Tag Archives: Public service

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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Yes. No. Absolutely not.

[You requested] letters of introduction to England & France for your son, & a passport. the passport is now inclosed… [As to] my furnishing such letters on any occasion. it was decided to be unadviseable & improper, & I have adhered rigorously to the rule then laid down … with respect to the pecuniary [financial] aid desired in the contingency of his wanting it, this could not possibly be taken from any public funds … prudent precautions taken by your son would prevent his having occasion for this recurrence …
To Robert Gamble, June 15, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders are often imposed upon with impossible requests.
For his 23 year old son, Gamble asked Jefferson for a passport and letters of introduction to government officials in England and France. The passport was simple and granted. The letters were not. Jefferson cited experience learned early in office that it simply wasn’t approrpiate for the President to write such letters. Wanting to be helpful, he did agree to mention the son in his private correspondence.

Presumptuously, Gamble also asked if up to $500 could be made available from some government official should his son have need of it. Jefferson turned him down cold and suggested Gamble’s son should conduct himself in such a manner that he wouldn’t need financial help.

In subsequent correspondence on the same subject, Jefferson revealed that Gamble was a Federalist (a political opponent), had been bankrupt twice, and had two sisters “married to two most estimable republicans.” This request was a mixed-bag for the President!

Gamble’s letter  was written June 11, saying his son’s ship was sailing in 10 days. Jefferson received the request on the 14th and responded the next day. When he could, Jefferson was diligent to help.

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Am I obligated forever?

If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves…
I may think public service & private misery inseparably linked together …
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. …
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders have a natural right to say no.
Monroe had been elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from his home county. Jefferson’s county elected him to serve, too, but he refused. Monroe wrote to him on May 11, 1782, “you should not decline the service of your country.”
These three excerpts come from a lengthy rebuttal to his good friend.
1. By natural law, his personal rights were greater than the state’s.
2. One sacrificed personal peace for public service.
3. He had earned his private rest after 13 years of public service.

Jefferson cited compelling family and financial reasons, too. Also, he was still smarting from accusations of cowardice and treason at the end of his second term as governor a year before. He was done with public life, and no one would convince him otherwise.

Jefferson would soon re-enter public life, but for a reason he could not have imagined. He would serve 11 more years before retiring again, just as adamant to remain a private citizen forever. That retirement would last only three years.

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How long must one person serve?

I acknolege that such a debt exists, that a tour of duty, in whatever line he can be most useful to his country, is due from every individual. It is not easy perhaps to say of what length exactly this tour should be, but we may safely say of what length it should not be. Not of our whole life, for instance, for that would be to be born a slave — not even of a very large portion of it.
To James Madison, June 9, 1793

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Self-limiting leaders can withdraw from power voluntarily.
Madison had encouraged Jefferson to continue in his position as President Washington’s Secretary of State, suggesting he had a debt to the public which was not yet paid off. Jefferson was determined to leave, and much of this letter was devoted to his reasoning.
Jefferson acknowledged there was a debt of public service due, not only from him but from every person. How long should that time of service be? Hard to tell, but Jefferson claimed his was paid in full. He had served now 24 years, marking that time from his election the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. He was almost 26 then. Now, he was 50.
Of this, he was certain: It was not a lifetime debt. Nor should public service consume a large portion of one’s life. For each there was a time to serve and a time to leave. It was his time to leave, and no one, not even his dear friend Madison on behalf of the nation, could claim a portion of his debt was still unpaid.
Jefferson “retired” to Monticello at the end of 1793, but it didn’t last. Less than three years later, he would be the standard-bearer for the anti-federalist (republican) cause, standing for election as President in 1796. He came in 2nd in electoral votes, behind John Adams, thus serving under him as Vice-President. Four years later he would best Adams in a rematch, and serve eight years as President.
Even when he left politics for good in 1809, he devoted much time and energy over the following 15 years to yet another public cause. This one, however, was not a burden but a labor of love, the establishment of the University of Virginia.

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What’s a polite way to say, “Hogwash!”?

… I may think public service & private misery inseparably linked together. I have not the vanity to count myself among those whom the state would think worth oppressing with perpetual service … 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 … I dare say you did not expect by the few words you dropped on the right of renunciation to expose yourself to the fatigue of so long a letter …
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Thin-skinned leaders have a tougher time.
Monroe had written his older friend, challenging his (Jefferson’s) intention to decline any further public service, and suggesting the public had a right to make that claim on his life. Jefferson would never write, “Hogwash!,” but that is the essence of his reply.

In mid-1781, Jefferson had completed two difficult years as war-time Governor of Virginia. His tenure was followed by accusations of cowardice and an investigation into his official actions as British soldiers overtook his state. Though vindicated of all charges, Jefferson was deeply wounded.

At this point, he thought “thirteen years engaged in public service” was enough, and he had earned the right to renounce any more. He cited business and family matters that needed his full attention. He apologized to his friend for such a lengthy reply, “the fatigue of so long a letter,” but he felt a strong compulsion to defend his decision.

Five months later would find him once again accepting a public appointment, but for reasons he couldn’t have imagined. A clue is given near the end of this letter, “Mrs Jefferson has added another daughter to our family. She has been ever since & still continues very dangerously ill.” This was her 7th childbirth, and she would die in September. Two months later, he again accepted a public role, this time to escape his private torment.

Maybe all public servants on occasion would agree with Jefferson’s opening line, “I may think public service & private misery inseparably linked together.”

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