Tag Archives: James Monroe

What in the world does plenipotentiary mean?

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America,
Greeting:      To
Reposing especial Trust and Confidence in Your Integrity, Prudence and Ability I have appointed Minister Plenipotentiary for the United States of America at the Court of His Britannic Majesty, authorizing you hereby to do and perform all such matters and things as to the said place or office do appertain … said office to Hold and exercise during the pleasure of the President of the United States for the time being, and until the end of the next Session of the Senate of the United States, and no longer.
Commission for Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, 18 April 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A plenipotentiary possesses his leader’s full confidence.
To this blank form, President Jefferson added James Monroe’s name with full authority as ambassador to act on behalf of the United States. From an earlier post, we learned Monroe was dispatched to Europe to help negotiate American rights to free shipping down the Mississippi River and through New Orleans. In a time when round-trip communication between London or Paris and Washington, D.C. was at least two months, a trusted diplomat had to have the legal authority to act on his own.

That’s what plenipotentiary means, having full authority to act independently.

The President left no room for doubt about Monroe’s status. This blank form to the British Court was the first of six completed for him. Another was to the French Court, two to Napoleon, and one each to King George III and Queen Charlotte of Britain.

(While my 50 year old Webster’s Dictionary divides that 14 letter word into just five syllables, modern online versions give it seven!)

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Your destiny is to serve the public! It is obvious.

I am sensible after the measures you have taken for getting into a different line of business, that it will be a great sacrifice on your part, and presents from the season & other circumstances serious difficulties. but some men are born for the public. nature by fitting them for the service of the human race on a broad scale, has stamped them with the evidences of her destination & their duty.
To James Monroe, January 13, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Those gifted with skills have a duty to lead, regardless of sacrifice.
A previous post detailed the President’s nomination of James Monroe (1758-1831) as ambassador to France and his unwillingness to let Monroe decline. In this letter, Jefferson buttressed case.

After outlining the positives of Monroe’s appointment and the disastrous results should he decline, and acknowledging the personal hardship this would cause, Jefferson got to the bottom line of his argument: Monroe was destined for public service and leadership. Nature obviously had gifted him to serve “on a broad scale” and made that gifting evident. It was both Monroe’s duty and destiny to fulfill that role.

I don’t recall Jefferson ever admitting the same destiny about himself, but it was obvious he was fulfilling that role, too. Had he thought only of himself, he would have happily pursued a private life at Monticello with his family, farm and books. Nature had other plans for him, and he acquiesced to a destiny different from the one he desired. Only when his Presidency was completed in 1809 (at age 66) did he allow himself to indulge those personal desires for the remaining years of his life.

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I am the boss. America needs you. You do not have a choice.

… the fever into which the Western mind is thrown by the affair at N. Orleans …threatens to overbear our peace. in this situation we are obliged to call on you for a temporary sacrifice of yourself … I shall tomorrow nominate you to the Senate for an extraordinary mission to France, & the circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline; because the whole public hope will be rested on you … in the mean time pray work night & day to arrange your affairs for a temporary absence; perhaps for a long one.
To James Monroe, January 10, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, leaders have to demand sacrifices of trusted lieutenants.
“.. the affair at N. Orleans” concerning the “Western mind” was customs-free shipping through the port of New Orleans and open traffic on the Mississippi River. The first had been withdrawn by Spain; the second faced a threat from France’s pending takeover of Louisiana, giving her partial control over the river and full control of the port.

American Ambassador Robert Livingston had been in France for some time, hoping to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans or some other land at the mouth of the Mississippi for duty-free shipping. Under the best circumstances, round trip communication between the U.S. and Paris took two months. The President thought Livingston might need help and dispatched a trusted protege.

Jefferson usually left the decision whether to take an offered job up to the individual. Not this time! He called on Monroe “for a temporary sacrifice of yourself.” The importance of the task made it “impossible to decline.” Success might rest on him. He was to get his affairs in order and depart immediately. He might be gone a short time, maybe a long time.

Monroe sailed for France on March 9, but the day before he arrived in Paris, Napoleon’s government offered all of Louisiana to Ambassador Livingston. Monroe’s purpose in going was now moot, but the two ambassadors negotiated the terms of the massive land deal.

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How quickly do you need an answer?

I received three days ago your favor [letter] of Apr. 12. You therein speak of a former letter to me, but it has not come to hand, nor any other of later date than the 14th of December. My last letter to you was of the 11th of May by Mr. Adams who went in the packet* of that month. These conveiances are now becoming deranged. We have had expectations of their coming to Havre [on France’s north coast] which would infinitely facilitate the communication between Paris & Congress: but their deliberations on the subject seem to be taking another turn. They complain of the expence … therefore talk of sending a packet every six weeks only. The present one therefore, which should have sailed about this time, will not sail until the 1st of July. I have hoped [for a] monthly system.
To James Monroe, from Paris, June 17, 1785

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Are leaders helped or hindered by instantaneous communication?
Jefferson was Minister to France. Monroe was in the Continental Congress. This was their international communication, late 18th century style:
– Jefferson received Monroe’s April 12 letter on June 14.
– Monroe wrote of an earlier letter, but Jefferson didn’t receive it.
– Jefferson’s last letter from Monroe was December 14 (which probably arrived in Paris mid-February).
-Jefferson’s last letter to Monroe, five weeks earlier on May 11, was still in transit (or lost).

Jefferson was exasperated with the delay. There had been more frequent delivery, but Congress complained “of the expence.” Apparently,  diplomatic mail had been slowed to every six weeks. Jefferson hoped for monthly transport.

At best, round-trip trans-Atlantic correspondence appeared to take four to five months. Today, it is instantaneous. Are we better off than Jefferson and Monroe, or worse?

* According to my Webster’s 7th New Collegiate (a high school graduation present from my younger brothers almost as long ago as the correspondence above), a packet is either “a number of letters dispatched at the same time,” or “a passenger boat carrying mail and cargo on a regular basis.” The context seems to indicate this packet is a boat, not a bundle of letters.

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I am 39. Time to retire from public life!

Before I ventured to declare to my countrymen my determination to retire from public employment, I examined well my heart to know whether it were thoroughly cured of every principle of political ambition … I became satisfied that every fibre of that passion was thoroughly eradicated. … I considered that I had been thirteen years engaged in public service … had so totally abandoned all attention to my private affairs as to permit them to run into great disorder and ruin, that I had now a family … which require my attention & instruction, that to these were added the hopeful offspring of a deceased friend …
I am persuaded that having hitherto dedicated to them the whole of the active & useful part of my life I shall be permitted to pass the rest in mental quiet…
Mrs Jefferson has added another daughter to our family. She has been ever since & still continues very dangerously ill…
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Well-grounded leaders know they are not always obligated to lead.

Jefferson had retired from being Governor of Virginia almost a year earlier. He was still grieved by charges of cowardice and abandoning his office as British soldiers advanced up the hill toward Monticello to take him prisoner. (Technically, his term had ended two days before that raid.)
He was done with government and politics, convinced that no ambition remained. He could be happy being just a husband and father, an involved uncle to his widowed sister’s six children, and tending his farms and intellectual interests. In 13 years, he’d given enough to the public. He was done. Much of this long letter was justifying his right to retire to his young friend.
A personal note at the end will lead to a completely different course than the one he had just rationalized. Martha Jefferson would not recover from this, her 7th childbirth. She died on September 6, 1782. In recovering from that tragedy, Jefferson would accept both Congressional and ambassadorial duties.
If Martha had not died, would Jefferson have resumed a public life? I have my doubts.

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