Tag Archives: Continental Congress

Would you exchange a high position for a low one?

… I had been elected a member [of the VA House of Burgesses] by my county. I knew that our [state’s] legislation under the regal government had many very vicious points which urgently required reformation, and I thought I could be of more use in forwarding that work. I therefore retired from my seat in Congress on the 2d. of Sep. resigned it, and took my place in the legislature of my state, on the 7th. of October.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders should lead where they’re most useful, regardless of status.
Virginia renewed Jefferson’s status as a delegate to the Continental Congress a month after its adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s home county of Albemarle also elected him to his previous position as a member of the new state legislature, formerly the House of Burgesses.

Virginia’s laws were those of a English colony, reflecting the mother country’s values. Jefferson saw “many very vicious points” in those laws which needed revision. He thought he could be of more value there than continuing in the Congress. He resigned his position in the national legislature to take his place in the state one.

This move would also allow him to be much closer to home, where he could attend to his wife’s frail health and their two very young daughters.

As the war for independence continued, he devoted considerable time over the next three years to re-writing Virginia’s statutes. One of the three life accomplishments that adorn his tombstone came from this work.

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How would you attack a great evil?

In the very first session held under republican government, the assembly [Continental Congress, 1774] passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for complete emancipation of human nature.
Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Query VIII, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders embrace great change in tiny increments.
Notes on Virginia was the only book Jefferson completed. It answered 23 questions posed by a Frenchman about the state. Most of the book is devoted to the natural history, or science, of Virginia. Question #8  is “The number if its inhabitants?”

Jefferson wrote about the growth in population from “the infancy of the colony,” which he estimated at 567,614 in 1781. He went into some detail whether it was wiser to grow their own population or increase it through immigration. (He preferred the former.) The answer ended with a paragraph on the “great political and moral evil” of slavery  and its support by the British government.

Jefferson pointed out that the first representative (republican, small r) national assembly, not meeting under the authority of the King, voted to forbid forever bringing more slaves to America. Jefferson hoped that slowing the increase in the slave population would eventually encourage Americans’ thinking toward the time when all slaves would be freed.

“… we were transported back to those times,
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Keep your name out of the debate!

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.

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“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.”

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