Editor’s note: The following essay (which has been condensed from the original), was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899. In “A Message to Garcia,” Hubbard uses a dramatized version of 1st Lt. Andrew S. Rowan’s mission to meet with Gen. Calixto García, commander of the rebel forces in Eastern Cuba, at the start of the Spanish-American war. Hubbard’s call for personal ownership and individual initiative proved strikingly resonate with the business community and public: the short essay was reprinted perhaps millions of times in pamphlets and miniature hardbound books and distributed far and wide. In fact, the phrase “to carry a message to Garcia” became common shorthand for resolutely fulfilling any difficult task and remained in use throughout the 20th century. The essay itself is still passed around in military circles today.
In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.
When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly.
What to do!
Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.” Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and having delivered his letter to Garcia, are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?”
By the Eternal! There is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college in the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies; do the thing — “carry a message to Garcia!”
General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias. No man, who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man — the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.
Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook, or threat, he forces or bribes other men to assist him; or mayhap, God in His goodness performs a miracle, and sends him an Angel of Light for an assistant.
You, reader, put this matter to a test: You are sitting now in your office — six clerks are within your call. Summon any one and make this request: “Please look in the encyclopedia and make a brief memorandum for me concerning the life of Corregio.”
Will the clerk quietly say, “Yes, sir,” and go do the task?
On your life, he will not.
He will look at you out of a fishy eye, and ask one or more of the following questions:
Who was he?
Where is the encyclopedia?
Was I hired for that?
Don’t you mean Bismarck?
What’s the matter with Charlie doing it?
Is he dead?
Is there any hurry?
Shan’t I bring you the book and let you look it up yourself?
What do you want to know for?
And I will lay you ten to one that after you have answered the questions, and explained how to find the information, and why you want it, the clerk will go off and get one of the other clerks to help him find Garcia — and then come back and tell you there is no such man. Of course I may lose my bet, but according to the Law of Average, I will not.
Now if you are wise you will not bother to explain to your “assistant” that Corregio is indexed under the C’s, not in the K’s, but you will smile sweetly and say, “Never mind,” and go look it up yourself.
And this incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift, are the things that put pure socialism so far into the future. If men will not act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all?
My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it. Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks will be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town, and village — in every office, shop, store, and factory.
The world cries out for such; he is needed, and needed badly — the man who can carry a message to Garcia.