Manly Advice from Robert E. Lee (Plus a Book Giveaway)

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 27, 2008 · 148 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Richard G. Williams, Jr. Richard is a regular contributor to the Washington Times’ Military History Column and the author of The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen. Visit his blog: Old Virginia Blog

Becoming a successful 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. 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.”

Though Lee’s reputation is seen by some as tainted by slavery, Lee was, like many 19th century Americans, cognizant of its evil. Writing in December of 1856, Lee noted: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” And Lee would have agreed with his father in law, George Washington Parke Custis, that slavery was “a curse upon [our] section by the folly of [our] ancestors.”

Despite this blemish, 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 men in 2008. These are among the best pieces of manly 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.

The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentleman Giveaway!

Richard has been kind enough to offer a copy of The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for an Art of Manliness giveaway. It’s full of wise maxims for any man to live by. And it’s signed by the author to boot!

So how can you get your hands on a copy of the Maxims of Robert E. Lee? Share your comments on Lee’s maxims or share your favorite maxim to live by in the comment box. Every person who comments will be entered into a drawing for the book. The contest will end Monday, November 3. We’ll announce the winner on Tuesday (Election Day here in the U.S. Make sure to vote~) We’re looking forward to reading your comments and maxims!

{ 148 comments… read them below or add one }

101 derrick October 28, 2008 at 8:55 pm

yes a perfect example of of a southern gentleman, if only their was more like him today.

I came up with this one after disagreeing with a famous slogan, and i think it has served me quite well.

” knowledge is not power – knowledge applied is power”.

it doesn’t matter what you know if your not using it to its fullest potental.

102 Beowulf87 October 28, 2008 at 9:35 pm

I LOVED the one on manliness. I also agree that admitting your fault is good, but the historian in me cries, “It wasn’t all your fault!” While it it seems to be a strange and mysterious truth that Lee did not perform at his best during the three days of Gettysburg (insisting on “Pickett’s Charge” against Longstreet’s sound warnings–”The enemy is there and I will attack him there.”), several factors fell on the Confederate cause all at once, I think. Now excuse me while I take a deep breath….

Lee was ill during the battle, and he’d just lost Jackson, his “right arm”, and the position had been filled by R.S. Ewell. Ewell had failed to do as ordered in a timely manner; that is, take possession of Culp’s Hill, which would have rendered the entire Union line on Cemetery Ridge untenable as it was the highest ground.

I will leave the rest of the evaluation to those more knowledgeable than myself.

Robert E. Lee is one of my favorite men of all time. Faithful to his God, family, home, and a true warrior (not to mention a plain genius), he had a whole ton of fantastic manly qualities.

I liked your truthful evaluation of him, untainted with revisionist hatred. Being a Christian and a Confederate at heart, I applaud this post!


103 TSgt Robert E. Lee, USAF Ret. October 28, 2008 at 9:53 pm

In a letter to his youngest daughter, dated 25 December 1862, General Robert E. Lee writes:
“You must study hard, gain knowledge, and learn your duty to God and your neighbour: that is the great object of life.”

104 Amit October 28, 2008 at 10:55 pm

When it comes to words of wisdom and sage’s advice, we usually fins that reading some bring to mind many others we know, remember or vaguely recall.
Same here, when reading Lee’s concise statements.
On minding your own business I usually recall the Dutchess (Alice in wonderland) saying, “If everybody minded their own business [...] the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
There you may also find nice advice on honesty: “Always speak the truth, think before you speak, and write it down afterwards.”
If you’re into a little more spiritual–yet practical–guidance, you may consider the Letter of the Ramban, practical advice on spiritual ascent from the 12th century mystic to his son (,; reading it once a week puts yor mind (and mindset) in right proportions.
And considering education: This site (and its fans) manifest this idea so very well!

105 Dave October 29, 2008 at 12:16 am

I agree with most of Williams’ Top 10, except for #8 (reading novels and literature in general sparks your imagination, and is an important aspect of upbringing in general) and #10 (I don’t pray).

106 Michael October 29, 2008 at 3:07 am

My favorite among the maxims was the one about education: “The education of a man or woman is never completed until they die.” This reminded me of a story about President Franklin Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. ‘When Roosevelt went to Washington for his inauguration in 1933, he decided to visit Justice Holmes who was 92 years of age. Holmes was in his library reading Plato. President-elect Roosevelt asked, “What are you doing, Mr. Justice?” to which Holmes responded, “I am improving my mind.

107 matt o'hara October 29, 2008 at 4:10 am

never before has the lesson on frugality applied so much…..this is a great post and i look forward to reading the book! thanks

108 Jes October 29, 2008 at 4:54 am

“Pay attention.”

109 Charlie October 29, 2008 at 5:08 am

What a fantastic post. I’d love to get my hands on this book.

110 Drew October 29, 2008 at 5:28 am

My two favorite maxims are numbers 4 and 5, Humility and Honesty. In my experience these are the two most important characteristics to have if you want to have a successful marriage. If someone can trust in your integrity and know that, though you occasionally make mistakes, you recognize that and learn from them, they’ll stick with you through anything.

It’s a shame that men like this seem so few and far between now. Though maybe they’re still here and we just don’t appreciate them like we used to.

“Strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet.”

111 Brian October 29, 2008 at 5:50 am

I like Lee’s thoughts on education. They seem similar to another bit of wisdom I often say:

“You live and learn…or you don’t live long.” – (source unknown)

Another favorite maxim of mine comes from Robert Heinlein’s book “Time Enough For Love”:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Interestingly enough, it comes from a Science Fiction novel; Lee probably never would have read it, but I think he would have agreed with the sentiment.

112 Jason Schreder October 29, 2008 at 5:58 am

Being a History Major I truly enjoy Lee’s maxim on reading History-we can all learn from it and make our world around us better by learning from the failures and successes of past men. Lincoln originally wanted Lee to lead the Union army, but Lee declined because of his loyalty to his state-shows you how good of a leader Lee was-if the South had the resources of the North-who knows how the Civil War would have turned out.

113 Nathan Hiett October 29, 2008 at 6:16 am

Novels are great, yes yes.

114 Dave Z October 29, 2008 at 7:23 am

I am going to go out on a limb and cite two examples of his actions instead of direct quotes, since we all know actions speak louder than words. First, when he was tapped to lead the Confederate forces, he originally did not want to lead his troops but did so out of obligation to his state of Virginia. Second, after the war, he wanted nothing more than to return to the farm life but did not do so out of a sense of obligation to Washington and Lee University to help the next generation of men. He stayed in this post until his death. If nothing more, we see that General Lee was a man with a keen sense of obligation to duty.

115 JustinR October 29, 2008 at 7:29 am

I remember hearing Lee’s maxims for the first time while sitting next to a retired Army colonel while on a plane to my USAF ROTC Field Training. The AF didn’t work out, but the journey itself provided enlightenment on its own level.

When traveling the country as a consultant for my fraternity, my executive director would often use this phrase to motivate us and challenge our Chapters:

“You can’t expect to remain the same and for your life to be different.”

I live by it now, every day. It’s more “personal” than something like “good things come to those who wait.” It’s a direct challenge instead of indirectly hinting at action. With the growing use today of “it’s not my fault, it’s the circumstances around me,” this phrase reminds everyone that at the end of the day, you’re still in charge of your own future.


116 Umbratikus October 29, 2008 at 7:34 am

History is often unkind to heroes of the Confederacy, simply because they were “the bad guys,” but Robert E Lee is just one of many great men who served on the southern side of the line. Here are a few great manly quotes from Lee:

“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.”

“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself. ”

“The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He can not only forgive; he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which imparts sufficient strength to let the past be put the past.”

117 James Lee Van October 29, 2008 at 8:57 am

General Robert E. Lee was the greatest leader our nation had during it’s greatest trial. A true gentlemen, I couldn’t possibly best him with one of my own maxims. So here is another from Lee himself-

“Duty is the sublimest word in our language. … You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”

118 Daniel October 29, 2008 at 9:21 am

My favorite maxim:

“A man ain’t about how much liquor he can drink. He ain’t about how much ass he can whip. It’s about how he takes care of hisself and his family in a crisis.” ~ Lewis Harrold, my Grandfather

119 Spud October 29, 2008 at 1:19 pm

‘How can a young man keep his way pure?
By keeping it according to Thy word.
With all my heart I have sought Thee;
Do not let me wander from Thy commandments.
Thy word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against Thee.’

120 Scott H. October 29, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Paraphrasing Dennis Prager:

“Most people are willing to sacrifice what they want most for what they want now.”

I see this all around me, daily: it ties in with delaying gratification, finances, work habits, dieting, working out and almost anything that requires self-discipline.

121 Dallas October 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

“If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you always got.”

122 MP October 29, 2008 at 5:05 pm

MP,there is ALOT of life out there to live…LIVE IT!

123 Mark Gardner October 29, 2008 at 5:30 pm

A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.

Proverbs 12:10

Many a man today who pretends to be merciful in in fact the most cruel.

124 Matthew October 29, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Money may not be able to buy happiness, but poverty easily affords misery. – My dad

125 Richard Williams October 30, 2008 at 6:00 am

@Mark Gardner

The thoughtfulness of Lee regarding Creation and some of its weaker inhabitants was also revealed by a comment Lee made to a Lexington neighbor who mentioned the beauty that a nearby forest fire added to a winter’s night. In replying Lee stated: “It is beautiful but I have been thinking of the poor animals which must perish in the flames.”

All the best,
Richard G. Williams, Jr.

126 Murdering Muses October 30, 2008 at 8:22 am

The shortest is by far the greatest of these when looking at this man’s life.

The only reason that most of us even recognize this truly manly man’s name is because he was the commanding officer who lost the Civil War, one of the most intense and historic wars ever participated in by this country. That’s not really the kind of thing that most popularly considered people bring to mind. Knowing the timbre of this man’s character, his humility in life was most assuredly comparable to his humility in Gettysburg. That being said, I’m sure it must have been a difficult life to lead after the end of the war. Only a man of truly great character would be able to stand firm through the self-scrutiny I can only assume would come with failing on such a grand scale.

Its also a good example to realize that great men can fail greatly, but the important aspect which makes esteeming blog entries possible a century and a half later is that the mettle of his character as a man was continually unfailing.

127 Greg October 30, 2008 at 9:09 am

Lee was a very wise man. One of the things that I like about his maxims is that so many of them show humility. He was a great admirer or George Washington, for example, and praised him often.

128 Brian October 30, 2008 at 10:22 am

General Lee was a true gentleman. He fought for his State and his land. He was noble in victory and in defeat. It is all too sad that he is no longer with us.

129 Tyler Hayes October 30, 2008 at 10:53 am

My favorite maxim: On education: “The education of a man or woman is never completed until they die.” ~ Lee writing to son Custis, 5 December 1860.

It truly cannot be said any better than that, not to mention I wish I had son named Custis!

130 Peter Jeziorek November 2, 2008 at 6:45 am

“Never marry unless you can do so into a family that will enable your children to feel proud of both sides of the house.” 5000 years of Chinese history and language have yielded a similar saying: 门当户对 (families of equal rank). Are you sure Robert E Lee was not Chinese?!

131 Cameron November 2, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Good temper, like a sunny day, sheds a brightness over
everything; it is the sweetener of toil and the soother of
Washington Irving

132 Mike M November 3, 2008 at 11:19 am

Robert E. Lee was a good man. It’s too bad his breed seem so rare these days. A leader, a gentleman, a man of God. He was always gracious, and avoided letting animosity cloud his judgement and compassion even during the Civil War.

He’s an excellent role model.

133 tomdawg November 3, 2008 at 12:19 pm

“Had I forseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.”

Never a more relevant quote from Marse Lee, especially in light of the ‘choice’ between Obama and McCain, Socialists both.

134 SouthsideJonny November 6, 2008 at 8:01 am

“A man ought to do what he thinks is right” – John Wayne in the movie “Hondo” (1953)

John Wayne was a great man… and a personal hero of mine.

135 Bryant November 16, 2008 at 3:17 pm

I have to say that I really agree with his advice on marriage. Make your children proud of both their parents and don’t “hook up” with some bimbo because she is “hot”.

136 H. E. Bianchi January 7, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I’m surprised the advice on marriage received such positive feedback. I think it’s rather classist, and altogether awful. First, believe it or not, good people can come from bad families. They deserve respect and love just like good people from good families, whose roads were ultimately easier.
Second, marriage is a sacred social contract made by two people. TWO people. Who, until the potentiality of children becomes actuality, are the ONLY two people who matter in regards to aforementioned sacred social contract.
Third (and this hasn’t anything to do with Lee’s advice, but with the author’s commentary), I work in a tattoo parlour, my sister works in a bar. Some of us in these industries actually DO strive to be gentlemen and ladies. Some of us are also good husbands and good wives.

137 C. January 14, 2009 at 7:56 pm

I am intrigued at the various responses to the maxims of Robert E. Lee. I believe most of the responders, myself included, agree that he was a great man, a brilliant general, and a role model, as a manly man, without comparison.

I, too, disagreed with his advice about “reading novels” until giving it some deeper thought, and considering, as one poster so aptly pointed out, that, in Lee’s day and time, books were their TV, movies, internet, and nearly their sole entertainment and pastimes.

For a moment, let’s take the word “novel” and think of it as a symbolic word for anything that steals time that could be spent in a more educational vein, or vocationally useful pursuit. If one thinks of “novel” in that way, instead of mere useless paper and ink books, one can fully realize the intent of the statement.

Anything today, especially something done to excess, could fall under the above application of the word “novel”……too much TV, internet, cell phone babbling, pornography,….. you get the picture.

I believe what he was trying to say, and I believe this is something we can nearly all agree on, was not to waste precious time doing useless things, filling your mind with trash, etc., when that time could be put to better pursuits.

Just my 2cents…

138 James Stewart Todd February 3, 2009 at 3:28 pm

Live every day as though it were your last and learn like it is a cool drink of water on a hot day.

139 Scott February 3, 2009 at 9:08 pm

For a several decades I have been exploring the questions of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a good man. I recently discovered this site and I have been inspired and challenged by some of the great things that you have provided.

Given that, I was particularly appalled by this article on General Robert E. Lee and by many of the comments that followed from it. Whatever his personal virtues and abilities, he chose to betray his country (the United States) and lead the South in the defense of slavery. If you have read the accounts of the passage from Africa and the conditions that slaves lived under in the South, you know that this was an experience that is a holocaust in its own right.

I see almost no compassion for the people of African descent and I also see no compassion for the Northerners that he slaughtered in defense of this system in the article and in most of the comments that follow.

There were Southerners who fought for the North and there had certainly been decades of activities by the Abolitionists. It seems incredibly tragic that this man chose the wrong side of history and chose to defend a system of unspeakable horror and cruelty.

I cannot imagine that a single man who reads this site would want to be a slave — a condition that is the exact opposite of the kind of manly nobility that we are aspiring to.

Clearly, it would have been a far better thing to be the disheveled and whiskey-drinking General Grant holding up the coffin of Lincoln then General Lee.

Lastly, I can only assume that it was a moment of thoughtlessness, but did you really give away a book on a Confederate general on Election Day? On a day when it was likely that the first African-American man, a true hero in his own right, would be elected President?

I look forward to better.



140 Greg Throne February 3, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Robert E. Lee demonstrated many of the virtues of a manly man, civility, manners, competence, personal bravery, euridition. Unfortunately he lacked one major manly or gentlemanly virtue. That a gentleman’s word, once given, remains given. While not denigrating his military accomplishments, recent scholarship has pointed out that his great achievements were, in large part, facilitated by a combination of a quantum leap in weapon efficiency combined with a highly motivated field army led by excellent subordinates and opposed by an army led by generals who ranged from the incompetant to the mediocre.

141 Randy N September 6, 2009 at 8:48 am

A wise man. Much of what he has to say should is a must read by young men of today!

142 Kerry September 6, 2009 at 7:10 pm

In this life there is no substitute for taking responsibilty for yourself.

143 Warrick Jones September 8, 2009 at 9:56 am

The more I study about Gen Lee and Jackson, the more I try to emulate their character. If only more men would try to follow their example. They were real men.

make sure you are right, then go ahead – Davey Crockett

144 AJ Pitchford September 30, 2009 at 10:54 pm

I’m surprised only one individual has briefly drawn from this but it is something I learned a number of years ago and have committed to memory. I apologize for the length but I feel numerous maxims can be taken from within his words.

Robert E. Lee’s Definition of a Gentleman

“The forbearing use of power not only forms a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.”

Along with that just a few more I find applicable.

“There is no more dangerous experiment than attempting to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back.” -Robert E. Lee

145 Jared Zimmerer June 9, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.
–Pope John Paul II

The future starts today, not tomorrow.
—Pope John Paul II

It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr.
–Saint Augustine

It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.
–Saint Augustine

146 Jack Lee Gordon November 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I find the maxim on marrige guiet revealing. ” Do not wife hunt in bars and tatto parlors”. Looking in the wrong places can not give you the best results.

147 max February 12, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Im not sure how slavery hurt his reputation being that he freed his inherited slaves and had his own (better, realistic) version of an emancipation proclamation.

148 George July 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm

@H. E. Bianchi – I take the maxim on marriage to mean that no one should marry someone participates with or approves of family members who act dishonorably.

My family is terrible, full of murderers, drunkards and thieves. My wife’s side is filled with poor but honest farmers and tradesmen. There’s a clear distinction in “class” even if we’re the same class.

However, I’m the last of my name and when my wife and I got married, I announced that I was the new patriarch of the family and heir to the name. We’re going to do things differently and re-found the family on honorable principles so that my children will have something to which they may anchor themselves.

I believe this would have satisfied Gen. Lee’s maxim.

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