As a young newspaper editor in Victorian Scotland, Samuel Smiles advocated government reform providing a leg up for the poor and working class. But as he studied and wrote about successful self-made industrialists, he eventually came to believe the only way for people to overcome difficult circumstances was to help themselves.
Smiles’ theories on the “gospel of work” became the basis for his wildly popular best-seller, Self-Help, published in 1859. Selling more than a quarter million copies by the time of Smiles’ death in 1904, the book emphasized the importance of strong character, perseverance, thrift, independence and individuality in achieving both self-improvement and success.
Self-Help positively influenced generations of thought leaders, among them SUCCESS founder Orison Swett Marden, who was a young orphan toiling for abusive employers in late-1800s New Hampshire when he stumbled upon the book. Marden said Self-Help inspired him to take control of his life and led to a new career devoted to encouraging others to reach their potential.
Smiles eventually followed this seminal work on self-help with four other books, including Character (1871), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880) and Life and Labour (1887).
Peter W. Sinnema, who wrote the introduction to the 2002 edition of Self-Help, called Smiles an “uncompromising critic of rapacity and complacent affluence.” He also praised Smiles’ advocacy of the “cultivation of the intellectual and moral working-class self: the mechanics’ institutes, public libraries, people’s colleges and lyceums” that all enabled ordinary working-class people to improve their minds, prospects and place in the world.
One of Smiles’ contemporaries and admirers, self-proclaimed socialist Robert Blatchford, said that reading Self-Help “has often forced me to industry, for very shame.”
The Power of Self-Reliance
Smiles was born in Scotland in 1812, one of 11 children. His parents operated a small general store in the town of Haddington. In his autobiography, published after his death, Smiles admitted that he was not careful with money as a young man. But when his father died in 1832, the young Smiles quickly learned the value of self-reliance and self-imposed thriftiness. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming a doctor in his hometown for a short while, and then moved to Leeds, where he worked for a time as a surgeon.
But Smiles found his true calling in journalism, writing and social reform. He became editor of the Leeds Times in 1838, using the paper as a public forum to advocate women’s suffrage and parliamentary reform, working particularly hard to unite the interests of working- and middle-class reformers. Originally perceived by his contemporaries as quite radical, he gradually developed a more conservative outlook and became convinced that political reform would do little to advance the working class. He began to argue that “mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society.” Long-lasting change, he believed, required individual reform, that is, people’s own efforts to change themselves.
While working in Leeds, Smiles became acquainted with railroad engineer and father of the steam locomotive George Stephenson, whom he came to admire as the epitome of hard work, self-reliance and self-education as a means to success. Because of their friendship, Smiles became involved in the railway industry in 1845, becoming an officer of the Leeds and Thirsk Railway. After Stephenson’s death in 1848, Smiles began working on the railway magnate’s biography.
Other inspiring histories and biographies by Smiles soon followed, including Lives of the Engineers, The Huguenots and a biography of Josiah Wedgwood.
Self-Help for Social Change
By 1850, Smiles had utterly abandoned his original interest in government reform, focusing instead on the idea of promoting “self-help.” Smiles’ outlook on the world was greatly influenced by his association with Stephenson, who was especially known for his perseverance. While Smiles became famous for his dissemination of “self-help,” he was not the first Victorian writer to address the concept, and in fact, borrowed many of his ideas from social commentator Thomas Carlyle as well as from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance.
Smiles said the object of Self-Help was to “re-inculcate these old-fashioned wholesome lessons—which perhaps cannot be too often urged, that youth must work in order to enjoy—that nothing creditable can be accomplished without application and diligence—that the student must not be daunted by difficulties, but conquer them by patience and perseverance—and that, above all, he must seek elevation of character, without which capacity is worthless and worldly success is naught.”
Smiles taught his readers that “self-help” was “the root of all genuine growth in the individual.” He began to conclude that outside help, such as a government social program, was often “enfeebling” because it removed the “stimulus and necessity” required to make people take care of and advance themselves. “Where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless,” he wrote.
Smiles felt that in the normal course of history, men had often believed that institutions and government could secure their well-being and happiness more so than their own efforts, but it was a concept with which he came to disagree strongly: “The value of legislation as an agent of human advancement has usually been much over-estimated.”
“National progress,” he contended, “is the sum of individual industry, energy and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice.”
Teaching Others to Promote Self-Help
In 1854, Smiles moved with his family to London, where he would serve as secretary of the Southeastern Railway for more than a decade before becoming president of the National Provident Institution in 1866.
Smiles embodied the man he encouraged others to be. He supported the entrepreneurial class, contending that success was within reach of anyone who worked hard. He offered hope, too, pointing out how many of England’s most successful industrialists had come from humble origins.
Smiles also urged employers to promote the self-improvement of workers, noting that a business owner could not help but reap the benefits of a more educated and more enthusiastic group of employees. He encouraged employers to establish savings banks for workers as well as penny banks for their children; he advocated the creation of building societies and provident clubs and also encouraged employers to work at educating employees on how to best spend and use their wages.
He frequently spoke about the concept of thrift, pointing out how a working-class man could establish a substantial savings account or life insurance policy merely by refraining from gambling and drink and putting the money away instead. Smiles said a man with savings could “dictate his own terms” in the world and look forward to an old age of “comfort and happiness.”
While critics accused Smiles of promoting materialism and social climbing, he insisted that hard work was a form of individual and social good. He also felt that man could rise above the circumstances of his birth, one reason he was such an avid biographer of men who had risen from humble roots, particularly engineers, inventors and industrialists. His choice of subjects was actually groundbreaking for its time because, up until Smiles took on the role of biographer, the lives of the captains of industry had been largely ignored in the chronicling of history.
In 1871, Smiles suffered a stroke, which disabled his right hand and caused memory troubles, but he taught himself to write again and continued to publish his popular biographies and collections of essays on self-help and self-reliance. He began writing his autobiography while in his 80s, though it was not published until after his death.
His obituary, published in The Times, noted, “Dr. Smiles’ works are not only admirable for their simple and yet forcible literary style, but for many useful and practical lessons which they enforce. They are wholesome and stimulating books, and their whole tendency is conducive to the inculcation of sound principles of life and the building up of a manly and upright character.”