When the Declaration of Independence was under the consideration of Congress, there were two or three unlucky expressions [condemning slavery] in it which gave offense to some members … Although the offensive expressions were immediately yielded these gentlemen continued their depredations on other parts of the instrument. I was sitting by Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.
“I have made it a rule,” said he, “to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident I will relate to you. When I was …
Biographical Sketch of Benjamin Franklin, Dec. 4, 1818
Koch & Peden’s The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 167-8
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Too-sensitive leaders should keep as low a public profile as possible.
In the day or two prior to July 4, 1776, the young Thomas Jefferson (age 33) sat in the Continental Congress and fumed in silence as the delegates made changes to his draft of the Declaration of Independence. They began by deleting Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade and went on to find fault and make changes in other areas, too. The wise and aged Ben Franklin sat next to Jefferson and smoothed his ruffled feathers, with a principle and a story to illustrate it.
The principle was to avoid being the author of anything subject to public debate. In that manner, the focus could remain on the issues at hand. It was a principle Jefferson adopted. Many times in the years to come, he would write positions on issues and offer them to others to put forth publicly, with the condition that his authorship remain private. He did this for two reasons: 1. So the debate would be confined to the issue, that he not be a distraction to the debate, and 2. Jefferson was thin-skinned. Keeping himself out of the public debate helped deflect some of the personal attacks he found so wounding.
Jefferson is often criticized for this approach, as being scheming, manipulative or even deceptive. Perhaps. More likely, he really did prefer to keep the debate on the issues themselves while protecting his own thin skin. At least he didn’t stoop to publishing his positions under pseudonyms, as certain others were fond of doing.
Nevertheless, young Jefferson learned from his old mentor to avoid becoming a lightning rod unnecessarily.
I try to keep the Jefferson-excerpt portion of these posts short, so as not to scare readers off. The story that Franklin went on to tell, however, is a delightful one. Every writer and every student of marketing should consider it. There could be a life-lesson for others, as well. For those reasons, I reproduce that story below. It can be found on page 168 of the citation above.
“I personally want to thank you.
It is a delight to have speakers like you who make me look good.”
Meetings Administrator, IA State Association of Counties
Let Thomas Jefferson make you look good to your audience.
Invite him to speak. Call Patrick Lee, 573-657-2739
“I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.’I have made it a rule,’ said he, ‘whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident, which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells Hats for ready Money, with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to, thought the word hatter tautologous [obvious], because followed by the words makes hats, which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed, that the word makes might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words for ready money were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one, who purchased, expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, “John Thompson sells hats” “Sells hats?” says his next friend; “why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?” It was stricken out, and hats followed, the rather, as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to John Thompson, with the figure of a hat subjoined.”