… it is so important to the public service that I should be the center of information as to whatever concerns them, that in order to induce it to be freely given I am obliged to let it be understood that whatever I recieve is sacredly confidential, and shall not under any circumstances be given up. this imposes on me the obligation to suffer no impression to be made on me by any secret information, nor to act on it, until I verify it by further & sufficient enquiry. for this reason had I such a paper as you suppose I could not communicate it without a breach of trust …
To Thomas Mendenhall, February 25, 1803
[Woo-woo! This is Mr. Jefferson’s 800th blog post!]
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders know the importance of maintaining confidentiality.
Delaware businessman Mendenhall wrote a fawning letter to Jefferson, asking for a copy of a document the President had received about him almost two years earlier. That document might help Mendenhall defend himself against political attacks on his character. Jefferson opened his reply stating that he had no knowledge of the material requested. But even if he did, he would not provide it.
The President needed and wanted information from his constituents about their concerns. To encourage people to share their sentiments freely, he made it known that the information would be “sacredly confidential.” Such intelligence was for informing him only and would remain private until he had verified it by other sources. To disclose it prematurely would be violating the trust people placed in him.
Jefferson closed his letter the same way he opened it, reassuring Mendenhall that he had “not the smallest recollection” of the document requested.