Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835

Independence of Mind

There is scarcely any quality which is more frequently the theme of praise among all classes, than that which is to constitute the subject of this chapter. The good and the bad, alike, will extol something, which each calls independence of mind; and all will agree that the quality which is indicated by this language, is an essential element in a truly noble character. But it is worthy of remark that the expression has a variety of meaning with different individuals; that with some it indicates what is truly great and noble, with others, what is unlovely, and even odious. It becomes therefore a matter of importance that you should distinguish the precious from the vile; that you should take care to cultivate genuine independence of character, and not deceive yourself with something which has been unjustly complimented with the name.

Let me apprise you, then, in the first place, that true independence is something entirely different from rashness. There are those who pride themselves on forming a hasty opinion, and adopting a course of conduct, even in relation to subjects of great importance, without stopping to reflect at all on probable consequences. It matters little with them, though they act entirely in the dark, provided only their movements are so rapid and boisterous as to excite attention. People of this character, you will always find, run themselves into a thousand needless difficulties. Even if they chance to go right, every judicious person will consider it a matter of mere accident, and to say the least, will give them far less credit of virtuous conduct than if they had adopted the same course with forethought and deliberation.

True independence of mind is equally unlike obstinacy another quality with which it is often confounded. When a person has once formed an opinion, and expressed it, especially with a great degree of confidence, and perhaps with some publicity he is under strong temptation, from the pride of consistency, to retain that opinion, even in spite of light which ought to induce him to abandon it. The secret feeling of his heart is, that it would be a bad reflection either upon his discernment or his firmness, to avow a change in his convictions. And hence he endeavors to shut his eyes upon the evidence which might be likely to work such a change; or if the light is irresistible, and the change is forced upon him he will refuse to acknowledge it; and will even act in a manner which he knows to be contrary to his own interest rather than confess that he has been in a mistake! This is nothing short of the most pitiable obstinacy! And whoever exhibits it, exposes himself to deserved contempt. Remember that it is an honor to confess an error as soon as you discover it, and as publicly as you may have avowed it. All will think the better of you for doing so; or if there are any exceptions, they are those whose praise is censure, and whose censure, praise.

Equally remote is the quality which I would recommend from a contempt of the opinion of others. It is not uncommon to find people, who seem to regard their own opinion as infallible, and who treat the opinion of others with proportionate disrespect. No matter though the subject is one, in respect to which they may be utterly ignorant they will deliver their opinion with dictatorial confidence, and will treat every objection, and every query as if it were of course, the offspring of folly or impertinence.

True independence, so far from giving its sanction to this spirit, disdains not to ask advice of the wise, and always treats their opinions with respect, though it does not yield to them an implicit consent. You need not fear that you will forfeit your character for decision, by asking judicious friends to counsel you on any important subject on which you may be called to act. Indeed a neglect to do so, would justly expose you to the charge of vanity and presumption.

On the subject of asking advice, however, let me give you two brief directions. One is that you should consult only those whose advice is worthy of your attention; the other is, that you should never consult anyone, after your decision is formed. It is nothing better than an insult to a friend to go through the formality of asking his advice, and subjecting him to the trouble of giving it when your opinion is decisively made up, and you only wish him to sanction it. You cannot adopt this course without some danger; for if the individual whom you consult happens to reveal the secret, he must be a good-natured person indeed, not to be vexed at it. If he happens to advise you contrary to your predetermination, then you subject yourself to the unpleasant necessity of acting contrary to his opinion, after you had formally sought it. It is wise to seek counsel of proper people; but it should always be to assist one to form an opinion not merely to strengthen it after it is formed.

The independence which I wish you to cultivate is that quality which leads us to form all our opinions deliberately, and from the best light which we can gain and then to adhere to them firmly and practically until there shall be sufficient evidence to reverse our convictions.

This quality reveals itself in the very formation of opinions or principles. It keeps the mind steady, amidst the conflicting views which may be presented before it. It causes it to look attentively at the evidence on every side, to resist the undue influence of circumstances, and to form its conclusions after intelligent and impartial inquiry. If you have genuine independence, it will keep you from inconsiderate and hasty judgments. It will save you from being enslaved to the opinions of others, and from adopting notions merely because they are current in the community around you. In short, it will subject you to the labor of forming your own judgments; but when they are once formed, it will ensure to you, the satisfaction of thinking that they are your own.

But this trait of character reveals itself, not only in the process by which we arrive at our convictions of what is true and right but also in an intelligent adherence to those convictions after they are attained. It usually happens that those opinions which are formed most inconsiderately are relinquished most easily; whereas, those who have come to their conclusions by a process of deliberate and independent thought rarely have occasion to change their views; and never but upon the most patient and mature reflection.

I have spoken of an independent mind as it reveals itself in forming and holding fast its own opinions. Let me add, that it is not less conspicuous in reducing principles to practice in other words, in steadily persevering in what we believe to be duty. It requires far less strength of purpose to avow good principles, even in times of trial than practically to exhibit those principles in an unyielding course of action. But as principles are nothing without practice so it is the noblest office of genuine independence, to carry the mind forward in a course of action corresponding with its own convictions; to keep the hands nerved for effort, when there may be a thousand pleas for relaxing exertion; and to give to this activity that direction only, which conscience approves, when the strongest temptations offer themselves to an opposite course.

You may dream of your own independence as much as you please but unless it be of this practical kind which influences conduct as well as opinions, and which is carried out into all the departments of human duty you have much reason to believe that neither you nor the world will be the better for your having possessed it.

The advantages of an independent mind will readily occur to you upon a moment's reflection. It is especially in consequence of the lack of this quality, that so many young people become victims to the most practical and fatal errors. They are placed in circumstances in which it is fashionable to think lightly of true religion, or fashionable to disbelieve its truths; and though at first, conscience may remonstrate against their throwing themselves into the current yet they have not strength of purpose to resist it. And principles which were at first adopted tremblingly, and with severe compunction are soon rendered more than tolerable by habit; and soon they become the governing principles of the life.

A proper share of independence would keep you from adopting any opinions, without due consideration. And if error in any of its forms should be proposed to you, and you should stop to canvass it, and should determine that you would not receive it but upon deliberate and intelligent conviction there is good reason to believe that you would not receive it at all; for there is no fundamental error in true religion or morals, which is not seen to be such, by anyone who examines it with due attention and impartiality.

It is another advantage of genuine independence, and ought to be with you a powerful motive for cultivating it that it is fitted to give you a proper degree of self-respect. If you see an individual who betrays great indecision of character, and is a slave to the opinion of everybody, having no opinion of his own you cannot regard that individual other than with a species of pity, which borders well near upon contempt. And the same must be true in respect to yourself if you are conscious that you have no stability of purpose, and that your opinions of characters and things are not your own but are taken upon trust, and that you do not think your own thoughts even upon the most common subjects you may try to respect yourself but you cannot. And moreover, you will be compelled to feel the mortifying conviction that others do not respect you. Whatever you or others may wish in regard to it it is not in human nature that it should be otherwise. As you desire, therefore, to live in the favorable estimation of others, or even of yourself cultivate this trait which I am recommending.

And I may add that this quality is not less essential to your usefulness. The fact that you have lost self-respect, would destroy, in a great degree, your power of exertion; or, what is the same thing, would diminish the motives to it. And the fact that you had lost the respect of others, would not only operate in the same manner but would tend to a similar result by diminishing your opportunities of usefulness. And, moreover, let your efforts be what they might, little real good could be expected from them, so long as they were not subject to the direction of an independent mind; for if you should labor for a good object one day, there could be no security that you would not abandon it for an evil one the next; or if you should seem to be laboring successfully for awhile, it is quite probable that you might soon defeat your purpose by some eccentric and ill advised movement.

Under how much greater advantages will your efforts be made, if you cultivate a suitable spirit of independence! The fact that you are conscious of doing right will render your exertions easy and unembarrassed. The fact that you have the respect and confidence of those around you, will multiply your means of doing good. And the fact that you are acting with reflection and firmness will impart an energy and efficiency to your whole deportment. As you would be spared the reproach of living to little or no purpose, let me say again cultivate a truly independent mind!