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Category Archives: Congress

I’d rather not herd cats.

… I rode to the Hamburg hill from whence you suppose a bridge [over the Potomac River] … it will rest with the legislature to decide at which place … in this clashing of interests between different points of the territory to all of which I sincerely wish prosperity, I hold myself aloof from medling, no law calling on me to do otherwise. should it be made my duty to take any part in it, I shall certainly place every local interest out of view and regard the general interest only.
To George W. P. Custis, February 23, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders don’t meddle.
Congress was considering a bridge from the nation’s capital across the Potomac River. Competing interests were making their preferences known for the location.
George Washington Parke Custis (1781 – 1857) was the adopted grandson of the late President George Washington. The estate he owned across the Potomac from the nation’s capital would eventually pass to his son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, and later become the site of the Arlington National Cemetery. Custis lobbied the President for a specific location, which the city of Georgetown opposed as detrimental to their interests.
Jefferson summarized this sticky-leadership-wicket as follows:
– If, when and where to build a bridge was Congress’ responsibility.
– Since he wished all the competing interests well, and his involvement was not required, he was staying out of it.
– If the time came when his input was required, he would keep “every local interest out of view,” and concern himself only with the overall public welfare.

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You do not know what you are talking about.

In social circles all are equal, whether in, or out, of office, foreign or domestic; & the same equality exists among ladies as among gentlemen. no precedence therefore, of any one over another, exists either in right or practice, at dinners, assemblies, or on any other occasions. ‘pell-mell’ and ‘next the door’ form the basis of etiquette in the societies of this country. it is this last principle, maintained by the administration, which has produced some dissatisfaction with some of the diplomatic gentlemen.
Response to the Washington Federalist, February 13, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders make their priorities straight-forward and public.
An opposition newspaper claimed diplomatic strife was caused by the etiquette policies of the new President. Not so, wrote Jefferson in a response printed on this date in the Philadelphia republican paper, Aurora. He usually ignored political and personal attacks in the federalist press, but this one he met head on.

He gave six specific examples of how and when foreign dignitaries would be received by various members of the Executive and Legislative Branches. He affirmed Senators and Representatives had equal standing. He wrote that all preferences shown previously were “buried in the grave of federalism, on the same 4th. of March,” the day of his inauguration.

Once he defined official diplomatic etiquette, he proceeded in this passage to proclaim there was no etiquette in social (non-governmental) settings. All individuals, foreign and domestic, in office or out, male and female, were treated equally. “Pell mell” and “next the door” would be the equivalents of the 21st century’s “first come, first served.”

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What do we owe, & where does the money go?

… [Should we present to] Congress at some time of every session a Calendar of 1. the interest of the public debt paid in each year. 2. the principal paid, or added. 3. the principal remaining due at the end of each year …  also …  a similar calendar of the expenditures 1. for the civil, 2. the military, 3. the naval departments, in a single sum each? the greatest security against the introduction of corrupt practices & principles into our government, which can be relied on in practice, is to make the continuance of an administration depend on their keeping the public expences down at their minimum. the people at large are not judges of theoretic principles, but they can judge on comparative statements of the expence of different epochs.
To Albert Gallatin, February 11, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders help their constituents hold them accountable.
The President decried the undecipherable mess of government finance created by the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. He wanted Gallatin, his Secretary, to make sense of it, not just for Congress but for the common man. Thus, he asked Gallatin about the wisdom of an annual report to Congress related to national debt and annual expenditures:
Debt –
1. How much interest was paid on the debt?
2. How much the debt was reduced or increased?
3. Was is the total debt at the end of the year?
Annual expenditures, a single total for each –
1. Civil government (all non-military expenditures)
2. Military (land-based forces and defenses)
3. The navy

Jefferson also asked if these numbers could be established annually from the nation’s founding. A protection against corruption was an on-going effort to keep government spending at a minimum. The public would be well able to judge of their government by comparing these totals year by year.

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We are all equal here. Fooey on them!

On Friday Congress give a dinner on the acquisition of Louisiana. they determine to invite no foreign ministers, to avoid questions of etiquette, in which we are enveloped by Merry’s & Yrujo’s families. … [their conflict will continue] until they recieve orders from their courts to acquiesce in our principles of the equality of all persons meeting together in society, & not to expect to force us into their principles of allotment into ranks & orders.
To Martha Jefferson Randolph, January 23, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Just leaders do not show favoritism, especially when it is expected.
President Jefferson disdained the aristocratic expectations of England’s and Spain’s ambassadors to America. They insisted on favored treatment and were incensed not to receive it. Thus, they were excluded from a Congressional dinner.

Although Jefferson wished his elder daughter could be with him in Washington City, it was better for her that she was absent. His Cabinet Secretary’s wives had already been abused in the press for not fawning over the ambassadors’ wives. His daughter would receive even worse treatment from foes who wanted to distress him.

The President was clear. Other nations:
– Must acquiesce to America’s equality for all in society.
– Should keep their privileged society, “allotment into ranks & orders,” to themselves.

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1 Comment Posted in Congress, Diplomacy Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Smoke ’em if you got ’em? (NO!)

I now lay before Congress the annual account of the fund established for defraying the Contingent [random, unforseeable] charges of government. No occasion having arisen for making use of any part of it in the present year, the balance of eighteen thousand five hundred and sixty dollars, unexpended at the end of the last year, remains now in the Treasury.
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the US. of America, December 31, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Self-limiting leaders exercise restraint with money not their own.
In May 1802, Congress approved $20,000 for “defraying the contingent expenses of government.” By the end of that year, the President reported a single expenditure of $1,440, to return to the United States 72 American seamen stranded abroad. The balance in that fund stood at $18,560.

A year later, the President reported again to Congress on the status of that fund. He had “no occasion” in 1803 to use any part of it. The full balance of $18,560 remained in the nation’s treasury.

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This is gonna be BIG!

the river Missouri, & the Indians inhabiting it, are not as well known as is rendered desireable by their connection with the Missisipi, & consequently with us … an intelligent officer with ten or twelve chosen men … might explore the whole line, even to the Western ocean, have conferences with the natives on the subject of commercial intercourse, get admission among them for our traders as others are admitted, agree on convenient deposits for an interchange of articles, and return with the information acquired in the course of two summers … The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars ‘for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the US,’ [is needed] …
To the Senate and House of Representatives, January 18, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders know huge accomplishments have humble beginnings.
Tucked in near the end of a long letter to the Congress on improving relations with the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River was this innocent-sounding suggestion: We should know more about the Missouri River and the people who live along it. He proposed a dozen men led by a single officer to explore the whole length of the Missouri and perhaps all the way to the Pacific Ocean at a cost of $2,500. He stated four goals:
1. Confer with the Indians about commercial opportunities
2. Arrange for American traders to come among them
3. Scout locations for trading posts
4. Gather information about the land along the river.

What the President had in mind, of course, was what he would call the Corps of Discovery, known to us as the Lewis & Clark Expedition. His message to Congress was confidential, and he wanted it kept that way for the time being.

The Louisiana Purchase, not even imagined by the visionary Jefferson when this letter was written, would change the entire scope of this exploration. Instead of a small company quietly exploring Spanish territory, it would become a military venture of some four dozen men, led by five officers, establishing their claim to American soil. (The $2,500 Jefferson requested here would be dwarfed by the cost of the much larger mission, about $38,000.)

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Businessmen get it on!

Congress is not yet engaged in business of any note. we want men of business among them. I really wish you were here. I am convinced it is in the power of any man who understands business, and who will undertake to keep a file of the business before Congress & to press it as he would his own docket in a court, to shorten the sessions a month one year with another, & to save in that way 30,000. D. a year. an ill-judged modesty prevents those from undertaking it who are equal to it.
To Caesar A. Rodney, December 31, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders appreciate the focus businesspeople bring to government.
Rodney (1774-1822) was a Delaware politician, Jefferson partisan and namesake nephew of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was not a businessman but a lawyer and was about to take his place as a member of Congress after years of service in the Delaware legislature.

Jefferson thought Congress would benefit from having more successful businessmen as members. They knew how to organize, prioritize and remain focused. If they would bring those same skills to Congress, those bodies would accomplish more in less time and at less expense.

The President thought businessmen were being unfairly modest, “ill-judged” he termed it, in staying from public service.

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Pissing THEM off a little can help US behave.

… nor do I foresee a single question which ought to excite party contention. still every question will excite it, because it is sufficient that we propose a measure, to produce opposition to it from the other party. a little of this is not amiss, as it keeps up a wholesome censorship on our conduct;
To Ephraim Kirby, December 10, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Shrewd leaders appreciate the value of opposition.
In a previous post, Jefferson wrote that the country was doing so well, there was little to recommend to Congress in his annual report (State of the Union Address as we know it today).  He expressed the same sentiment to Kirby, with nothing on the horizon to divide the republican party.

Yet they were bound to propose something, and it would of necessity cause the Federalist party to rally in opposition. That opposition in turn would keep the republican party on its toes, united in its focus and proper in its conduct.

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Things are going so well, let us do nothing at all!

Our busy scene is now approaching. the quiet tract into which we are endeavoring to get, neither meddling with the affairs of other nations, nor with those of our fellow citizens, but letting them go on in their own way, will shew itself in the statement of our affairs to Congress. we have almost nothing to propose to them but ‘to let things alone.’
To Joseph Priestley, November 29, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know the best course of action can be no action at all.
Priestley (1733-1804) was a renowned English-born scientist, philosopher and theologian. He was one of Jefferson’s closest confidantes.

The “busy scene” in Jefferson’s letter was the convening of the Congress for their legislative session. The “statement of our affairs” was what we now call the annual State of the Union Address. The “quiet tract” was the ongoing adoption of the republican vision for a smaller, frugal, hands-off  national government focused on two priorities:
1. Staying out of other nations’ business, and
2. Staying out of the lives of its citizens.
So successful had they been toward these ends, he could propose little to Congress other than to do nothing at all!

Further on in this letter, Jefferson wrote “the only speck in our horizon which can threaten anything” was the pending transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France. He was already addressing that issue in diplomacy, and its successful resolution the next year would change the course of America’s future.

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1 Comment Posted in Congress, Government's proper role Tagged , , , , , |

Let us eat and play games!

Th: Jefferson requests the favor of Mr. Clinton’s company to dinner and chess on Tuesday next at half after three, or at whatever later hour the house may rise [adjourn].
Saturday Apl. 3. 1802.
The favor of an answer is asked.
To Dewitt Clinton, April 3, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders use social gatherings and games to build relationships.
Jefferson regularly invited people to join him for dinner, which was usually at 3:30 pm. When Congress was in session, his dinner guests often were Representatives and Senators, of both parties, except perhaps for the High Federalists, who wouldn’t have dined with him, regardless.

Clinton (1769-1828) was a New York politician, serving briefly in the U.S. Senate. He is credited with being the primary inspiration for the Erie Canal, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. He was also the nephew of George Clinton, who would become Vice-President during Jefferson’s second term.

Jefferson’s correspondence is sprinkled with these dinner invitations. This is the first one I’ve seen that mentioned playing chess as part of the evening’s activity. He loved chess! This link demonstrates that. Near the end of those references, is this 1853 excerpt from his granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge:
“So he was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not among his associates, many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. [James] Madison.”

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1 Comment Posted in Congress, Intellectual pursuits, Personal preferences Tagged , , , , , , , |