Get Out or Get in Line
Abraham Lincoln's letter to Hooker! If all the letters, messages and
speeches of Lincoln were destroyed, except that one letter to Hooker, we
still would have an excellent index to the heart of the Rail-Splitter.
In this letter we see that Lincoln ruled his own spirit; and we also
behold the fact that he could rule others. The letter shows wise
diplomacy, frankness, kindliness, wit, tact and infinite patience.
Hooker had harshly and unjustly criticised Lincoln, his commander in
chief. But Lincoln waives all this in deference to the virtues he
believes Hooker possesses, and promotes him to succeed Burnside. In
other words, the man who had been wronged promotes the man who had
wronged him, over the head of a man whom the promotee had wronged and
for whom the promoter had a warm personal friendship.
But all personal considerations were sunk in view of the end desired.
Yet it was necessary that the man promoted should know the truth, and
Lincoln told it to him in a way that did not humiliate nor fire to
foolish anger; but which surely prevented the attack of cerebral
elephantiasis to which Hooker was liable.
Perhaps we had better give the letter entire, and so here it is:
Washington, January 26, 1863.
General:--I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of
course, I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient
reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some
things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.
I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which, of course, I
like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your position, in
which you are right.
You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable if not an
You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather
than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the
army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as
you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most
meritorious and honorable brother officer.
I have heard, in such a 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 its ability, which is
neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I
much fear that the spirit 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.
Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out
of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of
rashness, but with sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.
Yours very truly, A. LINCOLN.
One point in this letter is especially worth our consideration, for it
suggests a condition that springs up like deadly nightshade from a
poisonous soil. I refer to the habit of carping, sneering, grumbling and
criticising those who are above us. The man who is anybody and who does
anything is certainly going to be criticised, vilified and
misunderstood. This is a part of the penalty for greatness, and every
great man understands it; and understands, too, that it is no proof of
greatness. The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure
contumely without resentment. Lincoln did not resent criticism; he knew
that every life was its own excuse for being, but look how he calls
Hooker's attention to the fact that the dissension Hooker has sown is
going to return and plague him! "Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were
alive, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in
it." Hooker's fault falls on Hooker--others suffer, but Hooker suffers
most of all.
Not long ago I met a Yale student home on a vacation. I am sure he did
not represent the true Yale spirit, for he was full of criticism and
bitterness toward the institution. President Hadley came in for his
share, and I was given items, facts, data, with times and places, for a
"peach of a roast."
Very soon I saw the trouble was not with Yale, the trouble was with the
young man. He had mentally dwelt on some trivial slights until he had
gotten so out of harmony with the place that he had lost the power to
derive any benefit from it. Yale college is not a perfect institution--a
fact, I suppose, that President Hadley and most Yale men are quite
willing to admit; but Yale does supply young men certain advantages, and
it depends upon the students whether they will avail themselves of
these advantages or not. If you are a student in college, seize upon
the good that is there. You receive good by giving it. You gain by
giving--so give sympathy and cheerful loyalty to the institution. Be
proud of it. Stand by your teachers--they are doing the best they can.
If the place is faulty, make it a better place by an example of
cheerfully doing your work every day the best you can. Mind your
If the concern where you are employed is all wrong, and the Old Man is a
curmudgeon, it may be well for you to go to the Old Man and
confidentially, quietly and kindly tell him that his policy is absurd
and preposterous. Then show him how to reform his ways, and you might
offer to take charge of the concern and cleanse it of its secret faults.
Do this, or if for any reason you should prefer not, then take your
choice of these: Get Out, or Get in Line. You have got to do one or the
other--now make your choice. If you work for a man, in heaven's name
work for him.
If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for
him--speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and stand by
the institution that he represents.
I think if I worked for a man, I would work for him. I would not work
for him a part of the time, and the rest of the time work against him. I
would give an undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce
of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.
If you must vilify, condemn and eternally disparage, why, resign your
position, and then when you are outside, damn to your heart's content.
But I pray you, as long as you are a part of an institution, do not
condemn it. Not that you will injure the institution--not that--but when
you disparage a concern of which you are a part, you disparage yourself.
More than that, you are loosening the tendrils that hold you to the
institution, and the first high wind that happens along, you will be
uprooted and blown away in the blizzard's track--and probably you will
never know why. The letter only says, "Times are dull and we regret
there is not enough work," et cetera.
Everywhere you will find these out-of-a-job fellows. Talk with them and
you will find that they are full of railing, bitterness, scorn and
condemnation. That was the trouble--thru a spirit of fault-finding they
got themselves swung around so they blocked the channel, and had to be
dynamited. They were out of harmony with the place, and no longer being
a help they had to be removed. Every employer is constantly looking for
people who can help him; naturally he is on the lookout among his
employees for those who do not help, and everything and everybody that
is a hindrance has to go. This is the law of trade--do not find fault
with it; it is founded on nature. The reward is only for the man who
helps, and in order to help you must have sympathy.
You cannot help the Old Man so long as you are explaining in an
undertone and whisper, by gesture and suggestion, by thought and mental
attitude that he is a curmudgeon and that his system is dead wrong. You
are not necessarily menacing him by stirring up this cauldron of
discontent and warming envy into strife, but you are doing this: you are
getting yourself on a well-greased chute that will give you a quick ride
down and out. When you say to other employees that the Old Man is a
curmudgeon, you reveal the fact that you are one; and when you tell them
that the policy of the institution is "rotten," you certainly show
that yours is.
This bad habit of fault-finding, criticising and complaining is a tool
that grows keener by constant use, and there is grave danger that he who
at first is only a moderate kicker may develop into a chronic knocker,
and the knife he has sharpened will sever his head.
Hooker got his promotion even in spite of his many failings; but the
chances are that your employer does not have the love that Lincoln
had--the love that suffereth long and is kind. But even Lincoln could
not protect Hooker forever. Hooker failed to do the work, and Lincoln
had to try some one else. So there came a time when Hooker was
superseded by a Silent Man, who criticised no one, railed at nobody--not
even the enemy.
And this Silent Man, who could rule his own spirit, took the cities. He
minded his own business, and did the work that no man can ever do unless
he constantly gives absolute loyalty, perfect confidence, unswerving
fidelity and untiring devotion. Let us mind our own business, and allow
others to mind theirs, thus working for self by working for the good