Tag Archives: Slander

CHILL! Your reputation precedes you.

Happily withdrawn from the knolege of all the slanders which beset men in public life, I am totally uninformed of the tale respecting yourself alluded to in your letter, & equally unable to conjecture the author of it … I presume it impossible that in a state where you are known by character to every individual, their representatives can be led away by tales of slander, a weapon so worn as to be incapable of wounding the worthy. that the views of the person [Cong. John Randolph of VA] who procured the appointment of a committee of investigation were merely malignant, I never doubted, but his passions are too well known to injure any one.
To Samuel Smith, Maryland, July 26, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Public leaders have to expect slander.
Smith (1752-1839) was a successful businessman, Jefferson supporter and Maryland politician for many years. He had written to Jefferson about a proposed Congressional investigation into alleged improprieties regarding his private funds and public responsibilities. Smith knew but declined to identify to Jefferson the source of the accusations, the former President’s trusted Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin.

Interesting observations from Jefferson:
1. All public leaders should expect slanders, spoken untruths intended to defame.
2. He was happily ignorant of the case and would not speculate about the source of accusations.
3. Smith’s well-known reputation was all the defense he needed.
4. Without mentioning John Randolph by name, he alluded to Randolph’s attack-dog personality and his general lack of credibility.

The investigation was derailed when Smith’s brother Robert, Jefferson’s Secretary of Navy, brought forth facts which established Samuel’s innocence.

“Your topic selection and program were extraordinary.
Your responses to our questions were insightful”
American College of Real Estate Lawyers
Mr. Jefferson will be extraordinary for your members.
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Is your hide thick enough?

you have indeed recieved the federal unction of lying & slandering. but who has not? who will ever again come into eminent office unanointed with this chrism [oil]? it seems to be fixed that falsehood & calumny are to be the ordinary engines of opposition: engines which will not be entirely without effect … I certainly have known, & still know, characters eminently qualified for the most exalted trusts, who could not bear up against the brutal beatings & hewings … I may say, from intimate knolege, that we should have lost the services of the greatest character of our country [George Washington] had he been assailed with the degree of abandoned licentiousness now practised.
To James Sullivan, May 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Great leaders are lost for fear of public attack.
Sullivan [1744-1808] was the Republican attorney general in Massachusetts and would soon become governor. Jefferson commiserated with him on the “lying & slandering” both had endured, the only weapons in their opponents’ arsenal. Although their accusations were without merit, they still stung.

Some “eminently qualified” individuals avoided public service because of those attacks. Even President Washington, known for his fearlessness, would have abandoned public life had he been subjected to the current level of abuse.

Jefferson was considered thin-skinned but able to heed the advice Washington had given him years before, that when attacked, do not respond. He vented to friends in his private correspondence, but publicly, he suffered in silence.

“Mr. Jefferson’s presentation on leadership was a wonderful and unique way
to kick off an extremely successful conference.”
County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania
Let Mr. Jefferson enliven your conference in a unique way!
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Destroy this letter!

… a certain description of persons are so industrious in misconstruing & misrepresenting every word from my pen, that I must pray you, after reading this, to destroy it, that no accident happening to it may furnish matter for new slanders.
To James Cheetham, January 17, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Thin-skinned leaders are wary of adding fuel to the fire.
Cheetham asked Jefferson’s help in procuring a certain 1794 document for a history he was writing of that period. The President gave his thoughts on the matter, including reference to another source published in 1796 which contained a verbatim account of the document’s contents.

The document’s subject might arouse controversy, even nine years later. Jefferson hated controversy, though plenty came his way. He could be very thin-skinned at times and insisted Cheetham destroy this letter after reading it, to deprive his political enemies of any more material. Still, Jefferson kept his own copy of the letter, as he did with all his correspondence.

“Again, a very heartfelt thank you for sharing your time, talent and knowledge
with the RSES conference attendees.”
Refrigeration Service Engineers Society, Biloxi, MI
Mr. Jefferson is eager to share his time, talent and knowledge with your attendees.
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Who is to blame for trashy media?

Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without this stimulant. Even those who do not believe these abominations, still read them with complaisance [Webster’s 7th Collegiate: “a disposition to please or oblige”] to their auditors [ibid, “one that hears or listens’], and instead of the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind, betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe them, tho they do not themselves. It seems to escape them, that it is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is it’s real author.
To John Norvell, June 14, 1807

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Does this sound like 2014 to you?
Jefferson was on a rant about slander in the newspapers. In an earlier post from this letter, he summarized four categories for newspaper content, “Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Lies.” He said the first category would be the smallest, the last the largest.
The language in this excerpt is a bit confusing. Here’s a summary:
1. Reading another’s trashed reputation had become such a stimulant that people could not begin or end their day without it.
2. Even those who didn’t believe the lies read them anyway, to please those who did read them.
3. Instead of having a “virtuous mind,” horrified by lies, they “betray a secret pleasure” that others may actually believe the slander, even though they don’t.
4. Who is to blame, then, for slander? Not the one who offers the slander but the one who pays for it. (By reading it. Or watching it. Or listening to it.)

“Thank you so much for your enormous contribution
to the success of our recent workshop … “
The Smithsonian Associates, Washington, D. C.
Mr. Jefferson desires to contribute to the success of your meeting!
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Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities & Lies

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation [of his newspaper] in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources, as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.
To John Norvell, June 11, 1807

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
For leaders, the media can be a blessing, a curse, or both.
Norvell had inquired about publishing a newspaper. Much of Jefferson’s reply was a lament about the sorry state of that medium as a source of reliable information. An earlier post from this letter suggested one was more informed about the truth if he did not read the newspaper.
Newspapers of the time were strictly mouthpieces for the political views of its publisher. There wasn’t a hint of objectivity. Now, near the end of his Presidency and 40 years of dealing with an oppositional slanderous press, he had a cynical (and, rare for him, slightly humorous) suggestion about how a newspaper should be organized.

“I have also seen him perform as Thomas Jefferson,
and that, too, is a very impressive program.”
Director, Missouri Division of Employment Security

Thomas Jefferson stands ready to impress your audience.
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