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Leadership lessons from a Thomas Jefferson enactor

Leadership lessons from a Thomas Jefferson enactor

I wrote this article in 2012, but the thoughts and ideas remain relevant today.

In the Thomas Jefferson Board Room of the Williamsburg Lodge just outside Colonial Williamsburg, President Thomas Jefferson stood before members and guests of the executive committee of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys last week and discussed his views on a number of important topics of his day. Some know Mr. Jefferson as Bill Barker, a Williamsburg enactor of great passion and intellect. However, on that day, Mr. Barker was completely in character as a brilliant leader and the third President of the United States. His words were indeed inspiring. From his extensive reading of Mr. Jefferson's writing and the history of the time, Mr. Barker is able to speak as a character from that period in a convincing and thought-provoking way.

As I listened to his gracious welcome and comments, I was reminded how much the past can shed light on events and circumstances of our day. In her book about the 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman used the analogy of a Distant Mirror. By holding Thomas Jefferson and other American Revolutionaries up to a distant mirror, we can learn much about life and leadership today. Mr. “Jefferson’s” comments reminded me that:

  • Leadership takes courage – The men and women of that time who joined the cause of American independence had no idea how their "conspiracy" would turn out. They did not know if the British government would hang them for treason or if they would survive the struggle, but they knew they could not tolerate the laws and restrictions the king imposed. They agreed that they must take action.
  • Leadership can be costly and inconvenient- In the course of the struggle, the colonies stopped most of their trade with England. Because they were colonies and had no other trading partners, they had to become self-sufficient very quickly. They did not have access to many of the products on which they had depended before the trade boycott. Their lives changed and they had to live very differently.
  • Great work requires collaboration and compromise - By sharing ideas, the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution were able to agree upon what their new government would be. Each person had to be equally willing to contribute ideas and to give up things he wanted. After the government was in place, compromise was still necessary. One important debate involved Jefferson and Hamilton over the constitutionality of a central bank. This disagreement could have led to the dissolution of the new and still fragile government. Hamilton wanted a national bank; Jefferson and other southern leaders did not. President Washington insisted that Jefferson and Hamilton reach agreement. When they were unable to do so, they consulted James Madison, a great thinker, who proposed a solution, and they agreed to compromise. When Hamilton later died in a duel, Jefferson wrote a letter lamenting his passing. He also purchased a bust of Hamilton and put it in the entrance to his home at Monticello opposite a bust of himself. They disagreed and may have disliked one another, but they showed respect and worked together for the common good.
  • Great leadership demands continuous learning- Mr. Jefferson said that American independence did not begin on July 2, 1776, the day independence was declared, or on July 4th, the day the document was formally approved, or even on May 15th of that year when Virginia first passed a resolution declaring their intention to be free of Britain. He said independence began with the intellectual discourse of Locke, Rousseau, Aristotle and others, who wrote on topics that shaped their ideas of what was possible. Jefferson’s library was extensive, and he read with great interest and curiosity books about all aspects of life. When he sold his book collection to the U.S. Congress in 1815, Jefferson had 6487 volumes, the largest collection in the U.S. at the time. Jefferson argued that an educated electorate was the most important asset of a free government.  He said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” His own learning built a foundation for his outstanding leadership.
  • Great leadership requires communication- When a member of our group asked Mr. Jefferson how it was possible to reach agreement and obtain public support over the large area of the colonies, Mr. Jefferson credited the printing press. He talked about the flyers and pamphlets published at that time. He mentioned that when the Declaration of American Independence was published (the document title he always used), people stood in squares to listen as the document was read to them from printed sheets. They broke into shouts of joy, and church bells rang into the night. Despite dramatic changes in form, communication continues to be essential today.

Jefferson said his favorite line from the Declaration of American Independence was the last sentence, which ends with the words, “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Leaders of all times must have that kind of passion and be willing to make that kind of pledge.

I wonder if we have lost some of that passion and commitment today. I wonder if it would be possible to achieve what they achieved in our time.

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Photo credit: Bill Barker, Thomas Jefferson enactor at Colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Lyn Boyer

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Comments (2)

  1. Dan Black

    These are some great points any leader needs to know and remember. I have seen many people don’t know the importance of learning but if we want to keep moving forward we need to always be learning.

    1. Lyn Boyer

      Dan, Thank you for taking the time to comment. You have picked out a point that I believe is important and often overlooked.

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