Tag Archives: Slander

How much trash talk should I put up with?

the revival of antient slanders under pretext of new evidence, has induced Th:J. to do, what he never took the trouble of doing before, to revise [re-examine] some papers he happens to have here (for most of that date are at Monticello) and to make a statement of the transactions as they really took place, with a view that they shall be known to his friends at least. under this view he taxes mr Gallatin with reading the inclosed, altho’ it extends to three sheets of paper.
Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, June 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
An effective leader knows when to reassure his friends.
What “antient slanders” Jefferson referred to are unknown, but he rarely if ever defended himself publicly. George Washington’s advice to him years before had been to ignore slanders, whether political or personal. In the time it took to answer the attack, 10 more would spring up. It was a losing game, a sucker bet.

Still, the thin-skinned President was not immune to the effect those attacks could have on his allies. Occasionally in private correspondence to trusted associates he would deny such charges (his paternity of Sally Hemings’ children, for instance) or remind them of the facts, as he did here. Referring to himself in the third person, “Th:J.” asked his Treasury Secretary to review three enclosed pages of background material regarding the latest charges against him. He knew Gallatin would circulate that information to others.

“Not only was Mr. Lee an excellent Thomas Jefferson,
he was also very professional.”
Director of Law-Related Education, The Missouri Bar
Even lawyers recommend Thomas Jefferson!
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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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Your thick skin just gets thicker!

if we suffer ourselves to be frightened from our post by mere lying, surely the enemy will use that weapon: for what one so cheap to those of whose system of politics morality makes no part? the patriot, like the Christian, must learn that to bear revilings & persecutions is a part of his duty: and in proportion as the trial is severe, firmness under it becomes more requisite & praiseworthy. it requires indeed self-command. but that will be fortified in proportion as the calls for it’s exercise are repeated.
Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, May 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders must stand in the face of slander.
Sullivan (1744-1808) was a Massachusetts lawyer, politician and Jefferson ally. The President commiserated with him regarding lies from the opposing party and suggested George Washington himself would not have been able to bear up against the current slanders.

Fleeing public office because of lies would only encourage the liars to use the same tactic against others. It was a cheap weapon for those without any moral sense. Enduring slander was simply one’s duty. The worse the slander, the more important and noble resistance became. That resistance, while never easy, would become less difficult with practice.

“… Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts about democracy, responsibility and leadership
at the local level surely succeeded in reinforcing the call to serve …”
Executive Director, Maine Municipal Association
Mr. Jefferson will sound a strong call to serve!
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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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Liars gotta lie. Ignore them. I do.

the uniform tenor of a man’s life furnishes better evidence of what he has said or done on any particular occasion than the word of an enemy … [who] prefers the use of falsehoods which suit him to truths which do not … to divide those by lying tales whom truths cannot divide, is the hackneyed policy of the gossips of every society. our business is to march straight forward,1 to the object which has occupied us for eight & twenty years, without, either, turning to the right or left.
To George Clinton, December 31, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Confident leaders give no thought to lies spread about others (or themselves).
New York Governor Clinton wrote to the President, disavowing printed allegations that he enclosed, which questioned his loyalty to the administration. Jefferson told him to ignore it. He considered “the uniform tenor of a man’s life” as the proper measurement of that man, not conduct alleged in a specific instance. Gossips always used lies in trying to divide those united in the truth.

The business of his administration was to pursue a straight course, upholding the republican (small r) principles established in 1776, and not be distracted those who had other agendas.

Jefferson replaced Vice-President Aaron Burr with Governor Clinton in 1804.

“… thanks for your excellent program …
I have received nothing but compliments … “
Past President, Cole County Historical Society
Compliments are a natural consequence following Mr. Jefferson’s presentations.
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Publicly, I shut up. Privately, I explain.

seeing the impossibility that special vindications should ever keep pace with the endless falshoods invented & disseminated against me, I came at once to a resolution to rest on the justice & good sense of my fellow citizens, to consider from my general character and conduct thro’ life, not unknown to them, whether these [false or slanderous statements] were probable: and I have made it an invariable rule never to enter the lists of the public papers with the propagators of them. in private communications with my friends I have contradicted them without reserve.
To David Redick, June 19, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders have to know when to hold ’em, when to fold em’.
Redick had relayed to Jefferson an unfavorable report he’d heard from a missionary about comments Jefferson was purported to have made to Indians visiting him in Washington City. Redick wanted to give the President an opportunity to rebut the charges. His reply stated:
1. There was no end to the falsehoods invented against him.
2. He would respond to none of them publicly or in the press.
3. Instead, he would trust “the justice & good sense of my fellow citizens.”
4. They knew his “general character and conduct.”
5. From that knowledge, they could judge for themselves whether such charges were true.
6. To his friends, he had no hesitation in contradicting the charges.

Thus, he wanted to reassure Redick of the baseless nature of the charge by giving the details of his interaction with the Indians. He invited Redick to share this information with others, especially with the one who brought the accusatory report. He specifically warned Redick that his written reply was for Redick’s use only, and this letter was not to escape his possession.

“You are not the traditional conference speaker!
That’s why we hired you!”
President, Excellence in Missouri Foundation
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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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