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 indispensable quality.
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.