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Category Archives: Foreign Policy

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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This single act changes FRIEND to FOE!

The cession of Louisiana & the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the US … of all nations of any consideration France is the one which hitherto has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right, and the most points of a communion of interests … our natural friend … [yet] there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural & habitual enemy. it is New Orleans, through which the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market … France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance.
To Robert Livingston, April 18, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders expect the unexpected.
Jefferson, a lover of most-things-French, was dealt a serious blow upon confirming that sleepy Spain was returning its holdings west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana) along with the Port of New Orleans to France. He foresaw the time when expansionist France could use its control of that port to strangle the sale of American goods from its western lands. Those goods had to pass down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers through New Orleans on their way to the east coast and Europe.

Livingstone was an American minister to France. Secretary of State Madison had already written him on this matter, the proper chain of command. So concerned was Jefferson about this matter that he wrote his own very long letter on the same subject.

France’s new ownership of New Orleans and Louisiana, coupled with other unforeseen events, soon led her to offer all of her new acquisition for sale to the United States. Thus, was the size of the new nation doubled. Lewis & Clark’s expedition two years later set the wheels in motion the for U.S. to extend its ownership to the Pacific Ocean.

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We do not want those immigrants, but we cannot refuse them!

I lament the misfortunes of the persons who have been driven from Cuba to seek Asylum with you. this it is impossible to refuse them, or to withold any relief they can need. we should be monsters to shut the door against such sufferers. true, it is not a population we can desire, at that place, because it retards the desired epoch of it’s becoming entirely American in spirit. no people on earth retain their national adherence longer or more warmly than the French. but such considerations are not to prevent us from taking up human beings from a wreck at sea. gratitude will doubtless secure their fidelity to the country which has recieved them into it’s bosom.
To William C.C. Claiborne, September 10, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Humane leaders recognize the need to help the helpless.
Claiborne, territorial governor of New Orleans, reported the arrival of about 1,000 poverty-stricken French immigrants, whom Spain had banished from their homes in Cuba.

Jefferson didn’t regard the French as desirable subjects, because they above all other immigrants clung to their native culture. It would take them much longer to assimilate and become “entirely American in spirit.” Regardless, they could not be allowed to perish on the open sea. Only “monsters” would refuse them refuge and relief.

He hoped they would be grateful for the kindness shown and become loyal to their new land.

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I love science, home and FREEDOM!

you have wisely located yourself in the focus of the science of Europe. I am held by the cords of love to my family & country, or I should certainly join you. within a few days I shall now bury myself in the groves of Monticello, & become a mere spectator of the passing events. on politics I will say nothing, because I would not implicate you by addressing to you the republican ideas of America, deemed horrible heresies by the royalism of Europe.
To Alexander von Humboldt, March 6, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Retired leaders needn’t lose their zeal!
German-born Humboldt (1769-1859) shared Jefferson’s passion for exploration and scientific analysis, wrote volumes on a wide variety of subjects, and sent some of them to the President, who proffered his thanks.

If Jefferson were not so loyal to his country and family, he might have joined this eminent scientist in Europe. Instead, he looked forward to immersing himself in all-things- Monticello and becoming an observer of politics rather than a participant. Retirement didn’t lessen his passion for freedom, but he spared Humboldt any “republican ideas of America,” which the non-republican governments of Europe considered “horrible heresies.”

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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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I really do want to know what you think!

Early in the last month I received the ratification, by the first Consul of France[Napoleon], of the Convention between the US. and that nation. his ratification not being pure and simple, in the ordinary form, I have thought it my duty, in order to avoid all misconception, to ask a second advice and consent of the Senate, before I give it the last sanction by proclaiming it to be a law of the land.

Source: To the Gentlemen of the [U.S.] Senate, December 11, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders respect other leaders’ turf.
The Convention [treaty] of 1800 settled shipping disputes with France which began years earlier. It was negotiated by President Adam’s administration and ratified by a Federalist Senate. Now, a version slightly revised by France was in the hands of a new President and a Republican Senate.

Jefferson could have accepted the treaty as revised and chose not to. He respected the Senate’s right and responsibility to review and approve (or reject) agreements with foreign countries. To make sure the government was of one mind in this important matter, he wanted the Senate to review the amended document. Only with their approval would he regard the treaty as binding.

The Senate did approve the treaty on December 19. The President announced it to the people two days later. Approval appears to have been a formality, but Jefferson would not presume upon his partners in the Senate.

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