In Abraham Lincoln’s early years, he often criticized people. At one point, Lincoln ridiculed a vain, aggressive politician by publishing an anonymous letter in the Springfield Journal. Of course, Lincoln’s identity was revealed resulting in a dual. Lincoln had no desire to fight but there was no way out. After selecting the weapon, showing up at the location and squaring off, the dual was stopped by friends. Lincoln learned a lesson in dealing with people. Never again did he insult, ridicule or criticize.
After each new blunder during the Civil War, Lincoln replaced general after general. Half the nation condemned the incompetence of these men but Lincoln, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” held his tongue. When his own wife spoke harshly of the southern people, Lincoln replied: “Don’t criticize them: they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” His bitter experience taught him that sharp criticism and rebukes are useless.
In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s bestselling book How to Win Friends and Influence People debuted. By the time of Carnegie's death nineteen years later, the book had sold five million copies in 31 languages, and there had been 450,000 graduates of his Dale Carnegie Institute. My grandfather was among them. I fear that Mr Carnegie has been dead too long. We are far too removed from his teachings.
Carnegie writes about one occasion where Lincoln should surely criticize.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the first three days of July 1863. During the night of July 4, Lee began to retreat southward while storm clouds deluged the country with rain. When Lee reached the Potomac with his defeated army, he found a swollen, impassable river in front of him, and a victorious Union Army behind him. Lee was in a trap. He couldn’t escape. Lincoln saw that. Here was a golden, heaven-sent opportunity —the opportunity to capture Lee’s army and end the war immediately. So, with a surge of high hope, Lincoln ordered Meade not to call a council of war but to attack Lee immediately. Lincoln telegraphed his order and then sent a special messenger to Meade demanding immediate action.
Meade did the very opposite. The waters receded. Lee escaped. Lincoln was furious and wrote a severe rebuke to Meade. The letter was found in Lincoln’s papers after his death — never sent. The point Carnegie is driving home is that criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and causes him to justify his actions. Criticism is dangerous. Instead of condemning, understand. Understanding produces sympathy, tolerance and kindness.
How are you doing with Carnegie’s first principle — Don’t criticize, condemn or complain? Have you applied it to your family? your office? your community? your social media account?
Change starts with us!