Thomas Jefferson on Leadership

thomas jefferson


Thomas Jefferson, a great dreamer, dreamed great dreams for his country. He was able to remake America in his image. At the same time, he was unable to overcome personal obstacles so that he could not remake himself in the image that he desired.

Lesson No. 1: Share a Vision

Thomas Jefferson had a great vision for the United States of America. Indeed, he was the first to use the name, United States of America in a document. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson envisioned a grand future for our country as a nation based upon democracy. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Lincoln revered Jefferson as the father of the American dream of equality.

Unfortunately, Jefferson was never able to manage his economic affairs in such a way that he could remain solvent or free his slaves. Except for freeing a few slaves related to Sally Hemings whom he most likely had a mistress, he never was able to practice personally what he preached. At least he didn't sell his own offspring back into slavery. What prevents you from carrying out your dreams?

Thomas Jefferson in his inaugural address sought to heal the wounds of partisanship when he spoke in 1800 upon taking the oath of the president. He proclaimed, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists."

Lesson No. 2: Be all You Can Be

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy looked out over a White House gathering of Nobel Prize winners and declared, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Jefferson was remarkably creative and versatile throughout his life. He was a true Renaissance man. In addition to being a statesman, Jefferson was also a scientist, a musician, an author, an anthropologist, a philosopher, and a statesman. When he was resident at Monticello, he would make a daily record of the weather. When he was the Secretary of State, he lectured on mammoths as part of a paleontology lecture series at the Academy of Science in Philadelphia. Jefferson also collected Indian lexicons throughout his life. As a self-taught architect, he designed Monticello (one of the nation's most beautiful homes), the University of Virginia, and the capitol of Virginia.

President Washington put Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in charge of the Patent Office, a government bureau where a person can establish rights to an invention. Jefferson was an inventor himself. Jefferson was the inventor of the rocking chair, the swivel desk, and a new type of plow. But he refused to patent his own inventions because he felt humanity should make free use of them. Upon completing his stint as minister to France, he introduced new varieties of grapes to Virginia and introduced ice cream as a dessert. Since the Mint was under his charge as the Secretary of State, he convinced Congress to apply the decimal system to American currency. Jefferson failed to persuade Congress to adopt the decimal system in place of the English system of weights and measurements that we had inherited from the mother country. Jefferson most loved being in charge of the Patent Office more than any other government position he had, including the Presidency. He would examine the inventions himself to see if the inventor could secure a patent.

Lesson No. 3: Organization Counts

"No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying," Jefferson observed "as to put the right man in the right place," which is usually quoted as "Few dies and none resign." He created a political machine, the Democratic-Republican Party, which embraced all sections of the nation, that elected him vice-president in 1796 and president in 1800. Jefferson used political patronage to create a federal bureaucracy that would carry out his will. "When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property" who should zealously but honestly represent his point of view.

In a less political fashion, Jefferson appointed Lewis and Clarke to explore the Louisiana Purchase. They accomplished their task without losing a single person and reported fully on the treasures awaiting people who were willing to try their luck by going westward.

Lesson No. 4: Don't Take the Low Road

During the Presidential Campaign of 1800, Jefferson hired James Thomson Callender, to work for him. He wanted to be president so much that he did not care what negative things Callender wrote about his former friend John Adams. Adams laughed that he and his vice-president were accused of not just having mistresses but British ones since American ones were not good enough for them.

After Jefferson won the election, Thomson was disappointed when Jefferson would not give him a job as the postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. In revenge, Callender published a newspaper story that claimed Jefferson had a number of children by his slave Sally Hemings. To this day, historians argue whether this story is true or not. Jefferson's bad deed came back to haunt him in countless ways.

Thomas Jefferson secretly authored the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions that attacked the Federalist Congress and President for imposing that the Alien and Sedition Acts as acts of tyranny that tried to limit how people could criticize the government. Once in power, he had these laws removed.

However, Thomas Jefferson attacked judicial decisions that he did not like as an attack upon himself. He tried to impeach a supreme court justice or two whose political opinions he did not like. He had his own vice-president Aaron Burr indicted on treason. John Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice, presided over the trial. He gave a narrow definition of what the U. S. Constitution defined as treason and the Virginia jury decided that Burr was not guilty.

Lesson No. 5: Be a Great Communicator

The election of 1800 was bitter. Thomas Jefferson decided to take the high road upon being elected president. For the first time in world history, political power was transferred peacefully from one political party to another. Jefferson in his Inaugural Address declared: "But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. The error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." He healed the wounds of electoral combat. Jefferson usually preferred to communicate his views through letter-writing rather than speaking in public.

Lesson No. 6: Be Flexible or Pragmatic

President Jefferson was the first Chief Executive to adjust his principles to reflect those of his opponents. He had been elected to office on his narrow interpretation of the United States Constitution and the power it granted the Executive branch. Jefferson had preached, "Government works best when it governs least." Yet when Napoleon offered to sell all of the Louisiana Territory to the United States, Jefferson found it too good a bargain to wait for the passage of a Constitutional Amendment authorizing the purchase. He decided that through the treaty-making powers of the President, he could purchase the territory before Napoleon would change his mind. The sale doubled the size of the United States and moved the frontier westward

Lesson No. 7: Get a Mentor and Be One in Return

A mentor is someone who can be a role model on what to do in life. George Wythe, Jefferson's law professor at the College of William and Mary, inspired him to pursue the law. He in turn became a mentor to James Monroe who became a lawyer. When Jefferson became president, he sent Monroe to France to buy the Louisiana Territory. Thanks to Jefferson's advice, he pursued a career in public service and became the president of the United States.

Lesson No. 8: Be a Decision Maker

Like Washington, Jefferson surrounded himself with intelligent men who were willing to disagree with him. He encouraged advisors to speak their minds. In making decisions, Jefferson relied upon his cabinet. Sometimes Jefferson asked for their opinions in writing. He kept in touch with public opinion by answering mail received from friends, party leaders, and newspaper editors. Thomas Jefferson had an only a secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to help him while a president today has hundreds of assistance. Jefferson gave small dinners in which he invited members from the three branches of government from both political parties. Jefferson tried to remain open-minded enough to change his policy if it was not working. When his Embargo Act worked to ruin American trade instead of bringing about peace with European nations, he took the blame and had it repealed.

Lesson No. 9: Be a Life-long Learner

Leaders are readers. Thomas Jefferson, a graduate of the William and Mary had a life-long love affair with books. When Jefferson fell on hard times, Congress purchased his library, then the largest private one in the United States, which became the nucleus of the Library of Congress. One of its library buildings is named after him.

Jefferson once wrote, "I cannot live without books."

President Jefferson had a great interest in education. The United States Military Academy was authorized in 1803 under his administration. Upon retirement, he founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson designed the buildings, fashioned the curriculum, and hired the faculty. His curriculum of required subjects influenced American higher education until another President, Woodrow Wilson, championed the elective system.

Lesson No. 10: Leave a Great Legacy

Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was trying to control his own legacy as indicated by his tombstone:

"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia."

He neglected to mention that he was the third president. Neither did he realize the Library of Congress, the largest information source in the world was built upon his books In another effort to control his legacy, he wrote to his protégé and success as president, "You have been a pillar of support thro [sic] life. "Take care of me when dead."


John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia became friends during the American Revolution. John Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. They both became presidents of the United States. For a while, they became enemies because they had different views

of how the United States should be run. Eventually, Adams and Jefferson became friends again. They would write letters to each other. On the fiftieth anniversary of our country's independence, July 4, 1826, Adams whispered his last words: "Thomas Jefferson survives." Although Jefferson had died at Monticello a few hours earlier, his dreams did not die. He had not accomplished all his personal goals but he left behind a great nation and great ideals as his legacy.

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