Character And Accomplishment
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
When the pioneers of the Western Reserve left their early homes in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and went into the distant wilderness to reclaim it from the bear and wolf, they carried with them keen-edged axes and sharp-toothed saws. These were to be their implements of labor; but they did not depend alone upon that keenness and sharpness to fell the trees, and get .them ready for the burning. Sharp tools were a necessary factor, 'tis true, in clearing the country; but there was need of something else behind them; there was needed strong arms and sinewy power to make the tools do the work. Sharpness and keenness are well on the edge of tools for labor ; but to trust in these qualities alone is the essence of stupidity. Pen-knives; razors and surgeon's lancets would never have turned the verdant wilderness into a blooming garden, even though they excel axes in sharpness. Not even in the hands of power could they have done the work. And yet the farmers of the Reserve and their kindred tradesmen have sometimes sent brilliancy instead of worth to legislature. When they look for heroes, when they sound applause and bestow honors, they are often misled into praising keenness instead of power, into admiring the lancet instead of the axe. Men everywhere are constantly deceived by brilliancy of accomplishment. They forget the need of force and power behind the razor-edge of shining accomplishment to direct the blows and shape the work of life ; especially if that work is to last beyond the fading memories of a day. Laborers, everywhere, in whatever field, need to learn the simple lesson that " work, to be permanent, must be the exponent of solid worth and power of character. Would you forge a chain to hold a ship in storm ? Then put behind the bellows and hammer an honest heart and sincere purpose. Put power there and the chain will hold. Would you clear an innocent man from ungrounded charges of crime and dishonor ? Then let the lawyer be a man of character, a man of power. Would you stand in a pulpit or on a platform to instruct men in truth and wisdom? Then be a man of might that no weakness can assail, be a man of character and not of brilliancy. Be a man to wield the sword of truth and cleave asunder joint, and marrow, be not content to prick and lance only the flesh of error. Let your work be not for to-day, nor yesterday, nor to-morrow ; but for all time and all the race.
The men of our time seek too much for immediate results. They are too impatient for applause, honor and wealth. There seems to be no thought given to work that shall last beyond the next week or the next year. Men strive for that brilliancy of accomplishment which shall bring them immediate returns in cash or advancement. The result is that the world is crowded with superficial, worthless work. There is too little power, too little character in the trades and professions of our land. Shoddy, sham and incompetence are ruining every field of effort. The mass of mankind are stretching themselves beyond their capacity to do work for which they have no knowledge and no power. Everywhere toilers are trying to do the work of axes with their worthless pen-knife and razor accomplishments. And the worst of it is that brilliancy does capture the crowd. It is only comparatively few that wait for the manifestation of power before they sound hurrah. Public men and professional men carve and slash with their razor and lancet, make a few ugly wounds and draw much blood, while the crowd cry bravo, and advance them from one degree of honor to another until men come to think that brilliancy is only the stepping-stone to greatness.
Just as our fathers hewed down the forest, and found out too late that they had exposed the land to higher floods and burning droughts, so do we, their sons, give place and honor to some showy fool in the pulpit or on the platform. So do we send men to Congress because they can thrill us, amuse us and flatter us, when they come to " stump " our county. We entrust the destinies of State and Church not to fitness, character and wisdom ; but to shallow brained incompetence ; because, forsooth, the lancet is sharper than the axe. We find out too late the error and folly of our choice, the error of placing mere accomplishment above character.
We meet these sharp-edged lancets every day along the journey of life. They have a character to protect and a reputation to maintain. They seek advancement through letters of recommendation and the influence 'of friends instead of trusting to real fitness and worth. They are perpetually feeling of themselves, as it were, to make sure the edge of their fine accomplishment is not blunted. They see a man who has risen high in professional life. He had a rich uncle and was an Odd-Fellow, or Mason, or Knight of Pythias. So these incipient heroes think to rise through rich uncles, through signs of Free-Masonry, or some other contemptible process of "influence," that they hope to bring to bear upon their success in life. Such men always blame society because it does not advance them, and give them the first places, when the truth is there is nothing to advance, nothing to praise, nothing to honor. Such men are out of their sphere. They are sharp-bladed pen-knives in a huge primeval forest. They are worthless for the work that they long to perform. In the hands of a skillful surgeon their accomplishments might be turned to a good purpose, away in the distant city hospital ; but on the frontier they are helpless and useless and good for nothing whatever. It would be an infinite blessing to such men and to the world if they could be made to see that they had no business trying to get out of the humble position in life where Providence has placed them; if they could be made to see that they have no character, no force for the magnificent work that they essay to do, it would do much to remove incompetence and unhappiness from the higher professional walks of life. Oh, that we were done with the days of recommendation and political wire-pulling ! Would that we were done trying to make a pin do the work of a crow-bar.
"The fate of England and of freedom once
Lowell. A Glance Behind the Curtain.
Such, says the poet, was Cromwell, whose character of power is the brightest gem in the crown of England's greatness. And the work of the Common-wealth was a work of power. There was no brilliancy nor flash at Marston Moor. There was no quivering of incompetence on April. 20th when the Rump Parliament closed their session. "The troubled times" of which Hampden spoke demanded a hero who could marshal "Ironsides" and lead, them to victory every time the standard was raised against them. England sought the plain country-gentleman, because he was a man of iron with a heart of steel and gold, and it is the character of plain Oliver Cromwell that shines with such transcendent brightness in the galaxy of England's brilliant past.