Being a leader can sometimes mean just being in the right place at the right time, or even being charismatic enough that others will simply follow. Jefferson was more than that though. He exemplified the qualities of a true leader in the face of unbelievable adversity and pressure. A good leader exhibits honesty and foresight; they inspire others and are competent. Even with his shortcomings, these qualities are Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was efficient and capable as demonstrated repeatedly via the many roles he held throughout his adult life. Jefferson is believed to have been the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia. He served as the wartime Governor of Virginia. He was a diplomat in Paris and a minister to France. He was the first US Secretary of State and of course, the third US President, among many other things.
Thomas Jefferson was very much forward looking. While there are numerous examples that could be provided, perhaps it is best summed up with one of the best examples I have yet to find. Thomas Jefferson once said “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground. As yet our spirits are free. Our jealousy is only put to sleep by the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person to whom we all look as our president (George Washington). After him, inferior characters may perhaps succeed and awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into.” To date, this nation has followed the exact path so clearly expressed to Edward Carrington (Jefferson, 1788).
Thomas Jefferson was also an extremely inspirational person. In fact, Jefferson is known for his inspirational and revolutionary debates on behalf of our Constitutional Republic and for defining what real democracy, freedom and human rights are for the entire planet. He is even known for being the father of the modern abolitionist movement. His words have inspired the world for hundreds of years, leading so many people to fight for their freedom. It is said that citizens from China to Czechoslovakia have used his definitions of government to hold their own accountable (Kile, 2011).
To be an honest person, one must be free of deceit and untruthfulness; one must be sincere. Jefferson once said that “honesty is the 1st chapter in the book of wisdom” (Jefferson, 1819). He also said “an honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens.” These statements made to friends about how officials should act while in office (Jefferson, 1813). Of course, some look at these words as hypocritical based on some of his policies, but he never hid his intent.
Jefferson had a seemingly innate sense of where things should go, even though the economics of that period (or laws) did not allow for it. He was able to envision a future where such values would be shared; he enlisted others in that common vision and began to work towards that end goal. When opportunities came along that aided in that vision, he seized the moment. He took massive risks, putting his dreams, his family, fortune, and his life on the line. Jefferson also celebrated the victories and helped create a spirit of community around the world; a spirit of freedom that exists to this very day.
To compare ourselves to Thomas Jefferson seems asinine in the grand scheme of things. Still, it is his accomplishments that should compel us to aspire to greatness. Many are unaware that Jefferson was inspired by the “Soilleireachadh na h-Alba” (Scottish Enlightenment). This is fundamental in many ways because it attempts to ensure a rational thought process and/or reason prior to the exercise of authority or instating arbitrary laws or directives (Britannica, 2014).
Understand that Jefferson was not perfect and we should guard against believing that he was. For instance, Jefferson seemed to give into the pressures of his time in an effort to gain a stronger foothold in situations he might have been faced with. Historians call this being flexible in his principles, others call this being wishy-washy. This tells us that we should strive to stick to our proverbial guns for the sake of unwavering principle because history is a judge. Similarly, Jefferson made a few unconstitutional moves including a complete disregard for civil liberties in regard to search and seizure. Leonard Levy, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning expert on the Constitution says that “To this day, the Embargo Act remains the most repressive and unconstitutional legislation ever enacted by Congress in time of peace” (Fishman, 2001). That statement was made shortly before 9-11 though. Still, collectively we should strive to follow a stricter interpretation of the document and frown upon such violations of civil liberties for any reason.
We should acknowledge that Jefferson was human and that he made mistakes. We all do. And while there are things Jefferson could have improved on, we should use this a reason to be aware of areas where we feel we must improve. We need to figure out a way to be more inspiring. We should focus on detailing our problems and work on demonstrating what can be done about our problems, which helps these problems seem smaller. We also need to work on being more cooperative. We should strive to trust or rely on others accordingly and when possible in order to build our teams effectively and find even better solutions.
Thomas Jefferson was not perfect, but nobody is. That just means that we should recognize that our leadership is always a work in progress. It will forever be a work in progress. Just like learning, these efforts should never end. And remember, it is good to have role models as long as we understand that even those role models are flawed.
Fishman, E. M. (2001). The prudential presidency: An Aristotelian approach to presidential leadership. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
Jefferson, T. (1813, January 13). The Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Retrieved , from http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl216.php
Jefferson, T. (1788, May 27). From Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788. From Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 27 May 1788. Retrieved , from http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0120
Jefferson, T. (1819, January 12). Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon. . Retrieved , from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mtj1&fileName=mtj1page051.db&recNum=211
Kile, J. (2011, January 20). Thomas Jefferson. Moral Heroes. Retrieved , from http://moralheroes.org/thomas-jefferson
Scottish Enlightenment. (2014). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/529682/Scottish-Enlightenment