A Way With Words

Having just looked at some of Franklin’s contributions to what became the United States of America, several of his strengths that helped him achieve a prominent place in that process, and even some of what would have been detrimental weaknesses to many but he was very intentional about offsetting (through sheer willpower or strategic relationships), let’s look at the founder who also served as part of the committee to write what’s likely our nation’s most foundational document.

While Franklin was one of the oldest involved in crafting and signing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was the youngest. Not only was Jefferson 38 years younger than Franklin, their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Where Franklin had only two years of formal schooling (but invested a tremendous amount of his time and energy to overcome that), Jefferson was quite the scholar, entering the College of William & Mary when he was 16 and being admitted to the Virginia Bar in his early 20s.

In contrast to Franklin’s humble beginnings that resulted in his limited time in school and working for a publisher through his teens, Jefferson’s family owned thousands of acres and oversaw even more. While I have no doubt Thomas did his share of physical labor, given the time period and knowing just how much work is involved for every member of a farming family, his career path varied greatly from the successful businesses Franklin operated. Jefferson primarily practiced law from 1767 until representing Virginia as a delegate to the second Continental Congress in 1775. He then remained in the political arena through the end of his second term as US president in 1809 (our nation’s third), and likely somewhat involved even after.

Like Franklin, Jefferson had a hand in founding a major university. For extra credit, do you know which Virginia university he had a hand in founding in 1872?

Although both served on the five-man committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson - at least in my recollection of history class - gets the lion’s share of the credit. He was selected by the group to write the initial draft because of all that formal education and his eloquence with words. And while his work appears to have some very direct ties to a few other significant documents that preceded it (the 1628 Petition of Right, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, and even the Magna Carta), I’d say his product has indeed endured the test of time. In fact, we have a copy hanging on the wall just outside my office!

With a bit of that background in place, let’s change gears a bit and focus on a few of his strengths - and specifically how those helped build a strong foundation that’s held firm for so many years!

Eloquence and Passion

I have no doubt that you could put together a list of Jefferson’s strengths that’s significantly longer than what I’ll touch on here - and that’s OK by me. My goal here isn’t to be complete and comprehensive but to highlight a few key attributes he brought to the table in his work with our other founding fathers as they laid the groundwork for our great nation. 

Jefferson’s way with words, and more specifically the tremendous education and experience that skill was based on, was certainly a significant contribution. In fact, that expertise not only provided the basis for the eloquent script we remember each year on July 4, it allowed him to do it quickly! An article from the National Constitution Center called Why Did Jefferson Draft the Declaration of Independence? shared this:

Jefferson had 17 days to produce the document and reportedly wrote a draft in a day or two. In a rented room not far from the State House, he wrote the Declaration with few books and pamphlets beside him, except for a copy of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and the draft Virginia Constitution, which Jefferson had written himself.

In addition to his education and writing skills, he quickly developed strong relationships in political circles. While less than a decade between him being admitted to the Virginia Bar (1767) and writing that initial draft of the Declaration in 1776, his work made an impression. In fact, that brief period served as the groundwork for the majority of his public life that followed. Not long after serving as Virginia’s delegate at the second Continental Congress, Jefferson was elected by his peers for two consecutive terms as Virginia’s Governor. (These elections were done within the two house legislature at the time and were for one year terms.) That state service during wartime set the tone for many of the federal roles he held after - including that of Vice President and two terms as President.

Although there’s no shortage of documentation on the Jefferson family’s slave ownership, Thomas was one of the first staunch advocates of ending slavery. His initial draft of the Declaration of Independence actually included verbiage denouncing King George III for imposing slave trade on the colonies, but this was one of the pieces trimmed out later on. According to wikipedia, “In 1778 Jefferson supported a bill to prohibit the international slave trade in Virginia; the state was the first in the union to adopt such legislation.”

I realize you may be wondering why I chose this particular topic as a tie to any strengths he contributed as a founding father. The point I hope to make with this is that, while he and his family were indeed involved in one of the worst evils in our nation’s history, he did indeed believe that “all men are created equal” and he dedicated a large portion of his political career to laying a foundation for change. That willingness to stand firm for what he believed in added value in many ways but it also brought out one of his worst traits - one that created more than a little turmoil and ended relationships with some of his most notable peers. With that in mind, let's consider those less than desirable traits and look at some ways he was able to compensate for them.

Strong Convictions, Questionable Approach…

“Although Jefferson left the cabinet voluntarily, Washington never forgave him for his actions, and never spoke to him again.” 

The wikipedia article on Jefferson, while detailing his time as Washington’s Secretary of State, shared how staunchly opposed he was to Alexander Hamilton’s view on the (new) federal government’s fiscal responsibilities. While I tend to agree with Jefferson’s stance on that and quite a few other issues, and have tremendous respect for his passion around those issues, his approach was more undermining than it was collaborative (albeit fairly commonplace today). Differing with Hamilton most certainly wasn’t the issue in and of itself. Quite frankly, the opportunity to openly disagree with someone else’s views is just one of the things that makes this country so great. However, his approach doesn’t seem to have been as focused on resolution as it was on getting the upper hand on his adversary. Although this particular part of his approach left a lot to be desired, and is likely what turns many of us off about poliTICKS still today, he was effective in building strategic relationships to support his cause. 

Another principle Jefferson took a stand for was that of defining what should be a state responsibility versus a federal responsibility, with the goal limiting federal overreach - again, something I believe deserves quite a bit of attention today! Make no mistake though, I’m not sharing this for you to agree or disagree but to detail how he stood by his convictions, a trait far too rare in today’s society, and show how even a strong and desirable trait like that can become a liability, especially if it’s not kept in check. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I realize that as Secretary of State or even as Vice President, Jefferson didn’t have “absolute power” but he definitely had enough - along with a hefty backing of his peers - for his actions to go unchecked at times…

In the same roles where he used his power in ways that most of us would deem inappropriate, he was alert to the dangers of any one person holding too much authority. As Vice President (and President of the Senate), he saw a need for limiting what he and anyone following in that role could decide unilaterally. And while I love the idea that any politician would be willing to initiate steps to limit their own power, I now know who I can blame every time I’m annoyed by a requirement to follow Parliamentary Procedure. 

One of the steps Jefferson took in campaigning for State’s rights was the anonymous  writing of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. According to the same wikipedia article, “George Washington was so appalled by them that he told Patrick Henry that if ‘systematically and pertinaciously pursued’, they would ‘dissolve the union or produce coercion." Had this writing been tied directly to him, and his co-author who will dig into next, they likely would have been tried for treason! Truth be told, I’m not convinced Washington was “appalled” by the intention of limiting federal reach as much as how those resolutions could have damaged their newly formed and fragile Union. Remember, Washington was offered the opportunity to serve as King of the new nation with the backing of the victorious Continental Army but declined to ensure you and I would have a government run by the people, for the people. With that in mind, we’ll pick up next time by looking at a Founder whose name is getting a ton of mentions on social media and ESPN this year - even though it has nothing to do with what he contributed to the foundation of our constitutional republic!