How to Be a Man - Harvey Newcomb - ebook

In one sense, very young persons are apt to think too much of themselves—in another, not enough. When they think they know more than their parents and teachers, or other elderly people, and so set up to be bold and smart , then they think too much of themselves. It used to be said, when I was a boy, that “Young folks think old folks are fools; but old folks know young folks are fools.” Although I would be very far indeed from calling you fools , because you have already acquired much knowledge, and have the capacity for acquiring much more, yet, with reference to such knowledge as is acquired by experience , and in comparison with what there is to be known , there is “more truth than poetry ,” in the old adage. But, when young people suppose it is of no consequence what they do, or how they behave, because they are young , then they do not think enough of themselves.

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Harvey Newcomb

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“ Who reads a preface?” Many do not; but jump at once into the middle of a book. But it is well to know something about a book, before reading it; and who so likely to give you information respecting the contents of a book as the Author himself? I wish to see the youth of my country come forward upon the stage of life, models of excellence, with characters formed for the times in which they are to act. How much influence my book may have, in securing such a result, I cannot tell; but my design in writing it has been, to contribute something toward forming the character of some of those who are to be our future electors, legislators, governors, judges, ministers, lawyers, and physicians,—after the best model; and, from the kind reception of my former attempts to benefit American youth, I trust they will give a candid hearing to the few hints contained in the following pages. It is intended for boys,—or, if you please, for young gentlemen,—in early youth, from eight or ten to fifteen or sixteen years of age. It covers substantially the same ground occupied by a work for girls issued simultaneously with it; and some of the chapters are identical in the two books, while others are entirely different, and some partially so. It is the hope of the Author, that every one who reads it, will strive to be a man, in the highest sense of the term.


In one sense, very young persons are apt to think too much of themselves—in another, not enough. When they think they know more than their parents and teachers, or other elderly people, and so set up to be bold and smart, then they think too much of themselves. It used to be said, when I was a boy, that “Young folks think old folks are fools; but old folks know young folks are fools.” Although I would be very far indeed from calling you fools, because you have already acquired much knowledge, and have the capacity for acquiring much more, yet, with reference to such knowledge as is acquired by experience, and in comparison with what there is to be known, there is “more truth than poetry,” in the old adage. But, when young people suppose it is of no consequence what they do, or how they behave, because they are young, then they do not think enough of themselves. Should you see a man riding with a little stick for a whip, you would not think his stick worth your notice at all; but the biggest tree that ever I saw grew from a little willow stick that a man rode home with, and then planted in his garden. You have sat under the beautiful shade of a great elm-tree; and when you have looked upon its tall, majestic trunk, and its great and strong branches, with their ten thousand little limbs waving gracefully before the wind, you have been filled with admiration and delight. “What a mighty tree!” you say; “I wonder how long it has been growing.” But the seed of that tree, when it was planted, many years ago, was no bigger than a mustard-seed; and if you had seen the little tiny sprout that your grandfather was tying up with so much care, when it was a few years old, you would have wondered that a man should think so much of such an insignificant twig. But, if he had let it grow up as it began, without any care, it never would have been the stately tree it is now. That was the most important period in its life, when it was a little twig. It began to lean over, and grow crooked and ugly. If it had not been trained up then, it would have continued to grow worse and worse; and, after it had grown to be a tree, it could not have been straightened at all. Now, you are, in some respects, like this little twig. You, too, have just begun to be; and now your character is pliable, like the young tree. But, unlike it, your being is to have no end. Instead of growing a few hundred years, like a great tree, you are to live forever. And every thing that you do now must have an influence in forming your character for your whole being. In this latter sense, you cannot think too much of yourself; for you are the germ of an immortal being.Did you ever stand by the shore of a placid lake or pond, in a calm, sunny day, and throw a little stone into its smooth, silvery waters? Did you observe how, first, a little ripple was formed around the place where it struck, and this was followed by a wave, and then, beyond, another, and another, till the whole surface of the water was disturbed? It was a very little thing that you did; and yet it agitated a great body of water. So it is with childhood and youth; the most insignificant action you perform, in its influence upon your character, will reach through the whole period of your existence.It will not do for you to say, “It is no matter how I behave now; I shall do differently when I am a man.” “But would you have a little boy act like a man?” Not exactly. I would not have him affect the man, and appear as though he thought himself a full-grown gentleman. I would not have him imitate the toad, which undertook to swell to the size of an ox, and in the operation burst open. But, I would have him manly in his childishness. I would have him courageous, to meet difficulties, noble and generous in his feelings and actions, and courteous in his manners, always, in all companies, and in all places, behaving in a manner becoming a person of his age. A well-bred boy, who knows what is becoming and proper, and carries it out in his behavior, is already a gentleman. But the mischievous, rude, unmannerly lad, who pays no regard to propriety of conduct, will never be a gentleman. And a boy who has the courage to face difficulties, and the energy and perseverance to accomplish what he undertakes, is already a man; while the indolent, cowardly, “I can’t” boy, will never be a man. It is my desire, in this book, to lead you to the formation of a solid, energetic, manly character, combined with true gentility of manners; and then you will be both a man and a gentleman.Very young persons sometimes live in an ideal world. What they imagine in their plays seems real. They have a little fairy world in their minds, in which they live more, and take greater delight, than they do in what is real and true. To this I do not object, within certain bounds; but often it becomes a passion, so that they lose all relish for sober, every-day life. For such creatures of fancy real life is too dull, and what concerns realities, too grave. Perhaps they will not like my book, because it treats of things true and real. But I beg them to consider that, through the whole of their being, they are to be concerned chiefly with realities; and therefore, to do them substantial good, we must speak to them of things real, and not of those airy things that belong to the fairy land. But real things are, truly, more interesting than the creations of fancy. The things of fancy interest you more only because they appear new and less common. A person who has always lived in the country, and is used to sitting under the wide-spreading, shady tree, would be more pleased with the picture of a tree than with a tree itself. But one brought up in the city would cast away the picture, and hasten to enjoy the cool shade of the beautiful tree. A castle in the air may please the fancy; but you want a real house to live in.


Perhaps some of my readers, when they see the title of this chapter, will think only of confinement in school, of books, and of hard study, and so be inclined to pass over it, as a dry subject, which they have so much to do with, every day, that they have no wish to think of it in a moment of relaxation. But I beg them to stop a minute, and not throw me away, among the old school-books, till they have heard me through. I assure them that I use the term education in a far different sense. I think it means much more than going to school and studying books. This is only a small part of education. Mr. Walker defines education, “The formation of manners in youth.” But this is a very imperfect definition; and I am afraid there may be found some who would even doubt whether education has any thing to do with manners. Mr. Webster gives a better definition:—“Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations;”—all, in fact, that is necessary to make a man or a woman—a gentleman or a lady.

The original root, from which the word education is derived, means to lead out, to conduct, to form, to fashion, to beat out, to forge. It was used with reference to the forging of an instrument out of a piece of metal, or the chiselling of a statue out of a block of marble. This furnishes a good illustration of my ideas of education. It is a process by which a character is formed out of rude or unwrought materials. It is not confined to mere school learning. A person may be very learned, and yet not half educated. There are many steps in the process. The ore must first be dug up by the miner; then smelted at the furnace, and the metal separated from the dross; then wrought into bars at the foundry; afterwards forged by the smith; and then, finally, polished by the finisher. The marble must first be quarried, or blasted out of the ledge; then cut into blocks; then transported; then wrought with the hammer and chisel; and finally, polished. This gives a good idea of education. It is not merely what is done to form the character in school; but it comprises all the influences which are exerted upon the young, in training them up and forming their characters. Education begins in the family. It is carried forward in the school. It is affected, for good or for evil, by the influence of public worship, lectures, books, amusements, scenery, companions, &c. In all places and circumstances, something is doing towards the formation of character.

Yet there is one important respect in which education, or the formation of character, differs essentially from the process described in this illustration. The block of marble, or the piece of metal, is passive; the whole process is performed upon it by another. But no person can be educated in this way; every one that is educated must be active. You may be drilled through all the schools, and have every advantage at home and in society; and yet, without your own active coöperation, you can never be educated. But, if you are determined to be educated, you will turn every thing to some account. Every thing will be a school to you; for you will make contributions to your stock of knowledge from every object you see; and by seeking to act discreetly, wisely, and correctly, in every place, you will be constantly forming good habits. Like the little busy bee, you will suck honey from every flower. You will commune with your own heart upon your bed, and exercise your powers of thought in useful meditation. You will converse with God in your secret place, and seek wisdom of Him who has promised to give liberally to those that ask. In company, you will be more ready to hear than to speak; and you will never meet with any so ignorant but you may learn from them some useful lessons. You will exercise your mind upon every person and object you meet. You will study philosophy in the fields, by the brooks, on the hills, in the valleys, and upon the broad canopy of heaven. It has been well observed, that the difference between a wise man and a fool is, that one goes through the world with his eyes wide open, while the other keeps them shut.

You will perceive, then, that your education is continually going on, whether you think of it or not. Your character is constantly forming. It is your business to keep out of the way of bad influences, and submit yourself to the moulding of the good. Keep in mind the great truth that you are forming a character for eternity. Some years ago, there were found on the banks of the Mississippi River the tracks of a human being, deeply imprinted in the solid rock. These tracks were made in the soft clay, which in time became hardened, and formed into stone;—now, the impression is immovable. You now resemble this soft clay. Every thing with which you come in contact makes an impression. But, as you grow older, your character acquires solidity, and is less and less affected by these influences, till at length it will be like the hard stone, and the impressions made upon you at this season will become confirmed habits.

All the impressions made upon your character ought to be such as will not need to be removed. Washington Allston, the great painter, had been a long time at work on a most magnificent painting. He had nearly completed it, when his keen eye discovered some defects in a portion of the piece. He hastily drew his rough brush over that portion of the picture, intending to paint it anew. But in the midst of his plans, death seized him, and his painting remains, just as he left it. No other person can carry out the conception that was in his mind. If you allow wrong impressions to be made upon your forming character, death may meet you with his stern mandate, and fix them forever, as immovable as it left the rough print of the coarse brush upon Allston’s canvass.


A watch, to one who had never seen such a piece of mechanism before, would be a great wonder. It is an object of much curiosity to the natives of savage and barbarous tribes, visited by the missionaries. It seems to speak and move, as though instinct with life. I have read, somewhere, of a poor savage, who, seeing a white man’s watch lying on the ground, and hearing it tick, supposed it to be some venomous reptile, and, with a stone, dashed it in pieces. A watch is an object of no less wonder to a child. Children are full of curiosity, as my readers well know. They wish to examine every thing they see—to take it in pieces, and see how it is made. I dare say my readers remember the time when they sat on their father’s knee, and modestly requested him to show them the little wheels of his watch.

If I could sit down with my young friends, and take my watch in pieces, I would teach them a useful lesson. I would show them how a watch resembles a human being. There is the case, which may be taken off, and put by itself, and still the watch will go as well as ever. In this respect, it is like the human body. Death separates it from the soul, and yet the soul remains, with all its active powers. It still lives. The inside of the watch, too, resembles the soul. It has a great many different parts, all working together in harmony—a great many wheels, all moving in concert. So the soul has a great many different powers or faculties, all designed to operate in concert with each other, as the understanding, the judgment, the conscience, the will, the affections, the memory, the passions, desires, &c.; and each one of these has a part to act, as important for the man as the several wheels and springs of the watch. If every part of the watch is in order, and in its proper place, it will keep exact time; but, if one wheel gets disordered, it will derange the whole. The secret power that moves the watch is unperceived. If you examine, you will see a large wheel, with a smooth surface, round which is wound a long chain, attached to another wheel, with ridges for the chain to run upon. Inside of the first-named wheel is the main-spring, which, by means of the chain, moves the whole machinery. The WILL is the main-spring of the soul. By a mysterious, invisible chain, it holds all the powers of the soul and body at its command. Not only the operations of the mind, but the motions of the body are controlled by the will.

But, if there were no check upon the main-spring of the watch, it would not give the time of day. It would set all the wheels in rapid motion, and in a few moments the watch would run down. To prevent this, there is a balance-wheel, which turns backwards and forwards, by means of a fine spring, called the hair-spring, and so keeps the whole machinery in a regular motion. To this is attached a little lever, called the regulator, which, by a gentle touch, works on this delicate spring, so as to move the balance-wheel faster or slower, as the case may be, to make the movement exact and regular.

Now, if there were no checks on the will, it would run on impetuously in its course, without regard to consequences. And this we often see in persons called wilful, self-willed, headstrong. Children are often so; if let alone, their stubborn will would lead them to rush on headlong to their own destruction. Without meaning to be very accurate in these illustrations, I shall call judgment the balance-wheel. This is the faculty which perceives, compares, and decides, keeps the mind balanced, and prevents its running to extremes either way.

The hair-spring and regulator of the watch I shall compare with conscience. A very slight touch of the regulator moves the hair-spring, and gives a quicker or a slower motion to the balance-wheel. But, if the watch is out of order, oftentimes the movement of the regulator has no effect upon it. So, when the soul is in order, a very slight touch of conscience will affect the judgment and regulate the will. But often, the soul is so much out of order, that conscience will have no effect upon it.

But who touches the regulator of the watch? There is nothing in the watch itself to do this. The power that moves the regulator is applied to it. So, the conscience is moved. The Word of God enlightens the conscience, and the Spirit of God applies the word. And this brings me to the point which I had in my mind when I began this chapter. What a poor thing a watch is, when it is out of order. It is of no use. A watch is made to keep the time of day; but, when it is out of order, it will keep no time. Or, if it is in order, and yet not regulated, it will not keep the right time.

Now until the heart is changed by the grace of God, the soul is out of order. It does not answer the purpose for which it was made. The will is wrong; the judgment is wrong; the conscience is wrong. And, whatever cultivation may be bestowed upon the mind, it will not act aright. In the very beginning, then, you want piety, as the main-spring of action, and the regulator of the soul. Without this, you are not prepared to begin any thing aright. Indeed, without it, you have no sufficient motive to action. You seem to be toiling and laboring and wearying yourself for nothing. But piety towards God gives a new impulse to the mind. When you set out to improve your mind, if you have no piety, the object to be gained by it is very small. It can secure to you no more than, perhaps, a little additional enjoyment, for the brief space you are to continue in this world. But piety opens to you a wide field of usefulness in this life, and the prospect of going forward in the improvement of your mind as long as eternity endures. It must, therefore, give a new spring and vigor to all the faculties of the soul. It does more. It regulates the powers of the mind, and the affections of the heart, and gives a right direction to them all.

I would persuade you, then, as the first and great thing, to seek God. Remember what Christ has said,—“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Here is the promise that you shall have all else that is needful, if you seek God first. Yield your heart to him, and have his kingdom set up there. Let him rule in your heart, and devote yourself to his service, and he will supply all your need. This, also, will give a right direction to all your faculties, and lay a good foundation of character. But, without it, you will be like a watch without a balance-wheel or a regulator; you will be fit neither for this life nor that which is to come. And, it is of the utmost importance that you should become pious now, while you are young. If you would form a good character, you must have a good foundation laid at the beginning. Nothing but this can make a good foundation. All your habits ought to be formed and settled upon religious principles. Religious motives should enter into all your efforts to improve your mind and cultivate your affections. And, should you neglect religion now, and afterwards, by the grace of God, be led to devote yourself to him, you will find it hard and difficult to overcome the wrong habits of mind and conduct which you will have formed.

Piety, then, is the first thing to be considered, in the formation of character. And remember, also, that you are forming character for eternity; and that your whole being, through a never ending existence, is to be affected by the character which you form now in your childhood and youth. If you lay the foundation of your character now in the love and fear of God, it will rise higher and higher, in excellence, beauty, and loveliness, for ever and ever. But if you lay the foundation in selfishness and sin, and build accordingly, it will forever be sinking lower in degradation and deeper in wretchedness.


Next to your duty to God comes your duty to your parents; and you can never form an excellent, amiable, and lovely character, unless the foundation of it is laid in filial piety, as well as in piety towards God. Solomon says to the young, “Hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother; for they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head, and chains about thy neck.” Nothing will make you appear so lovely in the eyes of others as a dutiful behaviour towards your parents; and nothing will make you appear so unamiable and unlovely as a disrespectful, disobedient carriage towards them. No ornament sits so gracefully upon youth as filial piety; no outward adorning can compare with it.

Filial piety calls into exercise feelings towards your parents, similar to those which piety towards God calls into exercise towards him; such as esteem and veneration of his character, love to his person, confidence in his word, submission to his authority, and penitence for offences against him. When the heart is habituated to the exercise of these feelings towards parents, it is prepared the more readily to exercise them towards God. The promises which God has made to those who honor their parents, and his threatenings against those who dishonor them, are similar to those which he has made respecting honor and obedience to himself. You owe it, therefore, to God, to exercise filial piety, because he has required it, and because it is one of the means he employs to cultivate piety towards himself. Gratitude, also, should lead to filial piety, as well as to piety towards God; for what God is to man, only in a lower sense, the parent is to his child. Your parents are, under God, the authors of your being. The greater part of parents’ lives is spent in rearing, supporting, and educating their children. For this they wear out their strength in anxious care and toil; they watch beside the bed of their children when they are sick, with tender solicitude and sleepless vigilance; they labor to provide for them. But good parents are, most of all, anxious that their children should grow up intelligent and virtuous, pious and happy. There is no being but God to whom children are so much indebted as to a faithful parent; and almost all the blessings that God bestows upon them come through their parents.