Advice to Young Men by William
William Cobbett, the celebrated English political writer, was
born in March, 1762, at Farnham in Surrey. He took a dislike
to rural occupations, and at an early age went to London, where
he was employed for a few months as a copying clerk. This
work was distasteful to him, and he enlisted in the army, and
went with his regiment to Nova Scotia. On returning to England
in 1791, he obtained his discharge, married, and went to
America. In Philadelphia he commenced his career as a political
writer. Cobbett's "Advice to Young Men" was published in
1830. It has always been the most popular of his books, partly
because of its subject, and partly because it illustrates so well
the bold and forceful directness of his style. An intensely
egotistical and confident man, Cobbett believed that his own
strangely inconsistent life was a model for all men. Yet, contrary
to what might have been expected, he was a delightful
man in the domestic circle, and the story of his marriage—which
has been narrated in his "Rural Rides"—is one of the
romances of literary life. The original introduction to the
"Advice" contained personal reference incredible in anyone
except Cobbett. Said he, "Few will be disposed to question
my fitness for the task. If such a man be not qualified to give
advice, no man is qualified." And he went on to claim for
himself "genius and something more." He certainly had a remarkable
fund of commonsense, except when his subject was
himself. Cobbett died June 18, 1835.
I.—To a Youth
You are arrived, let us suppose, at the age of from
fourteen to nearly twenty, and I here offer you my
advice towards making you a happy man, useful to all
about you, and an honour to those from whom you
sprang. Start, I beseech you, with a conviction firmly
fixed in your mind that you have no right to live in
this world without doing work of some sort or other.
To wish to live on the labour of others is to contemplate
Happiness ought to be your great object, and it is
to be found only in independence. Turn your back
on what is called interest. Write it on your heart that
you will depend solely on your own merit and your
own exertions, for that which a man owes to favour
or to partiality, that same favour or partiality is constantly
liable to take from him.
The great source of independence the French express
in three words, "Vivre de peu." "To live upon
little" is the great security against slavery; and this
precept extends to dress and other things besides food
and drink. Extravagance in dress arises from the notion
that all the people in the street will be looking at you
as you walk out; but all the sensible people that happen
to see you will think nothing at all about you. Natural
beauty of person always will and must have some weight,
even with men, and great weight with women; but this
does not want to be set off by expensive clothes.
A love of what is called "good eating and drinking,"
if very unamiable in a grown-up person, is perfectly
hateful in a youth. I have never known such a man
worthy of respect.
Next, as to amusements. Dancing is at once rational
and healthful; it is the natural amusement of
young people, and none but the most grovelling and
hateful tyranny, or the most stupid and despicable
fanaticism, ever raised its voice against it. As to
gaming, it is always criminal, either in itself or in its
tendency. The basis of it is covetousness; a desire
to take from others something for which you have
given, and intend to give, no equivalent.
Be careful in choosing your companions; and lay
down as a rule never to be departed from that no youth
or man ought to be called your friend who is addicted
to indecent talk.
In your manners be neither boorish nor blunt, but
even these are preferable to simpering and crawling.
Be obedient where obedience is due; for it is no act
of meanness to yield implicit and ready obedience to
those who have a right to demand it at your hands.
None are so saucy and disobedient as slaves; and,
when you come to read history, you will find that in
proportion as nations have been free has been their
reverence for the laws.
Let me now turn to the things which you ought
to do. And, first of all, the husbanding of your time.
Young people require more sleep than those that are
grown up, and the number of hours cannot well be, on
an average, less than eight. An hour in bed is better
than an hours spent over the fire in an idle gossip.
Money is said to be power; but superior sobriety,
industry, and activity are still a more certain source
of power. Booklearning is not only proper, but highly
commendable; and portions of it are absolutely necessary
in every case of trade or profession. One of these
portions is distinct reading, plain and neat writing, and
arithmetic. The next thing is the grammar of your
own language, for grammar is the foundation of all
literature. Excellence in your own calling is the first
thing to be aimed at. After this may come general
knowledge. Geography naturally follows grammar;
and you should begin with that of this kingdom.
When you come to history, begin also with that of
your own country; and here it is my bounded duty to
put you well on your guard. The works of our historians
are, as far as they relate to former times, masses
of lies unmatched by any others that the world has
II.—To a Young Man
To be poor and independent is very nearly an impossibility;
though poverty is, except where there is an
actual want of food and raiment, a thing much more
imaginary than real. Resolve to set this false shame
of being poor at defiance. Nevertheless, men ought
to take care of their names, ought to use them prudently
and sparingly, and to keep their expenses always
within the bounds of their income, be it what it may.
One of the effectual means of doing this is to purchase
with ready money. Innumerable things are not
bought at all with ready money which would be bought
in case of trust; it is so much easier to order a thing
than to pay for it. I believe that, generally speaking,
you pay for the same article a fourth part more in the
case of trust than you do in the case of ready money.
The purchasing with ready money really means that
you have more money to purchase with.
A great evil arising from the desire not to be thought
poor is the destructive thing honoured by the name of
"speculation," but which ought to be called gambling.
It is a purchasing of something to be sold again with
a great profit at a considerable hazard. Your life,
while you are thus engaged, is the life of a gamester:
a life of general gloom, enlivened now and then by
a gleam of hope or of success.
In all situations of life avoid the trammels of the
law. If you win your suit and are poorer than you
were before, what do you accomplish? Better to put
up with the loss of one pound than with two, with
all the loss of time and all the mortification and anxiety
attending a law suit.
Unless your business or your profession be duly attended
to there can be no real pleasure in any other
employment of a portion of your time. Men, however,
must have some leisure, some relaxation from business;
and in the choice of this relaxation much of your happiness
Where fields and gardens are at hand, they present
the most rational scenes for leisure. Nothing can be
more stupid than sitting, sotting over a pot and a glass,
sending out smoke from the head, and articulating, at
intervals, nonsense about all sorts of things.
Another mode of spending the leisure time is that
of books. To come at the true history of a country
you must read its laws; you must read books treating
of its usages and customs in former times; and you
must particularly inform yourselves as to prices of labour
and of food. But there is one thing always to be
guarded against, and that is not to admire and applaud
anything you read merely because it is the fashion to
admire and applaud it. Read, consider well what you
read, form your own judgments, and stand by that
judgment until fact or argument be offered to convince
you of your error.
III.—To a Lover
There are two descriptions of lovers on whom all
advice would be wasted, namely, those in whose minds
passion so wholly overpowers reason as to deprive the
party of his sober senses, and those who love according
to the rules of arithmetic, or measure their matrimonial
expectations by the claim of the land-surveyor.
I address myself to the reader whom I suppose to
be a real lover, but not so smitten as to be bereft of
reason. You should never forget that marriage is a
thing to last for life, and that, generally speaking, it is
to make life happy or miserable.
The things which you ought to desire in a wife are
chastity, sobriety, industry, frugality, cleanliness,
knowledge of domestic affairs, good temper and beauty.
Chastity, perfect modesty, in word, deed, and even
thought, is so essential that without it no female is fit
to be a wife. If prudery mean false modesty, it is to
be despised; but if it mean modesty pushed to the utmost
extent, I confess that I like it. The very elements
of jealousy ought to be avoided, and the only
safeguard is to begin well and so render infidelity and
jealousy next to impossible.
By sobriety I mean sobriety of conduct. When
girls arrive at that age which turns their thoughts towards
the command of a house it is time for them to
cast away the levity of a child. Sobriety is a title to
trustworthiness, and that is a treasure to prize above
all others. But in order to possess this precious trustworthiness
you must exercise your reason in the choice
of a partner. If she be vain, fond of flattery, given to
gadding about, coquettish, she will never be trustworthy,
and you will be unjust if you expect it at her
hands. But if you find in her that innate sobriety of
which I have been speaking, there requires on your
part confidence and trust without any limit.
An ardent-minded young man may fear that sobriety
of conduct in a young woman argues a want of
warmth; but my observation and experience tell me
that levity, not sobriety, is, ninety-nine times out of a
hundred, the companion of a want of ardent feeling.
There is no state in life in which industry in the
wife is not necessary to the happiness and prosperity
of the family. If she be lazy there will always be a
heavy arrear of things unperformed, and this, even
among the wealthy, is a great curse. But who is to
tell whether a girl will make an industrious woman?
There are certain outward signs, which, if attended to
with care, will serve as pretty sure guides.
If you find the tongue lazy you may be nearly certain
that the hands and feet are the same. The pronunciation
of an industrious person is generally quick,
distinct, and firm. Another mark of industry is a quick
step and a tread showing that the foot comes down
with a hearty good will.
Early rising is another mark of industry. It is, I
should imagine, pretty difficult to keep love alive towards
a woman who never sees the dew, never beholds
the rising sun.
Frugality. This means the contrary of extravagance.
It does not mean stinginess; it means an abstaining
from all unnecessary expenditure. The outward and
vulgar signs of extravagance are all the hardware
which women put upon their persons. The girl who
has not the sense to perceive that her person is disfigured,
and not beautified by parcels of brass, tin, and
other hardware stuck about her body, is too great a
fool to be trusted with the purse of any man.
Cleanliness is a capital ingredient. Occasional cleanliness
is not the thing that an English or American
husband wants; he wants it always. A sloven in one
thing is a sloven in all things. Make up your mind to
a rope rather than to live with a slip-shod wife.
Knowledge of domestic affairs is so necessary in
every wife that the lover ought to have it continually
in his eye. A wife must not only know how things
ought to be done, but how to do them. I cannot form
an idea of a more unfortunate being than a girl with
a mere boarding-school education and without a future
to enable her to keep a servant when married. Of
what use are her accomplishments?
Good temper is a very difficult thing to ascertain
beforehand—smiles are so cheap. By "good temper"
I do not mean easy temper—a serenity which nothing
disturbs is a mark of laziness. Sulkiness, querulousness,
cold indifference, pertinacity in having the last
word, are bad things in a young woman, but of all the
faults of temper your melancholy ladies are the worst.
Most wives are at times misery-makers, but the melancholy
carry it on as a regular trade.
The great use of female beauty is that it naturally
tends to keep the husband in good humour with himself,
to make him pleased with his bargain.
As to constancy in lovers, even when marriage has
been promised, and that, too, in the most solemn
manner, it is better for both parties to break off than to
be coupled together with the reluctant assent of either.
IV.—To a Husband
It is as a husband that your conduct will have the
greatest effect on your happiness. All in a wife, beyond
her own natural disposition and education, is,
nine times out of ten, the work of her husband.
First convince her of the necessity of moderation in
expense; make her clearly see the justice of beginning
to act upon the presumption that there are children
coming. The great danger of all is beginning with a
servant. The wife is young, and why is she not to
work as well as her husband? If the wife be not able
to do all the work to be done in the house, she ought
not to have been able to marry.
The next thing to be attended to is your demeanour
towards a young wife. The first frown that she receives
from you is a dagger to her heart. Let nothing
put you out of humour with her.
Every husband who spends his leisure time in company
other than that of his wife and family tells her
and them that he takes more delight in other company
than in theirs. Resolve from the very first never
to spend an hour from home unless business or some
necessary and rational purpose demand it. If you
are called away your wife ought to be fully apprised
of the probable duration of the absence and of the time
of return. When we consider what a young woman
gives up on her wedding day, how can a just man think
anything a trifle that affects her happiness?
Though these considerations may demand from us
the kindest possible treatment of a wife, the husband is
to expect dutiful deportment at her hands. A husband
under command is the most contemptible of God's
creatures. Am I recommending tyranny? Am I recommending
disregard of the wife's opinions and wishes?
By no means. But the very nature of things prescribes
that there must be a head of every house, and
an undivided authority. The wife ought to be heard,
and patiently heard; she ought to be reasoned with,
and, if possible, convinced; but if she remain opposed
to the husband's opinion, his will must be
I now come to that great bane of families—jealousy.
One thing every husband can do in the way of prevention,
and that is to give no ground for it. Few characters
are more despicable than that of a jealous-headed
husband, and that, not because he has grounds,
but because he has not grounds.
If to be happy in the married state requires these
precautions, you may ask: Is it not better to remain
single? The cares and troubles of the married life are
many, but are those of the single life few? Without
wives men are poor, helpless mortals.
As to the expense, I firmly believe that a farmer
married at twenty-five, and having ten children during
the first ten years, would be able to save more money
during these years than a bachelor of the same age
would be able to save, on the same farm, in a like
space of time. The bachelor has no one on whom he
can in all cases rely. To me, no being in this world
appears so wretched as he.
V.—To a Father
It is yourself that you see in your children. They
are the great and unspeakable delight of your youth,
the pride of your prime of life, and the props of your
old age. From the very beginning ensure in them, if
possible, an ardent love for their mother. Your first
duty towards them is resolutely to prevent their drawing
the means of life from any breast but hers. That
is their own; it is their birthright.
The man who is to gain a living by his labour must
be drawn away from home; but this will not, if he be
made of good stuff, prevent him from doing his share
of the duty due to his children. There ought to be no
toils, no watchings, no breakings of rest, imposed by
this duty, of which he ought not to perform his full
share, and that, too, without grudging. The working
man, in whatever line, and whether in town or country,
who spends his day of rest away from his wife and
children is not worthy of the name of father.
The first thing in the rearing of children who have
passed from the baby state is, as to the body, plenty
of good food; and, as to the mind, constant good example
in the parents. There is no other reason for the
people in the American states being generally so much
taller and stronger than the people in England are, but
that, from their birth, they have an abundance of good
food; not only of food, but of rich food. Nor is this,
in any point of view, an unimportant matter, for a tall
man is worth more than a short man. Good food, and
plenty of it, is not more necessary to the forming of a
stout and able body than to the forming of an active
and enterprising spirit. Children should eat often, and
as much as they like at a time. They will never take,
of plain food, more than it is good for them to take.
The next thing after good and plentiful and plain
food is good air. Besides sweet air, children want exercise.
Even when they are babies in arms they want
tossing and pulling about, and talking and singing to.
They will, when they begin, take, if you let them alone,
just as much exercise as nature bids them, and no
I am of opinion that it is injurious to the mind to
press book-learning upon a child at an early age. I
must impress my opinion upon every father that his
children's happiness ought to be his first object; that
book-learning, if it tend to militate against this, ought
to be disregarded. A man may read books for ever
and be an ignorant creature at last, and even the more
ignorant for his reading.
And with regard to young women, everlasting book-reading
is absolutely a vice. When they once get into
the habit they neglect all other matters, and, in some
cases, even their very dress. Attending to the affairs
of the house—to the washing, the baking, the brewing,
the cooking of victuals, the management of the poultry
and the garden, these are their proper occupations.
VI.—To the Citizen
Having now given my advice to the youth, the man,
the lover, the husband, and the father, I shall tender
it to the citizen. To act well our part as citizens we
ought clearly to understand what our rights are; for
on our enjoyment of these depend our duties, rights
going before duties, as value received goes before payments.
The great right of all is the right of taking
a part in the making of the laws by which we are governed.
It is the duty of every man to defend his country
against an enemy, a duty imposed by the law of nature
as well as by that of civil society. Yet how are you to
maintain that this is the duty of every man if you deny
to some men the enjoyment of a share in making the
laws? The poor man has a body and a soul as well
as the rich man; like the latter, he has parents, wife,
and children; a bullet or a sword is as deadly to him
as to the rich man; yet, notwithstanding this equality,
he is to risk all, and, if he escape, he is still to be denied
an equality of rights! Why are the poor to risk
their lives? To uphold the laws and to protect property—property
of which they are said to possess none?
What! compel men to come forth and risk their lives
for the protection of property, and then in the same
breath tell them that they are not allowed to share in
the making of the laws, because, and only because,
they have no property!
Here, young man of sense and of spirit, here is the
point on which you are to take your stand. There are
always men enough to plead the cause of the rich, and
to echo the woes of the fallen great; but be it your part
to show compassion for those who labour, and to maintain
If the right to have a share in making the laws were
merely a feather, if it were a fanciful thing, if it were
only a speculative theory, if it were but an abstract
principle, it might be considered as of little importance.
But it is none of these; it is a practical matter. Who
lets another man put his hand into his purse when he
pleases? It is the first duty of every man to do all in
his power to maintain this right of self-government
where it exists, and to restore it where it has been lost.
Men are in such a case labouring, not for the present
day only, but for ages to come. If life should not allow
them time to see their endeavours crowned, their
children will see it.