Tag Archives: Portrayer

Heard the one about two men in a lighthouse?

 
… speaking with Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin of this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties, he gave his sentiments, as usual, by way of apologue [a story with a moral]. He mentioned the Eddystone lighthouse in the British channel, as being built on a rock in the mid-channel, totally inaccessible in winter from the boisterous character of that sea, in that season; that, therefore, for the two keepers, employed to keep up the lights, all provisions for the winter were necessarily carried to them in autumn, as they could never be visited again till the return of the milder season; that, on the first practicable day in the spring a boat put off to them with fresh supplies. The boatmen met at the door one of the keepers and accosted him with a “How goes it, friend”? “Very well”. “How is your companion”? “I do not know”. “Don’t know? Is he not here”? “I can’t tell”. “Have not you seen him to-day”? “No”. “When did you see him”? “Not since last fall”. “You have killed him”? “Not I, indeed”. They were about to lay hold of him, as having certainly murdered his companion: but he desired them to go upstairs and examine for themselves. They went up, and there found the other keeper. They had quarreled, it seems, soon after being left there, had divided into two parties, assigned the cares below to one, and those above to the other, and had never spoken to, or seen one another since.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders recognize factions are just a way of life.
Since I’m excerpting Jefferson’s autobiography, this is the next noteworthy passage, even though it was a post more than three years ago.
The Continental Congress was having difficulty governing. Men divided into factions and refused to cooperate. As minister to France, Jefferson witnessed the same problem there. He used Franklin’s story to illustrate “this singular disposition of men to quarrel and divide into parties.”
If we bemoan how our political leaders now seem to divide into separate camps and refuse to talk with one another, this story reminds us it was that way in the late 1700s, too. The light keepers in Franklin’s story had an advantage, though. They didn’t have to cooperate to get the job done.
Benjamin Franklin often told a story to make a point, the meaning of “apologue,” the word Jefferson used in the first sentence above.

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Congress: Accomplish a week’s work in one day!

If every sound argument or objection was used by some one or other of the numerous debaters, it was enough: if not, I thought it sufficient to suggest the omission, without going into a repetition of what had been already said by others. That this was a waste and abuse of the time and patience of the house which could not be justified. And I believe that if the members of deliberative bodies were to observe this course generally, they would do in a day what takes them a week, and it is really more questionable, than may at first be thought, whether Bonaparte’s dumb legislature which said nothing and did much, may not be preferable to one which talks much and does nothing.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders prefer deeds to words.
Jefferson’s ideas for an effective legislative body:
1. If another argued a point, he didn’t need to repeat the same argument.
2. If something was omitted in an argument, he would point it out and then stop, without repeating what others had said. To do otherwise was abusive and an unjustifiable waste of time.
Adopting such self-limiting principles would enable “deliberative bodies” to accomplish in a day what currently took a week.

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If they would just SHUT UP!

Our body was little numerous, but very contentious. Day after day was wasted on the most unimportant questions. My colleague Mercer was one of those afflicted with the morbid rage of debate, of an ardent mind, prompt imagination, and copious flow of words, he heard with impatience any logic which was not his own. Sitting near me on some occasion of a trifling but wordy debate, he asked how I could sit in silence hearing so much false reasoning which a word should refute? I observed to him that to refute indeed was easy, but to silence impossible. That in measures brought forward by myself, I took the laboring oar, as was incumbent on me; but that in general I was willing to listen.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders hold their tongues.
In 1783, the Confederation Congress (successor to the Continental Congress) argued issues at great length. Jefferson questioned the need or wisdom of such extended debate. John Francis Mercer, an impetuous 24 year old Virginia delegate, may have been all too typical of the verbal jousters:
– loved debate for its own sake (“afflicted with the morbid rage of debate”)
– intellectually passionate (“ardent mind”)
– quick with new thoughts (“prompt imagination”)
– excessively talkative (“copious flow of words”)
– dismissive (impatient with “any logic … not his own”)
Jefferson said such people could be refuted but would not be silenced. As for himself, he participated in debate only on issues he introduced. Otherwise, he kept his mouth shut and listened.

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How simple can you make it?

I proposed therefore, instead of this, to adopt the Dollar as our Unit of account and payment, and that it’s divisions and sub-divisions should be in the decimal ratio … This was adopted the ensuing year and is the system which now prevails … The division into dimes, cents & mills is now so well understood, that it would be easy of introduction into the kindred branches of weights & measures. I use, when I travel, an Odometer of Clarke’s invention which divides the mile into cents, and I find every one comprehend a distance readily when stated to them in miles & cents; so they would in feet and cents, pounds & cents, &c.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders simplify, so everyone can understand.
In the early 1780s, there was no common system of money. The British pound was prominent, and there was trade in foreign coins. Several states had their own money, often in paper form, with little or no backing in gold or silver.

A plan was presented to the Continental Congress for a unified system, based on grains of silver, with 1440 units per dollar. Jefferson thought the system sound and ingenious but impractical, “too minute for ordinary use, too laborious for computation either by the head or in figures … entirely unmanageable for the common purposes of society.”

He proposed instead a decimal system, with a dollar based on 100 units, easily divisible “into dimes, cents and mills” (1,000th of a dollar). He cited the example of an odometer on his carriage, which divided a mile “into cents,” or 100ths of a mile. He found everyone could understand a measurement expressed so simply.

Nearly decade later, he proposed a national decimal system to President Washington for both money and distance. His always-opponent Alexander Hamilton countered with English measurements for both. To satisfy his feuding lieutenants, the President adopted Jefferson’s decimal system for money and Hamilton’s feet-and-inches system for distance.

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If it has been done well already, why do it over?

On the 1st of June 1779. I was appointed Governor of the Commonwealth [of Virginia] … Being now, as it were, identified with the Commonwealth itself, to write my own history during the two years of my administration, would be to write the public history of that portion of the revolution within this state. This has been done by others, and particularly by Mr. Girardin … has given as faithful an account as I could myself. For this portion therefore of my own life, I refer altogether to his history.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders leave well enough alone.
Jefferson’s two one-year terms as governor of Virginia (June 1, 1779 to June 1, 1781) were fully occupied with the state’s participation in the war for independence. Any history written of that time would have covered little else. A “Mr. Girardin,” who had access to all of Jefferson’s wartime papers, had faithfully reported those two years. Jefferson saw no need to duplicate a work someone else had already done well.

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How to eliminate tyrants and empower citizens?

I considered 4 of these bills, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican.
The repeal of the laws of entail …
The abolition of primogeniture…
The restoration of the rights of conscience …
the bill for a general education…
To these too might be added, as a further security, the introduction of the trial by jury
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders despise privileged and guaranteed status.
We have dealt with these provisions individually in the preceding posts. Here, Jefferson summarized them and explains their importantance. They will:
1. Eliminate any past or future aristocracy (some more equal than others)
2. Found a “truly republican” government (where all are created equal)

The heart of these four provisions:
1. Entail repealed – prescribing by law that property will be kept in just a few hands
2. Primogeniture abolished – an entire estate having to pass to the first born
3. Rights of conscience guaranteed – dis-establishing the official, tax-supported church
4. General education provided – publicly funded for all boys and girls (though not slave children)

He recommended a fifth protection, trial by jury, taking some legal authority away from the courts and entrusting it to juries of one’s peers.

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Can blacks and whites live together peaceably in America?

Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [on equal footing] filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who won’t solve problem make matters worse.
While Jefferson believed slaves were destined to be free, they were equally destined not to be free in America. In Notes on Virginia in 1782, he wrote, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained …,” (among other things) would keep the races from living together in harmony. Attempting to do so would create political divisions and “convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Jefferson believed a gradual repatriation to Africa was in the best interest of both races.

He was prophetic in writing, “human nature must shudder at the prospect” of failure to do so. A national convulsion did come 40 years later with the Civil War.

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The slaves must be freed, or else!

The principles of the amendment [for emancipation of slaves] however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, all the leading in the world isn’t enough.
Jefferson hoped his late 1770s revisions of the Virginia’s laws would also provide for eventual freedom for slaves, but it was not to be. Not only was public opinion opposed, it was still opposed more than 40 years later when he wrote this.

Unyielding public opinion would have to yield “or worse will follow.” Affirming the certainty “that these people [slaves] are to be free,” Jefferson also affirmed the great universal sentiment of the Declaration of Independence, that all men have the divine right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Public opinion never did yield. In another 40 years, the Civil War was fought to accomplish what he had hoped to do peaceably 80 years before.

The next post will deal with deportation of freed slaves.

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What is the best way to educate everyone?

… concerning the College of Wm. & Mary … [I] prepared three bills for the Revisal, proposing three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life, and such as would be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally, & in their highest degree.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders will provide for an educated citizenry.
Jefferson proposed three education bills. The first of those three is described above, with three levels of instruction:

  1. Elementary schools for all children, regardless of circumstances – The curriculum would be what every person needed to know, how to read and write and perform basic arithmetic. These would be established in each county, within walking distance for each child.
  2. Colleges for advanced education and learning a specific skill – These would benefit those with the drive to get ahead and please those of financial means, for whom further education was a given. Colleges would be in 24 districts throughout the state, all within one day’s horse ride for the residents of the district.
  3. A university where the highest levels of the sciences would be taught

“All children generally” did not include slave children. It did include poor children and girls, both radical provisions in a time when only white males born to parents of means were educated.

More than 15 years passed before the Virginia legislature enacted only the elementary school provision. They then gutted its effectiveness by leaving it up to each county when to establish their own school. Jefferson’s vision was to establish them all at once.

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Have you given people enough time?

In the meanwhile the public opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation [approval] from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In 1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending the Penal laws of the commonwealth.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders give people enough time.
This excerpt is on the same subject used in the previous post but illustrates a different point.

In the late 1770s, Virginia had decided on hard labor on public projects as appropriate punishment for crimes that had previously been punished by death. Pennsylvania had a similar plan, and it seemed reasonable. Later evidence from that state proved otherwise, that public demeaning did not rehabilitate criminals but made them worse. Virginia was likely experiencing the same result.

Virginian’s support for hard labor in public probably had been enthusiastic. Doing away with hard labor may have faced their opposition. Giving convicts labor to perform within a prison complex, perhaps seen as not harsh enough, might have lacked public support, as well.

Virginia’s legislature would not change the law, because they lacked public support to do so. Pennsylvania’s example, however, was now proving that hard-labor-in-public did not work but labor- within-prison did.

Given 10-15 years, public opinion was changing. Leaders could now act with public support rather than opposition. Thus, Virginia’s laws were changed in 1796 to more humane treatment.

Jefferson later wrote concerning another matter, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” This example is one of waiting for public opinion to ripen in support of something new, rather than forcing it upon them before they were ready.

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