Search Results for: great innovation
Don’t get too big for your britches.
Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.
Thomas Jefferson to General Kosciusko, 1808, 3967
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
John Foley, the editor whose work I use for most posts, renders this as a sentence in its own right, but Jefferson did not compose it that way. Rather, it explained his reasoning for not pushing a much larger issue.
In 1808, facing increasing naval pressure from England, America needed a much stronger army. For some years, President Jefferson had wanted to “classify” the militia, dividing it into age groups, with 21-25 year-olds bearing the greatest obligation to serve. That earlier measure had not passed, and by 1808, a simpler plan was proposed to Congress. Neither was the simpler plan adopted. Jefferson wrote that if Congress were pressed, the plan might have “carried by small majority.”
Changing how militia was conscripted was a major undertaking. Jefferson advocated, in a time of national peril, the federal government be involved in what had been a strictly local issue. It was, indeed, a “great innovation,” and it needed great public support. He saw that public support increasing but not yet sufficient to sway Congress. Lacking that support, and not willing to push a bold initiative through on a slender majority, he let the matter lay. Though Jefferson was hopeful the measure would pass in a future Congress, that didn’t happen.
As a single sentence, this statement could be taken as Jefferson’s general philosophy on working with Congress (or with any group of voting people). He favored consensus, hated confrontation and didn’t want a legitimate minority to feel threatened or ignored. Great innovations should only go forth with strong support.
(This link is to Jefferson’s original letter. I had to read it slowly and with a magnifying glass. I can’t say for sure, but I think you can tell each time he dipped his pen in the inkwell. The next few words are much darker.)
In the meanwhile the public opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation [approval] from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In 1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending the Penal laws of the commonwealth.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders give people enough time.
This excerpt is on the same subject used in the previous post but illustrates a different point.
In the late 1770s, Virginia had decided on hard labor on public projects as appropriate punishment for crimes that had previously been punished by death. Pennsylvania had a similar plan, and it seemed reasonable. Later evidence from that state proved otherwise, that public demeaning did not rehabilitate criminals but made them worse. Virginia was likely experiencing the same result.
Virginian’s support for hard labor in public probably had been enthusiastic. Doing away with hard labor may have faced their opposition. Giving convicts labor to perform within a prison complex, perhaps seen as not harsh enough, might have lacked public support, as well.
Virginia’s legislature would not change the law, because they lacked public support to do so. Pennsylvania’s example, however, was now proving that hard-labor-in-public did not work but labor- within-prison did.
Given 10-15 years, public opinion was changing. Leaders could now act with public support rather than opposition. Thus, Virginia’s laws were changed in 1796 to more humane treatment.
Jefferson later wrote concerning another matter, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” This example is one of waiting for public opinion to ripen in support of something new, rather than forcing it upon them before they were ready.
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Could the Civil War have begun in 1793?
As the State of Virginia … carries on household manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrassments is the clearing the cotton of the seed, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention, for family use. Permit me, therefore, to ask information from you on these points. Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton, or is it yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleared on an average of several days, and worked by hand, and by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them, made to be worked by hand? Favorable answers to these questions would induce me to engage one of them.
Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, 1793, 1845
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
1793 was the year young Whitney, just 28, invented the cotton engine, more commonly know as the cotton gin. Jefferson was asking questions of Whitney, to determine whether he should buy one. It held great promise for both him and other Virginia cotton growers.
The cotton gin made cotton production profitable, which strengthened and expanded the South’s hold on slavery as a labor supply, leading to one of the causes of the Civil War, six decades in the future. Ironically, Whitney never made money with his invention and turned to manufacturing guns for the federal government. He championed the practice of interchangeable parts for manufactured goods. That practice was adopted by northern manufacturing states and gave the Union a strong military advantage in that same Civil War.
Learn more about Eli Whitney here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eli_Whitney
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