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Category Archives: Congress

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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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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Everyone should have a clue! Especially YOU. Part 2 of 2

we might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to controul them. our predecessors have endeavored by intricacies of system, and shuffling the investigator over from one officer to another, to cover every thing from detection. I hope we shall go in the contrary direction and that by your honest and judicious reformations we may be able, within the limits of our time to bring things back to that simple & intelligible system on which they should have been organised at first.—
To Albert Gallatin, April 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders encourage transparency and want citizen oversight.
In the first post from this letter, Jefferson complained that former Treasury Secretary Hamilton had so complicated federal financing that Congress and the President had no idea what was happening. That labyrinth grew to where Hamilton himself could figure it out.

In that post, Jefferson wanted his Treasury Secretary to simplify the nation’s books so every member of Congress could understand them. In this post, going even further, he wanted a system so clean and transparent that any thinking person could understand them. Where previous administrations wanted to conceal and confuse, he wanted citizens empowered to investigate and control abuses.

Jefferson proposed what should have been created a dozen years before at the nation’s founding, a “simple & intelligible system” for the government’s receipts and disbursements.

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No one has a clue, not even the author! Part 1 of 2

I think it an object of great importance, to be kept in view, and to be undertaken at a fit season, to simplify our system of finance, and bring it within the comprehension of every member of Congress. Hamilton set out on a different plan. in order that he might have the entire government of his machine, he determined so to complicate it as that neither the President or Congress should be able to understand it, or to controul him. he succeeded in doing this, not only beyond their reach, but so that he at length could not unravel it himself.
To Albert Gallatin, April 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Great leaders SIMPLIFY.
A year into his Presidency, he hoped to up-end the incomprehensible financing system created by a previous Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. He wanted Gallatin, now in that role, to simplify that system to the point where every member of Congress could understand it.

There was no love lost between Jefferson and Hamilton. The new President thought the former Secretary wanted to control the entire government. To do that, Hamilton had deliberately created a system so obtuse “that neither the President or Congress should be able to understand it.”

It followed that no one would be able to control the one person, Hamilton, who understood the whole process. Eventually it backfired, Jefferson claimed, becoming so convoluted that Hamilton “could not unravel it himself.”

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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.

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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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I am sorry, my old friend. We really tried.

It is with much concern I inform you that the Senate has negatived [vetoed] your appointment [as ambassador to Russia] … mr Madison, on his entering into office, proposed another person (John Q. Adams.) he also was negatived … our subsequent information was that, on your nomination, your long absence from this country, & their idea that you do not intend to return to it had very sensible weight … I pray you to place me rectus in curiâ [innocent] in this business …
To William Short, March 8, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes circumstances conspire to defeat a leader’s best intentions.
William Short (1759-1849) was Jefferson’s protégé and friend. He served in various diplomatic roles in Europe from 1785-1802, including five years as personal secretary to Ambassador Jefferson in France. After a few years back in America, Short returned to Europe in 1808 on a temporary assignment in Russia. Jefferson proposed to the U.S. Senate to make Short’s appointment permanent. The Senate turned him down cold. There were several reasons.
1. Short’s 17 year residency in Europe had made his allegiance suspect.
2. Elsewhere in this letter, Jefferson explained the Senate was interested both in detangling America from European matters and reducing the size of the diplomatic core.
3. While not stated, Jefferson’s influence was waning. He was a lame duck President when Short was nominated.
4. The Senate was equally independent-minded in vetoing John Quincy Adams, President Madison’s nominee for the same position.

Jefferson began this letter with, “It is with much concern I inform you …” That is probably a great understatement. Most likely, he would have been mortified that  his faithful friend and supporter for a quarter century,a well-qualified man, had been cast aside.

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A common foe keeps friends united.

the annihilation of federal opposition has given opportunity to our friends to divide in various parts. a want of concert [unity] here threatens divisions at the fountain head [source]. nor is it on principle, but on measures that the division shews itself. but I fear it will produce separations which will be as prejudicial as they are painful.
To John Minor, March 2, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders appreciate the unifying effect of a strong opposition.
John Minor (1761-1816) was 18 years younger than Jefferson, a Virginia lawyer and Republican. The Federalist majority in Washington had been reversed by the election of 1800 and reduced to an empty shell in 1804. Jefferson lamented an unfortunate result of the Republican ascendency.

Since there was no political opposition to unite against, Republicans were splintering into factions and turning on one another. They weren’t disagreeing on key principles but on “measures,” how to implement those ideas. Not only would friendships be sacrificed over those differences, but prejudices would arise as factions accused one another of bad faith.

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