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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

An Epistle to a School-Boy

By John Randolph (1773–1833)

[Letters of John Randolph to a Young Relative. 1834.]

MY DEAR BOY: After I had gone to bed last night, and lay tumbling and tossing about, uneasy and unable to rest, my thoughts running upon many an anxious subject, among which you were not forgotten, I was relieved by the entrance of a servant, who handed me your letter of the 9th, with some others. But that relief was only temporary. My mind fixed itself on your situation for the remainder of the night. and I have determined to settle you at school at Winchester, unless (of which I have no expectation) I shall find Hampden Sidney very greatly altered for the better. At your time of life, my son, I was even more ineligibly placed than you are, and would have given worlds for quiet seclusion and books. I never had either. You will smile when I tell you that the first map that I almost ever saw was one of Virginia, when I was nearly fifteen; and that I never (until the age of manhood) possessed any treatise on geography, other than an obsolete Gazetteer of Salmon, and my sole atlas were the five maps, if you will honor them with that name, contained in the Gazetteer, each not quite so big as this page, of the three great eastern divisions, and two western ones, of the earth. The best and only Latin dictionary that I ever owned, you now have. I had a small Greek lexicon, bought with my own pocket-money, and many other books, acquired in the same way (from sixteen to twenty years of age), but these were merely books of amusement. I never was with any preceptor, one only excepted (and he left the school after I had been there about two months), who would deserve to be called a Latin or Greek scholar; and I never had any master of modern languages, but an old Frenchman (some gentleman valet, I suppose), who could neither write nor spell.

I mention these things, my child, that you may not be disheartened. ’Tis true, that I am a very ignorant man, for one who is thought to have received a learned education. You (I hope) will acquire more information, and digest it better. There is an old proverb, “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Yours is the time of life to acquire knowledge. Hereafter you must use it; like the young, sturdy laborer, who lays up, whilst he is fresh and vigorous, provision for his declining age.

When I asked whether you had received the bank-notes I sent you, I did not mean to inquire how you had laid them out. Don’t you see the difference? From your not mentioning that they had come to hand (a careless omission; you should break yourself of this habit), and your cousin informing me that she had not received two packets sent by the same mail, I concluded that the notes were probably lost or embezzled. Hence my inquiry after them. No, my son; whatever cash I send you (unless for some special purpose) is yours: you will spend it as you please, and I have nothing to say to it. That you will not employ it in a manner that you ought to be ashamed of, I have the fullest confidence. To pry into such affairs would not only betray a want of that confidence, and even a suspicion discreditable to us both, but infringe upon your rights and independence. For, although you are not of an age to be your own master, and independent in all your actions, yet you are possessed of rights which it would be tyranny and injustice to withhold, or invade. Indeed, this independence, which is so much vaunted, and which young people think consists in doing what they please, when they grow up to man’s estate (with as much justice as the poor negro thinks liberty consists in being supported in idleness, by other people’s labor),—this independence is but a name. Place us where you will,—along with our rights there must coexist correlative duties,—and the more exalted the station, the more arduous are these last. Indeed, as the duty is precisely correspondent to the power, it follows that the richer, the wiser, the more powerful a man is, the greater is the obligation upon him to employ his gifts in lessening the sum of human misery; and this employment constitutes happiness, which the weak and wicked vainly imagine to consist in wealth, finery, or sensual gratification. Who so miserable as the bad Emperor of Rome? Who more happy than Trajan and Antoninus? Look at the fretful, peevish, rich man, whose senses are as much jaded by attempting to embrace too much gratification, as the limbs of the poor post-horse are by incessant labor. (See the Gentlemen and Basket-makers, and, indeed, the whole of Sandford and Merton.)

Do not, however, undervalue, on that account, the character of the real gentleman, which is the most respectable amongst men. It consists not of plate, and equipage, and rich living, any more than in the disease which that mode of life engenders; but in truth, courtesy, bravery, generosity, and learning, which last, although not essential to it, yet does very much to adorn and illustrate the character of the true gentleman. Tommy Merton’s gentlemen were no gentlemen, except in the acceptation of innkeepers (and the great vulgar, as well as the small), with whom he who rides in a coach-and-six is three times as great a gentleman as he who drives a post-chaise and pair. Lay down this as a principle, that truth is to the other virtues what vital air is to the human system. They cannot exist at all without it; and as the body may live under many diseases, if supplied with pure air for its consumption, so may the character survive many defects, where there is a rigid attachment to truth. All equivocation and subterfuge belong to falsehood, which consists, not in using false words only, but in conveying false impressions, no matter how; and if a person deceive himself, and I, by my silence, suffer him to remain in that error, I am implicated in the deception, unless he be one who has no right to rely upon me for information, and, in that case, ’tis plain, I could not be instrumental in deceiving him.

I send you two letters, addressed to myself, whilst at school—of which I now sorely repent me I did not then avail myself (so far, at least, as my very ineligible situation would admit). Will you accept a little of my experience, instead of buying some of your own at a very dear rate?—and so, God bless you, my son.

Your affectionate uncle,
GEORGETOWN, 15 February, 1806.