Advice to Young Men by William Cobbett

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 a fraud.

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 ever seen.

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 will depend.

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 obeyed.

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 more.

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 their rights.

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.