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Category Archives: Intellectual pursuits

What does a local library mean for US? Part 4 of 4

… having had more favorable opportunities than fall to every man’s lot of becoming acquainted with the best books on such subjects as might be selected, I do not know that I can be otherwise useful to your society than by offering them any information respecting these which they might wish. my services in this way are freely at their command …
To John Wyche, May 19, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are helpful but not too helpful.
This was Jefferson’s closing in his response to news of a proposed county library in south Virginia. He had stated the importance of an educated citizenry, the value of a lending library toward that end, and the types of books that library should contain. Now, he limited his invovlement in their effort.

He did not endorse that particular library. He did not contribute to the capital campaign to establish it. Yet, acknowledging his good fortune when it came to books (his personal library contained over 6,000), he offered to advise them on what books they should acquire. He did not offer that counsel unsolicited; they would have to ask again.

“On behalf of the attendees … in Philadelphia …
I want to express our gratitude for an incredible opening session.”
Executive Vice President, American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
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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.”

“…what a pleasure it was having you entertain our guests …
a top-notch performance …”

CEO, Riverbarge Excursion Lines
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Not worth the paper they are written on

agreeable to my promise I now enclose a list of pamphlets, published whilst in Dublin—if you honour me with your Command for one or more of them I will instantly attend to it
To Thomas Jefferson from Patrick Byrne, May 23, 1805

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to mr Byrne & his thanks for the inclosed catalogue of pamphlets, which he now returns not finding any thing in it which he has occasion to call for. in truth political pamphlets are of so ephemeral an interest that their value passes almost with the moment which produces them.
To Patrick Byrne, May 31, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Discerning leaders know when to be dismissive.
Byrne was a Philadelphia book seller from whom Jefferson had bought numerous volumes. Apparently, Byrne also thought his patron would be interested in current political writings and sent him a list of pamphlets, hoping for another sale.

Jefferson said thanks but no thanks. The political thought represented in those pamphlets held no interest for him. Remember, Jefferson was a man interested in almost everything, so this dismissal is extraordinary.

He was very interested in classic political thought, ideas that stood the test of time, and possessed numerous books on the subject. That he had no interest in these may have meant they dealt with current political thought, i.e. what was popular or trendy or partisan. For him, any value evaporated as soon as they were printed.

“Enhancing this presentation is his animated and sincere delivery
that leaves his audience inspired and motivated.”
Executive Director, National Coal Transportation Association
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Who exactly is in charge here? Part 10 (OR Is life only a calculated balancing act?)

[This is the “Head” portion only of the 10th and final interchange in Jefferson’s internal dialog between his head and his heart, anguishing over Maria Cosway’s departure.]

Head … Everything in this world is a matter of calculation … Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, & see which preponderates … The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: & he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks & shoals with which he is beset …

Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers into those of another? Is there so little gall poured into our cup that we must needs help to drink that of our neighbor? A friend dies or leaves us: we feel as if a limb was cut off. He is sick: we must watch over him, & participate of his pains. His fortune is shipwrecked; ours must be laid under contribution. He loses a child, a parent, or a partner: we must mourn the loss as if it were our own.
To Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Beware the leader whose choices are only the paths of least resistance.
This final interchange is by far the longest of the ten, comprising nearly half of the letter. I cannot do justice to it in one post. Jefferson’s Head will get this one post, edited to about 1/4 of what he wrote. Heart’s response was more twice as long and will become the subject of multiple posts.

Head advises caution in all things, always weighing pluses and minuses, with the goal of avoiding pain. Life deals each person enough disappointment of their own. No point in looking for more or helping bear others’ grief.
In an omitted portion, Head commends intellectual pursuits, for no one can take away the pleasures gained there. Those allow one to ride above the “bustle & tumult of society,” occupied by those who are too much guided by their emotions.

The complete Thomas Jefferson, head AND heart, will inspire your audience.
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How else can mentors help?

He [William Small] returned to Europe in 1762, having previously filled up the measure of his goodness to me, by procuring for me, from his most intimate friend G. Wythe, a reception as a student of law, under his direction, and introduced me to the acquaintance and familiar table of Governor Fauquier, the ablest man who had ever filled that office. With him, and at his table, Dr. Small & Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum [Latin: friends all hours], & myself, formed a partie quarree, & to the habitual conversations on these occasions I owed much instruction. Mr. Wythe continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.
Autobiography, 1821*

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise mentors bring in more mentors.
The previous post listed the qualities Jefferson attributed to his revered college professor, Dr. William Small. His instructor didn’t keep his student to himself but introduced him to others who could guide him, as well.

First among those was lawyer George Wythe, who directed Jefferson’s five-year study of the law. Wythe moved from mentor to “my most affectionate friend through life.” Next was Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, the King’s representative in colonial Virginia.

Together, Small, Wythe and Fauquier, ages 36, 44 and 56, took the 17-year-old Jefferson into their company. The impressionable teenager learned much by observing these men, listening to and participating in their conversations.

Fauquier died in 1768 at age 65, Small in 1775 at age 41. Wythe lived until age 80, believed to be poisoned by a mulatto grandnephew in 1806. The relative was charged with the crime but not convicted. Courts did not accept the testimony of blacks, the only witnesses to the crime.

*This link is to the entire autography. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
“Your topic selection and program were extraordinary.”
American College of Real Estate Lawyers, New Orleans
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What qualities make a good mentor?

[I] then went to Wm. and Mary college, to wit in the spring of 1760, where I continued 2. years. It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm. Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.
Autobiography, 1821*

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders-to-be need skilled mentors.
Jefferson was almost 17 when he continued his education in college at Williamsburg. He came into the orbit of Dr. William Small, the only faculty member who was not an Anglican clergyman. Because of upheaval within the school, Small became Jefferson’s only professor, teaching all of his classes.

Sixty years later, Jefferson would cite the qualities that made Small extraordinary:

  1. “Profound,” which Webster’s 7th New Collegiate defines as “intellectual depth and insight”
  2. Devoted to the “useful branches of science,” wisdom relevant to everyday life
  3. “a happy talent for communication,” an engaging and effective classroom teacher
  4. “correct and gentlemanly manners,” proper and polite
  5. “an enlarged and liberal mind,” willing to consider all the possibilities
  6. “made me his daily companion,” taking young Jefferson under his wing
  7. “from his conversation,” verbal interaction with a high purpose

I’ve begun re-reading Jefferson’s Autobiography. I may take posts from it for some time.

*This link is to the entire autobiography. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
“Patrick Lee was reliable and easy to work with.
He made modifications in his presentation to suit our particular needs.”
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Both Thomas Jefferson and I are dependable, low maintenance
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What qualities characterize genius?

I sit down to petition your suffrage [vote] in favor of a friend … the Revd. James Fontaine, who offers himself as a candidate for … chaplain to the house of burgesses. I do not wish to derogate [detract] from the merit of the gentleman who possessed that office last, but I can not help hoping that every friend to genius, where the other qualities of the competitors are equal, will give a preference to superior abilities. Integrity of heart and purity of manners recommend Messrs. Price and Fontaine equally to our esteem; but in acuteness of penetration, accuracy of judgment, elegance of composition, propriety of performing the divine service, and in every work of genius, the former [Price] is left a great distance behind the latter [Fontaine].
To William Preston, August 18, 1768

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Discerning leaders appreciate goodness but give preference to genius.
The 25-year-old Jefferson was studying to become a lawyer and observing the meetings of the House of Burgesses, to which he would be elected four years later. He wrote in support of a new candidate to be chaplain of that body. He made these observations in recommending the challenger over the incumbent:
1. He would not criticize the current office-holder.
2. Genius should be encouraged.
3. When both possess equal qualities (“Integrity of heart and purity of manners”), superior abilities should be recognized.
4. Those abilities in Fontaine were:
– Keen insight
– Wise decision-making
– Excellence in writing
– Proper execution of spiritual responsibilities
– Excellence in every intellectual endeavor

Jefferson went on to encourage Preston, not to rely on his word only, but to ask others’ opinions, too.

“… we wanted an “upbeat” kind of talk.
That’s exactly what you gave us.”

Clinical Laboratory Management Association, Central NY Chapter
Mr. Jefferson will inspire your audience, too.
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“It was a dark and stormy night … ”

Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary [adherent] nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Yrs. &c.
To Thomas Paine, June 19, 1792

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Peaceful leaders encourage ideas over coercion.
Jefferson complimented Paine on his 1792 pamphlet, the Rights of Man, written in opposition to monarchies and anti-republican societies. Sixteen years earlier in 1776, Paine had written Common Sense, promoting American independence. In 1794, he wrote The Age of Reason, a dismissal of organized religion in favor of deism.

Jefferson always promoted peaceful change: education and the broad circulation, discussion and debate of ideas as essential for preserving the American republic. Far better to use the written word to convince than the sword to coerce.


Have you heard the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”? It was coined by English playwright and novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a 1839 play. The idea was not original with him, though this phrasing was. Others, including Jefferson in this letter nearly 50 years earlier, had expressed the same thought.


Why the title to this post? Just for fun. And because Edward Bulwer-Lytton, not only reinforced Jefferson’s idea of pen vs. sword, also wrote those well-worn words to open his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford.

“Your remarks … could not have been more impressive or appropriate … “
Interim Director, MO River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Nebraska City, NE

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Can there be cooperation in the midst of war?

I mention these things, to shew the nature of the correspondence which is carried on between societies instituted for the benevolent purpose of communicating to all parts of the world whatever useful is discovered in any one of them. These societies are always in peace, however their nations may be at war. Like the republic of letters, they form a great fraternity spreading over the whole earth, and their correspondence is never interrupted by any civilized nation. Vaccination has been a late and remarkable instance of the liberal diffusion of a blessing newly discovered.
To John Hollins, February 19, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders encourage societies for the public good.
Prior to this excerpt, Jefferson described the sharing of seeds, wool, a new weaving machine and a plow between men, himself included, in benevolent societies in different nations. All of these items were for improving the human condition.
Even if tangible items were not exchanged, a regular flow of letters between men in these societies kept their contemporaries in other nations up-to-date with the latest discoveries in the scientific realm. Jefferson himself was president of the American Philosophical Society, America’s premier society of learned men, from 1797-1815. (APS, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the year of Jefferson’s birth, still thrives today.)
Jefferson extolled the value of such societies, a “great fraternity” which continued its humanitarian efforts even when their nations were at war. They had recently lent their efforts to promoting public health through vaccination.
Jefferson wrote this letter just two weeks before retiring the Presidency. His joy at finally abandoning politics for family, farming, books and science at Monticello must have been palpable!

“We especially appreciated your ability to tailor the presentation
to fit the theme of the conference …”

President, Linn State Technical College

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How HOT was July 1, way back when?

Observations on the weather
Philadelphia 1776
July        hour                      thermom
1              9-0 AM                 81 ½
                7-   PM                 82
Weather Memorandum Book, 1776

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Analytical leaders make tiny observations over a long period of time.
Jefferson recorded thousands of everyday observations in his memorandum books. One of his subjects was weather. July 1, 1776 is the oldest surviving record of his lifelong habit of recording the temperature. Although July 1 didn’t fit the pattern, he tended to note the temperature at dawn, when he arose each day, and again around 4 PM. Those two times he considered to be the low and high temperatures for the day. The link above will take you to this book, and you can see the notations in Jefferson’s handwriting.

This page in his book covers the first 14 days of the month. July 1 had the fewest entries, just two. Most days show three or four measurements. July 8, 10, 13 & 14 have six. He would also note the weather, as when he recorded “rain” on July 13 & 14. The four temperatures for Independence Day were 6 AM – 68, 9 AM – 72 ¼, 1 PM – 76, 9 PM – 73 ½.


Weather freaks can read more about his daily observations and see photos of two of his thermometers.

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we highly recommend him.”
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