Acres of Diamonds
by Russell H. Conwell
I remember that, after the war, I went down to see General Robert E. Lee, that magnificent Christian gentleman of whom both North and South are now proud as one of our great Americans. The general told me about his servant, “Rastus,'' who was an enlisted colored soldier. He called him in one day to make fun of him, and said, “Rastus, I hear that all the rest of your company are killed, and why are you not killed?'' Rastus winked at him and said, “ 'Cause when there is any fightin' goin' on I stay back with the generals.''
I remember another illustration. I would leave it out but for the fact that when you go to the library to read this lecture, you will find this has been printed in it for twenty-five years. I shut my eyes--shut them close--and lo! I see the faces of my youth. Yes, they sometimes say to me, “Your hair is not white; you are working night and day without seeming ever to stop; you can't be old.'' But when I shut my eyes, like any other man of my years, oh, then come trooping back the faces of the loved and lost of long ago, and I know, whatever men may say, it is evening time.
I shut my eyes now and look back to my native town in Massachusetts, and I see the cattle show ground on the mountain top; I can see the horse sheds there. I can see the Congregational church; see the town hall and mountaineers' cottages; see a great assembly of people turning out, dressed resplendently, and I can see flags flying and handkerchiefs waving and hear bands playing. I can see that company of soldiers that had re-enlisted marching up on that cattle show ground. I was but a boy, but I was captain of that company and puffed out with pride. A cambric needle would have burst me all to pieces. Then I thought it was the greatest event that ever came to man on earth. If you have ever thought you would like to be a king or queen, you go and be received by the mayor.
The bands played, and all the people turned out to receive us. I marched up that Common so proud at the head of my troops, and we turned down into the town hall. Then they seated my soldiers down the center aisle and I sat down on the front seat. A great assembly of people a hundred or two--came in to fill the town hall, so that they stood up all around. Then the town officers came in and formed a half-circle. The mayor of the town sat in the middle of the platform. He was a man who had never held office before; but he was a good man, and his friends have told me that I might use this without giving them offense. He was a good man, but he thought an office made a man great. He came up and took his seat, adjusted his powerful spectacles, and looked around, when he suddenly spied me sitting there on the front seat. He came right forward on the platform and invited me up to sit with the town officers. No town officer ever took any notice of me before I went to war, except to advise the teacher to thrash me, and now I was invited up on the stand with the town officers. Oh my! The town mayor was then the emperor, the king of our day and our time. As I came up on the platform they gave me a chair about this far, I would say, from the front.
When I had got seated, the chairman of the Selectmen arose and came forward to the table, and we all supposed he would introduce the Congregational minister, who was the only orator in town, and that he would give the oration to the returning soldiers. But, friends, you should have seen the surprise that ran over the audience when they discovered that the old fellow was going to deliver that speech himself. He had never made a speech in his life, but he fell into the same error that hundreds of other men have fallen into. It seems so strange that a man won't learn he must speak his piece as a boy if he intends to be an orator when he is grown, but he seems to think all he has to do is to hold an office to be a great orator.
So he came up to the front, and brought with him a speech that he had learned by heart walking up and down the pasture, where he had frightened the cattle. He brought the manuscript with him and spread it out on the table so as to be sure he might see it. He adjusted his spectacles and leaned over it for a moment and marched back on that platform, and then came forward like this--tramp, tramp, tramp. He must have studied the subject a great deal, when you come to think of it, because he assumed an “elocutionary'' attitude. He rested heavily upon his left heel, threw back his shoulders, slightly advanced the right foot, opened the organs of speech, and advanced his right foot at an angle of forty-five. As he stood in that elocutionary attitude, friends, this is just the way that speech went. Some people say to me, “Don't you exaggerate?'' That would be impossible. But I am here for the lesson and not for the story, and this is the way it went:
“Fellow citizens--'' As soon as he heard his voice his fingers began to go like that, his knees began to shake, and then he trembled all over. He choked and swallowed and came around to the table to look at the manuscript. Then he gathered himself up with clenched fists and came back: “Fellow citizens, we are Fellow citizens, we are--we are--we are--we are--we are--we are very happy--we are very happy--we are very happy. We are very happy to welcome back to their native town these soldiers who have fought and bled--and come back again to their native town. We are especially--we are especially--we are especially. We are especially pleased to see with us today this young hero'' (that meant me)--”this young hero who in imagination'' (friends, remember he said that; if he had not said “in imagination'' I would not be egotistic enough to refer to it at all)-- ”this young hero who in imagination we have seen leading--we have seen leading--leading. We have seen leading his troops on to the deadly breach. We have seen his shining--we have seen his shining-- his shining--his shining sword--flashing. Flashing in the sunlight, as he shouted to his troops, `Come on'!''
Oh dear, dear, dear! How little that good man knew about war. If he had known anything about war at all he ought to have known what any of my G. A. R. comrades here tonight will tell you is true, that it is next to a crime for an officer of infantry ever in time of danger to go ahead of his men. “I, with my shining sword flashing in the sunlight, shouting to my troops, `Come on!'” I never did it. Do you suppose I would get in front of my men to be shot in front by the enemy and in the back by my own men? That is no place for an officer. The place for the officer in actual battle is behind the line. How often, as a staff officer, I rode down the line, when our men were suddenly called to the line of battle, and the Rebel yells were coming out of the woods, and shouted: “Officers to the rear! Officers to the rear!'' Then every officer gets behind the line of private soldiers, and the higher the officer's rank the farther behind he goes. Not because he is any the less brave, but because the laws of war require that. And yet he shouted, “I, with my shining sword--'' In that house there sat the company of my soldiers who had carried that boy across the Carolina rivers that he might not wet his feet. Some of them had gone far out to get a pig or a chicken. Some of them had gone to death under the shell-swept pines in the mountains of Tennessee, yet in the good man's speech they were scarcely known. He did refer to them, but only incidentally. The hero of the hour was this boy. Did the nation owe him anything? No, nothing then and nothing now. Why was he the hero? Simply because that man fell into that same human error--that this boy was great because he was an officer and these were only private soldiers.
Oh, I learned the lesson then that I will never forget so long as the tongue of the bell of time continues to swing for me. Greatness consists not in the holding of some future office, but really consists in doing great deeds with little means and the accomplishment of vast purposes from the private ranks of life. To be great at all one must be great here, now, in Philadelphia. He who can give to this city better streets and better sidewalks, better schools and more colleges, more happiness and more civilization, more of God, he will be great anywhere. Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are, in Philadelphia, now. He that can give to his city any blessing, he who can be a good citizen while he lives here, he that can make better homes, he that can be a blessing whether he works in the shop or sits behind the counter or keeps house, whatever be his life, he who would be great anywhere must first be great in his own Philadelphia. But he who cannot be a blessing where he now lives will never be great anywhere on the face of God's earth.
"We live in deeds, not years, in feeling, not in figures on a dial; in thoughts, not breaths; we should count time by heart throbs, in the cause of right." Bailey says: "He most lives who thinks most."
If you forget everything I have said to you, do not forget this, because it contains more in two lines than all I have said. Baily says: "He most lives who thinks most, who feels the noblest, and who acts the best."