Smiles, Samuel

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SMILES, SAMUEL (1812–1904), Scottish author and social reformer.

Samuel Smiles is often regarded as the preeminent advocate of the Victorian gospel of work. In reality, his legacy is much more complex. His evolution from a young radical to an elderly conservative can be seen as a metaphor for understanding middle and working-class politics in Victorian Britain.

Smiles's early career was marked by the economic uncertainty common to many members of the lower middle and working classes. Born in Scotland to Samuel and Janet Smiles, he was educated under strict Calvinist principles, apprenticed to a medical practitioner, and received a medical degree from Edinburgh University. In 1838, failing to establish a successful medical practice, Smiles sold what little property he owned and left Scotland. After touring the Netherlands and Germany, he accepted the editorship of a radical newspaper, the Leeds Times. Although this position paid little, it provided an ideal platform for a young man determined to effect social change. Smiles penned a number of anonymous articles advocating causes like women's education, free trade, and parliamentary reform while attacking the aristocracy mercilessly, though with little apparent effect. He also involved himself heavily in radical organizations such as the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association (LPRA), which sought to build middle and working-class cooperation to bring pressure for the political reform.

Smiles provided an alternative to Chartist notions of popular democracy and direct action. He hoped to establish a society in which educated men and women of all classes treated each other as equals, engaged in rational debate, and agitated nonviolently toward a just society. This was certainly a utopian, even romantic vision, and after the LPRA faltered, Smiles lost faith in it. He failed to establish an organization that linked members of the working and middle classes in cooperative effort, and came to fear that Chartism would end in violent disorder.

In 1845, Smiles cut his ties with the Leeds Times. Until 1871, when he suffered a debilitating stroke, Smiles worked as an administrator in the railway and insurance industries. These positions provided him economic security, and his experiences in them inevitably colored his outlook. Over time, it accorded more and more closely with that of laissez-faire political economists. Although Smiles never lost his sympathy for social improvement or reform, he saw the best hopes for it in individual action.

In another respect 1845 was important. In May, Smiles began giving a lecture on the topic of "self-help." He refined the lecture over the succeeding years, and in 1859 the book Self-Help was published to immediate success. It sold over 270,000 copies in Britain during Smiles's lifetime, was translated into numerous other languages, and is still in print in the early twenty-first century. The thesis of the book was simple: that hard work, thrift, and perseverance would lead to personal success and national progress. "The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength." Smiles illustrated and developed this idea with readable biographies and catch-phrases. While some critics have incorrectly seen Self-Help as a justification for self-interest, it is more accurately viewed as a defense of middle and working-class improvement.

Smiles's other books include didactic works such as Character (1872), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880), and Life and Labour (1887). All of his books use the lives of individuals as exemplars for the idea that a practical education, perseverance, and self-control lead to moral improvement, happiness, and success. They are filled with anecdotes and aphorisms, some of which have entered the popular vocabulary. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" has been credited to him.

Smiles's industrial and business biographies, such as Life of George Stephenson (1857), Lives of Engineers (3 vols., 1861–1862), Industrial Biography: Iron Workers and Tool Makers (1863), Lives ofBoulton and Watt (1865), and Josiah Wedgwood (1895), are similar in structure and tone to his didactic books. They are also valuable sources for information concerning these subjects, although they must be used cautiously and reflect more than a touch of hero worship. Most of the material on which they are based was assembled from interviews. The remarkable size of his body of work testifies that Smiles practiced the values of hard work and perseverance that he preached.

Smiles dedicated himself to the cause of working-class improvement, but by the time of his death, his name had become anathema to many who incorrectly saw him as a defender of greed. Nevertheless, even many socialists read him closely and lived by his maxims. Robert Blatchford praised his defense of honest labor and working-class toil, and Smiles's work may best be seen today as an early precursor of the self-help and motivational genres that were to become so popular in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

See alsoCarlyle, Thomas; Chartism; Conservatism; Dickens, Charles.


Morris, R. J. "Samuel Smiles and the Genesis of Self-Help; The Retreat to a Petit Bourgeois Utopia." Historical Journal 24, no. 1 (March 1981): 89–109.

Travers, Timothy. Samuel Smiles and the Victorian Work Ethic. New York, 1987.

Tyrrell, Alex. "Samuel Smiles and the Woman Question in Early Victorian Britain." Journal of British Studies 39, no. 2. (April 2000): 185–216.

Christopher J. Prom