Advice to young men on different personalities

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

This is a chapter from The Young Man's Guide by William A. Alcott (1798-1859), one of the many books of advice literature this prolific author produced during his lifetime, including The Young Woman's Guide, The Young Mother's Guide, and The Young Wife's Book.  He was a physician who campaigned against smoking and in favor of temperance and exercise.  This particular advice manual was printed in Boston, MA by Samuel Colman.  The first edition came out in 1833, and two years later was already into its sixth edition.  Eminently popular, Mr. Alcott's work continued to be reprinted well into the late nineteenth century.  This work is directly inspired by Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard.  Franklin's essays gave advice in simple, but memorable sentences, such as "Time is money."  Franklin's work provided a model for many of the advice manuals and "how-to" books of the nineteenth century.

Transcription of Primary Source


The great purpose of the Young Man’s Guide, is the formation of such character in our young men as shall render them worthy and useful and happy members of a great republic. To this end, the author enters largely into the means of improving the mind, the manners and the morals; - as well as the proper management of business. Something is also said on amusements, and bad habits. On the subject of marriage he has, however, been rather more full than elsewhere. The importance of this institution to every young man, the means of rendering it what the Creator intended, together with those incidental evils which either accompany or follow - some of them in terrible retribution - the vices which tend to oppose His benevolent purposes, are faithfully presented, and claim the special attention of every youthful reader.

Section XI. How to take Men as they are.

Such a knowledge of human character as will enable us to treat mankind according to their dispositions, circumstances, and modes of thinking, so as to secure their aid in all our laudable purposes, is absolutely indispensable. And while all men boast of their knowledge of human nature, and would rather be thought ignorant of almost every thing else than this, how obvious it is that there is nothing in regard to which there exists so much ignorance!

A miser is by no means a proper person to apply to for a favor that will cost him any thing. But if he chance to be a man of principle, he may make an excellent partner in trade, or arbitrater in a dispute about property; for he will have patience to investigate little things, and to stand about trifles, which a generous man would scorn. Still, as an honest man, and above all as a Christian, I doubt whether it would be quite right thus to derive advantage from the vices of another. In employing the miser, you give scope to his particular vice.

A passionate man will fly into a rage at the most trifling affront, but he will generally forget it nearly as soon, and be glad to do any thing in his power to make up with you. It is not therefore so dangerous to disoblige him, as the gloomy, sullen mortal, who will wait seven years for an opportunity to do you mischief.

A cool, slow man, who is somewhat advanced in age, is generally the best person to advise with. For despatch of business, however, make use of the young, the warm, and the sanguine. Some men are of no character at all; but always take a tinge from the last company they were in. Their advice, as well as their assistance, is usually good for nothing.

It is in vain to think of finding anything very valuable in the mind of a covetous man. Avarice is generally the vice of abject spirits. Men who have a very great talent at making money, commonly have no other; for the man who began with nothing, and has accumulated wealth, has been too busy to think of improving his mind; or indeed, to think of any thing else but property.

A boaster is always to be suspected. His is a natural infirmity, which makes him forget what he is about, and run into a thousand extravagances that have no connection with the truth. With those who have a tolerable knowledge of the world, all his assertions, professions of friendship, promises, and threatenings, go for nothing. Trust him with a secret, and he will surely discover it, either through vanity or levity.

A meek tempered man is not quite the proper person for you; his modesty will be easily confounded. ⎯ The talkative man will be apt to forget himself, and blunder out something that will give you trouble.

A man’s ruling passion is the key by which you may come at his character, and pretty nearly guess how he will act in any given circumstances, unless he is a wit or a fool; they act chiefly from caprice.

There are likewise connections between the different parts of men’s characters, which it will be useful for you to study. For example, if you find a man to be hasty and passionate, you may generally take it for granted he is open and artless, and so on. Like other general rules, however, this admits of many exceptions.

A bully is usually a coward. When, therefore, you unluckily have to deal with such a man, the best way is to make up to him boldly, and answer him with firmness. If you show the least sign of submission, he will take advantage of it to use you ill.

There are six sorts of people, at whose hands you need not expect much kindness. The sordid and narrow minded, think of nobody but themselves. The lazy will not take the trouble to oblige you. The busy have not time to think of you. The overgrown rich man, is above regarding any one, how much soever he may stand in need of assistance. The poor and unhappy often have not the ability. The good natured simpleton, however willing, is incapable of serving you. *

The age of the person you are to deal with is also to be considered. Young people are easily drawn into any scheme, merely from its being new, especially if it falls in with their love of pleasure; but they are almost as easily discouraged from it by the next person they meet with. They are not good counsellors, for they are apt to be precipitate and thoughtless; but are very fit for action, where you prescribe them a track from which they know they must not vary. Old age, on the contrary, is slow but sure; very cautious; opposed to new schemes and ways of life; inclining, generally, to covetousness; fitter to consult with you, than to act for you; not so easily won by fair speeches or long reasonings; tenacious of old opinions, customs, and formalities; apt to be displeased with those, especially younger people, who pretend to question their judgment; fond of deference, and of being listened to. Young people, in their anger, mean less than they say; old people more. You may make up for an injury with most young men; the old are generally more slow in forgiving.

The fittest character to be concerned with in business, is, that in which are united an inviolable integrity, founded upon rational principles of virtue and religion, a cool but determined temper, a friendly heart, a ready hand, long experience and extensive knowledge of the world; with a solid reputation of many years’ standing, and easy circumstances.


*These statements may seem to require a little qualification. There are two sorts of busy men. One sort are busy, as the result of benevolent purpose. These are often among the best of mankind; and though always busy in carrying out their plans, they find time to perform a thousand little acts of goodness, notwithstanding. ⎯ It has, indeed, been sometimes said, that when a great public enterprise is about to be undertaken, which requires the aid of individual contributions, either of time or money, those who are most busy, and from whom we might be naturally expect the least, often do the most. It is also said that men of business have the most leisure; and it sometimes seems to be true, where they methodize their plans properly. These maxims, however, apply with the most force to men devoted to a higher purpose than the worship of this world ⎯ men who live for God, and the good of his universe, generally.

There are also two sorts of rich men. Some men may have property in their hands to an immense amount, without possessing a worldly spirit. The rich man referred to above, is of another sort. He is the man who ‘gets all he can, and keeps all he can get.’ This is probably the gospel definition of the term, a rich man, who, it is said, can no more enter a world of spiritual enjoyment than a camel or a cable can go through ‘the eye of a needle.’

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
The Young Man's Guide
1, 136-140
Alcott, William A.
Samuel Colman, successor to Lilly, Wait, & Co.
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
16 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
G360 A355 Y835 6th ed. copy 1