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Advice to Youth

by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.


Religion is not, as some take it to be, a system of dry, abstruse doctrines. It comprises practice as well as faith; the regulation of the life as well as the rectification of the heart; a correct conduct in the world, as well as a sound creed in the church. If one page of the Bible tells us what man is to believe concerning God, the next is sure to tell us what duties God requires of man. Thus the way is prepared for uniting good citizenship and true piety, the strictest integrity with the purest devotion.

Doing justly, you will readily see, is no less necessary than loving mercy and walking humbly with God. No system of sound morals or Christian piety can be deemed complete, which does not bring clearly out the principle of perfect honesty between man and man. Something to regulate the complicated business communion of the world, is indispensable to the welfare of individuals, and of society at large. The Catechism of King Edward thus explains the ninth precept of the Decalogue—"It commands us to beguile no man, to occupy no unlawful wares, to envy no man his wealth, and to think nothing profitable that either is not just, or differs from right and honesty." This seems to cover the whole ground.

But we turn to the Savior's Sermon on the Mount, and find something still more full and comprehensive. The injunction of the Great Teacher is, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12) These words are "like apples of gold, in pictures of silver." It is said that one of the Roman Emperors had them inscribed on the walls of his closet, and frequently referred to them in his public acts; and it would be sad if they should receive less respect at Christian hands.

We may regard this as the true and proper definition of the word HONESTY, and I cannot better fill up the present chapter, than by explaining the precept, and specifying some of the cases to which it especially applies.

Much is comprised here in one short and easily remembered sentence. It requires us to deal with our neighbors, in everything which appertains to the commodities of life, just as we should think it proper for them to deal with us in an exchange of circumstances. If we would have others act fairly and righteously towards us, then we are bound for the same reason to act fairly and righteously towards them. The measure of our just expectations from the men with whom we have business communion, is the precise measure of our own duty. Such is the substance of all the teachings both of the law and the prophets, on this important point. Nothing more is required from man to his fellow-man. Nothing more is demanded by the claims of the purest rectitude. For anyone simply to do to others what you would have them do to you, is enough.

The moral beauty of the precept before us cannot fail to be seen at once. Not only does it lay an absolute interdict upon everything in the form of direct theft, but it goes behind the act, and strikes at that desire for the property of others, in which such act originates. An honest man according to the Savior's teachings, is one who always intends to do right, whether it works for him, or against him. Besides regarding the false balance and the deceitful weight as an abomination, he is above all that shuffling and evasion, by which multitudes seek to advance their interests in the world. His intentions are upright in the sight of God, and hence it is natural for his dealings to be upright in the sight of men. In every transaction, which has respect to property, he is what he would be thought to be; his conduct is a fair transcript of his principles. Not intending wrong, he has nothing to conceal, and nothing to gloss over. Try him as often as you please, and let him be exposed as often as he may, his unbending integrity still shines forth, as gold from the heat of the furnace.

Such a man is honest simply because he does to others as he would like that they should do to him. Is he a dealer in those articles which are needed for daily domestic consumption, it is as safe to send a child eight years of age to make the purchase, as to go yourself. Does he employ some laboring man to gather in his harvest, the hard-earned wages are not kept back a moment unnecessarily. Has he money for which he has himself no immediate use, no advantage is taken of the exigency of some less fortunate neighbor. In all matters of this nature, he acts upon one fixed and well-defined plan, and hence his heart does not reproach him for injustice.

A truly honest man will never avail himself of the weakness or incompetency of the purchaser, to fill his own purse. What he gives in articles of food, fuel or clothing, he intends shall be a fair and just equivalent for what he receives in produce or money. If the article has in it any defect, known to him, but unknown to his customer, he feels bound to reveal it, however much it may work to his monetary injury. Never does he sell a damaged yard of cloth, whatever its texture or appearance, for a full price. Never does he put off a horse as sound, when he himself has evidence to the contrary. In such cases, all the loss resulting to one individual through ignorance, is so much unlawful gain to the other. So far as principle is concerned, it would be just as proper to go unobserved into a neighbor's house, and take from it an equal amount of silver or gold. To say that such things are common in the business world, avails nothing, unless you can prove that they are right.

That the deviation from perfect fairness, in the way of trade, is in itself but small, by no means proves that it is proper. The maxim of the blessed Savior is, "He who is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much, and he who is unjust in that which is least, is unjust also in much." It is neither the largeness nor the littleness of the thing, that makes it fair or unfair, honest or dishonest. Find a man who will deliberately overreach his neighbor in the smallest item, and that man, if the temptation were increased, would overreach him on the broadest scale. The straight line of duty may as really be passed, by the least departure from rectitude, as by the most palpable injustice.

Never forget, my young friends, that a penny stealthily taken from the drawer, a sixpence belonging to another appropriated to one's own use, a false representation made in regard to a piece of tape, is as real dishonesty, before God, and so far as the state of the heart is concerned, as the changing of the face of a bond from fifty dollars to five hundred. It was not the value of the fruit, which constituted the criminality of our first parents. Their act was criminal because it was disobedient, and the smallness of the thing done, if it affected its blameworthiness at all, only made that blameworthiness the greater, inasmuch as it was proof of a stronger disposition to transgress.

These remarks should be well weighed by such as are just commencing their business career. It is no excuse for the false statement, or the incorrect entry, but a great aggravation of them both, that not much profit is anticipated by such deviations from rectitude. What then are we to think of the thousand little tricks, and petty dishonesties, which so often disfigure the dealings of man with his fellow-man? It seems as if the real dishonesty of the heart, in such cases, must be greater, inasmuch as the temptation is less. Besides, little here leads to much, and to tamper with evil at all, is the first step towards going after it openly and fully. The act which puts a man in the state-prison is not usually the only one of the kind committed. A beginning was made previously, of which this is the natural and appropriate consummation.

Such is the searching nature of the precept in question, and cases to which it especially applies are easily pointed out.

That all fraud, in the common use of the term, is here forbidden, is too plain to require a word of proof. This is a crime so well understood, and so universally infamous, that not a moment need be spent in holding it up to your detestation. Direct theft and outright robbery are not sins into which young men of any respectability are much in danger of falling. At least, this is not the point at which aberration usually commences. It will be more profitable to put you on your guard against the same general evil, in its less palpable and reproachful forms.

But to prevent all misapprehension, let me make a single preliminary remark. You are by no means to conclude that there is anything, in this golden rule of the Savior, to render a man indifferent to the obtaining of what is clearly and justly his due. Some of the most perfectly honest men I have ever known, have been very careful to require, at the precise time and in full measure, what was truly their own. Prompt themselves, they naturally expect promptitude from others, and if they demand what is right, they never demand more than is right. Strict integrity is the law of their own dealings, and the law which they wish to see everywhere enforced. These, too, mark it where you will, are generally the men whose hearts and hands are most open to aid the Christian and benevolent enterprises of the day. With them it is a principle to save, in order that they may give; and careful to keep their outgoes clearly within the limits of their income, they are seldom without something to bestow.

In seeking to incorporate honesty with the daily business of life, the great point is, not to covet any man's "silver, or gold, or apparel." This is checking the evil in its embryo; and when all desire of unlawful gain is thus expelled from the heart, it will be found an easy thing to keep the hands from defilement. A man of true integrity is so on principle, and would be so irrespective of all laws and penalties on the subject. Still it is well to be specific, and see how the general rule of duty is to affect individual cases.

The injunction, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you," has a double application. It addresses those who have hands to labor, as well as those who have property to live on—those who would rise, as well as those who have risen in the world. To the first of these classes, its direction is, deal fairly and equitably with your employers. The capital with which you commence business is your strength and skill and perseverance; and see to it that you use them according to the terms of the specific, or implied contract. For the time being they belong to another, and not thus diligently to appropriate them is fraudulent. Make no promise, which at the moment you do not feel able to perform; but having made it, be as good as your word, though compelled to rise while the stars are still shining. Redeem every pledge of this sort, unless prevented by the providence of God. Better deny yourselves food or sleep, than be guilty of any such keeping from others what belongs to them.

This however is not all. The Savior's precept tells men that build houses, and open stores, and have lands cultivated, that they too have a duty to discharge. Just as soon as the service is rendered, the equivalent for it in money or goods, is no longer yours, and you cannot retain it and be strictly honest. On what principle is it that you have a right to make the journeyman, the clerk, or the day-laborer, wait your convenience? Who authorized you to consume his time—time perhaps which he needs to obtain bread for his children—by requiring him to call again and again? The world may not denominate this fraud, but it is fraud, and fraud which God has promised to avenge.

In process of time, some of you may attain to wealth and distinction, and find it proper to band yourselves with others in carrying forward important enterprises. Should such be the case, be on your guard. It is a common opinion, and no doubt often a correct one, that chartered companies will allow themselves to do what, as individuals, they could never do and retain the least reputation for honesty. The idea seems to be, that though a single man may not take advantage of his neighbor, ten or twenty united may do it with impunity. Each appears to merge his individuality in the collective body, so that the guilt of the wrong transaction, may be diffused over the whole, and thus not be perceived.

Are you ready to say, None but a sadly perverted mind could ever thus impose upon itself? This is true, and yet the iniquity, we have reason to believe, is often practiced, and the evils resulting from it are felt far and wide. Many a widow, and group of fatherless children, have in this way been despoiled of their little all. I charge you spurn every such companionship in iniquity. Never do a disreputable deed, because there is in it a division of responsibility. The dishonesty is personal, though the act is that of a company.

There is still another case, which may try the strength of your uprightness. After rising to the possession of wealth, you may lose that wealth, and be reduced to the hard necessity of putting off your creditors with fifty cents on a dollar. Nothing is more common in the fluctuations of the business world. The rich man of today may become the poor man of tomorrow. But the path will after all be open before you, and the tide of fortune may again set towards your habitation. And what will be your duty, as honest men, under such circumstances? Why, to pay every penny you owe in the world. No matter if you have a legal clearance. No matter if nothing can be demanded of you. It is impossible that any bankrupt law should set aside the enactments of the Savior.

Let me cite an example. A man who was once Franklin's fellow-passenger to England, had been engaged in business in that country, was unsuccessful, compounded with his creditors, and came to the United States. Here by dint of unremitting industry, and careful frugality, he amassed a considerable fortune in a very few years. Upon his return to England, he invited all his old creditors to an entertainment, when after thanking them for their indulgence, he presented to each an order for the full amount of his claim, principal and interest. Noble man! He did as he would be done by. And if ever brought into similar circumstances, go and do likewise.

Fix it then in your minds from this hour, that you will always act upon this rule of the Savior. Be assured "honesty is the best policy." Overtaken by misfortune you may be, but so long as you are conscious that no one can point to a single unfair act, in all your business arrangements, you may sit calmly down in the midst of broken hopes, and darkened prospects. But, as Milton justly says, "God and good men will not allow a fair character to die." The day often arrives when the man of unbending integrity is permitted to come back to the mansion, where he formerly met the smiles of joyous and confiding friendship. Hold on to what is right, and the outcome will be happy. You may die poor, but you will die honest. Your couch may be hard, but your sleep will be sweet.

And so far as the well-being of society is concerned, honesty is of pre-eminent importance. Deprive the world of trade, of this strong bond which now holds all its parts together in harmony, and it would fall to pieces as certainly and as suddenly, as would the world of matter, if deprived of the great law of gravitation. But blessed be God, there is enough of fairness and uprightness, in business transactions, to lay a foundation for general confidence. What else could induce a merchant or manufacturer to allow all he has to depart from under his own eye, and go to the other side of the globe, there to be lodged with people he has never seen? Bad as the world is, it is not so bad as it might be. Here is a man in New York, sleeping soundly on his pillow, while all the gains of years of successful industry, are stowed away in the warehouses of London, or Liverpool. This tells a favorable story for the commercial integrity of the world. Everything is entrusted to factors abroad, with an assurance almost, that it will return with a double tide of opulence to the man's own door.

I charge you, my young friends, do nothing yourselves to break up the foundation of this general confidence. Live in a lowly dwelling, wear a threadbare coat, sit down to a dinner of herbs, sooner than create a temptation to dishonesty, by permitting your expenditures to outrun your income. Distressing tales might be told on this subject. If you begin to go astray, you will find before you are aware of it, that you have woven a web about your steps, from which there is no breaking loose. Determine from the very first, that though you may be poor, you will not fail to be honest. Come what will, rise or fall, have friends or be left alone, resolve, as God shall help you, that no man shall ever say you willfully did him wrong.

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