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Category Archives: Morality

Is a slave only a servant?

A gentleman here has given me 40. Balsam poplars to send to Monticello, and mr Randolph’s servant, who was to have returned tomorrow, will be detained till the next day, to carry them. as I set much store by these trees which I have been a long time trying to get to Monticello, I wish them to be carefully taken up & packed in bundles for safe transportation.
To Robert Bailey, October 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
What’s a leader to do when confronted by an unsolvable problem?
19th century Thomas Jefferson is often measured by 21st century sensibilities and judged a hypocrite for declaring “all men are created equal,” while continuing to own slaves. It was a vexing issue for the new nation, but Jefferson’s record opposing slavery was clear, from his mid-20’s as a member of the House of Burgesses until his death at age 83. Believing public opinion was not ready to support emancipation, he did not take up the role of an abolitionist.

Jefferson was a slave owner all of his adult life, primarily of ones bequeathed to him by the estates of his father and father-in-law. Both Jefferson and his slaves were trapped in a system from which there was no practical or humane escape. Given that reality, he endeavored to treat those enslaved to him with benevolence. This letter gives an example.

He referred to his people as servants rather than slaves. He accorded the same status to others’, referring in this letter to his son-in-law’s “servant.” That man was the slave Davy Bowles, who would wait in Washington an extra day for the purpose of transporting “40. Balsam poplars” to Monticello. While slaves had to do their masters’ bidding without pay, Jefferson never required more of his servants than what a hired man would do for wages. When he assigned an unexpected or unpleasant task, he compensated them, though he was not required to do so. A footnote to this letter records that he gave Bowles two dollars “to take care of trees.”

A slave was a slave for sure, not just a servant, yet could be treated with the respect his humanity demanded.

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Your religion is NONE of my business!

[This post is the last of four from this one letter.]

… I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of enquiry into the religious opinions of others. on the contrary we are bound, you, I, & every one, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. we ought with one heart and one hand to hew [cut] down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated. for this reason, were my opinions up to the standard of those who arrogate [claim without justification] the right of questioning them, I would not countenance that arrogance by descending to an explanation.
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect the privacy of all moral beliefs.
Concluding a letter in which Jefferson wrote openly about his appreciation for the superiority of Jesus’ teaching while respecting the contribution of others to the moral canon, he took direct aim at those who sought to inquire into this most private realm:
1. He vowed total opposition to religious intolerance or even questioning another’s beliefs.
2. All are bound to support “the common right of freedom of conscience,” even for those they believe to be in error.
3. Since the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom, the efforts of those who sought any form of religious tyranny should be destroyed.
4. He would not dignify with answers the inquiries of those who claimed a right to question his religious beliefs.

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Jesus compared with other moral authorities, Part 3 of 4

[This post is the third of four drawn from this one letter.]

… their philosophy [all ancient moral authorities except Jesus] went chiefly to the government of our passions, so far as respected ourselves, & the procuring our own tranquility. on our duties to others they were short & deficient. they extended their cares scarcely beyond our kindred & friends individually, & our country in the abstract. Jesus embraced, with charity & philanthropy, our neighbors, our countrymen, & the whole family of mankind. they confined themselves to actions: he pressed his scrutinies into the region of our thoughts, & called for purity at the fountain
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
How broad is a leader’s compassion? What is its source?
In the preceding post, Jefferson took issue with another who established Jesus’ superior moral standing by criticizing all other philosophers. Here, Jefferson compared and contrasted what each contributed to the moral canon.

All other ancient philosophers:
1. Taught self-control as a means to personal happiness and contentment
2. Were concerned only for family and friends and abstractly for the government
3. Rarely showed concern for those beyond their immediate circle
4. Confined themselves to actions only, not the motivation for those actions

Jesus:
1. Founded his philosophy on love and generosity
2. Embraced all people, near and far, on that basis
3. Was concerned not with action alone but the internal motivation for that action
4. Good behavior was not enough. Purity of motive was essential, too.

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Do not belittle others to make your point. Part 2 of 4

[This post is the second of four drawn from this one letter.]

… I must also add that tho’ I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus, as more pure, correct, & sublime than those of the antient philosophers, yet I do not concur with him in the mode of proving it. he thinks it necessary to libel and decry the doctrines of the philosophers. but a man must be blinded indeed by prejudice, who can deny them a great degree of merit. I give them their just due, & yet maintain that the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself & freed from the corruptions of later times, is far superior
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know effective leadership is not a zero-sum game.
Jefferson agreed with the moral status credited to Jesus by the author of a sermon forwarded to him by Edward Dowse. He did not agree with the author’s method of proving it, which was to belittle the beliefs of other ancient philosophers.

To Jefferson, Jesus could remain the most “pure, correct & sublime” of all philosophers while appreciating what others contributed to the moral canon. One who built up one moral authority while belittling all the others “must be blinded indeed by prejudice.”

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Jesus trumps all the ancient moral philosophers!

I had promised some day to write … my view of the Christian system … [after taking] a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkeable of the antient philosophers … I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus … a pure[r] deism, and juster notions of the attributes of god, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice, & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. this view would purposely omit the question of his divinity & even of his inspiration … [and] shew a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught; and eminently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers.
To Joseph Priestley, April 9, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders take pains to assess the morals of even wiser ones.
Priestley (1733-1804) was a renowned English-born scientist, philosopher, theologian, and Jefferson confidante. The work envisioned here was completed in 1804 with the title, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” Fifteen years later, in 1819, he produced an expanded version called, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” That final version, excerpts from the four Gospels was produced in parallel form, with English, Greek, Latin and French translations on each page. Both were produced solely for his personal, private meditation, and made known to only a very few. Some years after his death, it would come be known, however incorrectly, as “The Jefferson Bible.”

Jefferson’s work focused only on Jesus’ words and historical accounts from the Gospels. Omitted were any claims of divinity and all of his miracles. Those, Jefferson believed, had been added by Jesus’ disciples to embellish their teacher. Even so, he found Jesus to be “more perfect” than all ancient philosophers “and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught.”

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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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Insurgent slaves HERE could be leaders THERE!

[The slave uprisings in] West Indies appears to have given a considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves in different parts of the US. a great disposition to insurgency has manifested itself among them, which, in one instance, in the state of Virginia broke out into actual insurrection …
the legislature … wish that some place could be provided, out of the limits of the US. to which slaves guilty of insurgency might be transported …
it is material to observe that they are not felons, or common malefactors, but persons guilty of what the safety of society … obliges us to treat as a crime, but which their feelings may represent in a far different shape. they are such as will be a valuable acquisition to the settlement already existing there …
To Rufus King, July 13, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some problems are just too thorny for leaders to agree upon.
This was the subject of a recent post, but what constituted “insurgent negroes” was not clear. This letter five weeks later provides both context and clarity.

Slave uprisings in San Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean had inspired similar action in multiple places in the American South. Jefferson distinguished between insurgency, which might have been some kind of active protest, and insurrection, which must have involved some kind of overt action, or at least its planning, against slave owners. The latter resulted in 26 slaves being hung in Virginia for complicity in an insurrection two years before.

That was the law, but elsewhere in this letter, Jefferson hoped for a new law with lesser punishment, “some alternative, combining more mildness with equal efficacy.” Removal to Sierra Leone was such an alternative.

Jefferson observed that insurgents selected for relocation were not criminals. While society wanted to treat them as such regardless, he acknowledged the slaves probably saw themselves quite differently.

His last sentence contained an oblique compliment. Insurgent slaves were rational people who had given thought to their depraved condition and acted to change it. Some of them were leaders. Those kinds of people would be assets to a new society.

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Want everyone to love you? Do this. (It might work.)

… it is a charming thing to be loved by every body: and the way to obtain it is,
[1] never to quarrel or be angry with any body,
[2] never to tell a story [lie],
[3] do all the kind things you can to your companions,
[4] give them every thing rather than to yourself,
[5] pity & help every thing you see in distress
[6] and learn your books and improve your minds.
this will make every body fond of you, and desirous of shewing it to you:
To Ann Cary Randolph, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, & Ellen Wayles Randolph, March 7, 1802

Note: I have completed blog posts from the 1st year of Jefferson’s 1st term, the 1st year of his 2nd term, and the 1st year of his retirement. This series begins in March 1802, the 2nd year of his 1st administration.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who want to be loved should do these things.
Jefferson wrote to his grandchildren, ages 11, 10 & 6, to encourage their best possible conduct. In this simple list, Papa (the children’s name for him)  told the young ones what behaviors would cause people to love them. The advice doesn’t apply to children, only.

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Even if I have it, I will not give it to you.

Your letter of Dec. 10. is safely recieved … I have not examined my papers to see if I have the letter … which you ask for. I have no recollection whether I recieved such a letter. but it is not on that ground I decline looking for & communicating it. besides the general principles of law & reason which render correspondences even between private individuals sacredly secret, in my late official station [as President] they are peculiarly so … I have therefore regularly declined all communications of letters sent to me in order that they might be used against the writer: and I trust so much in your candor & good sense as to believe you will, on reflection, think I am right in so doing …
To Elias Glover, January 13, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
Glover had requested a copy of a letter written by another to Jefferson, thinking that letter might provide vindication for a charge made against him. If Jefferson didn’t have that letter, Glover asked where else he might find a copy. The former President declined both requests. While he didn’t recall the letter, he didn’t even bother to look. (Jefferson had a very good filing and retrieval system!)

By both nature and common sense, correspondence between individuals was private. Eight years as President had reinforced that belief, especially when the one requesting the correspondence might use it against the original writer.

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To promise what I cannot deliver is immoral.

I have considered your proposition of yesterday to endorse a bill of 500.D. [co-sign a loan] … it would be immoral for me to engage to pay 500.D. in 60 days on your failure to do it, when I know that it would be out of my power. it may be said indeed that you will not fail. I am sure you do not mean nor expect to fail in doing it. but circumstances not under your controul may put it out of your power, just as similar circumstances now embarrass your paiments to me. but for me deliberately to engage to do a thing in any event which I know it will be out of my power to do, is irreconcileable to my ideas of right.
To Jonathan Shoemaker, December 26, 2017

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders should say no when no is all they can offer.
We have met Mr. Shoemaker before. He had leased Jefferson’s wheat-grinding mill, turned it over to his negligent sons, and had paid none of the agreed-to rent. In continuing distress, he now wanted Jefferson to co-sign a $500 loan for him. Jefferson was short of funds himself. He was in no position to guarantee Shoemaker’s loan.

Shoemaker assured Jefferson he was good for the money. Jefferson knew otherwise, since the other man was already delinquent in payments to him.

Co-signing loans was a common practice. Jefferson claimed the moral high ground with Shoemaker. He should have done the same thing in 1818, but for honor could not, when Cary Nicholas, his wealthy friend and father-in-law of his grandson Jeff, asked him to co-sign his $20,000 note. Nicholas lost everything in the economic panic the next year. The additional debt was the death blow for Jefferson’s already-precarious finances.

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