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Category Archives: Diplomacy

Your mind alone will get you into trouble!

… with a heart disposed to do whatever is honest and honorable, and a head able to decide by calculation that what is not right can under no possible circumstances be useful … that by going strait forward and doing exactly what is just and moral, the way will open before you, and the mountains of difficulty subside: when by resorting to head-work and contrivence, one only gets more & more entangled in the mazes of their own cunning, and finally enveloped in a self-woven web of disgrace. but I catch myself sermonizing again, & have again to seek my apology …
To Lewis Harvie, January 25, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know intellectual cleverness alone is never enough.
The 21 year old Harvie (1782-1807) was the son of Jefferson’s childhood friend and grandson of his guardian upon the death of his own father in 1757. The young man requested an appointment as secretary to James Monroe during the latter’s service in Europe negotiating the future of American shipping on the Mississippi River.

Jefferson declined the appointment, not because Harvie was unqualified, but because Monroe would probably want to choose his own secretary. The President then outlined a deliberate and lengthy course of action for a young man who wanted a career in public service, similar to one Jefferson himself began 40 years earlier.

The President concluded with this advice for Harvie:
1. He should have the heart always to do what was “honest and honorable.”
2. His mind should be clear enough to warn him away from dubious enterprises.
3. Governed by sound mind and heart, the right course would become clear.
4. If he abandoned the moral compass of his heart and relied only on his mind, he would come to ruin and disgrace of his own making.
He then admitted he was preaching to the young man and apologized.

Later in 1803 Jefferson appointed Harvie to replace Meriwether Lewis as his personal secretary when Lewis left to lead the exploration up the Missouri River. Harvie took ill in 1805 and died two years later at the age of 25.

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I am the boss. America needs you. You do not have a choice.

… the fever into which the Western mind is thrown by the affair at N. Orleans …threatens to overbear our peace. in this situation we are obliged to call on you for a temporary sacrifice of yourself … I shall tomorrow nominate you to the Senate for an extraordinary mission to France, & the circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline; because the whole public hope will be rested on you … in the mean time pray work night & day to arrange your affairs for a temporary absence; perhaps for a long one.
To James Monroe, January 10, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, leaders have to demand sacrifices of trusted lieutenants.
“.. the affair at N. Orleans” concerning the “Western mind” was customs-free shipping through the port of New Orleans and open traffic on the Mississippi River. The first had been withdrawn by Spain; the second faced a threat from France’s pending takeover of Louisiana, giving her partial control over the river and full control of the port.

American Ambassador Robert Livingston had been in France for some time, hoping to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans or some other land at the mouth of the Mississippi for duty-free shipping. Under the best circumstances, round trip communication between the U.S. and Paris took two months. The President thought Livingston might need help and dispatched a trusted protege.

Jefferson usually left the decision whether to take an offered job up to the individual. Not this time! He called on Monroe “for a temporary sacrifice of yourself.” The importance of the task made it “impossible to decline.” Success might rest on him. He was to get his affairs in order and depart immediately. He might be gone a short time, maybe a long time.

Monroe sailed for France on March 9, but the day before he arrived in Paris, Napoleon’s government offered all of Louisiana to Ambassador Livingston. Monroe’s purpose in going was now moot, but the two ambassadors negotiated the terms of the massive land deal.

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Chess, anyone?

Th: Jefferson asks the favor of Mr. E. Thornton’s company to dinner and chess on Monday next, the 8th. Inst., at half after three.
Friday Novr. 5th. 1802.
The favor of an answer is requested.
To Edward Thornton, November 5, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Strategic leaders practice thinking strategically.
Jefferson was well-known for inviting people to join him for his typical mid-afternoon dinner. (He ate only two meals a day, breakfast at 9:00 and dinner at 3:00 or 3:30, and perhaps a light snack in the evening.) He shared his dinner table with friends, fellow scientists and elected officials, those who supported him and some who did not. He used it as a time of friendship, intellectual stimulation and diplomacy. Thornton was a British diplomat serving in America.

Jefferson enjoyed chess! I have featured his dinner invitations and companions before. This is the second one I’ve seen where he invited someone to come to the President’s house for both dinner AND chess. (This is the first.) The President had many strong reservations about the way England conducted itself toward the United States. Yet, he could set those aside to dine and play a favored game. Jefferson usually took the long view, and the game kept his instincts sharp.

Since this was written on December 5 for dinner that afternoon, it would have been hand-delivered to the diplomat who would use the same courier to convey his answer.

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Diplomacy has to trump personal preferences.

Great and Good Friend,
I have lately received the letter of your Majesty … announcing that contracts of marriage … between your much beloved son … and the Infanta of Naples Donna Maria Antonia; and between your very dear daughter … and the hereditary Prince of that Kingdom Don Francis Genaro … we pray your Majesty to receive our cordial congratulations on these occasions which we fervently hope may promote both the happiness of your Majesty and of your August family … we pray God to have you great and good Friend always in his holy keeping.
To Carlos IV, King of Spain, October 15, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders stuff their personal views for the greater good.
Jefferson congratulated the King of Spain, whom he called his “Great and Good Friend,” on the engagements of both his son and daughter. Beyond that, he offered a benediction that the King would always be in God’s “holy keeping.”

Flowery rhetoric for a man who despised the concept of royalty as contrary to nature’s law! Both of the King’s children were marrying people also of royal status, further cementing hereditary control.

Not only that, Carlos had restricted America’s right of duty free shipping through New Orleans, dismissed American entreaties to remain in possession of Louisiana, transferred Louisiana to France, and set up the very real possibility of war between the U.S. and France over traffic on the Mississippi River.

Nonetheless, Jefferson, the consummate diplomat, always looked for common ground. He had two married daughters and multiple grandchildren. He could set aside political considerations to congratulate the King on this new joy in his family. There could be diplomatic advantages in making nice, too.

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Let us do this to avoid war.

I think therefore, that while we do nothing which the first nation on earth [France] would deem crouching, we had better give to all our communications with them a very mild, complaisant, and even friendly complection, but always independant. ask no favors, leave small & irritating things to be conducted by the individuals interested in them, interfere ourselves but in the greatest cases, & then not push them to irritation. no matter at present existing between them & us is important enough to risk a breach of peace; peace being indeed the most important of all things to us, except the preserving an erect & independant attitude.
To Robert Livingston, October 10, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders take pains to avoid giving offense to one’s adversaries.
While France had not yet taken possession of Louisiana, it was only a matter of time before she would influence shipping on the Mississippi River and control all goods flowing through the port of New Orleans. Jefferson foresaw the potential for great conflict with France and very likely, war.

While diplomatic efforts proceeded to eliminate that conflict, the President gave these pointers to his ambassador in France to minimize unnecessary aggravation:
1. While not acting in any way subservient, the U.S. should be calm, agreeable and friendly, but always independent.
2. Don’t put us in their debt by asking any favors.
3. Leave minor disputes to be worked out by those affected by them.
4. Concern yourself only with the largest disputes or issues.
5. Be diplomatic even in those great issues, giving no cause for irritation.
6. Nothing should jeopardize our greatest goal of peace, except this one thing, maintaining America’s unflinching independence.

Jefferson’s skilled diplomatic dance resulted the following year in acquiring Louisiana from France and eliminating the conflict that could have resulted in war.

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There is no need to justify the motives of honest men.

I have duly recieved your favor of Mar. 10. explaining the motives of the Commissioners … but they needed no explanation. when gentlemen, selected for their integrity, are acting under a public trust, their characters and consciences are sufficient securities that what they do, is done on pure motives. I had the less reason in this case to refuse credit to their sense of official duty, as some of them were known to me personally, and possess my confidence.
To John Trumbull, July 14, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders should be able to trust other leaders.
Jefferson had recommended a certain action to American representatives on a U.S.-Great Britain commission that was mediating shipping disputes between the two nations. The commissioners did the opposite of what he asked. Trumbull, one of the commissioners, felt the need to explain their action to the President.

No need to explain, Jefferson replied. The commissioners were selected for their integrity and given a public trust. Their character and conscience assured him their motives were pure, even when they disagreed with him. Even if he knew none of the commissioners, he trusted the process that selected them. But he did know some of them personally, and that gave him even more confidence in their judgment.

Trumbull was better known as a painter. His famous tableau, “The Declaration of Independence” hangs in the U.S. Capitol and also adorns the back of the $2 bill.

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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.

” …what a magnificent and delightful job you did as President Thomas Jefferson
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The peaceful bear must attack once in awhile!

The love of peace which we sincerely feel & profess has begun to produce an opinion in Europe that our government is entirely in Quaker [non-aggressive, non-violent] principles, & will turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. this opinion must be corrected when just occasion arises, or we shall become the plunder of all nations.
To Thomas Cooper, February 18, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders know when to do the unexpected.
Thomas Jefferson appreciated America’s geography, separated by an ocean from its often-warring European neighbors. Far more often than not, it allowed his country to stay out of their conflicts. He also realized that non-intervention was creating the opinion abroad that America would not get involved, regardless, even if provoked. If that were true, America would become the victim of all nations.

The President wanted the opportune time, a “just occasion,” for the peaceful American bear to take a judicious swat at its neighbors, to show them how wrong they were.

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Minor issues can showcase major principles.

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to mr Smith, has recieved his letter of the 3d. inst. and regrets that he could not have the pleasure of seeing him on his passage through the neighborhood … he congratulates mr Smith on the happy termination of our Tripoline war. tho a small war in fact, it is big in principle. it has shewn that when necessary we can be respectable at sea, & has taught to Europe a lesson of honor & of justice to the Barbarians …
To Larkin Smith, September 7, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Perceptive leaders know big results can flow from small actions.
An illness had prevented Smith from visiting Monticello when he was nearby. He wrote to express his regrets. Jefferson answered Smith’s letter, invited him to come another time, and congratulated him on America’s naval success against the Barbary pirates of North Africa.

It was “a small war,” Jefferson acknowledged, but “big in principle.”
1. It proved America could fight and win at sea.
2. The nations of Europe had paid tribute to the pirates for decades. America’s refusal to do so had taught them “a lesson of honor.”
3. The pirates (he called them “Barbarians”) had received a lesson about justice.

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I can neither reject nor accept the gift. Part 2.

Another case has occurred of greater difficulty. mr Harris, our Consul at Petersburg has sent me as a present, a small marble bust of the emperor Alexander. I had concluded to reject it; but mr Madison advises it’s being recieved for the President’s house, as destined for the office & not the officer; and this because of the relation between the thing & the person of the emperor, whose unequivocal … friendship to our country should privilege him against any thing which might seem to be a slight. his bust is in the warehouse of Smith & Buchanan, and has been since sometime last year. will you be so good as to direct it to be forwarded here
To Robert Smith, May 31, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders need subordinates who will disagree with them.
Taken from the same letter as the previous post about the difficulty of receiving a gift of wine, Jefferson had another gift dilemma. A government employee serving as consul in St. Petersburg, Russia, sent his boss a marble bust of Russia’s Emperor Alexander. Jefferson wanted to return it but knew the diplomatic difficulty that could cause.

His Secretary of State came to his rescue with an alternative view. The bust could not be separated from the leader it represented, a man who had been a steadfast friend of the United States. The Emperor must not be offended. James Madison counseled his boss to receive the gift, not as given to him personally (like the wine) but as a gift to the nation, to become part of the President’s House, the name of the White House prior to 1815.

With this Gordian knot untied, Jefferson requested the bust be retrieved from storage and forwarded to him for display in the nation’s capital.

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