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Category Archives: Personal preferences

I am tapped out!

… no man is less in condition to aid his friends pecuniarily [financially] than myself. I have always endeavored so to live as just to make both ends meet; but imperfect calculations disappoint that endeavor, and occasion deficiencies which accumulating, keep me always under difficulties. my resources of every kind have for some time been on the stretch so that I can with truth assure you that at this time they could not be made to place one thousand dollars at my command. under these circumstances I can only express unavailing regrets that it is not in my power to be useful to you …
To Ferdinando Fairfax, September 13, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even smart leaders can deceive themselves.
Fairfax asked two things in his letter to the President, for the national government to buy his ironworks and for Jefferson to loan him $10,000. Jefferson declined both, and perhaps Fairfax’s status in Virginia earned him Jefferson’s reasoning in both cases. The ironworks issue was explained in the previous post. This excerpt is an unusually candid glimpse of his finances.

Although he claimed to match outgo to income, he was kidding himself. As early as his French Ambassador days in the 1780s, he was living beyond his means, occasionally borrowing money for living expenses and then borrowing more to pay off previous loans. His “imperfect calculations” about future income were often overly optimistic, assuming higher crop prices and better weather. When neither happened, he was “always under difficulties.” He couldn’t put together $1,000 in cash.

Many of Jefferson’s financial difficulties were caused by factors beyond his control. Still, he often lived beyond his means, with few restrictions on his creature comforts.

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Should leaders keep their good deeds secret?

We have just heard of the calamitous event of Norfolk … [I] take the liberty of inclosing two hundred dollars to you, & of asking the favor of you to have it applied in the way you think best, for the relief of such description of sufferers as you shall think best. I pray not to be named in newspapers on this occasion.
To Thomas Newton, March 5, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Tragedy should not be a publicity opportunity for leaders.
A fire in Norfolk, Virginia on February 22 injured or killed many and destroyed more than 250 buildings. The President sent $200 for the relief fund, in care of a Virginia Congressman. Jefferson did not want his donation publicized in the newspapers.

The year before, Jefferson made another disaster-related donation to Portsmouth, NH. He insisted on anonymity then, too.

How many leaders today, do you suppose, deliberately keep their charitable efforts out of the public eye?

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Thomas Jefferson had a copy machine?

I communicate to Congress, for their information, a report of the Surveyor of the public buildings at Washington, stating what has been done under the act of the last session concerning the city of Washington, on the Capitol and other public buildings and the highway between them.
To the Senate and House of Representatives of US, February 22, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders embrace new technology.
The content this letter, reproduced in its entirety, has no particular significance. How it was written does. The notes accompanying this letter in the Founders Archives relate this was Jefferson’s “first recorded use of the polygraph machine.”

The polygraph was a copy machine. A wooden frame suspended two ink pens over two sheets of paper. The pens were held together by a series of wooden arms and hinges. When the writer wrote with one pen on one sheet, the other pen followed along, making an identical copy on the other sheet. Some polygraphs had three ink pens, some four. Jefferson found those difficult to keep in adjustment and used one with just two.

Jefferson, always intrigued with machines and inventions, loved the new device! He referred to it as “the finest invention of the present age.” Since he kept copies of all his correspondence, some 20,000 letters over a lifetime, the polygraph represented a major advance over the letter press. This letter was written on a borrowed polygraph. It would be 1806 before he owned one of his own.

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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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Your destiny is to serve the public! It is obvious.

I am sensible after the measures you have taken for getting into a different line of business, that it will be a great sacrifice on your part, and presents from the season & other circumstances serious difficulties. but some men are born for the public. nature by fitting them for the service of the human race on a broad scale, has stamped them with the evidences of her destination & their duty.
To James Monroe, January 13, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Those gifted with skills have a duty to lead, regardless of sacrifice.
A previous post detailed the President’s nomination of James Monroe (1758-1831) as ambassador to France and his unwillingness to let Monroe decline. In this letter, Jefferson buttressed case.

After outlining the positives of Monroe’s appointment and the disastrous results should he decline, and acknowledging the personal hardship this would cause, Jefferson got to the bottom line of his argument: Monroe was destined for public service and leadership. Nature obviously had gifted him to serve “on a broad scale” and made that gifting evident. It was both Monroe’s duty and destiny to fulfill that role.

I don’t recall Jefferson ever admitting the same destiny about himself, but it was obvious he was fulfilling that role, too. Had he thought only of himself, he would have happily pursued a private life at Monticello with his family, farm and books. Nature had other plans for him, and he acquiesced to a destiny different from the one he desired. Only when his Presidency was completed in 1809 (at age 66) did he allow himself to indulge those personal desires for the remaining years of his life.

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Keep my contribution anonymous!

We learn by the public papers that a great calamity by fire has happened to Portsmouth, and that yourself and some others are appointed to recieve contributions for the distressed sufferers and to distribute them. I take the liberty of inclosing to yourself an hundred dollars for this purpose. I observe the trustees say in the papers that they will make a record of the donations. I pray that in my case it may be of the sum only, without the name.
To John Langdon, January 11, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders don’t always have to grab headlines for their charitable work.
Newspapers spread the word of a disastrous fire on December 26, 1802 in Portsmouth, NH, that damaged or destroyed about 100 buildings at a loss of about $200,000. Without being asked, the President contributed $100 to the relief effort. Even though all donations were to be recorded, Jefferson asked to remain anonymous, that his contribution be noted only by the amount and not his name.

In 1802, disaster victims didn’t automatically look to governments for help. In a 19th century “crowdfunding” effort, Portsmouth dispatched three representatives to travel to other cities to encourage donations for their relief. Perhaps in response to their emissary to southern cities, Jefferson made a 2nd contribution of $100 on February 12.

John Langdon (1741-1819) was a successful businessman, early supporter of independence and a signer of the U.S. Constitution. He served in both state and national legislatures, as Governor of New Hampshire, and declined the nomination to be Madison’s Vice-President in 1812.

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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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Publicly, I shut up. Privately, I explain.

seeing the impossibility that special vindications should ever keep pace with the endless falshoods invented & disseminated against me, I came at once to a resolution to rest on the justice & good sense of my fellow citizens, to consider from my general character and conduct thro’ life, not unknown to them, whether these [false or slanderous statements] were probable: and I have made it an invariable rule never to enter the lists of the public papers with the propagators of them. in private communications with my friends I have contradicted them without reserve.
To David Redick, June 19, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders have to know when to hold ’em, when to fold em’.
Redick had relayed to Jefferson an unfavorable report he’d heard from a missionary about comments Jefferson was purported to have made to Indians visiting him in Washington City. Redick wanted to give the President an opportunity to rebut the charges. His reply stated:
1. There was no end to the falsehoods invented against him.
2. He would respond to none of them publicly or in the press.
3. Instead, he would trust “the justice & good sense of my fellow citizens.”
4. They knew his “general character and conduct.”
5. From that knowledge, they could judge for themselves whether such charges were true.
6. To his friends, he had no hesitation in contradicting the charges.

Thus, he wanted to reassure Redick of the baseless nature of the charge by giving the details of his interaction with the Indians. He invited Redick to share this information with others, especially with the one who brought the accusatory report. He specifically warned Redick that his written reply was for Redick’s use only, and this letter was not to escape his possession.

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What I have is the opposite of what I wanted.

my strongest predilections are for study, rural occupations, & retirement within a small but cherished society. born, as I unfortunately was, in an age of revolution, my life has been wasted on the billows of revolutionary storm. the sweet sensations & affections of domestic society have been exchanged with me for the bitter & deadly feuds of party: encircled with political enemies & spies, instead of my children & friends. time however & the decay of years is now fast advancing that season when it will be seen that I can no longer be of use, even in the eyes of those partial to me: and I shall be permitted to pass through the pains & infirmities of age in the shades of Monticello.
To Madame De Corny, April 23, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Committed leaders play the hand dealt to them.
De Corny was one of a small number of cultured, educated women Jefferson came to admire during his ambassadorship to France, 1784-89. They resumed a correspondence in 1801 after a decade of self-imposed silence, though he had periodically inquired about her and sent regards to her through others. Her letter to him a year before was full of sadness over a lack of communication from him and her greatly diminished existence in post-revolutuionary France.

Prehaps Jefferson wanted to commiserate with De Corny by contrasting the life he would have preferred with the one thrust on him by events. He had to forego the joys of home, family, friendship, farming and books for the thankless task of politics, governing, and enemies at every turn.

Not 14 months into his Presidency that would consume seven more years, he was already looking forward to retirement, when through time and decrepitude, “I can no longer be of use.” Only then could he enjoy what was left of his life at Monticello, where he would have preferred to spend all of it.

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Let us eat and play games!

Th: Jefferson requests the favor of Mr. Clinton’s company to dinner and chess on Tuesday next at half after three, or at whatever later hour the house may rise [adjourn].
Saturday Apl. 3. 1802.
The favor of an answer is asked.
To Dewitt Clinton, April 3, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders use social gatherings and games to build relationships.
Jefferson regularly invited people to join him for dinner, which was usually at 3:30 pm. When Congress was in session, his dinner guests often were Representatives and Senators, of both parties, except perhaps for the High Federalists, who wouldn’t have dined with him, regardless.

Clinton (1769-1828) was a New York politician, serving briefly in the U.S. Senate. He is credited with being the primary inspiration for the Erie Canal, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. He was also the nephew of George Clinton, who would become Vice-President during Jefferson’s second term.

Jefferson’s correspondence is sprinkled with these dinner invitations. This is the first one I’ve seen that mentioned playing chess as part of the evening’s activity. He loved chess! This link demonstrates that. Near the end of those references, is this 1853 excerpt from his granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge:
“So he was, in his youth, a very good chess-player. There were not among his associates, many who could get the better of him. I have heard him speak of ‘four hour games’ with Mr. [James] Madison.”

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