-seekers, by profession or constant practice, are crowded from the track, and worthy men put on.

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