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Category Archives: Diplomacy

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.

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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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How do we regard other nations?

In the transaction of your foreign affairs, we have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations … we have done them justice on all occasions … cherished mutual interests & intercourse on fair & equal terms. we are firmly convinced and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests, soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties. and history bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is trusted on it’s word …
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Just leaders value honest relationships with other leaders.
Jefferson’s first inaugural address was forward-looking, the aspirations that would guide his administration. This report, four years later, would be an assessment of their progress toward those goals.

He began with foreign affairs, affirming the nation’s commitment to friendship with all and fairness in its dealings. He said there could be no difference between moral duties and actual performance. That rule applied both to individuals and nations. A nation which was just, like an individual who was just, could be counted on to do what they said they would do.

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You are both admirable. men. Do not be divided!

I am sorry to learn that an uneasiness has grown up between the Chevalier Yrujo and yourself. as far as is within my own observation I can bear witness in favor of both that I have never heard either say a word to the prejudice of the other … [Yrujo’s] worth & candour being known to us would facilitate affairs between the two governments … and I observed your conduct on all subsequent occasions to have been in the same spirit.
To Joseph Yznardi, Sr., January 10, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek to mend fences between feuding parties.
Yrujo had been Spain’s minister to America, recalled at President Adam’s request over a disagreement Yrujo had with Adams’ Secretary of State Pinckney. Yznardi functioned both in Spain’s diplomatic corps and as one of Jefferson’s wine merchants.
Learning that Yrujo’s recall had caused a breach between the two respected Spaniards, Jefferson was eager to help mend the rift. He did that in a way that affirmed his regard for both men, testifying:
1. He never heard either say an ill word about the other.
2. Yrujo’s character would be an asset in America’s dealings with Spain.
3. Yznardi demonstrated “the same spirit” as Yrujo.

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The value of skill and bravery combined!

… you have shewn to your countrymen that that enemy cannot meet bravery & skill united. in proving to them that our past condescensions were from a love of peace, not a dread of them, you have deserved well of your country …
To Andrew Sterett, December 1, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know when skill alone or bravery alone won’t be enough.
Sterett (1778-1807) commanded the Enterprize in the Mediterranean and secured the first naval victory over the North African Barbary pirates. He had just returned to America after his successful mission, and his President expressed his profound appreciation.

The pirates had been plying their trade for decades and knew it well, capturing ships and holding their crews for ransom. Or demanding annual ransom from nations to leave their ships unharmed. Jefferson knew, despite his enemies’ past success, they could not stand when extraordinary skill and great bravery were combined.

Sterett’s victory accomplished another goal. He proved that America’s past acquiescence wasn’t out of fear of the pirates but out of a love of peace.

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Is it worth going to war over?

Although I consider the observance of these principles as of great importance to the interests of peaceable nations, among whom I hope the US. will ever place themselves, yet, in the present state of things, they are not worth a war. nor do I believe war the most certain means of enforcing them. those peaceable coercions, which are in the power of every nation, if undertaken in concert, & in time of peace, are more likely to produce the desired effect.
To Robert R. Livingston, September 9, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders avoid violence at (almost) all costs.
This short paragraph is in the middle of a very long letter to America’s new minister to France. The focus of that letter was the protection of shipping by neutral nations during war time. There was no question about Jefferson’s position. He repeated it a dozen times or more in this letter alone.

Even if that position was rejected, he didn’t think it was worth a war, or that war could defend them. Diplomacy, pursued by nations banding together during peacetime, had a better chance of success than a nation reacting solo to a crisis or perceived offense.

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Four qualities of an excellent diplomat

I have now known you seventeen years … I have found you ever attentive to the interests & the rights of your own country & fellow citizens in the first place, but just and accomodating to the rights and the convenience those with whom you had to transact them. the stile of your applications has been such as always to produce a desire to comply with them: & your conduct in society has attached to you as much private esteem as your public transactions have of respect and satisfaction. it is with sincere regret therefore that we see you leaving our shores …
To Philippe de Letombe, July 27, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Great leaders are also great diplomats.
de Letombe had been a French minister to America since 1781 and was now returning permanently to his native country. Jefferson admired him and expressed four reasons why:
1. His first concern was always properly for his country and its citizens.
2. Even so, he demonstrated equal concern for his host country and its ways.
3. His work on behalf of France was always conducted in such a way that his host country wanted to cooperate.
4. His consistent conduct earned him “respect and satisfaction” in the private sector as well as the public one.
Jefferson was sorry to see such an honorable man leave America.

Jefferson would commend the same principles to anyone working with people different from himself (which can be practically everybody).
1. Your own interests naturally come first.
2. The interests of others are as important to them as yours are to you and should be respected.
3. Promote your own interests in such a way that others want to cooperate with you.
4. Be consistently respectable in all your conduct, professional and personal.

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