Tag Archives: Anonymity
not having written any three lines of this without interruption it has been impossible to keep my ideas rallied to the subject. I must let these hasty outlines go therefore as they are. some are premature, some probably immature; but make what use you please of them except letting them get into print.
Thomas Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell, January 5, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders know attribution can be a liability.
Jefferson was nearing the end of a long letter, describing in both grand terms and lesser ones his vision for a top-notch university in Virginia. Some letters he answered as time permitted. This one he answered immediately.
He had read Tazewell’s letter the evening before, on a subject dear to his heart and responded the next day, squeezing it in among his presidential duties. As such, he said he hadn’t written more than three lines at a time “without interruption.” He claimed he couldn’t keep his thoughts clear on the project.
Still, he was so eager to contribute to the debate, he would let his thoughts go out immediately, jumbled or not, well-thought-out or not. Tazewell could pick and choose as he liked.
The only thing he insisted on was anonymity, not wanting to give his political foes more to use against him or the university-to-be.
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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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My name must in nowise appear connected with the work. I have no objection to your naming me in conversation, but not in print, as the person to whom the original was communicated … The best open mark of approbation [approval] I can give is to subscribe for a dozen copies; or if you would prefer it, you may place on your subscription paper a letter in these words: “Sir, I subscribe with pleasure for a dozen copies of the invaluable book you are about to publish on Political Economy. I should be happy to see it in the hands of every American citizen.”
To Joseph Milligan, April 6, 1816
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some leaders find it best to keep their efforts anonymous.
Milligan was a Georgetown book dealer. They corresponded about the English translation of the Frenchman Destutt Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy. Jefferson made corrections to the translator’s work and contributed his own thoughts to serve as a prospectus or summary. He was willing to do this, but his involvement had to be remain anonymous.
Jefferson was overly sensitive to criticism. Because he had been a very public man with very definite views, some opposed anything and everything associated with him, regardless of merit. As such, he sometimes saw his public involvement on behalf of a cause as harmful to that cause, in addition to being a potential source of criticism personally.
Jefferson is often faulted for asking others to offer in their names what he had written. (The famous Kentucky Resolutions in 1798 may be the best known example.) Partly, this was because of his own thin skin, but more so, to avoid jeopardizing a cause simply because his name was associated with it.
In this letter, he was willing to endorse the work and order a dozen copies. He wasn’t avoiding all connection, but he did insist his active involvement be concealed.
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