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On May 7, 1931, New York City witnessed the most sensational man-hunt the old town has ever known. After weeks of search, “Two Gun” Crowley – the killer, the gun-man who didn’t smoke or drink – was at bay, trapped in his sweetheart’s apartment on West End Avenue.
One hundred and fifty policemen and detectives laid siege to his top-floor hide-away. Chopping holes in the roof, they tried to smoke out Crowley, the “cop killer,” with tear gas. Then they mounted their machine-guns on surrounding buildings, and for more than an hour one of New York’s fine residential sections reverberated with the crack of pistol fire and the rut-tat-tat of machine guns. Crowley, crouching behind an over-stuffed chair, fired incessantly at the police. Ten thousand excited people watched the battle. Nothing like it had ever been seen before on the sidewalks of New York.
When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. “He will kill,” said the Commissioner, “at the drop of a feather.”
But how did “Two Gun” Crowley regard himself? We know, because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed “To whom it may concern”. And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In this letter Crowley said: “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody any harm.”
A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the parked car and said: “Let me see your license.”
Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer’s revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body. And that was the killer who said: “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody any harm.”
Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house at Sing Sing, did he say, “This is what I get for killing people”? No, he said: “This is what I get for defending myself.”
The point of the story is this: “Two Gun” Crowley didn’t blame himself for anything.
Is that an unusual attitude among criminals? If you think so, listen to this:
“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”
That’s Al Capone speaking. Yes, America’s erstwhile Public Enemy Number One – the most sinister gang leader who ever shot up Chicago. Capone doesn’t condemn himself. He actually regards himself as a public benefactor – an unappreciated and misunderstood public benefactor.
And so did Dutch Schultz before he crumpled up under gangster bullets in Newark. Dutch Schultz, one of New York’s most notorious rats, said in a newspaper interview that he was a public benefactor. And he believed it.
I have had some interesting correspondence with Warden Lawes of Sing Sing on this subject, and he declares that “few of the criminals in Sing Sing regard themselves as bad men. They are just as human as you and I. So they rationalize, they explain. They can tell you why they had to crack a safe or be quick on the trigger finger. Most of them attempt by a form of reasoning, fallacious or logical, to justify their anti-social acts even to themselves, consequently stoutly maintaining that they should never have been imprisoned at all.”
If Al Capone, “Two Gun” Crowley, Dutch Schultz, and the desperate men behind prison walls don’t blame themselves for anything – what about the people with whom you and I come in contact?
The late John Wanamaker once confessed: “I learned thirty years ago that it is foolish to scold. I have enough trouble overcoming my own limitations without fretting over the fact that God has not seen fit to distribute evenly the gift of intelligence.”
Wanamaker learned this lesson early, but I personally had to blunder through this old world for a third of a century before it even began to dawn upon me that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no man ever criticizes himself for anything, no matter how wrong he may be.
Criticism is futile because it puts a man on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a man’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses his resentment.
The German army won’t let a soldier file a complaint and make a criticism immediately after a thing has happened. He has to sleep on his grudge first and cool off. If he files his complaint immediately, he is punished. By the eternals, there ought to be a law like that in civil life too – a law for whining parents and nagging wives and scolding employers and the whole obnoxious parade of fault finders.
You will find examples of the futility of criticism bristling on a thousand pages of history, Take, for example, the famous quarrel between Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft – a quarrel that split the Republican party, put Woodrow Wilson in the White House, and wrote bold, luminous lines across the World War and altered the flow of history.
Let’s review the facts quickly: When Theodore Roosevelt stepped out of the White House in 1908, he made Taft President, and then went off to Africa to shoot lions. When he returned, he exploded. He denounced Taft for his conservatism, tried to secure the nomination for a third term himself, formed the Bull Moose party, and all but demolished the G.O.P. In the election that followed, William Howard Taft and the Republican party carried only two states – Vermont and Utah. The most disastrous defeat the party had ever known.
Theodore Roosevelt blamed Taft, but did President Taft blame himself? Of course not. With tears in his eyes Taft said: “I don’t see how I could have done any differently from what I have.”
Who was to blame? Roosevelt or Taft? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care. The point I am trying to make is that all of Theodore Roosevelt’s criticism didn’t persuade Taft that he was wrong. It merely made Taft strive to justify himself and to reiterate with tears in his eyes: “I don’t see how I could have done any differently from what I have.”
Or, take the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Remember it? It kept the newspapers ringing with indignation for years. It rocked the nation! Nothing like it had ever happened before in American public life within the memory of living men. Here are the bare facts of the scandal: Albert Fall, secretary of the interior in Harding’s cabinet, was entrusted with the leasing of government oil reserves at Elk Hill and Teapot Dome – oil reserves that had been set aside for the future use of the Navy.
Did secretary Fall permit competitive bidding? No sir. He handed the fat, juicy contract outright to his friend Edward L. Doheny: And what did Doheny do? He gave Secretary Fall what he was pleased to call a “loan” of one hundred thousand dollars. Then, in a high-handed manner, Secretary Fall ordered United States Marines into the district to drive off competitors whose adjacent wells were sapping oil out of the Elk Hill reserves. These competitors, driven off their ground at the ends of guns and bayonets, rushed into court – and blew the lid off the hundred million dollar Teapot Dome scandal. A stench arose so vile that it ruined the Harding Administration, nauseated an entire nation, threatened to wreck the Republican party, and put Albert B. Fall behind prison bars.
Fall was condemned viciously – condemned as few men in public life have ever been. Did he repent? Never! Years later Herbert Hoover intimated in a public speech that President Harding’s death had been due to mental anxiety and worry because a friend had betrayed him. When Mrs. Fall heard that, she sprang from her chair, she wept, she shook her fists at fate and screamed: “What! Harding betrayed by Fall? No! My husband never betrayed anyone. This whole house full of gold would not tempt my husband to do wrong. He is the one who has been betrayed and led to the slaughter and crucified.”
There you are: human nature in action, the wrongdoer blaming everybody but himself. We are all like that. So when you and I are tempted to criticize someone tomorrow, let’s remember Al Capone, “Two Gun” Crowley and Albert Fall. Let’s realize that criticisms are like homing pigeons. They always return home. Let’s realize that the person we are going to correct and condemn will probably justify himself, and condemn us in return; or, like the gentle Taft, he will say: “I don’t see how I could have done any differently from what I have.”
On Saturday morning, April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln lay dying in a hall bedroom of a cheap lodging house directly across the street from Ford’s Theater, where Booth had shot him. Lincoln’s long body lay stretched diagonally across a sagging bed that was too short for him. A cheap reproduction of Rosa Bonheur’s famous painting “The Horse Fair”, hung above the bed, and a dismal gas jet flickered yellow light.
As Lincoln lay dying, Secretary of War Stanton said, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men that the world has ever seen.”
What was the secret of Lincoln’s success in dealing with men? I studied the life of Abraham Lincoln for ten years and devoted all of three years to writing and rewriting a book entitled Lincoln the Unknown. I believe I have made as detailed and exhaustive a study of Lincoln’s personality and home life as it is possible for any human being to make. I made a special study of Lincoln’s method of dealing with men. Did he indulge in criticism? Oh, yes. As a young man in the Pigeon Creek Valley of Indiana, he not only criticized but he wrote letters and poems ridiculing people and dropped these letters on the country roads where they were sure to be found. One of these letters aroused resentments that burned for a lifetime.
Even after Lincoln had become a practicing lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, he attacked his opponents openly in letters published in the newspapers. But he did this just once too often.
In the autumn of 1842 he ridiculed a vain, pugnacious Irish politician by the name of James Shields. Lincoln lampooned him through an anonymous letter published in the Springfield Journal. The town roared with laughter. Shields, sensitive and proud, boiled with indignation. He found out who wrote the letter, leaped on his horse, started after Lincoln, and challenged him to fight a duel. Lincoln didn’t want to fight. He was opposed to dueling; but he couldn’t get out of it and save his honor. He was given the choice of weapons. Since he had very long arms, he chose cavalry broadswords and took lessons in sword fighting from a West Point graduate; and, on the appointed day, he and Shields met on a sandbar in the Mississippi River, prepared to fight to the death; but, at the last minute, their seconds interrupted and stopped the duel.
That was the most lurid personal incident in Lincoln’s life. It taught him an invaluable lesson in the art of dealing with people. Never again did he write an insulting letter. Never again did he ridicule anyone. And from that time on, he almost never criticized anybody for anything.
Time after time, during the Civil War, Lincoln put a new general at the head of the Army of the Potomac, and each one in turn – McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade – blundered tragically, and drove Lincoln to pacing the floor in despair. Half the nation savagely condemned these incompetent generals, but Lincoln, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” held his peace. One of his favorite quotations was “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
And when Mrs. Lincoln and others spoke harshly of the southern people, Lincoln replied: “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”
Yet, if any man ever had occasion to criticize, surely it was Lincoln. Let’s take just one illustration:
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 orders and then sent a special messenger to Meade demanding immediate action.
And what did General Meade do? He did the very opposite of what he was told to do. He called a council of war in direct violation of Lincoln’s orders. He hesitated. He procrastinated. He telegraphed all manner of excuses. He refused point-blank to attack Lee. Finally, the waters receded and Lee escaped over the Potomac with his forces.
Lincoln was furious, ” What does this mean?” Lincoln cried to his son Robert. “Great God! What does this mean? We had them within our grasp, and had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours; yet nothing that I could say or do could make the army move. Under the circumstances, almost any general could have defeated Lee. If I had gone up there, I could have whipped him myself.”
In bitter disappointment, Lincoln sat down and wrote Meade this letter. And remember, at this period of his life he was extremely conservative and restrained in his phraseology. So this letter coming from Lincoln in 1863 was tantamount to the severest rebuke.
“My dear General,
I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within our easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so south of the river, when you can take with you very few – no more than two-thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect and I do not expect that you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
What do you suppose Meade did when he read the letter?
Meade never saw that letter. Lincoln never mailed it. It was found among his papers after his death.
My guess is – and this is only a guess – that after writing that letter, Lincoln looked out of the window and said to himself, “Just a minute. Maybe I ought not to be so hasty. It is easy enough for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack; but if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week, and if my ears had been pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying, maybe I wouldn’t be so anxious to attack either. If I had Meade’s timid temperament, perhaps I would have done just what he has done. Anyhow, it is water under the bridge now. If I send this letter, it will relieve my feelings, but it will make Meade try to justify himself. It will make him condemn me. It will arouse hard feelings, impair all his further usefulness as a commander, and perhaps force him to resign from the army.”
So, as I have already said, Lincoln put the letter aside, for he had learned by bitter experience that sharp criticisms and rebukes almost invariably end in futility.
Theodore Roosevelt said that when he, as President, was confronted by some perplexing problem, he used to lean back and look up at a large painting of Lincoln that hung above his desk in the White House and ask himself, “What would Lincoln do if he were in my shoes? How would he solve this problem?”
The next time we are tempted to give somebody “Hail Columbia”, let’s pull a $5 bill out of our pocket, look at Lincoln’s picture on the bill, and ask: “How would Lincoln handle this problem if he had it?”
Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it, But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others – yes, and a lot less dangerous.
“When a man’s fight begins within himself”, said Browning, “he is worth something.” It will probably take from now until Christmas to perfect yourself. You can then have a nice long rest over the holidays and devote the New Year to regulating and criticizing other people.
But perfect yourself first.
“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof,” said Confucius, “when your own doorstep is unclean.”
When I was still young and trying hard to impress people, I wrote a foolish letter to Richard Harding Davis, an author who once loomed large on the literary horizon of America. I was preparing a magazine article about authors; and I asked Davis to tell me about his method of work. A few weeks earlier, I had received a letter from someone with this notation at the bottom: “Dictated but not read.” I was quite impressed. I felt that the writer must be very big and busy and important. I wasn’t the slightest bit busy; but I was eager to make an impression on Richard Harding Davis, so I ended my short note with the words: “Dictated but not read.”
He never troubled to answer the letter. He simply returned it to me with this scribbled across the bottom: “Your bad manners are exceeded only by your bad manners.” True, I had blundered, and perhaps I deserved this rebuke. But, being human, I resented it. I resented it so sharply that when I read of the death of Richard Harding Davis ten years later, the one thought that still persisted in my mind – I am ashamed to admit – was the hurt he had given me.
If you and I want to stir up a resentment tomorrow that may rankle across the decades and endure until death, just let us indulge in a little stinging criticism – no matter how certain we are that it is justified.
When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.
And criticism is a dangerous spark – a spark that is liable to cause an explosion in the powder magazine of pride – an explosion that sometimes hastens death. For example, General Leonard Wood was criticized and not allowed to go with the army to France. That blow to his pride probably shortened his life.
Bitter criticism caused the sensitive Thomas Hardy, one of the finest novelists that ever enriched English literature, to give up the writing of fiction forever. Criticism drove Thomas Chatterton, the English poet, to suicide.
Benjamin Franklin, tactless in his youth, became so diplomatic, so adroit at handling people, that he was made American Ambassador to France. The secret of his success? “I will speak ill of no man,” he said, “… and speak all the good I know of everybody.”
Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.
But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
“A great man shows his greatness,” said Carlyle, “by the way he treats little men.”
Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness. “To know all is to forgive all.”
As Dr. Johnson said: “God himself, sir, does not propose to judge man until the end of his days.”
Why should you and I?