Tag Archives: Compassion

Can we make a bad situation just a bit better?

the family is represented as being in a very unhappy state, the parents old & anxious once more to see their son … they pray [he] may be discharged & restored to them . every thing connected with a regular soldiery is so unpopular with citizens at large, that every occasion should be taken of softening it’s roughnesses towards them. in time of peace … I think it would have a good effect to indulge citizens of respectability in cases like the present …
To Henry Dearborn, February 9, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders consider bending the rules occasionally.
A family member petitioned the President for an early release of a soldier who had already served eight years. In 1795, while intoxicated, that young man was induced to enlist by a zealous recruiter. When his five year term was completed, the desperate soldier lacked funds to travel 1,200 miles home and re-enlisted. The soldier’s parents were heartbroken to learn of this news and asked another son to write the President on their behalf. That son begged mercy for his aged parents and release for his brother.

The President referred the matter to Dearborn, his Secretary of War, relaying the facts given him by the petitioning brother. Jefferson acknowledged that public opinion was not on their side regarding the “roughnesses” of military life. This soldier had served one five year term and was more than half through a second five years. The nation was at peace. Could they grant an indulgence to this family, not only for their sake but for public opinion, as well?

The petitioner wrote that another brother had died in March 1803. A footnote to the petitioner’s letter recorded the petitioner himself died a month after writing to the President, at the age of 20. I find no record of how Dearborn acted in this manner, but I suspect he granted the release.

“The feedback from our conferees was overwhelmingly favorable
and … [a] testimony to the presentation and your considerable skills.”
Executive Director, Missouri Safety Council
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak to your audience.
Call 573-657-2739
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If I do it for one, must I do it for all?

No one would more willingly than myself pay the just tribute due to the services of Capt Barry, by writing a letter of condolance to his widow as you suggest. but when one undertakes to administer justice it must be with an even hand, & by rule, what is done for one, must be done for every one in equal degree. to what a train of attentions would this draw a President? how difficult would it be to draw the line between that degree of merit entitled to such a testimonial of it, & that not so entitled? … however well affected to the merit of Commodore Barry, I think it prudent not to engage myself in a practice which may become embarrassing.
To Benjamin Rush, October 4, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some expressions of compassion have unintended consequences.
The President’s old friend Rush had asked him to write a “letter of condolance” to the widow of a Philadelphia Navy officer. If Jefferson expressed his sympathies in this case, he would feel obligated to do it in all cases. The varying merits of the deceased and the potential for giving offense made this a minefield for the President.

In the excised portion of this letter, Jefferson explained that when Benjamin Franklin died, the King of France and the U.S. House of Representatives went into official mourning. The U.S. Senate did not. President Washington rejected the recommendation of his Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson) that the Executive Branch “should wear mourning.” Washington’s position was if he started that policy for Franklin, he didn’t know where he would draw the line for ones less deserving. Best not to start down that slippery slope.

President Jefferson took a page from his wise predecessor’s playbook and followed the same hands-off policy.

“Thank you for playing a key role in making
our 118th Annual Conference such a great success.”
Executive Director, League of Wisconsin Municipalities
Mr. Jefferson will play a key role in the success of your conference, too.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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