Have you ever met someone who always makes it look easy? Someone who seemed to be successful at whatever they do? That was Thomas Jefferson. At age 33, he served as the primary author of the American Declaration of Independence. For most men of history, such an accomplishment would be enough. For Jefferson, that was just the beginning.
He served in the Virginia House of Delegates, as Governor of Virginia, and represented Virginia in the Continental Congress. He was then elevated to the national government; America’s minister to France, the first Secretary of State and the second Vice President. All before his most storied accomplishment: the third President of the United States from 1801-1809. One would be hard pressed to find such an icon of success.
What set this man apart? Luck of circumstances played a role, as always with historical figures. History remembers those who lived and thrived during critical time periods. Jefferson was no different; he was born at the right place and right time to make an impact.
He came to age in a land brimming with patriotic fever, just as American colonists became more and more tired of British taxation and rule. He grew up wealthy, was a dedicated reader and student, and had wide ranging interests from planting to philosophy to architecture. But what separated him from the others of his age was his sheer audacity to always get his way and recoil in dismay when he didn’t. He longed to accomplish everything he set out to do. He was obsessed with success.
What can we take from his life and apply to our own? What does such a devotion look like? Jon Meacham wrote a brilliant biography titled “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” which explores these questions. We will use this as our guide as we explore the workings of Jefferson’s mind.
As a political master, “Jefferson understood a timeless truth: that politics is kaleidoscopic, constantly shifting, and the morning’s foe may well be the afternoon’s friend…Power meant much to him, but he cloaked his driven nature with a mien of intellectual curiosity and aristocratic confidence” The takeaway here is timeless: success in part depends on our ability to maintain a flexible, adaptable mindset.
When presented with new information, or when working with someone of an opposing viewpoint, we must allow ourselves to consider the chance our views are misguided. The worst sin is to hold on to a stale idea because we don’t have the stomach to realize we are wrong. This is even more important for politicians or business leaders, where such a mindset can lead to catastrophe. Jefferson understood that he needed to be able to work with members of the opposite party, the Federalists. He also knew that he couldn’t publicly show his ambitions and thirst for power, so he developed the necessary composure and craftsmanship to disguise it.
In 1782, his wife suddenly became very ill and died, possibly of tuberculosis. Jefferson was a broken man. Although having lost several children at a young age, his wife’s death hit the hardest. He temporarily withdrew from public life and struggled with immense grief.
As Meacham summed up brilliantly, “He was nearly 40 years old, and, until recently, he had never really failed at anything. A favored son, a brilliant student, a legislator of his state at age 25, author of the ‘Summary View’ at 31 and of the Declaration of Independence at 33, governor of Virginia at 36: Thomas Jefferson was accustomed to pubic success and popular praise, to moving from strength to strength and from glory to glory.” Life’s circumstances will deal many blows to all of us, and upon his wife’s death, Jefferson’s immense accomplishments meant very little to him.
In time, Jefferson regained his composure and re-entered politics. His study of philosophy and his own personal tragedies curated immense resolve and patience. “Jefferson preferred to project power without being showy about it,” said Meacham, “he was more of a chess player than a traditional warrior, thinking out his moves and executing them subtly rather than reacting to events viscerally and showily.”
Jefferson had mastered the art of listening to others, gathering all the facts, and reflecting on the best decision. How many of us do this? Our natural tendency is to impose our beliefs on others. We pretend to listen, but already have our response on the tip of our tongue. We lash out without thinking at those we love and cherish. All are natural human responses. Jefferson, however, spent a great deal of time crafting a skill set; allowing himself to always stay cool in the moment, not resign himself to petty emotions and make the best decision possible.
Jefferson knew how to blend philosophical musings with political realities; “broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.” Jefferson differed from some of history’s notorious dictators was that his power wasn’t an ego driven, psychotic lusting for power. He wasn’t a tyrant, a sociopath, an autocrat. His power was for the greater good of humanity; a fervent US patriot that spent his whole life championing America’s potential. He believed in the mechanisms of democracy, and never strayed beyond the bounds of what he thought was political necessary to drive America forward into the world.
We can crave success and the privileges it brings and still have empathy, a trait so lost in our world today. For a man like Jefferson, born into prestige and wealth and successful at every turn, it would have been easy to treat his contemporaries as lesser men. However, he gave everyone and every issue the proper audience. He refrained from pompous dress, instead preferring to look the part of a commoner, even as President. He was a social animal, a dandy with women, and a man of letters. He was also a family man. In retirement, Jefferson basked in the company of his family. One granddaughter described Jefferson as “so eminently sympathetic, that with those he loved, he could enter into their feelings, anticipate their wishes, gratify their tastes, and surround them with an atmosphere of affection.” That was Jefferson. A man of simplicity who knew his place in the world and didn’t need to go out of his way to impress others.
Jefferson had his faults like everyone else. He didn’t always make the right decisions while in power. He held several unfortunate political grudges, particularly with John Adams for the better part of two decades (although they later reconciled and regained friendship in old age). But his biggest failing involved slavery.
The man who wrote “all men are created equal” in 1776 could never solve the issue of slavery in his lifetime. His early years as a politician saw him attempt reform, but facing immense opposition, he gave into defeatism and concluded the moral dilemma of slavery could not be solved during his lifetime. It would be another 84 years before the issue came to a bloody head with the American Civil War in 1861. Furthering his hypocrisy, he spent his entire life an owner of numerous slaves, while at the same time defending human liberty and democracy. There is also a strong belief among scholars that after his wife’s death, he fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.
It’s hard to reconcile such actions with the public life Jefferson led, but it speaks to our human condition more than anything else. He had the ability to behavior in two distinct ways at the same time, even though one was abhorrent. Perfection is a fallacy and poor beliefs and actions have defined our existence. Blemishes define humanity. Jefferson, like other great men of history, was no exception.
Despite his shortcomings, Jefferson left this world a titan of American achievement. He stands alongside Benjamin Franklin and George Washington in early American’s pantheon of leaders. Said Meacham, “we sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it has been when he had first entered the arena of public life.” Leaving the world better than we found it. At the end, that is all one can ask.
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