Fatherly Advice From Robert E. Lee

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by Richard G. Williams, Jr. by Richard G. Williams, Jr.

"I always knew it was impossible to disobey my father."

~ Robert E. Lee, Jr.

Becoming a successful young man in America today, as always, includes giving due consideration to your father's admonitions and wisdom.

For the most part, your father is wiser than you are — and he always will be. Wisdom comes chiefly through getting older. Since your father will always be older than you, he will always be wiser. Young men should also read the words and deeds of great men of the past — especially fathers. One such example is that great Virginian, Robert E. Lee.

Most remembered for his military leadership of the Confederacy, Lee should also be known for his wisdom as an educator, husband, and father of four girls and three boys. Lee was a man's man and his example of self-control, self-denial, patience, humility, and principled approach to life is worthy of emulation. As Lee's military career kept him away from his family for extended periods, he maintained a steady and intimate correspondence with them. His letters often contained words of wisdom for both his wife and children. Lee imparted his accumulated wisdom to not only his own family, but also to the young men of Washington College (renamed Washington and Lee after Lee's death) while he served as the school's president. Lee took the opportunity of offering advice seriously. After accepting the presidency of Washington College, he wrote: "I have a self-imposed task. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must teach their sons to discharge their duty in life."

Lee's letters and correspondences reveal the character of the man as pointed out by author Bishop Robert R. Brown: "There is no recorded instance when his conversation in the field or barracks could not have been equally acceptable in a lady's drawing room. An examination of the two-thousand letters which still exist fails to uncover the slightest suggestion of vulgarity." Fortunately, many of these letters are in the process of being made available online in a searchable database.

For the sake of brevity, I've culled what I believe to be the "Top 10" of Lee's admonitions appropriate for young men in 2005. These are among the best pieces of advice I have given my own two sons:

  1. On debt and frugal living: "It is easier to make our wishes conform to our means, than to make our means to conform to our wishes." ~ Lee writing to one of his sons, 22 August 1860.
  2. On marriage: "Never marry unless you can do so into a family that will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the house." ~ General Lee writing to J.B. Hood. Don't wife hunt in bars or tattoo parlors.
  3. On minding your own business: "Meddle or interfere with nothing with which you have no concern." ~ Lee to his sons, 30 November 1845.
  4. On humility: "It's all my fault." ~ Lee at Gettysburg. Be willing to admit your mistakes and take blame.
  5. On honesty: "Private and public life are subject to the same rules; and truth and manliness are two qualities that will carry you through this world much better than policy, or tact, or expediency, or any other word that was ever devised to conceal or mystify a deviation from a straight line." ~ One of Lee's personal maxims. A young man should say what he means and mean what he says. Avoid the demeaning examples of politicians, government bureaucrats, and lawyers.
  6. On manliness: "A man may manifest and communicate his joy, but he should conceal and smother his grief as much as possible." ~ Lee to Mrs. Ann Fitzhugh.
  7. On work: "There is scarcely anything that is right that we cannot hope to accomplish by labor and perseverance. But the first must be earnest and the second unremitting." ~ Lee to Martha Williams.
  8. On reading material: "Read history, works of truth, not novels and romances." ~ Lee's oft' repeated advice to his children.
  9. On education: "The education of a man or woman is never completed until they die." ~ Lee writing to son Custis, 5 December 1860.
  10. On what's important: "Be true kind, and generous, and pray earnestly to God to enable you to keep His commandments and walk in the same all the days of your life." ~ Lee to his sons, 31 March 1846.

Now, sons, heed the advice of your father. Go forth, be wise, discharge your duty in life, and prosper.

R.G. Williams, Jr. [send him mail], is the proprietor of Virginia Gentleman Books and the author of The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen.

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