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 what I write here. 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.
1. 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.
2) 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.
3) 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.
– William Sprague