In A Small Town In Western Massachusetts--
In a small town in western Massachusetts, forty years ago, a young, pale youth was acting as cashier of the savings bank. He was dyspeptic, acutely nervous, and often ill-natured. One day several large factories closed their doors, and the corporations to whom the bank had loaned money gave notice of bankruptcy. The president of the bank was in Europe and the people did not know that the bank was a loser by the failure. The cashier was almost overcome by the sense of danger, for he could not meet a run on the bank with the funds he had on hand. He entered the bank after a sleepless night, fearing that the people might in some way learn of the bank's responsibility. He was sleepy, faint, discouraged. An old farmer came in to get a small check cashed, and the glum cashier did not answer the farmer's usual salutation. His face was cloudy, his eyes bloodshot, and his whole manner irritating. He counted out the money and threw it at the farmer. The old man counted his money carefully and then called out to the cashier: "What's the matter? Is your bank going to fail?" When the farmer had left the bank the young cashier could see that his manner was letting out that which he wished to conceal. He then paced up and down the bank and fought it all out with himself. He determined he would be cheerful, brave, and strong. He forced himself to smile, and soon was able to laugh at himself for presenting such a ridiculous appearance. He met the next customer with a hearty greeting of good cheer. All the forenoon he grew stronger in his determination to let nothing move him to gloom again. About noon the daily Boston paper came and announced the possible failure of that bank. Almost instantly the news flew about town, and a wild mob assailed the bank, screaming for their money. But the cheerful cashier met them with a smile and made fun of their excitement. The eighteenth man demanding his money was an old German, who, seeing the cashier count out the money so coolly and cheerfully, drew back his bank-book and said: "If you have the money, we don't want it now! But we thought you didn't have it!" That suggestion made the crowd laugh, and in half an hour the crowd had left and those who had drawn their money in many cases asked the cashier to take it back. The cashier now is a most successful manufacturer and railroad director, stout-hearted and cheerful. He often refers to the fight he had that morning with his "insignificant, flabby little self."
To appreciate one's power at command is the first consideration. A man from Cooperstown, New York, visited St. Anthony Falls, Minnesota, in the early fifties of the last century and laughed loud and long at the ridiculous little mill which turned out a few bags of flour and sawed a few thousand feet of lumber. It was indeed ludicrous. He could think of no comparison except an elephant drawing a baby's tin toy. His laughter led to a heated discussion and investigation. An army officer at Fort Snelling, who was a civil engineer, was asked to make an estimate of the Mississippi River's horse-power at St. Anthony Falls. His report was beyond the civilian's belief. He said there was power enough to turn the wheels to grind out ten thousand barrels of flour a day and to cut logs into millions of square feet of board every hour. The estimate was below the facts, but was not accepted for ten years. Then was constructed the strong dam which built up the great city of Minneapolis and represents the finest and most vigorous civilization of our age. Nevertheless, there still runs to waste ten thousand horse-power. In the first paper-mill erected at South Hadley Falls, Massachusetts, the horse-power used was less than one hundred, yet an engineer employed by Mr. Chapin, of Springfield, to determine the possible power of the Connecticut River at that point reported it so great that unbelief in his figures postponed for a long time all the proposed enterprises. But one poor man, determined "to do something about it," promoted a system of canals which now so utilizes the water that a large city, manufacturing annually products worth many millions, draws from it comfort and riches. Massive as are the present works at Holyoke, regret is often expressed that so much of the water-power still goes over the mighty dam and ridicules the smallness of the faith of those who tried to harness it.
Such is the intellectual force in a young person's mind. It is reasonable to conclude that no mind ever did its very best, and that no will power was ever exerted continuously to its greatest capacity. But the first essential in the making of noble character is to gain a full appreciation of the latent or unused force which each individual possesses. When one without foolish egotism realizes how much can be done with his wasting energies, then he must carefully consider to what object he will turn his power. Great wills are often wasted on unworthy objects, and the strong current of the mind, which could be applied to the making of world-enriching machinery, is used to manufacture some unsalable toy. The mind is often compared to an electric dynamo. The figure is accurate. It is an automatic, self-charging battery which, when applied to worthy occupation or to a high purpose, distributes happiness, progress, and intelligence to mankind, and as a natural consequence brings riches and honor to the industrious possessor.
Forty years ago there was on the lips of nearly every teacher and father a fascinating story of a Massachusetts boy whose history illustrates forcibly the "power to will" which is latent in us all. I need not state the details of the life, as it is only the illustration which we need here.
A young fellow sat on a barrel at the door of a country grocery-store in a small village not far from Boston. He was the son of an industrious mechanic who had opened a small shop for making and repairing farm utensils, such as rakes, hoes, and shovels. But the son, encouraged by an indulgent mother, would not work. He gave way to cards, drink, and bad company. He would not go to school, and was a continual source of alarm to his parents, and he became the talk of the neighbors. He either was ill with a cough or pretended to fear consumption; the doctor's advice to set him at work in the open air was not enforced by his anxious mother. He was a fair sample of the many thousand young men seen now about the country stores and taverns. He had, however, the unusual disadvantage of having his board and clothing furnished to him without earning them. If he exercised his will, it was to turn it against himself in a determined self-indulgence. I heard him once refer to those days and quote Virgil in saying that "the descent to Avernus is easy."
One evening with his hands in his pockets he strolled up to the store and post-office to meet some other young men for a game of checkers. Under the only street lamp near the store a patent-medicine peddler had opened one side of his covered wagon and was advertising his "universal cure." The boy--then about nineteen years old--listened listlessly to the songs and stories, but was not interested enough to learn what was offered for sale. The vender of medicines held up a chain composed of several seemingly solid rings which he skilfully took apart. He then offered a dollar to any one who would put the rings together as they were before. The puzzle caught the eye and interest of the careless boy; as the rings were passed from one to another they came to him. He looked them over and said, "I can't do it," and passed them on. The Yankee peddler yelled at the boy, "If you talk like that you will land in the poorhouse!" The young fellow was cut to the heart with the short rebuke. He was inclined to answer hotly, but lacked the courage. After the other boys had had their chance to see the rings, he asked to examine them again; but he still saw no way to cut or open the solid steel and contemptuously threw them at the peddler and shouted, "You're fooling; that can't be done!" The smiling vender rolled the rings into a chain in an instant and, throwing it to the boy, said, sarcastically: "Take it home to your mother; she can do it!" The young fellow, ashamed, angry, and crushed, caught the chain and crept out of the crowd and went home, entering his room by the back stairs. He hated the peddler with a murderous passion, but despised himself and must have wept great tears far into the night. The next morning he sat on the side of his bed, gazing at the chain, long after his father had gone to work. That was a terrible battle! All who succeed must fight that battle to victory at some time, or life is a failure. He who conquers himself can conquer other men. He who does not rule himself cannot control other people. For the first time that boy was conscious of his lack of WILL. He was painfully ashamed. He could not again meet the boys, or the one girl who was at the post-office, unless he solved that riddle. It was far worse to him than the riddles of the ancient oracles or the questions of Samson had been to the ancients. No victory so glorious to any man as that when he rises over his dead self and can shout with unwavering confidence, I WILL. That young man's battle was furious and a strain on body and soul; he kept saying over and over again, "I will solve that riddle." He was sorely tempted by hunger, as he would not stop to eat. He determined to win out alone, and did not ask aid even of his mother. That night the rings fell apart in his hands and rolled on the floor. He had won! Life has few joys like that hour of victory. The rings had little value as pieces of steel, but his triumph over self was worth millions to him, and worth a thousand millions to his country.
The next morning his parents were surprised to see him the first one at the breakfast-table. He told of his solution of the puzzle, and said to his astonished but delighted parents that he had loafed around long enough and that he had determined to take hold and do things. He asked for an especially hard place in the shop, and entered that week on a noble, triumphant career, having few equals save those of like experience. His health became robust, his work became profitable, new business ideas were developed, and in a few years he controlled the inside business and far distanced all outside competitors. He said to his wife, "I will have a million dollars, and every dollar shall be a clean and honest dollar." In those days a million looked like a mountain of gold. But he secured the million and steadily raised the pay of his workmen. He became the sheik of the town, the father and adviser of every local enterprise. He was sent to Congress by a nearly unanimous vote. For eleven years he was a safe counselor of the administration at Washington and was a close friend and trusted supporter of President Lincoln.
One day in 1864 the Federal armies had been defeated by the Confederate forces and gloom shadowed the faces of the people. President Lincoln had a sleepless night--it looked like defeat and disunion. The danger was greatly increased by the abandonment of the scheme to hold California to the Union by building a railroad through the mountainous wilderness of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. The chief engineer who surveyed the route said that it could not be done because of the great cost. Three great financiers had been consulted and refused to undertake the hopeless task. The great Massachusetts Senator told Mr. Lincoln that there was just one man who could do that gigantic feat. The Senator said to Lincoln: "If that Congressman makes up his mind to do it, and it is left to him, he will do it. He is a careful man, but he has a will which seems to be irresistible." President Lincoln sent for the Congressman and said: "A railroad to California now will be more than an army, and it will be an army--in the saving of the Union. Will you build it?" The Congressman asked for three weeks to think. Before the end of that time he asked the Secretary of War to take his card to President Lincoln, then in Philadelphia; on the card was written, "I will." What a startlingly fascinating story from real life is the history of that mighty undertaking. Now, when the traveler passes the highest point on that transcontinental railroad, 8,550 feet above the sea at Sherman, Wyoming, and lifts his hat before the monument erected to the memory of that civil nobleman and hero, he is paying his respect to the self-giving heart and mighty brain of the boy who conquered the three links.
It may not be necessary to multiply illustrations of this vital question, but no one who lived in the journalistic circles of Washington subsequent to the Civil War can forget the power and fame of that feminine literary genius who, as the Washington correspondent of the New York Independent, wrote such brilliant letters. The fact that she bore the same name as the Congressman we have mentioned, though no relative of his, does not account for this reference to her. She was nearly thirty-three years old when a divorce and the breaking up of her home left her poor, ill, and under the cloud of undeserved disgrace. Her acquaintances predicted obscurity, daily toil with her hands, and a life of lonely sorrow. Poor victim of sad circumstances! She had but little education, and had been too full of cares to read the books of the day. Her start in the profession which she later so gracefully and forcibly adorned was the foremost topic in corners and cloakrooms at her largely attended literary receptions in Washington.
She had been told by those who loved her that a divorced woman would be shunned by all cultured women and be the butt of ridicule for fashionable men; and that as she must earn a living she should sew or embroider or act as a nurse. She certainly was too weak to wash clothes or care for a kitchen. But within her soul there was that yearning to do something worth while which seems given to almost every woman. Few women reach old age without feeling that somehow the great object of living has not been attained. The ambitions to which a man can give free wings, a woman must suppress or hide in deference to custom or competition. As yet she has seldom under our civilization seemed to do her best or accomplish the one great ideal of her heart and intellect. While she has the same God-given impulses, visions, and sense of power, she builds no cathedrals, spans no rivers, digs no mines, founds no nations, builds no steamships, and seldom appears in painting, sculpture, banking, or oratory. She is conscious of the native talent, sees the ideals, but must hide them until it is too late. But this woman from the interior of New York State was an exception; like Charlotte Brontë, she said, "I will write." Like the same great author, she had her rebuffs and returned manuscripts, and all the more since at that time women were unknown in the newspaper business. But her invariable answer to critics and discouraged friends was, "I will." When in 1883 she said, "I will," to the great editor who became her second husband, the President of the United States wrote a personal letter to say that, while he wished her joy, he could but admit that it would be a "distinct loss to humanity to have such a brilliant genius hidden by marriage."
In an automobile ride from Lake Champlain to New York I saw the city of Burlington, Vermont, with its university, where Barnes had said, "I will." At St. Johnsbury the whole city advertises Fairbanks, who said, "I will." At Brattleboro the hum of industry ever repeats the name of the boy Esty, who said, "I will"; at Holyoke, the powerful canals seem to reflect the faces of Chase and Whitney, who, when poor men, said, "I will." At Springfield the signs on the stores, banks, and factories suggest the young Chapin, who made the city prosperous with his "I will." At New Haven Whitney's determination stands out in great streets and university buildings.
Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Raleigh, Niagara, Pittsburg and a hundred American cities like them are the outcome of ideas with wills behind them in the heads of common men. If every man had in the last generation done all that it was in his power to do, what sublime things would stand before us now in architecture, commerce, art, manufactures, education, and religion. The very glimpse of that vision bewilders the mind. But the many will not to do, while the few great benefactors of the race will to do. My young friend, be thou among those who will with noble motives to do.