Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/December 1908/Loyalty


By Professor JOHN C. BRANNER


WHAT little I shall say is about personal loyalty. It is due myself that I should explain that the greater part of this address was written more than two years ago, and especially for my own students, who frequently have to meet certain ethical problems in connection with their professional work. Within a few months there has appeared a book upon loyalty by a distinguished philosopher[2] who deals with the subject in its broadest and best sense. I make haste, therefore, to say that I do not attempt to discuss the subject in any large sense. What I have to suggest is not spoken with the authority of the philosopher or with the philosopher's subtle reasoning. I can only give my personal impressions and views of the subject without regard to its philosophic bearings. I should add, however, that in Professor Boyce's lectures you will find ably dealt with the many problems that naturally arise in connection with this subject. And whether you agree with all he says or not, you will find his book one of the most helpful and inspiring that has ever been published in our country.

I must premise also that what I say is said in a spirit of perfect frankness and on general principles, and has no reference to any particular occasions, circumstance or persons. The subject seems to be especially worthy of your attention just now because the habit of loyalty is one that may be cultivated during your student life; it certainly will not spring into full-fledged development at some future time when it happens to be wanted.

I am often asked about points of practical professional ethics, and it is chiefly in connection with this phase of the subject that I have thought that it would probably interest you. Loyalty is going to be an important factor in the making of your character, and even, if you care to look at it in that light, an asset in your profession, or in your business.

Perhaps I lay a little more stress upon this point because I come of a people who habitually place a high estimate upon every phase of loyalty. We seem indeed to have exaggerated or distorted ideas of loyalty, and we rather overdo the thing at times in the southern states where we keep up family feuds one generation after another, and vote with one political party all our lives through thick and thin. In his story of "Red Rock," Thomas Nelson Page expresses the more serious southerner's view when he says of the soldier, "It is loyalty, not success, that is knightly" (p. 145).

Without making any fine distinctions, I start with the proposition that loyalty is the most valuable attainment, if we may call it an attainment, or the most valuable trait of character, if that is a better name, that any man or any people can have in this life. And I challenge any one who questions this theory to put the matter to any test he chooses to apply from the highest moral standards down to the lowest commercial ones.

Now loyalty has to do with our relations to principles, to organizations, to communities and to persons. I would have it distinctly understood that I regard loyalty to a right principle as the highest type of loyalty, and the kind that must always be most satisfactory in the end. Practical illustrations of the importance of the professional forms of loyalty are constantly falling under our attention, and it is chiefly of these that I shall speak. These lower types consist in loyalty to organizations of various kinds and to individuals. As many people insist on the commercial standards of values let us see, if we can, what business men think of it.

When you get through your university studies and go out into the affairs of life, if you become employers of other men, you will lay great stress on the loyalty of those you have about you. You may not put it to yourselves in just this form, but if you are wise, you will none the less be influenced as much, or even more, by the loyalty of your employees than by any other one quality they may have. You will say of every man you engage: "If I can't trust this man to think of and work for my interests, I don't want him around, no matter how skilful he may be in his particular line of work."

If you seek employment under others you must surely count on having to meet this test yourselves, for this will be the unfailing attitude of your employers. And the more important the position you are to occupy the more weight will be given to this particular trait of your character.

The matter simply reduces itself to this, that a man who is not loyal is not wanted by anybody for anything.

In a business like that of mining, consulting geologist and the like, what do you suppose a man would be worth who was not loyal to the interests of his employer? How long would any one keep an employee who was not loyal? How long ought he to be kept?

Let us take a simple case: Imagine a man employed to examine and report on a given piece of property who sells or turns over to outside parties information belonging to his employer, or who uses it for his own personal ends. Can anything be farther from the object for which men are employed, more base, more dishonorable?

Let us have the opinions of men of wide experience. I once recommended a young man for the position of assistant to one of the leaders of science in this country, who wrote back to make further inquiries, and wound up with this: "I want a man who is orderly, interested in the work and who will devote himself to my interests. If he will not devote himself to my interests I don't want him, no matter how competent he may be."

Dr. Rossiter W. Raymond, the venerable secretary of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, a man who has perhaps had a larger, more varied and more honorable career in connection with mining operations in this country than any other one man, says on this subject:[3] "Loyalty commands to-day the highest price in the market: "and he says much more to the same effect.

In one of the large banking houses of New York City this notice is posted up in full view of prospective customers: "If you can't cooperate, don't come round."

A few days ago I saw a letter from the manager of one of the largest mining companies in the world which contained the following reference to a man who had not been loyal to his employer: "I personally consider that a pick and shovel are the only instruments a man should be allowed to use who abuses his employer's confidence."

I doubt if the man who says this would want such a person about him even to use his pick and shovel. For if a man is not loyal, no one trusts him, no one feels comfortable with him around, and no one wants him at any price, or for anything.

Loyalty is so highly esteemed by most people that one is ready to overlook slow head, slow hands and slow feet where loyalty exists, while without it no skill or agility of mind or body makes one a desirable employee.

In large enterprises where many men have to cooperate, the lack of loyalty throws all the machinery of organization and administration out of gear; nothing runs smoothly.

Employees, assistants, partners and colleagues are wanted to help, to render service, not to hinder, to bring disorder and disorganization into an enterprise, no matter whether that enterprise is a great industry or a small one, a club, a fraternity, an organization of any kind whatever. No institution can long survive without the loyalty of its members to the common interest and purposes of its organization, and to each other.

It may occur to you that it is too much to ask that self-respecting men should fall down and grovel in the dirt at the feet of every selfish dollar-chasing employer. Nothing of the sort is expected. A loyal man can not only stand up straight, but he can stand just a little straighter than any one else, for no one so much as he has the mind conscious of rectitude.

You may fairly ask what is to become of loyalty when the conditions make it impossible. One always has a remedy in his own hands: he can quit, and carry with him a gentleman's self-respect, for without that there can be no loyalty worthy of the name.

There are certain things that loyalty does not demand of us. For example, it does not require us, in being loyal to one person, to be disloyal to others. Environment and education often lead us to look at things differently, and honest men may conscientiously differ, but we are bound to respect the attitude of other people, or as Professor Royce puts it, to be loyal to the loyalty of others.

Again, loyalty should not lead us into excesses that work wrong to others. It is a common misconception of loyalty to imagine that one must back his personal friend for anything and everything he happens to want, regardless of whether he is fit for it, and regardless of the rights of others. It is unnecessary to say that such an attitude is not tenable. Loyalty to the principles of justice and right will not permit that sort of thing.

But there are usually two parties to loyalty, especially in matters of employment and in all organizations where there are superior officers under their various titles or wherever the personal element enters. It can not all be on the side of the employee or of the subordinate. The employer, the head of the firm, the superior officer and the organization itself owes loyalty to employees, to partners and to colleagues. And it is this loyalty to each other that constitutes esprit de corps, that enables organizations to pull together, to work to a common end, to act in concert, to stand together in all things and to one big purpose. Moreover, those who expect loyalty are bound by every sense of decency and propriety to be worthy of loyalty, and to be loyal in return to those of whom loyalty is expected; that is a sine qua non. No one can long be loyal to a man who backbites, belittles or sneers at his employees or his colleagues behind their backs.

And what I say of loyalty is true not only here among us, in our own community, in our own country, and in our own time, but it is equally true of every quarter of the globe and of every age.

In commending loyalty to you I am not raising any questions about right and wrong. And even if I should raise such questions, there are, as Professor Royce points out, conflicting loyalties. I suspect that loyalty, like love, is blind. Who, when he sees his brother attacked, stops to ask whether his brother has the right of it? The loyal man simply says, "We'll settle that later, but for the time being I stand with my brother." And loyalty doesn't look to see whether the battle is to be lost or won.

Remember too that loyalty, like charity, begins at home. When can one see a finer sight than that of a family that stands compactly together, helping and encouraging one another within, and defending each other from without.

As students in this, to you, new community, I trust you will ever remain loyal to the high resolves you bring with you, loyal to the communities, the schools and the friends you have left behind, and that you may cultivate here a new loyalty to your alma mater, to your class, and to whatever organizations you belong, and above all loyalty to the purposes of your education. Never lose sight of the important fact, however, that loyalty demands submission to the rules of your order or organization; no properly constituted society will admit a member who will not subscribe to its constitution and by-laws. In practise you will not be called upon to do anything spectacular, but you will have to impress upon yourselves the necessity of steadfastness of purpose.

And don't expect too much of anybody. We are all human, and human frailties are in our blood and bones. Whether the object of your loyalty to a person, an organization, a party or a principle, you must not expect it to be perfect. None of the relations of this life are altogether satisfactory.

As a citizen be loyal to the legitimate and reasonable interests of the community in which you live, and you will not be found lacking in loyalty to the country at large. It is of loyal citizens and of loyal citizens only that great nations are made. Tyrants can not long oppress, nor can powder and bullets conquer, a people permeated with and true to such sentiments.

You will note that loyalty demands that you assume certain risks. This is inevitable. Loyalty without risks must be of a pretty poor quality. If there is anything especially pusillanimous in human nature, anything that one instinctively despises, it is the disposition to stand aside when there is danger to be faced, or to wait to see which side is going to win before choosing that particular side. Take the risks and go cheerfully forward.

Loyalty is one of the big and far-reaching virtues; it makes trustworthy men and great men; as a national virtue it makes a people great. For if it is love that makes the world go round, it is loyalty that holds the world together.

  1. An address to the student body of Stanford University, September 9, 1908.
  2. "The Philosophy of Loyalty," by Josiah Royce, New York, 1908.
  3. Engineering and Mining Journal, June 23, 1906, p. 1199.