Men of Business

By Samuel Smiles

Lord Melbourne

“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.”—Owen Feltham

 

Hazlitt, in one of his clever essays, 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 had 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.”

It has, however, been a favorite fallacy with dunces in all times, that men of genius are unfitted for business, as well as that business occupations unfit men for the pursuits of genius.  The unhappy youth who committed suicide a few years since because he had been “born to be a man and condemned to be a grocer,” proved by the act that his soul was not equal even to the dignity of grocery.  For it is not the calling that degrades the man, but the man that degrades the calling.  All work that brings honest gain is honorable, whether it be of hand or mind.  The fingers may be soiled, yet the heart remain pure; for it is not material so much as moral dirt that defiles—greed far more than grime, and vice than verdigris.

The greatest have not disdained to labor honestly and usefully for a living, though at the same time aiming after higher things.  Thales, the first of the seven sages, Solon, the second founder of Athens, and Hyperates, the mathematician, were all traders.  Plato, called the Divine by reason of the excellence of his wisdom, defrayed his traveling expenses in Egypt by the profits derived from the oil which he sold during his journey.  Spinoza maintained himself by polishing glasses while he pursued his philosophical investigations.  Linnaeus, the great botanist, prosecuted his studies while hammering leather and making shoes.  Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare’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.  Spencer was Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland, was afterwards Sheriff of Cork, and is said to have been shrewd and attentive in matters of business.  Milton, originally a schoolmaster, was 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 an 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.  Baily, the eminent astronomer, was another stockbroker; and Allen, the chemist, was a silk manufacturer.

We have abundant illustrations, 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, was 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 usually the path of common sense.  Patient labor and application are as necessary here as in the acquisition of knowledge or the pursuit of science.  The old Greeks said, “to become an able man in any profession, three things are necessary—nature, study, and practice.”  In business, practice, wisely and diligently improved, is the great secret of success.  Some may make what are called “lucky hits,” but like money earned by gambling, such “hits” may only serve to lure one to ruin.  Bacon was accustomed to say that it was in business as in ways—the nearest way was commonly the foulest, and that if a man would go the fairest way he must go somewhat about.  The journey may occupy a longer time, but the pleasure of the labor involved by it, and the enjoyment of the results produced, will be more genuine and unalloyed.  To have a daily appointed task of even common drudgery to do makes the rest of life feel all the sweeter.

The fable of the labors of Hercules is the type of all human doing and success.  Every youth should be made to feel that his happiness and well-doing in life must necessarily rely mainly on himself and the exercise of his own energies, rather than upon the help and patronage of others.  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.”

Practical industry, wisely and vigorously applied, always produces its due effects.  It carries a man onward, brings out his individual character, and stimulates the action of others.  All may not rise equally, yet each, on the whole, very much according to his deserts.  “Though all cannot live on the piazza,” as the Tuscan proverb has it, “every one may feel the sun.”

On the whole, it is not good that human nature should 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.”

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.

The necessity of labor may, indeed, be regarded as the main root and spring of all that we call progress in individuals, and civilization in nations; and it is doubtful whether any 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 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 however very apt to assume a tone of injured innocence, and conclude too hastily that everybody excepting themselves has had a hand in their personal misfortunes.  An eminent writer 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; and he came to the conclusion that the real cause of his ill-success in life was the money-worshipping spirit of the age.  Lamartine also did not hesitate to profess his 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.

Again, some consider themselves born to ill luck, and make up their minds that the world invariably goes against them without any fault on their own part.  We have heard of a person of this sort, who went so far as to declare his belief that if he had been a hatter people would have been born without heads!  There is however a Russian proverb which says that Misfortune is next door to Stupidity; and it will often be found that men who are constantly lamenting their luck, are in some way or other reaping the consequences of their own neglect, mismanagement, 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.”

Washington Irving, the American author, held like views.  “As for the talk,” said he, “about modest merit being neglected, it is too often a cant, by which indolent and irresolute men seek to lay their want of success at the door of the public.  Modest merit is, however, too apt to be inactive, or negligent, or uninstructed merit.  Well matured and well disciplined talent is always sure of a market, provided it exerts itself; but it must not cower at home and expect to be sought for.  There is a good deal of cant too about the success of forward and impudent men, while men of retiring worth are passed over with neglect.  But it usually happens that those forward men have that valuable quality of promptness and activity without which worth is a mere inoperative property.  A barking dog is often more useful than a sleeping lion.”

Attention, application, accuracy, method, punctuality, and despatch, 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.  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.

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.

It was one of the characteristic qualities of Charles James Fox, that he was thoroughly pains-taking 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 schoolboy 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 the Reverend Richard Cecil, “is like packing things in a box; a good packer will get in half as much again as a bad one.”  Cecil’s despatch 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 despatches 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.”

A French minister, who was alike remarkable for his despatch 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 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 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 despatched, 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 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 may be carried about as our companions everywhere, without cost or encumbrance.  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 for ever.

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 person who is negligent of time and its employment is usually found to be a general disturber of others’ peace and serenity.  It was wittily said by Lord Chesterfield of the old Duke of Newcastle--“His Grace loses an hour in the morning, and is looking for it all the rest of the day.”  Everybody with whom the unpunctual man 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 system; arrives at his appointment after time; gets to the railway station after the train has started; posts his letter when the box has closed.  Thus business is 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.

In addition to the ordinary working qualities the business man of the highest class requires quick perception and firmness in the execution of his plans.  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.  These qualities are especially valuable, and indeed indispensable, in those who direct the action of other men on a large scale, as for instance, in the case of the commander of an army in the field.  It is not merely necessary that the general should be great as a warrior but also as a man of business.  He must possess great tact, much knowledge of character, and ability to organize the movements of a large mass of men, whom he has to feed, clothe, and furnish with whatever may be necessary in order that they may keep the field and win battles.  In these respects Napoleon and Wellington were both first-rate men of business.

Though Napoleon had an immense love for details, he had also a vivid power of imagination, which enabled him to look along extended lines of action, and deal with those details on a large scale, with judgment and rapidity.  He possessed such knowledge of character as enabled him to select, almost unerringly, the best agents for the execution of his designs.  But he trusted as little as possible to agents in matters of great moment, on which important results depended.  This feature in his character is illustrated in a remarkable degree by the ‘Napoleon Correspondence,’ now in course of publication, and particularly by the contents of the 15th volume, {25} which include the letters, orders, and despatches, written by the Emperor at Finkenstein, a little chateau on the frontier of Poland in the year 1807, shortly after the victory of Eylau.

The French army was then lying encamped along the river Passarge with the Russians before them, the Austrians on their right flank, and the conquered Prussians in their rear.  A long line of communications had to be maintained with France, through a hostile country; but so carefully, and with such foresight was this provided for, that it is said Napoleon never missed a post.  The movements of armies, the bringing up of reinforcements from remote points in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, the opening of canals and the leveling of roads to enable the produce of Poland and Prussia to be readily transported to his encampments, had his unceasing attention, down to the minutest details.  We find him directing where horses were to be obtained, making arrangements for an adequate supply of saddles, ordering shoes for the soldiers, and specifying the number of rations of bread, biscuit, and spirits, that were to be brought to camp, or stored in magazines for the use of the troops.  At the same time we find him writing to Paris giving directions for the reorganization of the French College, devising a scheme of public education, dictating bulletins and articles for the ‘Moniteur,’ revising the details of the budgets, giving instructions to architects as to alterations to be made at the Tuileries and the Church of the Madelaine, throwing an occasional sarcasm at Madame de Stael and the Parisian journals, interfering to put down a squabble at the Grand Opera, carrying on a correspondence with the Sultan of Turkey and the Schah of Persia, so that while his body was at Finkenstein, his mind seemed to be working at a hundred different places in Paris, in Europe, and throughout the world.

We find him in one letter asking Ney if he has duly received the muskets which have been sent him; in another he gives directions to Prince Jerome as to the shirts, greatcoats, clothes, shoes, shakos, and arms, to be served out to the Wurttemberg regiments; again he presses Cambaceres to forward to the army a double stock of corn—

“The IFS and the BUTS,” said he, “are at present out of season, and above all it must be done with speed.”  Then he informs Daru that the army want shirts, and that they don’t come to hand.  To Massena he writes, “Let me know if your biscuit and bread arrangements are yet completed.”  To the Grand due de Berg, he gives directions as to the accoutrements of the cuirassiers—“They complain that the men want sabers; send an officer to obtain them at Posen.  It is also said they want helmets; order that they be made at Ebling. . .  . It is not by sleeping that one can accomplish anything.”  Thus no point of detail was neglected, and the energies of all were stimulated into action with extraordinary power.  Though many of the Emperor’s days were occupied by inspections of his troops,--in the course of which he sometimes rode from thirty to forty leagues a day,--and by reviews, receptions, and affairs of state, leaving but little time for business matters, he neglected nothing on that account; but devoted the greater part of his nights, when necessary, to examining budgets, dictating dispatches, and attending to the thousand matters of detail in the organization and working of the Imperial Government; the machinery of which was for the most part concentrated in his own head.

Like Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington was a first-rate man of business; and it is not perhaps saying too much to aver that it was in no small degree because of his possession of a business faculty amounting to genius, that the Duke never lost a battle.

While a subaltern, 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 the 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 learnt, 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 1500 British and 5000 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 provost marshal,” 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 re-establish the markets and re-open 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 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 Dhoondiah, posted on the opposite bank, and while 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 entrusted with the command of a new expedition to Portugal.  But Wellington was fearfully overmatched throughout his 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, falsehoods 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 self-reliance, which never failed him even in the midst of his great 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 indomitable 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, camp-kettles, 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. {26}  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 bank; 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 even 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 bank—‘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 cornerstone 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 entrusted 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 have never seen—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 heart at peace.  “The rogue cozened not me, but his own conscience,” said Bishop Latimer of a cutler who made him pay two pence for a knife not worth a penny.  Money, earned by screwing, cheating, and overreaching, 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 for 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 good example.  He founded a house of industry near his residence at Walthamstow, which he supported at a heavy outlay 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 10,000l., 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.

 


       

 

Original text by Samuel Smiles, edited and revised by D J McAdam © 2006.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.


 

Home | Book Collecting | Folklore / Myth | Philately | Playing Cards | Literature | Contents