it is indeed far the most painful part of my duty, under which nothing could support me but the consideration that I am but a machine erected by the constitution for the performance of certain acts according to laws of action laid down for me, one of which is that I must anatomise the living man as the Surgeon does his dead subject, view him also as a machine & employ him for what he is fit for, unblinded by the mist of friendship.
Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, June 13, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders must learn how to do the unpleasant parts of their work.
The director of the U.S. Mint was retiring and naming his replacement fell by law to the President. He felt compelled by both British and American precedent to appoint the most renowned mathematician to the job. That would be Robert Patterson.
This is the second letter Jefferson wrote to old and trusted friends, both eminent scientists, who might have been equally qualified for the job, explaining why they were not chosen. Personnel decisions were painful for him, ones involving friends especially so. In such cases, he had to regard himself as nothing “but a machine,” doing the job required by the Constitution. He compared himself to an anatomy professor, dissecting the living man as the professor did the dead one, each making the best possible use of their subject. Friendship could not be a factor.