Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6

Author: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson as a Tactician

The word "tactician" is usually applied to military movements, but it has a broader meaning than this; it embodies the idea of a peculiar skill or faculty—a nice perception or discernment which is characterized by adroit planning or management, artfully directed in politics or diplomacy in government.

"Of all creatures the sense of tact is most exquisite in man. "—Ross: Microcosmia.

"To see in such a clime,
Where science is new, men so exact
In tactic art. "—Davenant: Madagascar.

True statesmanship is the masterful art. Poetry, music, painting, sculpture and architecture please, thrill and inspire, but the great statesman and diplomatist and leader in thought and action convinces, controls and compels the admiration of all classes and creeds. Logical thought, power of appeal and tactfulness never fail to command attention and respect. It has always been thus, and it will unquestionably so remain. Many really able and brilliant men, however, lack balance and the faculty of calculation. They are too often swayed by emotions, and their intellectual powers, which otherwise might exert a controlling influence, are thus weakened, and often result in failure. True greatness in a man is gauged by what he accomplished in life, and the impress he left upon his fellow-men. It does not consist of one act, or even of many, but rather their effect upon the times in which he lived, and how long they endure after the actor is gone from the throng of the living.

At the bar, in the pulpit, in the medical profession, and especially in political life, tact is the sine qua non to the highest degree of individual success. However gifted one may be, he cannot win conspicuous laurels in any calling or avocation, if he be deficient in tactfulness. The man who best understands human nature, knows how to approach people, and possesses the art of leading them, is the one who will invariably have the largest following and will possess the greatest amount of influence over his fellows. The fact cannot be disputed that men of great brilliancy of intellect, without tact, have been distanced by others far less talented, who possessed the knack of getting near to the masses with the object in view to lead and control them. A military commander who knows how to muster and marshal his men so as to make them most effective when a battle is pending, will be unquestionably successful in manoeuvres and successful also in battle; and it is equally true in statecraft, and in the learned professions as well. The skillful tactician is master of every situation and is the victor in every important contest. But more than in any other calling is this true in politics. The successful leader in legislative bodies,—he whose name is recorded on the legislative journal as the author of the most important measures which are enacted into laws—is, without exception, that member who is tactful, thoughtful, industrious and sincere. It makes no difference how great his natural endowments may be, if he be wanting in these elements his success will be restricted to a narrow sphere; and the greatest of these is tactfulness.

The world’s great tacticians are few. In America I can mention but three who are deserving of first rank,—Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay and James G. Blaine. Neither represented the same generation, and neither was the exact counterpart of the others, but all of them were renowned in their ability to control their fellow-men. Each possessed that peculiar magnetic power to draw men around them and to win their confidence and support. Each had but to say the word, and his wishes were carried out. Each needed only to give the command to follow, and, like drilled soldiers, the multitudes fell into line and were obedient to every order. They were evidently cast in a peculiar mould, and that particular mould is limited seemingly to a single man in every generation. Why it is thus we know not, and yet we know that it is so. As the precentor in a choir leads the masses with his baton, and under correct leadership they rarely miss a note, so does the great tactician issue his commands, and his wishes are supreme. I here write Jefferson, Clay and Blaine as America’s intrepid leaders and commanders in civil life; these three, and the greatest of these was Jefferson, as he seemed to have learned in early life, more than any of his compeers, that a little management will often avoid resistance, which a vast force will strive in vain to overcome; and that it is wisdom to grant graciously what he could not refuse safely, and thus conciliate those whom he was otherwise unable to control.

In referring to a man who possesses a high grade of capacity in a particular calling, we usually say he is able—an able man. The term able, therefore, signifies more than capable, more than well-informed, whether applied to an artist, a general, a man of ]earning, or a judge. A man may have read all that has been written on war, and may have seen it, without being able to conduct a war. He may be capable of commanding, but to acquire the same of an able general he must command more than once with success. A judge may know all the laws, without being able to apply the principles of law properly. A learned man may not be able either to speak, or to write, or to teach in a commanding manner. An able man, then, is he who makes a valuable use of what he knows. A capable man can do a thing; an able one does it. The term able cannot, therefore, be properly applied to genius. It is not correct, according to my way of thinking, to say an "able poet," an "able painter," an "able musician." an "able orator," an "able sculptor," because it is talent or genius, or both, that gives one rank in these callings in life, or in these particular undertakings. The word "able," as I understand it, is applicable to those arts only which involve the exercise of the mind as a controlling factor. One may be a great orator, according to the usual acceptation of the term "great," and yet be only a de-claimer and a rhetorician. That is to say, he may be able to captivate audiences by his superior action, as Demosthenes defines oratory to be, and at the same time his elocution and rhetoric may be unexceptionable, yet he may be in fact totally lacking in every element which goes to make up real greatness.

It may be correctly claimed that one may win distinction and renown by energy and tact, and yet be deficient in both wit and learning. But usually men are measured by the success they make in life, just as a carpenter is measured by his "chips"; and accepting this measure, it is exceedingly rare to find one who reaches above the rank of a ward politician, unless he possesses those real elements of greatness which I choose to class as honesty, sobriety, manliness, sympathy, energy, education, knowledge and fairness. I agree that a great tactician may not per se be a great man, but I do say that one who possesses this element, usually embodies those other elements which are accepted ordinarily as the true ingredients of greatness.

Jefferson did not rank in oratory with the Adamses the Randolphs, James Otis and Patrick Henry, who were contemporaneous with him. He was, therefore, not by nature great in the sphere of oratory, and in his public utterances he does not always show the habit of radical thought which gave the great Democratic party, which lived and ruled our country throughout the larger part of the nineteenth century, that tremendous moral force peculiar to that marvelous organization which he founded and fostered throughout his long, useful and eventful life. Yet his speeches, if they may be classed as such, were clear, logical, forceful, convincing. In politics, in literature, in everything that concerned the world’s forward movement in his day, his intellectual sympathies were universal, or as nearly so as it was possible for any man’s to be. Men less learned and with lesser power of reason and thoughtfulness than he, have moved audiences to frenzy and have carried them at will; but Jefferson, without this peculiar gift, certainly possessed a sufficiency of this power, which the broad culture of the scholar and the steadfast tension of the thinker can give to any man. His addresses and writings are pregnant with profound aphorisms, and through his great genius transient questions were often transformed into eternal truths. His arguments were condensed with such admirable force of clearness that his utterances always found lodgment in the minds of both auditors and readers. Sensitive in his physical organization, easily moved to tenderness, and incapable of malice, he had that ready responsiveness to his own emotions as well as to those of others, which always characterizes genius.

While it may be said that oratory was not an art with Jefferson, yet his ideas on all governmental questions were always so clear and strong and well matured that he never failed to express them forcefully and effectively. His wonderful intellect, upon all important occasions, never failed to take hold on principle, justice, liberty and moral development, without which, as a part of its essence, the greatest mind can never express itself adequately. His State papers and his addresses and writings reveal the highest order of intellect, and are marked with a degree of originality peculiarly Jeffersonian. The doctrines he proclaimed and the principles he promulgated were so logical and sound that they are cherished yet, and it is believed by millions of our countrymen that they are as imperishable as the stars. Jefferson’s philosophical ideas of democratic government are as much alive to-day as they were when he was at the zenith of his glory in life, and this cannot be said of any other illustrious American who was contemporaneous with him. It may be truthfully claimed that the lamp of liberty, which he, perhaps more than any other one American of his times helped to light, will never go out; and it may also be stated, with an equal degree of truthfulness, that the brilliant star of his own personal and political greatness will never set.

Some American writers have, from their standpoints of review, animadverted upon certain alleged weaknesses of Jefferson as a great national character. Although I do not indorse his position as favoring "States’ Rights" and a Federal Government of restricted powers, as over against the broader doctrine promulgated by Washington, Adams, Jay and Hamilton, of a centralized government or Union which, when national questions are involved, should be, at all times, the supreme power of the country, yet I concede to him wonderful foresight in advocating a Constitution that would grant to the States the greatest possible latitude. Other critics have also barked along the trail of this distinguished man of destiny, charging him with being a demagogue, a jingoist, an infidel and the like, but their barking has made him all the greater, and has added new laurels to his marvelous career. Faults he may have had, but who has not? Weaknesses he may have had, but who is universally wise and strong? Burke, in his incomparable speech in the English Parliament on the East India bill, spoke for many great men in history when he thus alluded to the younger Fox: "He has faults; but they are faults, that though they may, in a small degree, tarnish the lustre, and sometimes impede the march of his abilities, have nothing in them to extinguish the fire of great virtues. In those faults there is no mixture of deceit, of hypocrisy, of pride, of ferocity, of complexional despotism, or want of feeling for the distress of mankind."

Like Charles James Fox, to whom Edmund Burke referred, Thomas Jefferson was the foremost Commoner of his day, and he allowed no opportunity to pass unimproved, to lift the common people to higher conceptions of life and duty. Such men are rare, and I am glad to be able conscientiously to place the name of Thomas Jefferson, in many important respects, and particularly as the champion of the rights of the common people, pre-eminently above all the other distinguished Americans of his generation; and I wish it understood that I make this statement upon a fair comprehensive knowledge of the acts and works of the leading men of that period of our country’s history.

Jefferson in early life accepted the idea or theory that the first and most general truth in history is that men ought to be free. He evidently felt that if happiness is the end of the human race, then freedom is the condition, and that this freedom should not be a kind of a half escape from thralldom and tyranny, but it should be ample and absolute. This theory is most admirably expressed in the opening of the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the sole author, and which was adopted almost literally as he wrote it: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." Democratic principles cannot be more clearly expressed than in the language above quoted, nor can any creed be more clearly defined. It is but just to state, therefore, that no individual American represents more distinctively the constructive power of the principles of popular government than Thomas Jefferson, who was then as now the greatest of all Virginians save one—Washington. In all of his public acts he was upheld by his confidence in the people, and he was so tactful at all times that he never allowed himself to wander at any great distance from the masses of his fellows. His faith in the reserve power of the people was imposing, and by this trustfulness he stamped himself as the matchless leader of his times, and among the greatest leaders of all times. Excepting, perhaps, Washington and Lincoln, the name of Jefferson is the most conspicuous of all Americans, and will endure longest in the annals of the history of the Great Republic, because it must be conceded that his theories of government have had more influence upon the public life of America than those of any other American citizen, living or dead.

There was a sympathy between his heart and the great popular heart, which time and conditions have never shaken. Expressions from his writings have become axioms, creeds and rallying cries to great multitudes of his countrymen. Three quarters of a century have elapsed since his death, and yet his ideas, doctrines and teachings are still quoted and accepted without any apparent diminution of their influence. Cicero had in mind an exact prototype of Jefferson when he said, "Homines ad deos nulla re propius accedunt quam salutem hominibus dando."1

Authentic history shows a persistent tendency of the Anglo-Saxon race in the unswerving direction of personal liberty. The inhabitants of the American Colonies revealed a tenacity and self-assertiveness in this direction to a greater extent than had ever been shown in England. The Jeffersonian idea has ever been that there shall be no king; that the sovereign ruler should be placed on the same level and be judged by the same principles as the humblest citizen; that the lords of the manors are entitled to no more privileges than the poorest peasant; that these rights are inalienable, and that any government which disregards them must of necessity be tyrannical.

In his introduction to De Tocqueville’s able "Democracy in America," Mr. John T, Morgan thus describes the formative period of the American Republic, a period in which the name of Thomas Jefferson must, if justice be meted out to him, appear in every chapter, and in every important achievement that was then made:

"In the eleven years that separated the Declaration of the Independence of the United States from the completion of that act in the ordination of our written Constitution, the great minds of America were bent upon the study of the principles of government that were essential to the preservation of the liberties which had been won at great cost and with heroic labors and sacrifices. Their studies were conducted in view of the imperfections that experience had developed in the government of the Confederation, and they were, therefore, practical and thorough. When the Constitution was thus perfected and established, a new form of government was created, but it was neither speculative nor experimental as to the principles on which it was based. If they were true principles, as they were, the government rounded upon them was destined to a life and an influence that would continue while the liberties it was intended to preserve should be valued by the human family. Those liberties had been wrung from reluctant monarchs in many contests, in many countries, and were grouped into creeds and established in ordinances sealed with blood, in many great struggles of the people. They were not new to the people. They were consecrated theories, but no government had been previously established for the great purpose of their preservation and enforcement. That which was experimental in our plan of government was the question whether democratic rule could be so organized and conducted that it would not degenerate into license and result in the tyranny of absolutism, without saving to the people the power so often found necessary of representing or destroying their enemy, when he was found in the person of a single despot."

In this excerpt the true democratic principles upon which the American Republic was founded, and which principles were largely conceived and put in shape by Thomas Jefferson, are dearly and concisely set forth. De Tocqueville, born and reared amid monarchial surroundings, though brilliant and learned as he was, could not measure the depths to which Jefferson had dug into the labyrinths of free thought and free institutions, and the consequence was that all of his conjectures as to the life and perpetuity of a government based upon the will and wishes of its subjects could not endure, went for naught, and subjected him to a just criticism not only by the advocates of such a government, but by the government itself. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States, while defending the doctrines of universal liberty, for which the State of Massachusetts had always stood, in his great speech in reply to Senator Hayne, of South Carolina, exclaimed in stentorian voice, "I shall enter on no encomium upon Massachusetts; she needs none. There she is. Behold her and judge for yourself. There is her history; the inhabitants know it by heart." So we can say to De Tocqueville, who had said of the Government of the United States, that it is all sail and no ballast, and that it possessed no power to resist internal strife, and, therefore, could not endure: there she is; she needs no encomium by us; there she stands, and she has stood firmly in the face of all sorts of opposition for more than a hundred years, and we believe she will endure forever!

In close relationship to that reign of democratic government which Jefferson so earnestly sought to establish, lies, in open view, the necessity for the education of the people, and to its accomplishment he dedicated, in early life, his talents and his energies. He saw then, and we, at this later period of our national growth and development, realize it all the more, that the strength and perpetuity of all free governments rest mainly upon the education of their subjects. Without it such governments fall easy victims to ignorant military captains and civil demagogues of low repute. Free government is better than monarchy in proportion to the intelligence of the governed. Where every citizen has by systematic training been rooted and grounded in the fruitful soil of knowledge, the principles and practices of self-restraint, and the generous ways of freedom, his loyalty to country cannot easily be shaken, nor can he easily be drawn into hostile schemes against the government that protects him. Jefferson saw clearly the necessity of a general system of education, and was among the very first to move in the direction of its establishment. He was so earnest an advocate of the necessity for and the advantages of education, that he never relaxed his efforts, although vigorously opposed by many of his able associates, until he established the University of Virginia to be finally supported by the State, as an open forum for the education of the young men of the Commonwealth; and his biographers inform us that he regarded this the most important achievement of his great career. In fact, he esteemed this victory so highly that he directed the words to be placed upon his tombstone at Monticello—" Founder of the University of Virginia." No act of his revealed more fully than this the tactician and the statesman, and no single act of his, although his entire career was strewn with great deeds, did so much to usher in a golden era of humanity and an universal monarchy of man, which, under God, is coming by and by.

Jefferson began public life early. Shortly after his graduation from William and Mary’s College, the oldest educational institution in Virginia, he took up the study of law, and within a very few years he had gathered about him a profitable clientage. In this, the foremost of the learned professions, his genius as a tactician was early displayed. On account of his comparative youthfulness and the limited time that he had been at the bar, he could not, in the nature of things, have been an erudite lawyer, and yet the registry of the courts before which he practiced showed that in the fourth year, after he became a barrister, he was employed in four hundred and thirty important cases. No one but a tactful man, however great his learning, in so short a period of time, could make a record of that exalted grade. He was, therefore, at the beginning of his career as a public man, frank, earnest, cordial, sympathetic in his manner, full of confidence in men, and sanguine in his views of life, which gave him a grip upon those about him, as a leader equipped by nature for achievements of the highest and most important possibilities.

As a delegate to the Second Continental Congress Mr. Jefferson had a leading share in its deliberatioris, although that body embraced many of the most distinguished men of that period. The most important act of that assembly was the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which, as I have already stated, he himself drafted. It is said, however, that he was most valuable in committee work, because of the aptness of his sensible and methodical mind, and the ingenuity he possessed in putting his ideas upon paper, and doing it in such a way as to create but little, if any, antagonisms. In all of the official stations in which he was placed by his fellow citizens, by means of his talents for constructive statesmanship, and his persuasive and conciliatory spirit, he invariably displayed a remarkable talent for tact in parliamentary leadership.

Military chieftains often win immortal renown as the result of a single important battle, and often flash like rush-light stars across the sky of history. But this is not true of men like Jefferson and others of his class. They grow into great characters, and they build monuments to their memories which the tooth of time cannot destroy. There is nothing ephemeral or evanescent in the makeup of their records. They build not for a day nor a year, but for the centuries. Indeed, it may be said that they build for eternity, and thus many of them have builded wiser than they knew. The following is a summary of Jefferson’s achievements:

1. Jefferson, although eight years at the bar, became a lawyer of renown, and an acknowledged leader in the profession.

2. For many years he was a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and possessed therein an influence almost supreme.

3. He was a member of different conventions, selected by the people of Virginia, to consider the state of the colony, to provide against taxation without representation, and to secure greater liberties for the people, and was a leader in them all.

4. He was chairman of the three committees appointed in 1774 by the Virginia Convention, (1) to provide for the better education of the people; (2), for the arming of the militia of the colony; and (3), to draw up a statement of the causes which had impelled the colonies to take up arms against the mother country.

5. He was a member of the Continental Congress which adopted the Declaration of American Independence, and was the writer of that immortal document, which of itself entitles him to enduring fame. For more than a century and a quarter it has been read every year in all parts of the Republic to assembled multitudes on the anniversary of its ratification, and it has been used as a model by all peoples since its adoption, who have sought to secure for themselves freedom and self-government.

6. He was Governor of Virginia during the latter part of the Revolution, and at the end of his term of office, the House of Burgesses publicly thanked him for the able and patriotic services rendered by him during his administration of that exalted station.

7. He, while a member of the American Congress after the adoption of our present Constitution, was the author of the system of coinage which, with some amendments, is still in vogue in the United States.

8. He was, in the early years of the Republic, twice commissioned by Congress as Minister Plenipotentiary to negotiate treaties of commerce with European States, and in this, as in all other public undertakings, he exhibited the highest character of tact and diplomacy.

9. He was five years Minister to France, was exceedingly popular, and secured several important modifications of the French tariff in the interests of American commerce.

10. As the first Secretary of State under Washington, he handled, with consummate skill, the perplexing international questions which grew out of the war declared by France in 1793, against Holland and Great Britain.

11. In 1796 he became Vice-President, and was elevated to the Presidency in 1800, and was re-elected in 1804. In this great office he regarded himself purely as a trustee of the public, and the simplicity of his customs and his manly demeanor in office brought to him the confidence of the people of the country at large.

12. The crowning glory of his administration was the purchase of the territory of Louisiana from France. This single act made his administration historic, and the people are even now only beginning to fully appreciate it as they should.

13. In the manner in which he controlled politics during his two terms as President, which resulted almost in the total absorption or annihilation of the Federalist party, he exhibited the qualities of a tactician rarely, if ever, equaled.

14. After forty years of public life, the illustrious Commoner retired to private life upon his farm at Monticello, and gave his remaining years to the establishment and building up of the University of Virginia, which became a noted centre of learning before his death, and has been, for over three quarters of a century, the leading university of the South.

Thomas Jefferson was a great man, a great diplomatist, a great tactician and an illustrious citizen and patriot. His name and his deeds will be cherished and admired as long as the English language is read or spoken, and as long as human lips lisp the name of liberty.

1 There is no way by which man can approach nearer to the gods than by contributing to the welfare of their fellow creatures.


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Chicago: Thomas Jefferson, "Jefferson as a Tactician," Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6 in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 6 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XX Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9LHVZGH28H69SVP.

MLA: Jefferson, Thomas. "Jefferson as a Tactician." Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6, in Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 6 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XX, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9LHVZGH28H69SVP.

Harvard: Jefferson, T, 'Jefferson as a Tactician' in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 6. cited in , Thomas Jefferson, the Writings of Jefferson: Monticello Edition, Vol. 6 (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), Pp.I-XX. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=9LHVZGH28H69SVP.