CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — On Jefferson And Leadership

Just a note about Jefferson and leadership.

First, he was reluctant. Thanks to the influence of classical culture, all of the Founding Fathers had to pretend that they would rather be home tending their garden than hold political power, but Jefferson seems actually to have meant that.

He was a shy, thin-skinned, scholarly man who had a poor speaking voice and loved to be home in his slippers reading from his extensive library, writing exquisite letters on fine handmade paper and tending to his prize geraniums. When he said he had no more desire to government than to ride his horse through a storm, Jefferson meant it.

Second, he seems to have learned early on to check his ego at the door. There was a kind of selflessness about Jefferson’s leadership: quiet voice, understated arguments, no drama and almost excessive willingness to hear from everyone else and seek consensus. It would be impossible to think of Jefferson raising his voice, for example, or pounding the table, or declaring ex cathedra how things were going to be handled, or sending out a dawn tweet for that matter.

He had a great quality of great leaders of not needing to get credit for his ideas. In fact, he was so determined to lead from consensus and to let the will of the people tell him how to proceed, that they might not have been a great leader in crisis.

He was no Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, he was no FDR. He believed that he existed to turn the will of the people, as far as he understood it, into careful action. Hamilton frequently found fault with Jefferson for being too cautious, not bold enough.

Third, Jefferson was an actual Utopian visionary who truly believed in the severely limited government. “A few plain duties performed by a few honest men,” he wrote. In theory, Jefferson was an anarchist. He believed in no formal government at all, that each of us would be a fully self-actualized being who governed him or herself, and then beyond that, all we would really need was a post office.

You hear people today talking about limited government, but that usually means they don’t like taxes, or they want to kill off all the government programs they don’t happen to like, like the National Endowment for the Arts or the Department of Education, and then keep the rest. Jefferson is that rarest of beings. Someone who actually wanted us to try for a minimalist national government. You can imagine what he would think of our swollen leviathan government extending its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. With 1.4 million civilians receiving salaries directly from the U.S. Treasury and literally millions of federal regulations.

If you believe in democracy or even a Jeffersonian republic, the idea of leaders is inherently problematic. Jefferson can hardly be a bold, ambitious, dramatic, strong man on a white horse and still believe that the people should largely govern themselves, even if he had had a white horse mentality, which he didn’t.

Fourth. Jefferson was a patient leader. He reckoned the time was on America’s side, that most things can probably be left alone and that precipitous action is almost always the worst possible response to a problem or a crisis.

He was always content to wait — to gather information, to see how things unfolded according to their own dynamics, buy for time — because he knew that the United States was going to get stronger, more prosperous and more independent over time and that we were uniquely blessed by the 3,000 mile moat that separated us from the broken Old World across the Atlantic.

He was extremely patient with the Mississippi River crisis between 1801 and 1803, and the result was the Louisiana Purchase. He was patient with respect to the growing Aaron Burr treason circus of 1806 and 1807, and the result was civil harmony in the trans-Appalachian west. He was patient during what he called the reign of witches in 1798, the period of the alien and sedition laws, and the result was that he became the third president of the United States at the next election. When others called for immediate action, Jefferson was content to hold his cards close to his chest and observe things.

Finally, Jefferson believed in peace, not peace at any cost, but peace if in any honorable way possible. He regarded war as ancient and medieval barbarism and savagery, trying to maintain its bloody market share in a much more enlightened world. “Peace,” Jefferson said, “is my passion.”

He believed a republic like ours should never start a war and only go to war after every possible attempt had been made to find a peaceful alternative. Of all of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was the one who found least glory in war, violence, the parade of troops, the ingenuity of weaponry or the arrogance of the officer corps.

Do we have such leaders today? Even with some of the principles in terms adjusted for inflation and retooled for a dangerous global arena, the answer is no. Time to stop beating up Jefferson for his real and perceived faults and to hearken to his vision of a self-sufficient, highly educated, peaceful, mild-mannered self-led and self-actualized republic. If we worked on those matters, most of our troubles, to use a Jeffersonian metaphor, would disappear like the fog when the sun rises in the morning.

Leave a Reply