Author Archives: Thomas Jefferson Leadership

Enough of politics. Now, about me.

So much as to my country. now a word as to myself. I am retired to Monticello, where, in the bosom of my family, & surrounded by my books, I enjoy a repose to which I have been long a stranger. my mornings are devoted to correspondence. from breakfast to dinner I am in my shops, my garden, or on horseback among my farms; from dinner to dark I give to society & recreation with my neighbors & friends; & from candlelight to early bed-time I read. my health is perfect … as great as usually falls to the lot of near 67 years of age.
To Tadeusz Kosciuszko, February 26, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Retired leaders can enjoy the benefits that come from no longer leading.
In a long letter, Jefferson wrote frankly and at length on the nation’s strength and preparation for a likely war with England. Business taken care of, he wanted his old friend to know how he was personally.

He enjoyed great rest to be amid his family and books. He rose at dawn each day and wrote from then until breakfast at 9:30. After breakfast and until dinner at 3:30 (only 2 meals a day), he was outside, supervising his multiple agricultural endeavors. After dinner and until dark, he enjoyed the company of family, friends and neighbors. Once daylight was gone, he read by candlelight until an early bedtime.

He claimed his health was as good as any 67 year old man could enjoy and credited his retired and relaxed lifestyle for that result.

“This letter is to recommend a both talented and fascinating performer …
His professional abilities show that he’s done his homework – extensively!”
Runge Nature Center, Missouri Department of Conversation
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I do not have to hold my tongue any longer.

I have rarely written to you; never but by safe conveyances; & avoiding every thing political, lest, coming from one in the station I then held, it might be imputed injuriously to our country, or perhaps even excite jealousy of you. hence my letters were necessarily dry. retired now from public concerns, totally unconnected with them, and avoiding all curiosity about what is done or intended, what I say is from myself only, the workings of my own mind, imputable to nobody else.
To Tadeusz Kosciuszko, February 26, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise public leaders are careful about what they say and write.
The Polish-born military engineer Kosciuszko (1746-1817) distinguished himself repeatedly serving in America’s war for independence. He returned to Europe after the war, but spent several more years in America in the 1790s. He and Jefferson shared the same political philosophy and became close friends. Correspondence between the two men was scarce and straightforward during Jefferson’s Presidency, unusual for the prolific letter writer. Here he explained why to his old friend.
1. Mail was rarely confidential. He had to send personal letters by trusted couriers.
2. He could write nothing of politics. As President, those revelations could harm the country.
3. He did not want to make people jealous of his friendship with the Polish leader.

In a reply the following year, the Pole acknowledged Jefferson’s letters were “dry and short.” He quit writing for that reason but now reassured his American friend of his never-ending esteem.

Jefferson was no longer bound by the limitations of the Presidency, could speak freely on any subject, and proceeded to do just that in the remainder of the letter, which will provide material for several more posts.

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Vice-President, RiverBarge Excursions, New Orleans, LA
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Which profession is better, law or medicine? Part 2 of 2

… [doctors, like lawyers] are also numerous. yet I have remarked that wherever one sets himself down in a good neighborhood, not preoccupied, he secures to himself it’s practice, and, if prudent, is not long in acquiring whereon to retire & live in comfort. the Physician is happy in the attachment of the families in which he practises. all think he has saved some one of them, & he finds himself every where a welcome guest, a home in every house. if, to the consciousness of having saved some lives, he can add that of having at no time, from want of caution, destroyed the boon he was called on to save, he will enjoy in age the happy reflection of not having lived in vain …
To David Campbell, January 28, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
This lawyer leader preferred medicine over law.
Campbell wanted the President’s advice for his 18-year-old son, Thomas Jefferson Campbell, whether to be a lawyer or doctor. Jefferson began and ended by deferring to the young man’s ability and the father’s direction. In between, he gave his opinion of both professions.

Lawyers did not fare well, but doctors did:
1. The doctor who settled in a community and devoted himself to his practice would earn a good livelihood and retirement.
2. Everyone would believe he had saved lives.
3. He would be welcome everywhere.
4. In addition to saving lives, if no deaths could be attributed to him for lack “of caution,” in old age he could be confident his life had not been in vain.

“Thank you for, yet another, outstanding performance.”
President, Missouri Valley Adult Education Association
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Which profession is better, law or medicine? Part 1 of 2

I am sensible of the mark of esteem manifested by the name you have given to your son … you doubt between Law, & Physic [medicine], which profession he shall adopt. his peculiar turn of mind & your own knolege of things will best decide this question. Law is quite overdone. it is fallen to the ground; and a man must have great powers to raise himself in it to either honour or profit. the Mob of the profession get by it as little money, & less respect, than they would by digging the earth … [contrasted with the doctor] the lawyer has only to recollect, how many, by his dexterity, have been cheated of their right, and reduced to beggary. after all, I end where I began, with the observation that your son’s disposition, & your prudence, are the best arbiters of this question …
To David Campbell, January 28, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A lawyer-leader’s take on the legal profession

In 1791, David Campbell wrote then Secretary of State Jefferson that he had named his first son Thomas Jefferson Campbell. Eighteen years later, the father sought the namesake’s opinion on whether his son should pursue law or medicine.

Jefferson acknowledged the naming honor and said the decision should be based on young Campbell’s natural inclination coupled with his father’s experience and wisdom. That being said, Jefferson (a practicing lawyer for seven years in the late 1760s and early 70s) weighed in with his opinion on the two professions.

Lawyers did not get high marks!
1. The practice of law was in disrepute.
2. It took an extraordinary man to achieve either honor or profit.
3. Ditch diggers earned more money and respect than most lawyers.
4. The lawyer’s legacy would be how many, by his skill, he had cheated and reduced to poverty.

Jefferson concluded by reiterating his original advice, that the decision should be made by father and son together.

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Why focus on the ONLY area where you disagree?

I consider it a great felicity [happiness], through a long and trying course of life, to have retained the esteem of my early friends unabated. I find in old age that the impressions of youth are the deepest & most indelible. some friends indeed have left me by the way, seeking, by a different political path, the same object, their country’s good, which I pursued, with the crowd, along the common highway. it is a satisfaction to me that I was not the first to leave them. I have never thought that a difference in political, any more than in religious opinions should disturb the friendly intercourse of society. there are so many other topics on which friends may converse & be happy, that it is wonderful [astonishing, in this context] they should select of preference the only one on which they cannot agree.
To David Campbell, January 28, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders maintain friendships with those who disagree.
Jefferson appreciated friends who stuck with him over the decades. He acknowledged that philosophical differences inspired some to seek the country’s good “by a different political path” than his, and that cost him some friendships. He took satisfaction that any loss of friendship over political differences was not his doing but the choice of others.

Why should political or religious differences separate people? Why pick the one area of disagreement and make that the deciding factor in what could be an otherwise cordial relationship? Such choices astonished Jefferson when there was so much common ground where “friends may converse & be happy.”

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Daniel Boone Regional Library
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Being related to me has its drawbacks.

… towards acquiring the confidence of the people the very first measure is to satisfy them of his disinterestedness, & that he is directing their affairs with a single eye to their good, & not to build up fortunes for himself & family: & especially that the officers appointed to transact their business, are appointed because they are the fittest men, not because they are his relations. so prone are they to suspicion that where a President appoints a relation of his own, however worthy, they will believe that favor, & not merit, was the motive. I therefore laid it down as a law of conduct for myself never to give an appointment to a relation…
To John Garland Jefferson, January 25, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders sometimes have to disappoint members of their own family.
In 1801, J. G. Jefferson wrote to his cousin, the new President, seeking a job with the federal government. He explained that his name (and family connection!) should not be a disqualification. J.G. sent that unsealed letter to his brother, George, asking him to forward it to the President. George read his brother’s letter and included one of his own to their famous cousin, highly critical of his brother for even making the request.

President Jefferson replied to cousin George, commending him for his reasoning for not appointing his brother to a position. He did not reply to cousin J.G., who took offense at his brother’s interference, offense at the President’s approval of his brother’s reasoning and offense at not receiving an appointment. There the matter lay for eight years.

In late 1809, J.G. again wrote the now retired cousin-President, wanting to clear the air, explaining his 1801 position and admitting his anger. (To his credit, J.G. did not pursue the matter during his famous relative’s administration, lest it harm the latter’s reputation.) Thomas Jefferson replied in this letter, saying his difficult choice had nothing to do with J.G.’s qualifications and everything to do with public perception. Some would assert the only reason the younger man got the job was because of family connections. The President would not weaken his standing with the people unnecessarily, and J.G. was an innocent victim of that policy.

In 1801, both George Jefferson in his letter and Thomas Jefferson in his reply cited the examples of the first two Presidents. Washington refused to appoint relatives and was widely praised for it. Adams did appoint relatives and paid a high price in public opinion.

“I want to thank you for once again bringing your magic time machine
to [our] annual conference.

Our city officials were mesmerized by your performance …”
Executive Director, Missouri Municipal League
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I am DISinterested!

… in a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate [the President], in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. this alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce an union of the powers of the whole, and point them in a single direction, as if all constituted but one body & one mind: and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one. towards acquiring the confidence of the people the very first measure is to satisfy them of his disinterestedness, & that he is directing their affairs with a single eye to their good, & not to build up fortunes for himself & family …
To John Garland Jefferson, January 25, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
An effective leader’s priority must be to gain the confidence of his followers.
From his experience as President for eight years, Jefferson cited the supreme importance of rallying all the people behind him toward a common cause. It was a matter of national defense. Such unity of body and mind could make “a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one.”

The first step toward gaining the people’s confidence was “to satisfy them of his disinterestedness.” Disinterested didn’t mean uninterested. Rather, it meant being objective about leadership, being a steward with no personal agenda or ax to grind. A leader’s only goal should be a single-minded determination to work for the good of all the people and not to enrich himself or his family in any way.

“I appreciate the research and literature you explored …
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They have problems? WE had bigger ones! Get over it.

the dissensions between two members of the cabinet are to be lamented. but why should these force mr Gallatin to withdraw? they cannot be greater than between Hamilton & myself, & yet we served together 4. years in that way. we had indeed no personal dissensions. each of us perhaps thought well of the other as a man. but as politicians it was impossible for two men to be of more opposite principles. the method of separate consultation, practised sometimes in the cabinet, prevents disagreeable collisions.
To Joel Barlow, January 24, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders need wisdom to manage talented but feuding subordinates.
Barlow (1754-1812) was a lawyer, editor, acclaimed writer, public official, friend and confidante. He reported on a dispute between two men in President Madison’s cabinet. The disagreement had reached the point where the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was about to be driven out by the Secretary of State, Robert Morris.

Jefferson asked why a disagreement should force Gallatin to withdraw? He cited his own example of continually butting heads with Alexander Hamilton in President Washington’s cabinet, yet the two of them co-labored for four years. (Hamilton and Jefferson held the same two posts as Gallatin and Smith.) Their differences were political and philosophical but not personal, and they respected each other as individuals. Couldn’t Gallatin and Smith reach the same accommodation?

Jefferson suggested the practice “of separate consultation” with cabinet members. Rather than having opponents in the room together, Mr. Madison could confer with each man separately. He would have the benefit of each man’s counsel while avoiding the conflict that would inevitably arise if opponents were face-to-face.

It had been 16 years since Hamilton and Jefferson had served together in Washington’s cabinet and 5 1/2 years since Hamilton’s death in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr. Time must have softened Jefferson’s judgment or his memories. In the early 1790s, Jefferson had nothing positive to say about Hamilton. One of the reasons Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet at end of 1793 was his continual conflict with the other man.

“You were great as President Jefferson …
Your remarks … could not have been more impressive or appropriate …”
Interim Director, Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Nebraska City, NE
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Shut up, quit and go home.

I observe the house [House of Representatives] is endeavoring to remedy the eternal protraction [prolonging] of debate by setting up all night … I have thought that such a Rule as the following would be more effectual & less inconvenient. ‘Resolved that at [VIII.] aclock in the evening (whenever the house shall be in session at that hour) it shall be the duty of the Speaker to declare that hour arrived, whereupon all debate shall cease.”
To John Wayles Eppes, January 17, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders understand the value of a deadline.
A previous post from this letter complained about long-winded speeches in the House, and the ill effects they had on its members and the public. Here, Jefferson observed that Congress was trying to deal with the problem by letting the debate go into the wee hours of the morning, wearying everyone involved. He offered a solution.

Why not have the House agree in advance to end all debate at a designated hour? He suggested a mechanism for disposing of whatever was being considered at that moment, and then they could adjourn and go home for the day.

Jefferson asked his former son-in-law to use his idea in any way he could, but not to reveal him as the source of the suggestion.

The House of Representatives did not change its ways.

“Thanks for making our convention a big success.”
Central Bank
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Would you just shut up?

I observe that the H. of R. [House of Representataives] are sensible of the ill effect of the long speeches in their house on their proceedings. but they have a worse effect in the disgust they excite among the people …these speeches therefore are less & less read, and if continued will cease to be read at all …
To John Wayles Eppes, January 17, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who talk too much undermine themselves and disgust others.
Eppes (1773-1823), Jefferson’s former son-in-law, was a member of the House. The two men corresponded often on political matters. Here, Jefferson noted the long speeches given in Congress House members were starting to burden House members.

Worse yet, their long-windedness was wearying the citizens. (Speeches were sometimes printed in local newspapers.) Public irritation was evident, because fewer people were reading those speeches. If the trend continued, they wouldn’t be read at all.

Jefferson depended on a literate, well-read and engaged citizenry to safeguard the republic. Congress was driving people away and thus undermining the government.

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