I sit down to petition your suffrage [vote] in favor of a friend … the Revd. James Fontaine, who offers himself as a candidate for … chaplain to the house of burgesses. I do not wish to derogate [detract] from the merit of the gentleman who possessed that office last, but I can not help hoping that every friend to genius, where the other qualities of the competitors are equal, will give a preference to superior abilities. Integrity of heart and purity of manners recommend Messrs. Price and Fontaine equally to our esteem; but in acuteness of penetration, accuracy of judgment, elegance of composition, propriety of performing the divine service, and in every work of genius, the former [Price] is left a great distance behind the latter [Fontaine].
To William Preston, August 18, 1768
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Discerning leaders appreciate goodness but give preference to genius.
The 25-year-old Jefferson was studying to become a lawyer and observing the meetings of the House of Burgesses, to which he would be elected four years later. He wrote in support of a new candidate to be chaplain of that body. He made these observations in recommending the challenger over the incumbent:
1. He would not criticize the current office-holder.
2. Genius should be encouraged.
3. When both possess equal qualities (“Integrity of heart and purity of manners”), superior abilities should be recognized.
4. Those abilities in Fontaine were:
– Keen insight
– Wise decision-making
– Excellence in writing
– Proper execution of spiritual responsibilities
– Excellence in every intellectual endeavor
Jefferson went on to encourage Preston, not to rely on his word only, but to ask others’ opinions, too.