General Lee's Letter To His Son
( Originally Published 1902 )
GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE, whose grandmother declined the hand of George Washington, married the granddaughter of Washington's wife, and thereby inherited the estate of Arlington and the White House. He named his eldest son George Washington Custis Lee, and to this young son he wrote a beautiful letter, which is as follows :
" You must study to be frank with the world ; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend asks a favor, you should grant it if it is reasonable ; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot ; you will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind; never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates ; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain ; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man's face and another behind his back. We should live, act and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.
" In regard to duty, let me in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that, nearly a hundred years ago, there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as the dark day—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished, as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and as its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on, they shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day—the day of judgment—had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator—Davenport, of Stamford—who said that, if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man's mind—the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part."
This letter of Lee to his son away at school contains principles which were illustrated in his own character. He always said what he meant and meant what he said; no one, either friend or foe, ever detected the least hint of equivocation in him, nor could he bear any want of frankness in others. Like almost all really great men, he was charitable in his feelings toward others. It is said that during the long war in which he took so active a part, he was never heard to say an unkind word about the Northern people, or the officers or soldiers of the Union army. There is an alarming amount of insincerity in ordinary social and business life; the woman sends word, by the servant, to the caller that she is not at home, or on receiving her says, " I am so glad to see you," when she hates the very ground on which she walks. The man meets his neighbor on the street and says, " I was not able to be at your house last night; I was sick," when he was not sick at all, except in his moral sense.
The reason why he did not go was because he did not desire to go. A dozen reasons will be given for not attending the means of grace or becoming a Christian, while the real reason, " I did not want to," will be suppressed. The man behind the counter who says he paid twenty-five cents for a piece of goods, when he only paid twenty-two cents, and the man in front of it who says he was offered the same piece of goods for twenty, both tell a falsehood, which ought to choke any one who has the least regard for the Ten Commandments. And yet they are types of men found everywhere—in the stores, shops, offices and court-houses—who, with politeness of demeanor and no blush on the cheek, prevaricate from morning until night, from one year's end to another. It would take a very large blackboard and a vast amount of chalk to record all the white lies of a single day. There is so much time and energy wasted in unjust criticism and slander of others. These harsh estimates are usually given behind the back, for, if they were given to the face there would be fewer friends and more funerals. Lee's advice to his boy—to feel kindly toward his fellows, and if necessary to say an unpleasant thing, to say it to them and not to others, to the face, and not behind the back—is sound to the core. The advice in the letter, from beginning to end, is not only valuable for a young man student, but for every one.