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Presidential Admonition from Washington and Lincoln
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By Lewis E. Lehrman, February 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington George Washington had no natural offspring, but he took a paternal interest in talented subordinates.  During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington served as the presiding officer.  Nearly two decades younger than the general, Gouverneur Morris, a transplanted New Yorker representing Pennsylvania, used his considerable literary talents to draft the final form of the Constitution.

Morris subsequently went to Europe where he pursued various business interests in France and witnessed the progress of the French Revolution.  In 1792, Washington decided he needed to use Morris’s knowledge of the country as America’s minister in Paris.

When the nomination was considered in the Senate, Morris won confirmation by a narrow vote of 16-11.  Diplomatically, Washington decided to admonish the brilliant but brash Morris. Writing of the Senate debate, Washington noted that Morris had been “charged...with levity and imprudence of conversation and conduct.  It was urged that your habits of expression indicated a hauteur disgusting to those, who happen to differ from you in sentiment.”

In his letter, Washington noted that “the promptitude, with which your lively and brilliant imagination is displayed, allows too little time for deliberation and correction; and is the primary cause of those sallies, which too often offend, and of that ridicule of characters, which begets enmity not easy to be forgotten, but which might easily be avoided, if it was under the control of more caution and prudence.” In response, Morris, whose impudence never extended to Washington, pledged “that circumspection of conduct which has hitherto I acknowledge formed no part of my character.”

General Joseph HookerSeventy years later, President Abraham Lincoln decided to make a change in the leadership of the Army of the Potomac. His choice, General Joseph Hooker, was as brash and outspoken as Morris had been.  Like Washington, Lincoln chose to write him a letter of admonition along with his appointment: “I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like.  I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right.  You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality.  You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm.”

After acknowledging Hooker’s past failure to support his predecessor, Lincoln wrote: “I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator.  Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command.  Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators.  What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.  The government will support you to the utmost of it's ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do all commanders.  I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you.  I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down.” 

Hooker did not respond directly to President Lincoln but he told a friend: "He talks to me like a father. I shall not answer this letter until I have won him a great victory.”

Clearly, Hooker treasured the letter. “Genl. Hooker showed me the letter Mr. Lincoln wrote him, when he tendered him the Command, & which ought to be printed in letters of Gold,” wrote a Lincoln confidant a few months later after he had visited Hooker’s headquarters.  The friend wrote that Lincoln’s letter “will be read by our posterity with greater veneration for its author than has ever been shown for any thing written by Washington, or any other man.  It breathes a spirit of frankness & candor worthy of Mr Lincoln’s character and is peculiarly his own.”

Lincoln had closed the letter by warning Hooker: “Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.”  It was advice for the ages.

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about the author

Lewis E. Lehrman
Lewis E. Lehrman

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, August 15, 1938, Lewis E. Lehrman received his Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University in 1960, after which he won a Carnegie Teaching Fellowship as an instructor of history on the Yale faculty. Subsequently, he received his master's degree as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Harvard University. He also has been awarded Honorary Degrees from Babson College (Babson Park, MA), Gettysburg College (Gettysburg, PA), Marymount University (Arlington, VA) and Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). In 2005, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush in an Oval office ceremony.

He is founder of the Lehrman American Studies Center, Chairman of the Lehrman Institute, and Senior Partner, L. E. Lehrman & Co., an investment firm he established.

Mr. Lehrman's book, Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point (Stackpole Books) was published in 2008.