Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct
By Samuel Smiles
It is an interesting question to ask oneself how the ideas of academic economists, like Adam
Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say for example, were made available to the ordinary person who does not normally read multi-volume academic tracts. In the first half of the 19th century we see this role of popularizer of economic ideas being taken up by a number of people who wrote what we would now call economic journalism or who gave popular lectures to working class audiences or who wrote what might be called “economic stories or tales” which were sold in a cheap and popular book format. In France, Frédéric Bastiat was a good example of the economic journalist who took complex economic theory and rendered it down for a more popular audience. In Britain there was Thomas Hodgskin who gave lectures on free trade to “mechanics institutes” (what we might now call adult education groups) and who wrote articles for the recently founded “Economist” magazine (the forefather of the “Economist” which continues to this day). In the United States, we see William Leggett defending free market ideas in a number of newspapers in the Jacksonian era. Women too were involved in this important task. Harriet Martineau and Jane Marcet wrote semi-fictional “moral tales” with a strong economic component which were aimed at convincing working class audiences of the benefits of free trade, industrialization, and the free market in general. One of the best selling authors in this vein was Samuel Smiles (1812-1904). A Scot who originally trained as a doctor before turning to journalism fulltime, Smiles wrote for a popular audience to show people how best to take advantage of the changes being brought about by the industrial revolution which was sweeping Britain and other parts of the world in the first half of the 19th century. In his best known work, “Self-Help” (published in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and John Stuart Mill’s“On Liberty”) he combines Victorian morality with sound free market ideas into moral tales showing the benefits of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance, and a sound moral character. He drew upon the personal success stories of the emerging self-made millionaires in the pottery industry (Josiah Wedgwood), the railway industry (Watt and Stephenson), and the weaving industry (Jacquard) to make his point that the benefits of the market were open to anyone.
Dr. David M. Hart
First Pub. Date
Boston: Ticknor and Fields
The text of this edition is in the public domain. Picture of Samuel Smiles: frontispiece, courtesy of Liberty Fund, Inc.
“Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings”—
Proverbs of Solomon.
“That man is but of the lower part of the world that is not brought up to business and affairs.”—
HAZLITT, in one of his clever essays,
*11 represents the man of business as a mean sort of person put in a go-cart, yoked to a trade or profession; alleging that all he has to do is, not to go out of the beaten track, but merely to let his affairs take their own course. “The great requisite,” he says, “for the prosperous management of ordinary business is the want of imagination, or of any ideas but those of custom and interest on the narrowest scale.” But nothing could be more one-sided, and in effect untrue, than such a definition. Of course, there are narrow-minded men of business, as there are narrow-minded scientific men, literary men, and legislators; but there are also business men of large and comprehensive minds, capable of action on the very largest scale. As Burke said in his speech on the India Bill, he knew statesmen who were peddlers, and merchants who acted in the spirit of statesmen.
If we take into account the qualities necessary for the successful conduct of any important undertaking,—that it requires special aptitude, promptitude of action on
emergencies, capacity for organizing the labors often of large numbers of men, great tact and knowledge of human nature, constant self-culture, and growing experience in the practical affairs of life,—it must, we think, be obvious that the school of business is by no means so narrow as some writers would have us believe. Mr. Helps has gone much nearer the truth when he said that consummate men of business are as rare almost as great poets,—rarer, perhaps, than veritable saints and martyrs. Indeed, of no other pursuit can it so emphatically be said, as of this, that “Business makes Men.”
But it has also been a favorite fallacy with dunces in all times, that men of genius are unfitted for business pursuits. Yet Shakspeare was a successful manager of a theatre,—perhaps priding himself more upon his practical qualities in that capacity than on his writing of plays and poetry. Pope was of opinion that Shakspeare’s principal object in cultivating literature was to secure an honest independence. Indeed he seems to have been altogether indifferent to literary reputation. It is not known that he superintended the publication of a single play, or even sanctioned the printing of one; and the chronology of his writings is still a mystery. It is certain, however, that he prospered in his business, and realized sufficient to enable him to retire upon a competency to his native town of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Chaucer was in early life a soldier, and afterwards an effective Commissioner of Customs, and Inspector of Woods and Crown Lands. Spenser was Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and is said to have been very shrewd and attentive in matters of business. Milton, originally a schoolmaster, was afterwards elevated to the post of Secretary to the Council of State during the Commonwealth;
and the extant Order-book of the Council, as well as many of Milton’s letters which are preserved, give abundant evidence of his activity and usefulness in that office. Sir Isaac Newton proved himself a most efficient Master of the Mint; the new coinage of 1694 having been carried on under his immediate personal superintendence. Cowper prided himself upon his business punctuality, though he confessed that he “never knew a poet except himself, who was punctual in anything.” But against this we may set the lives of Wordsworth and Scott,—the former a distributor of stamps, the latter a clerk to the Court of Session,—both of whom, though great poets, were eminently punctual and practical men of business. David Ricardo, amidst the occupations of his daily business as a London stock-jobber, in conducting which he acquired an ample fortune, was able to concentrate his mind upon his favorite subject,—on which he was enabled to throw great light,—the principles of political economy; for he united in himself the sagacious commercial man and the profound philosopher. We have abundant illustrations, even in our own day, of the fact that the highest intellectual power is not incompatible with the active and efficient performance of routine duties. Grote, the great historian of Greece, is a London banker. And it is not long since John Stuart Mill, one of our greatest living thinkers, retired from the Examiner’s department of the East India Company, carrying with him the admiration and esteem of his fellow-officers, not on account of his high views of philosophy, but because of the high standard of efficiency which he had established in his office, and the thoroughly satisfactory manner in which he had conducted the business of his department.
The path of success in business is invariably the path of common sense. Notwithstanding all that is said about “lucky hits,” the best kind of success in every man’s life is not that which comes by accident. The only “good time coming” we are justified in hoping for, is that which we are capable of making for ourselves. The fable of the labors of Hercules is indeed the type of all human doing and success. Every youth should early be made to feel that if he would get through the world usefully and happily, he must rely mainly upon himself and his own independent energies. The late Lord Melbourne embodied a piece of useful advice in a letter which he wrote to Lord John Russell, in reply to an application for a provision for one of Moore the poet’s sons: “My dear John,” he said, “I return you Moore’s letter. I shall be ready to do what you like about it when we have the means. I think whatever is done should be done for Moore himself. This is more distinct, direct, and intelligible. Making a small provision for young men is hardly justifiable; and it is of all things the most prejudicial to themselves. They think what they have much larger than it really is; and they make no exertion. The young should never hear any language but this: ‘You have your own way to make, and it depends upon your own exertions whether you starve or not.’ Believe me, &c., MELBOURNE.”
It is not good for human nature to have the road of life made too easy. Better to be under the necessity of working hard and faring meanly, than to have everything done ready to our hand, and a pillow of down to repose upon. Indeed, to start in life with comparatively small means seems so necessary as a stimulus to work, that it may almost be set down as one of the conditions essential
to success in life. Hence, an eminent judge, when asked what contributed most to success at the bar, replied, “Some succeed by great talent, some by high connections, some by miracle, but the majority by commencing without a shilling.” So is it a common saying at Manchester, that the men who are the most successful in business there are those who begin the world in their shirt-sleeves; whereas those who begin with fortunes generally lose them.
We have heard of an architect of considerable accomplishments,—a man who had improved himself by long study, and travel in the classical lands of the East,—who came home to commence the practice of his profession. He determined to begin anywhere, provided he could be employed; and he accordingly undertook a business connected with dilapidations,—one of the lowest and least remunerative departments of the architect’s calling. But he had the good sense not to be above his trade, and he had the resolution to work his way upward, so that he only got a fair start. One hot day in July a friend found him sitting astride of a house roof occupied with his dilapidation business. Drawing his hand across his perspiring countenance, he exclaimed, “Here’s a pretty business for a man who has been all over Greece!” However, he did his work, such as it was, thoroughly and well; he persevered until he advanced by degrees to more remunerative branches of employment, and eventually he rose to the highest walks of his profession.
Necessity is always the first stimulus to industry; and those who conduct it with prudence, perseverance, and energy, will rarely fail. Viewed in this light, the necessity of labor is not a chastisement, but a blessing,—
the very root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations. It may, indeed, be questioned whether a heavier curse could be imposed on man than the complete gratification of all his wishes without effort on his part, leaving nothing for his hopes, desires, or struggles. The feeling that life is destitute of any motive or necessity for action, must be of all others the most distressing and the most insupportable to a rational being. The Marquis de Spinola asking Sir Horace Vere what his brother died of, Sir Horace replied, “He died, sir, of having nothing to do.” “Alas!” said Spinola, “that is enough to kill any general of us all.”
Those who fail in life are very apt to assume the tone of injured innocence, and conclude too hastily that everybody excepting themselves has had a hand in their personal misfortunes. A literary man lately published a book, in which he described his numerous failures in business, naively admitting, at the same time, that he was ignorant of the multiplication table, probably because he would not take the trouble to learn it. But, instead of attributing his failures to himself, this eminent man sat down deliberately to cast all the blame upon the money-worshipping spirit of the age. Lamartine also did not hesitate to profess his profound contempt for arithmetic; but, had it been less, probably we should not have witnessed the unseemly spectacle of the admirers of that distinguished personage engaged in collecting subscriptions for his support in his old age.
There is a Russian proverb which says that Misfortune is next door to Stupidity; and it will generally be found that men who are constantly lamenting their ill-luck, are only reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mis-management, improvidence, or want of application. Dr.
Johnson, who came up to London with a single guinea in his pocket, and who once accurately described himself in his signature to a letter addressed to a noble lord, as
Impransus, or Dinnerless, has honestly said, “All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust; I never knew a man of merit neglected; it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success.”
The dictionary definition of Business shows how large a part of practical life arranges itself under this head. It is “Employment; an affair; serious engagement; something to be transacted; something required to be done.” Every human being has duties to be performed, and, therefore, has need of cultivating the capacity for doing them; whether the sphere of action be the management of a household, the conduct of a trade or profession, or the government of a nation.
Attention, application, accuracy, method, punctuality, and dispatch, are the principal qualities required for the efficient conduct of business of any sort. These, at first sight, may appear to be small matters; and yet they are of essential importance to human happiness, well-being, and usefulness. They are little things, it is true; but human life is made up of comparative trifles. It is the repetition of little acts which constitute not only the sum of human character, but which determine the character of nations. And where men or nations have broken down, it will almost invariably be found that neglect of little things was the rock on which they split.
It is related of a well-known Manchester manufacturer, that, on retiring from business, he purchased a large estate from a noble lord; and it was part of the arrangement, that he was to take the house, with all its furniture, precisely as it stood. On taking possession, however, he
found that a cabinet, which was in the inventory, had been removed; and on applying to the former owner about it, the latter said, “Well, I certainly did order it to be removed; but I hardly thought you would have cared for so trifling a matter in so large a purchase.” “My lord,” was the characteristic reply, “if I had not all my life attended to trifles, I should not have been able to purchase this estate; and, excuse me for saying so, perhaps if your lordship had cared more about trifles, you might not have had occasion to sell it.”
The examples we have already given of great workers in various branches of industry, art, and science, render it unnecessary further to enforce the importance of persevering application in any department of life. It is the result of every-day experience, that steady attention to matters of detail lies at the root of human progress; and that diligence, above all, is the mother of good-luck. Accuracy is also of much importance, and an invariable mark of good training in a man. Accuracy in observation, accuracy in speech, accuracy in the transaction of affairs. What is done in business must be well done; for it is better to accomplish perfectly a small amount of work, than to half-do ten times as much. A wise man used to say, “Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner.”
Too little attention, however, is paid to this highly important quality of accuracy. As a man eminent in practical science lately observed to us, “It is astonishing how few people I have met with in the course of my experience, who can
define a fact accurately.” Yet, in business affairs, it is the manner in which even small matters are transacted, that often decides men for or against you. With virtue, capacity, and good conduct in other respects,
the person who is habitually inaccurate cannot be trusted: his work has to be gone over again; and he thus causes an infinity of annoyance, vexation, and trouble. Truer words were never uttered than those spoken by Mr. Dargan, the Irish railway contractor, at a public meeting in Dublin. “I have heard a great deal,” he said, “about the independence that we were to get from this, that, and the other source; yet I have always been deeply impressed with the conviction, that our industrial independence depends upon ourselves.
Simple industry and careful exactness would be the making of Ireland. We have, it is true, made a step; but perseverance is indispensably necessary for eventual success.”
It was one of the characteristic qualities of Charles James Fox, that he was thoroughly painstaking in all that he did. When appointed Secretary of State, being piqued at some observation as to his bad writing, he actually took a writing-master, and wrote copies like a school-boy until he had sufficiently improved himself. Though a corpulent man, he was wonderfully active at picking up cut tennis-balls, and when asked how he contrived to do so, he playfully replied, “Because I am a very pains-taking man.” The same accuracy in trifling matters was displayed by him in things of greater importance; and he acquired his reputation, like the painter, by “neglecting nothing.”
Method is essential, and enables a larger amount of work to be got through with satisfaction. “Method,” said Cecil (afterwards Lord Burleigh), “is like packing things in a box; a good packer will get in half as much again as a bad one.” Cecil’s dispatch of business was extraordinary, his maxim being, “The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once;” and
he never left a thing undone with a view of recurring to it at a period of more leisure. When business pressed, he rather chose to encroach on his hours of meals and rest than omit any part of his work. De Witt’s maxim was like Cecil’s: “One thing at a time.” “If,” said he, “I have any necessary dispatches to make, I think of nothing else till they are finished; if any domestic affairs require my attention, I give myself wholly up to them till they are set in order.” Dispatch comes with practice. A French minister, who was alike remarkable for his dispatch of business and his constant attendance at places of amusement, being asked how he contrived to combine both objects, replied, “Simply by never postponing till to-morrow what should be done to-day.” Lord Brougham has said that a certain English statesman reversed the process, and that his maxim was, never to transact to-day what could be postponed till to-morrow. Unhappily, such is the practice of many besides that minister, already almost forgotten; the practice is that of the indolent and the unsuccessful. Such men, too, are apt to rely upon agents, who are not always to be relied upon. Important affairs must be attended to in person. “If you want your business done,” says the proverb, “go and do it; if you don’t want it done, send some one else.” An indolent country gentleman had a freehold estate producing about five hundred a year. Becoming involved in debt, he sold half of the estate, and let the remainder to an industrious farmer for twenty years. About the end of the term the farmer called to pay his rent, and asked the owner whether he would sell the farm. “Will
you buy it?” asked the owner, surprised. “Yes, if we can agree about the price.” “That is exceedingly strange,”
observed the gentleman; “pray, tell me how it happens that, while I could not live upon twice as much land, for which I paid no rent, you are regularly paying me two hundred a year for your farm, and are able, in a few years, to purchase it.” “The reason is plain,” was the reply; “you sat still, and said
Go; I got up, and said
Come; you laid in bed and enjoyed your estate, I rose in the morning, and minded my business.”
Sir Walter Scott, writing to a youth who had obtained a situation and asked him for his advice, gave him in reply this sound counsel: “Beware of stumbling over a propensity which easily besets you from not having your time fully employed,—I mean what the women call
dawdling. Your motto must be,
Hoc age. Do instantly whatever is to be done, and take the hours of recreation after business, never before it. When a regiment is under march, the rear is often thrown into confusion because the front do not move steadily, and without interruption. It is the same with business. If that which is first in hand is not instantly, steadily, and regularly dispatched, other things accumulate behind, till affairs begin to press all at once, and no human brain can stand the confusion.”
Promptitude in action may be stimulated by a due consideration of the value of time. An Italian philosopher was accustomed to call time his estate; an estate which produces nothing of value without cultivation, but, duly improved, never fails to recompense the labors of the diligent worker. Allowed to lie waste, the product will be only noxious weeds and vicious growths of all kinds. One of the minor uses of steady employment is, that it keeps one out of mischief, for truly an idle brain is the devil’s workshop, and a lazy man the devil’s bolster. To
be occupied is to be possessed as by a tenant, whereas to be idle is to be empty; and when the doors of the imagination are opened, temptation finds a ready access, and evil thoughts come trooping in. It is observed at sea, that men are never so much disposed to grumble and mutiny as when least employed. Hence an old captain, when there was nothing else to do, would issue the order to “scour the anchor.”
Men of business are accustomed to quote the maxim that Time is money, but it is much more; the proper improvement of it is self-culture, self-improvement, and growth of character. An hour wasted daily on trifles or in indolence, would, if devoted to self-improvement, make an ignorant man wise in a few years, and, employed in good works, would make his life fruitful, and death a harvest of worthy deeds. Fifteen minutes a day devoted to self-improvement, will be felt at the end of the year. Good thoughts and carefully gathered experience take up no room, and are carried about with us as companions everywhere, without cost or incumbrance. An economical use of time is the true mode of securing leisure; it enables us to get through business and carry it forward, instead of being driven by it. On the other hand, the miscalculation of time involves us in perpetual hurry, confusion, and difficulties; and life becomes a mere shuffle of expedients, usually followed by disaster. Nelson once said, “I owe all my success in life to having been always a quarter of an hour before my time.”
Some take no thought of the value of money until they have come to an end of it, and many do the same with their time. The hours are allowed to flow by unemployed, and then, when life is fast waning, they bethink
themselves of the duty of making a wiser use of it. But the habit of listlessness and idleness may already have become confirmed, and they are unable to break the bonds with which they have permitted themselves to become bound. Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.
A proper consideration of the value of time, will also inspire habits of punctuality. “Punctuality,” said Louis XIV., “is the politeness of kings.” It is also the duty of gentlemen, and the necessity of men of business. Nothing begets confidence in a man sooner than the practice of this virtue, and nothing shakes confidence sooner than the want of it. He who holds to his appointment and does not keep you waiting for him, shows that he has regard for your time as well as for his own. Thus punctuality is one of the modes by which we testify our personal respect for those whom we are called upon to meet in the business of life. It is also conscientiousness in a measure; for an appointment is a contract, express or implied, and he who does not keep it breaks faith, as well as dishonestly uses other people’s time, and thus inevitably loses character. We naturally come to the conclusion that the person who is careless about time, will be careless about business, and that he is not the one to be trusted with the transaction of matters of importance. When Washington’s secretary excused himself for the lateness of his attendance, and laid the blame upon his watch, his master quietly said, “Then you must get another watch, or I another secretary.”
The unpunctual man is a general disturber of others’ peace and serenity. Everybody with whom he has to do is thrown from time to time into a state of fever; he
is systematically late; regular only in his irregularity. He conducts his dawdling as if upon a system; always arrives at his appointment after time; gets to the railway station after the train has started; and posts his letter when the box has closed. Business is thus thrown into confusion, and everybody concerned is put out of temper. It will generally be found that the men who are thus habitually behind time, are as habitually behind success; and the world generally casts them aside to swell the ranks of the grumblers and the railers against fortune. The late Mr. Tegg, the publisher, who rose from a very humble position in life, once said of himself, that he “had lodged with beggars, and had the honor of presentation to royalty,” and that he attributed his success in life mainly to three things,—punctuality as to time, self-reliance, and integrity in word and deed.
It is astonishing how much an energetic man of business can accomplish by methodical working, and by the careful economy of his time. It would even appear as if, the more business he had, the more leisure he had for other affairs. It is said of Lord Brougham, that when he was in the full career of his profession, presiding in the House of Lords and the Court of Chancery, he found time to be at the head of some eight or ten public associations,—one of which was the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,—and that he was most punctual in his attendances, always contriving to be in the chair when the hour of meeting had arrived.
In addition to these ordinary working qualities, the business man of the highest class requires sound discretion, quick perception, and firmness in the execution of his plans. Business tact is also important; and though this is partly the gift of nature, it is yet capable
of being cultivated and developed by observation and experience. Men of this quality are quick to see the right mode of action, and if they have decision of purpose, are prompt to carry out their undertakings to a successful issue. Such men give a new life to industry; they put their character into every work that they enter upon, and are among the most powerful agents in the progress of society in all times.
It will be observed from what we have said that the successful conduct of business consists in a great measure in assiduous attention to matters of detail, in short, to what is ordinarily called Routine, and sometimes RedTapeism. Accuracy, discipline, punctuality, method, payment of debts, organization, all are routine. No doubt a blind, stupid routine causes hindrance to business, but a wise routine greatly facilitates it, whilst it is the only check to rashness and incapacity on the part of individuals, where the business of large departments has to be conducted. In the case of a business in the hands of a single person, such as that of a merchant or manufacturer, there will be greater promptitude in action, and less need for the interposition of checks, because no one has to be consulted but the master himself; and he is stimulated by self-interest to watch closely all the outgoings and incomings of his concern. But where self-interest is less active, and where a large business, as of a corporation or a government, is managed by
employés, routine necessarily becomes complicated by checks; for, though the large majority of men are honest, it is absolutely necessary that provision should be made against the possible rogue or the jobber.
The late Duke of Wellington was a great routinist, because he was a first-rate man of business. He possessed
in perfection all the qualities which constitute one. He was a most punctual man; he never received a letter without acknowledging or replying to it; and he habitually attended to the minutest details of all matters intrusted to him, whether civil or military. His business faculty was his genius, the genius of common sense; and it is not perhaps saying too much to aver, that it was because he was a first-rate man of business that he never lost a battle.
While a subaltern officer, he became dissatisfied with the slowness of his promotion, and having passed from the infantry to the cavalry twice, and back again, without advancement, he applied to Lord Camden, then Viceroy of Ireland, for employment in the Revenue or Treasury Board. Had he succeeded, no doubt he would have made a first-rate head of a department, as he would have made a first-rate merchant or manufacturer. But his application failed, and he remained with the army to become one of the very greatest of British generals.
The Duke began his active military career under the Duke of York and General Walmoden, in Flanders and Holland, where he learned amidst misfortunes and defeats, how bad business arrangements and bad generalship serve to ruin the
morale of an army. Ten years after entering the army we find him a colonel in India, reported by his superiors as an officer of indefatigable energy and application. He entered into the minutest details of the service, and sought to raise the discipline of his men to the highest standard. “The regiment of Colonel Wellesley,” wrote General Harris in 1799, “is a model regiment; on the score of soldierly bearing, discipline, instruction, and orderly behavior it is above all praise.” Thus qualifying himself for posts of greater
confidence, he was shortly after nominated governor of the capital of Mysore. In the war with the Mahrattas, he was first called upon to try his hand at generalship; and at thirty-four he won the memorable battle of Assaye, with an army composed of 1,500 British and 5,000 sepoys, over 20,000 Mahratta infantry and 30,000 cavalry. But so brilliant a victory did not in the least disturb his equanimity, or affect the perfect honesty of his character.
Shortly after this event, the opportunity occurred for exhibiting his admirable practical qualities as an administrator. Placed in command of an important district immediately after the capture of Seringapatam, his first object was to establish rigid order and discipline among his own men. Flushed with victory, the troops were found riotous and disorderly. “Send me the provostmarshal,” said he, “and put him under my orders; till some of the marauders are hung, it is impossible to expect order or safety.” This rigid severity of Wellington in the field, though it was the dread, proved the salvation of his troops in many campaigns. His next step was to reëstablish the markets and reopen the sources of supply. General Harris wrote to the Governor-General, strongly commending Colonel Wellesley for the perfect discipline he had established, and for his “judicious and masterly arrangements in respect to supplies, which opened an abundant free market, and inspired confidence into dealers of every description.” The same close attention to, and mastery of details, characterized him throughout his Indian career; and it is remarkable that one of his very ablest despatches to Lord Clive, full of practical information as to the conduct of the campaign, was written whilst the column he
commanded was crossing the Toombuddra, in the face of the vastly superior army of Doondiah, posted on the opposite bank, and when a thousand matters of the deepest interest were pressing upon the commander’s mind But it was one of his most remarkable characteristics, thus to be able to withdraw himself temporarily from the business immediately in hand, and to bend his full powers upon the consideration of matters totally distinct; even the most difficult circumstances on such occasions failing to embarrass or intimidate him.
Returned to England with a reputation for generalship, Sir Arthur Wellesley met with immediate employment. In 1808 a corps of 10,000 men destined to liberate Portugal was placed under his charge. He landed, fought and won two battles, and signed the Convention of Cintra. After the death of Sir John Moore, he was intrusted with the command of a new expedition to Portugal. Wellington was fearfully overmatched throughout these Peninsular campaigns. From 1809 to 1813 he never had more than 30,000 British troops under his command, at a time when there stood opposed to him in the Peninsula, some 350,000 French, mostly veterans, led by some of Napoleon’s ablest generals. How was he to contend against such immense forces with any fair prospect of success? His clear discernment and strong common sense soon taught him that he must adopt a different policy from that of the Spanish generals, who were invariably beaten and dispersed whenever they ventured to offer battle in the open plains. He perceived he had yet to create the army that was to contend against the French, with any reasonable chance of success.
Accordingly, after the battle of Talavera in 1809, when he found himself encompassed on all sides by
superior forces of French, he retired into Portugal, there to carry out the settled policy on which he had by this time determined. It was, to organize a Portuguese army under British officers, and teach them to act in combination with his own troops, in the mean time avoiding the peril of a defeat by declining all engagements. He would thus, he conceived, destroy the
morale of the French, who could not exist without victories; and when his army was ripe for action, and the enemy demoralized, he would then fall upon them with all his might.
The extraordinary qualities displayed by Lord Wellington throughout these immortal campaigns, can only be appreciated after a perusal of his despatches, which contain the unvarnished tale of the manifold ways and means by which he laid the foundations of his success. Never was man more tried by difficulty and opposition, arising not less from the imbecility, falsehood, and intrigues of the British government of the day, than from the selfishness, cowardice, and vanity of the people he went to save. It may, indeed, be said of him, that he sustained the war in Spain by his individual firmness and selfreliance, which never failed him even in the midst of his greatest discouragements. He had not only to fight Napoleon’s veterans, but also to hold in check the Spanish juntas and the Portuguese regency. He had the utmost difficulty in obtaining provisions and clothing for his troops; and it will scarcely be credited that, while engaged with the enemy in the battle of Talavera, the Spaniards, who ran away, fell upon the baggage of the British army, and the ruffians actually plundered it! These and other vexations the Duke bore with a sublime patience and self-control, and held on his course, in the face of ingratitude, treachery, and opposition, with in
domitable firmness. He neglected nothing, and attended to every important detail of business himself. When he found that food for his troops was not to be obtained from England, and that he must rely upon his own resources for feeding them, he forthwith commenced business as a corn-merchant on a large scale, in copartnery with the British Minister at Lisbon. Commissariat bills were created, with which grain was bought in the ports of the Mediterranean and in South America. When he had thus filled his magazines, the overplus was sold to the Portuguese, who were greatly in want of provisions. He left nothing whatever to chance, but provided for every contingency. He gave his attention to the minutest details of the service; and was accustomed to concentrate his whole energies, from time to time, on such apparently ignominious matters as soldiers’ shoes, campkettles, biscuits, and horse-fodder. His magnificent business qualities were everywhere felt; and there can be no doubt that, by the care with which he provided for every contingency, and the personal attention which he gave to every detail, he laid the foundations of his great success.
*12 By such means he transformed an army of raw levies into the best soldiers in Europe, with whom he declared it to be possible to go anywhere and do anything.
We have already referred to his remarkable power of abstracting himself from the work, no matter how engrossing, immediately in hand, and concentrating his energies upon the details of some entirely different business.
Thus Napier relates that it was while he was preparing to fight the battle of Salamanca that he had to expose to the Ministers at home the futility of relying upon a loan; it was on the heights of San Christoval, on the field of battle itself, that he demonstrated the absurdity of attempting to establish a Portuguese lank; it was in the trenches of Burgos that he dissected Funchal’s scheme of finance, and exposed the folly of attempting the sale of church property; and on each occasion, he showed himself as well acquainted with these subjects as with the minutest detail in the mechanism of armies.
Another feature in his character, showing the upright man of business, was his thorough honesty. Whilst Soult ransacked and carried away with him from Spain numerous pictures of great value, Wellington did not appropriate to himself a single farthing’s worth of property. Everywhere he paid his way, even when in the enemy’s country. When he had crossed the French frontier, followed by 40,000 Spaniards, who sought to “make fortunes” by pillage and plunder, he first rebuked their officers, and then, finding his efforts to restrain them unavailing, he sent them back into their own country. It is a remarkable fact, that even in France, the peasantry fled from their own countrymen, and carried their valuables within the protection of the British lines! At the very same time, Wellington was writing home to the British Ministry, “We are overwhelmed with debts, and I can scarcely stir out of my house on account of public creditors waiting to demand payment of what is due to them.” Jules Maurel, in his estimate of the Duke’s character, says, “Nothing can be grander or more nobly original than this admission.
This old soldier, after thirty years’ service, this iron man and victorious general, established in an enemy’s country at the head of an immense army, is afraid of his creditors! This is a kind of fear that has seldom troubled the mind of conquerors and invaders; and I doubt if the annals of war could present anything comparable to this sublime simplicity.” But the Duke himself, had the matter been put to him, would most probably have disclaimed any intention of acting either grandly or nobly in the matter; merely regarding the punctual payment of his debts as the best and most honorable mode of conducting his business.
The truth of the good old maxim, that “Honesty is the best policy,” is upheld by the daily experience of life; uprightness and integrity being found as successful in business as in everything else. As Hugh Miller’s worthy uncle used to advise him, “In all your dealings give your neighbor the cast of the bauk,—’good measure, heaped up, and running over,’—and you will not lose by it in the end.” A well-known brewer of beer attributed his success to the liberality with which he used his malt. Going up to the vat and tasting it, he would say, “Still rather poor, my lads; give it another cast of the malt.” The brewer put his character into his beer, and it proved generous accordingly, obtaining a reputation in England, India, and the colonies, which laid the foundation of a large fortune. Integrity of word and deed ought to be the very corner-stone of all business transactions. To the tradesman, the merchant, and manufacturer, it should be what honor is to the soldier, and charity to the Christian. In the humblest calling there will always be found scope for the exercise of this uprightness of character. Hugh Miller speaks of the mason with whom he served his apprenticeship,
as one who ”
put his conscience into every stone that he laid.” So the true mechanic will pride himself upon the thoroughness and solidity of his work, and the high-minded contractor upon the honesty of performance of his contract in every particular. The upright manufacturer will find not only honor and reputation, but substantial success, in the genuineness of the article which he produces, and the merchant in the honesty of what he sells, and that it really is what it seems to be. Baron Dupin, speaking of the general probity of Englishmen, which he held to be a principal cause of their success, observed, “We may succeed for a time by fraud, by surprise, by violence; but we can succeed permanently only by means directly opposite. It is not alone the courage, the intelligence, the activity, of the merchant and manufacturer which maintain the superiority of their productions and the character of their country; it is far more their wisdom, their economy, and, above all, their probity. If ever in the British Islands the useful citizen should lose these virtues, we may be sure that, for England, as for every other country, the vessels of a degenerate commerce, repulsed from every shore, would speedily disappear from those seas whose surface they now cover with the treasures of the universe, bartered for the treasures of the industry of the three kingdoms.”
It must be admitted, that Trade tries character perhaps more severely than any other pursuit in life. It puts to the severest tests honesty, self-denial, justice, and truthfulness; and men of business who pass through such trials unstained, are perhaps worthy of as great honor as soldiers who prove their courage amidst the fire and perils of battle. And, to the credit of the multitudes of
men engaged in the various departments of trade, we think it must be admitted that on the whole they pass through their trials nobly. If we reflect but for a moment on the vast amount of wealth daily intrusted even to subordinate persons, who themselves probably earn but a bare competency,—the loose cash which is constantly passing through the hands of shopmen, agents, brokers, and clerks in banking houses,—and note how comparatively few are the breaches of trust which occur amidst all this temptation, it will probably be admitted that this steady daily honesty of conduct is most honorable to human nature, if it do not even tempt us to be proud of it. The same trust and confidence reposed by men of business in each other, as implied by the system of Credit, which is mainly based upon the principle of honor, would be surprising if it were not so much a matter of ordinary practice in business transactions. Dr. Chalmers has well said, that the implicit trust with which merchants are accustomed to confide in distant agents, separated from them perhaps by half the globe,—often consigning vast wealth to persons, recommended only by their character, whom perhaps they never saw,—is probably the finest act of homage which men can render to one another.
Although common honesty is still happily in the ascendant amongst common people, and the general business community of England is still sound at heart, putting their honest character into their respective callings,—there are unhappily, as there have been in all times, but too many instances of flagrant dishonesty and fraud, exhibited by the unscrupulous, the over-speculative, and the intensely selfish, in their haste to be rich. There are tradesmen who adulterate, contractors who “scamp,”
manufacturers who give us shoddy instead of wool, “dressing” instead of cotton, cast-iron tools instead of steel, needles without eyes, razors made only “to sell,” and swindled fabrics in many shapes. But these we must hold to be the exceptional cases, of low-minded and grasping men, who, though they may gain wealth which they probably cannot enjoy, will never gain an honest character, nor secure that without which wealth is nothing,—a satisfied conscience. “The rogue cozened not me, but his own conscience,” said Bishop Latimer of a cutler who made him pay twopence for a knife not worth a penny. Money, earned by screwing, cheating, and over-reaching, may for a time dazzle the eyes of the unthinking; but the bubbles blown by unscrupulous rogues, when full-blown, usually glitter only to burst. The Sadleirs, Dean Pauls, and Redpaths, for the most part, come to a sad end even in this world; and though the successful swindles of others may not be “found out,” and the gains of their roguery may remain with them, it will be as a curse and not as a blessing.
It is possible that the scrupulously honest man may not grow rich so fast as the unscrupulous and dishonest one; but the success will be of a truer kind, earned without fraud or injustice. And even though a man should for a time be unsuccessful, still he must be honest; better lose all and save character. For character is itself a fortune; and if the high-principled man will but hold on his way courageously, success will surely come,—nor will the highest reward of all be withheld from him. Wordsworth well describes the “Happy Warrior,” as he
“Who comprehends his trust, and to the same
Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;
And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait
For wealth, or honor, or for worldly state;
Whom they must follow, on whose head must fall,
Like showers of manna, if they come at all.”
As an example of the high-minded mercantile man, trained in upright habits of business, and distinguished for justice, truthfulness, and honesty of dealing in all things, the career of the well-known David Barclay, grandson of Robert Barclay, of Ury, the author of the celebrated “Apology for the Quakers,” may be briefly referred to. For many years he was the head of an extensive house in Cheapside, chiefly engaged in the American trade; but like Granville Sharp, he entertained so strong an opinion against the war with our American colonies, that he determined to retire altogether from the trade. Whilst a merchant, he was as much distinguished by his talents, knowledge, integrity, and power, as he afterwards was for his patriotism and munificent philanthropy. He was a mirror of truthfulness and honesty; and, as became the good Christian and true gentleman, his word was always held to be as good as his bond. His position, and his high character, induced the Ministers of the day on many occasions to seek his advice; and, when examined before the House of Commons on the subject of the American dispute, his views were so clearly expressed, and his advice was so strongly justified by the reasons stated by him, that Lord North publicly acknowledged that he had derived more information from David Barclay than from all others east of Temple Bar. On retiring from business, it was not to rest in luxurious ease, but to enter upon new labors of usefulness for others. With ample means, he felt that he still owed to society the duty of a great example. He founded a house of industry near his residence at Walthamstow, which he supported
at a large cost for several years, until at length he succeeded in rendering it a source of comfort as well as independence to the well-disposed families of the poor in that neighborhood. When an estate in Jamaica fell to him, he determined, though at a cost of some 10,000
l., at once to give liberty to the whole of the slaves on the property. He sent out an agent, who hired a ship, and he had the little slave community transported to one of the free American States, where they settled down and prospered. Mr. Barclay had been assured that the negroes were too ignorant and too barbarous for freedom, and it was thus that he determined practically to demonstrate the fallacy of the assertion. In dealing with his accumulated savings, he made himself the executor of his own will, and instead of leaving a large fortune to be divided among his relatives at his death, he extended to them his munificent aid during his life, watched and aided them in their respective careers, and thus not only laid the foundation, but lived to see the maturity, of some of the largest and most prosperous business concerns in the metropolis. We believe that to this day some of our most eminent merchants,—such as the Gurneys, Hanburys, and Buxtons,—are proud to acknowledge with gratitude the obligations they owe to David Barclay for the means of their first introduction to life, and for the benefits of his counsel and countenance in the early stages of their career. Such a man stands as a mark of the mercantile honesty and integrity of his country, and is a model and example for men of business in all time to come.