Giving advice and correction
Throughout his life George Washington strove to keep check on what was reported to be a ferocious temper. The rare occasions when he was unable to keep his passions in check were written about by many of his contemporaries as fearsome events. Washington was a model of self-control in circumstances which would have tested the patience of Job. Late in his career he endured attacks upon his character in newspapers and in the halls of government. Still he retained his restraint for the most part.
Thomas Jefferson wrote of a time when Washington was President and a report irritated the Chief Executive to the point that the then 63 year old Washington tore off his hat, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it repeatedly to release his built up ire. Tobias Lear, one of Washington’s many secretaries, wrote that the sound of Washington swearing was like no other once the President finally lost control of his temper and began to vent. Still, Washington released his temper at objects or in semi-privacy, rather than direct it at offending individuals.
This may have been in part due to Rule number 45, which he laboriously copied as a boy, “Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or Private; presently or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Show no Sign of Cholar (sic) but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.” There was at least one time when Washington failed to heed this Rule, and it occurred before several officers under his command and the Marquis de Lafayette, many of whom wrote of the ferocity of Washington’s rage at the time.
The occasion was the Battle of Monmouth. As British General Clinton moved the British Army from Philadelphia to New York, Washington determined to attack it in New Jersey. Command of the attacking American force was given to Charles Lee, who turned it down as beneath him. After command was given to Lafayette, Lee changed his mind and demanded it as his right. When Lee led the attack he quickly decided the plan was faulty and ordered a retreat. As Washington rode towards the battle with the main body of the American army he encountered the retreating soldiers, and his temper got the better of him.
With a face described as almost purple with rage, Washington confronted the retreating Lee, cursing in a voice heard well over the gunfire, calling Lee incompetent, and a poltroon, the then commonly used word for a coward. Washington emphasized his words by violently slapping his riding crop against his own boots and thigh, oblivious to the pain it caused, such was his rage. He fired Lee on the spot and sent him to the rear in shame. Lee later demanded an apology in writing. His note was returned to him unanswered, and he never served in the American Army again after that June day. On that day Washington also violated Rule 49, “Use no Reproachful Language against anyone neither Curse nor Revile.”