The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Presidential Leadership

What former President George Bush disdained as "the vision thing" is surely the most important factor in presidential leadership. Leadership means, after all, to guide and direct on a course into the future, and how can one do this if there is no vision, no concept of goal and intention, no perception of where we as a nation should be going? Other leadership factors are important, but they are generally only elements that complement this primary one which says to the people of a nation, "This is what I believe this nation is all about; this is what I think the people of this nation, in their heart of hearts, want this nation to be." Thus, we can identify a large number of elements that constitute presidential leadership, but all of them focus on this looking forward to where we are going.

Those who would look backwards rarely advertise themselves as such, of course. It is more often a position obtained by default: they have no plan for future advancement; they merely want to undo things as they are and return to a mythical time when things were better than now. But in our national life as in our personal lives, we know that we cannot go backwards. The future demands an active and energetic response.

How is this vision expressed by Presidential candidates? Sometimes the approach is direct: "My vision for America is..." Other times it is understood from the promises and pledges made. Programs that are suggested generally outline the goals of a new administration. Still other times, it can be understood from what a presidential candidate is against. Opposition can be just as strong an indication of a candidate's vision for the nation as approbation.

The President is not an absolute ruler. He does not dictate to the people what their future will be. As the chief executive of a free nation, he acts on behalf of the people.

    "The whole body of the nation is the sovereign legislative, judiciary, and executive power for itself. The inconvenience of meeting to exercise these powers in person, and their inaptitude to exercise them, induce them to appoint special organs to declare their legislative will, to judge and to execute it. --Thomas Jefferson to E. Randolph, 1799.

The ultimate powers of government rest in the people, not in a leader. But the people cannot meet together to conduct the nations business, and even if they could (as they well might in the coming electronic age), they are not competent to exercise those powers. Contrary to what some might suggest, the best way to run a government is not by polls, or by letting everyone vote on every piece of legislation. There is a place for competent leadership, which we may expect to have a better, more comprehensive vision of the direction the nation should be moving in than the people themselves. Under normal circumstances, the people express their approbation of that direction in their selection of representatives in Congress. In times of war, the people look to a single strong leader who will coordinate all efforts.

    "In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the Executive solely." --Thomas Jefferson to C. Rodney, 1810.

Under ordinary circumstances, Congress should be the legislating power, the President mainly executing the will of the people as expressed through their legislators. The legislative branch should be the dominant one in peace. Admittedly, when government is corrupted by private interests, having the people themselves vote on every piece of legislation might seem superior to the state of things into which the nation has fallen. But the way good government is supposed to function is just as Jefferson describes it: the people establish branches of government to administer the three governmental functions, legislative, judicial and executive, administered by persons of ability. And the people oversee their administration and exercise their sovereignty with their ballots at appropriately frequent intervals.

    "The principal executive functionaries and those of the legislature are renewed by [the people] at short periods." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806.

The President, therefore, acts on behalf of the people, who control his time in office, unlike a dictator who serves for life or until overthrown. And the President's actions are acts of the whole American people because they have, in their collective capacity, empowered him to serve in their stead.

    "We now find [the people] equal to the election of those who shall be invested with their executive and legislative powers." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jones, 1814.

Notice, it is their, i.e., the people's, executive powers. Nevertheless, the President is not just a bean-counter. He is expected to be more competent at governing than the people themselves, but he is also expected to execute the will of the people.

    "The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." --Thomas Jefferson to B. Waring, 1801.

If the President is to do the "will of the people," wherein lies the need for his expertise? If the people are not competent to govern, why should their will be a factor in government? Isn't it contradictory to state that the people are not competent to govern, but the President should execute their will?

    The President as Educator

It is the responsibility of the President, not to dictate the course of government, but to lead the people in accordance with the vision he is able to articulate. The people's will is an essential element because though not competent to perform the executive duties, they do possess common sense, judgment of human character, and moral integrity. If they do not possess these things, then all is lost, and there is no chance that a free society will continue to exist. Hence,

    "To inform the minds of the people, and to follow their will, is the chief duty of those placed at their head." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Dumas, 1787.

The first responsibility of the President, therefore, is an educational one. His job is to project his vision of the path that the nation should follow, and to educate and convince the people that this is the right path. Thus the President literally reasons with and convinces the people and brings them along with him; it is not his rightful prerogative to launch out on his own, regardless of the rightness of his intentions.

    "Reason, not rashness, is the only means of bringing our fellow citizens to their true minds." --Thomas Jefferson to N. Lewis, 1799.

The people, however, are, in effect, the final judges. If they remain unconvinced, if they believe the Presidential leadership is mistaken, then it is their job to replace him.

    "The Legislative and Executive branches may sometimes err, but elections and dependence will bring them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Thweat, 1821.

The chief guide in all these proceedings is the Constitution, which establishes the limits of governmental power. It expresses the intent of the people, and establishes the standard against which all government actions are measured.

    "When the legislative or executive functionaries act unconstitutionally, they are responsible to the people in their elective capacity... The people themselves,... [with] their discretion [informed] by education, [are] the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jarvis, 1820.

The President is not the only educator of the people, of course. The press is also expected to keep the people informed so that they will be aware when constitutional power is being abused. Political candidates in opposition to those in power also perform this function, and that suggests a campaign strategy that should be one of the most persuasive that could be mounted: to publish evidence that an elected official is abusing his constitutional powers and undermining the principles on which our nation is founded. What could be a stronger argument than one based on the limits to power established in the Constitution? Unfortunately, candidates rarely rely on such fundamentals, nor pledge to restore constitutional limits to Congressional and Executive powers. Rather, they are more likely to try to outdo one another in promising new benefactions if elected.

    The President as Pragmatist

The President of the United States is said to be the most powerful head of state in the whole world, yet his power is not unlimited. Most of this power derives from the fact that he is chief executive of the most powerful nation in the world. There are certainly petty tyrants in third world countries who have more personal power, who are themselves beyond the law and have the power of life and death over their subjects. In a free society, where the people enjoy a certain level of liberty, the President is limited in what he can do by the ability of a whole people to move ahead with him.

    "When we reflect how difficult it is to move or inflect the great machine of society, how impossible to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right, we see the wisdom of Solon's remark that no more good must be attempted than the nation can bear, and that all will be chiefly to reform the waste of public money and thus drive away the vultures who prey upon it and improve some little upon old routines. Some new fences for securing constitutional rights may, with the aid of a good Legislature, perhaps be attainable." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jones, 1801.

Any leader is limited to how far the people will go along the path of "ideal right." One of the greatest improvements that the executive can bring is simply to eliminate waste and bring ordinary procedures up to date: to bring economy and efficiency to government. Rather than introducing mighty improvements, just to conduct the ordinary business of government more efficiently and economically is an achievement in itself, and can relieve the people of the burden of supporting excessive offices and expenses. Add to that some additional protections for constitutional rights (requiring also a good Legislature), and it is a job well-done.

    "A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Cooper, 1802.

How seldom do we hear genuine pledges to conduct government on a noiseless course! The pledges to end government "interference" are invariably to give free rein to private interests. Getting government off our backs is frequently accompanied by intrusions into our private lives that would leave the Founding Fathers aghast. Efforts to end government give-aways are invariably directed at the poor and powerless, while billions in aid to well-to-do corporations, which just happen to be generous campaign contributors, go untouched. The honest operation of government requires little more than the good, common sense that comes from experience in this world.

    "The ordinary affairs of a nation offer little difficulty to a person of any experience." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Sullivan, 1808.

Honesty and integrity, right and wrong, and not highly complicated matters. In fact, they are virtually instinctive.

    "It behooves [a chief executive] to think and act for [himself] and for [his] people. The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. [He need] only aim to do [his] duty, and mankind will give [him] credit where [he fails]." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

Judging what is right and wrong is not difficult for a disinterested honest person. The Spirit of our Times, however, finds almost everyone in public office seeking means to advance his own interests or those of his campaign contributors, and an impartial view of what is good for the nation as a whole is lost sight of. What will satisfy a private interest or campaign contributor replaces the disinterested approach, and they are frequently called in to write the very legislation that is designed to regulate them. Corruption is endemic, and even receives legislative approval as campaign contributors seek to influence the legislative process with their gifts. Such contributions were once considered outrageous; now they are accepted and legal.

    The President as an Ordinary Person

It is difficult for us in this modern age to grasp the view of the world held by the Founding Fathers. They grew up under, and declared their independence from, a world dominated by monarchy and aristocracy. Therefore, the more republican citizens of that age, especially Jefferson, exhibited an aversion to monarchy and the excessive trappings of office.

    "In America, no other distinction between man and man [has] ever been known but that of persons in office exercising powers by authority of the laws, and private individuals. Among these last, the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar." --Thomas Jefferson to Demeunier, 1786.

During the early years of the republic, the Federalists favored a strong central government, and many of them leaned toward monarchial forms. But Jefferson sought to reverse that course and to establish a sense of the President as the executive of a republic where the people, not the head of state, are the sovereign.

    "We have suppressed all those public forms and ceremonies which tended to familiarize the public eye to the harbingers of another form of government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1802.

Hence, excessive ceremony was avoided. That sort of thing is associated more with an absolute ruler than with a leader of the people.

    The President as Trustee

In his position as head of the Executive branch, the President is the embodiment of governmental power and the person to whom the whole nation looks for leadership.

    "Responsibility is a tremendous engine in a free government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Stuart, 1791.

With responsibility resting on a single head, the President becomes personally answerable in a free society--to the press, to the people. The force of public opinion exerts itself in a free society in a way that does not happen in an oppressed one.

    "The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823.

No head of government can ignore public opinion. When the force of public opinion turns against him, no chief executive of a free nation can survive, as President Johnson discovered at the end of his first full term, and as President Nixon discovered mid-term in his second.

    "Ministers... cannot in any country be uninfluenced by the voice of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

Responsibility of a group, such as Congress, is harder to nail down than that of a single person. President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk, "The buck stops here," which no doubt served as a reminder to him that the whole nation held him responsible for every executive act of government. Like every President before and since, he had many advisors and assistants. But the final decision was always his responsibility.

    "We have, I think, fallen on the happiest of all modes of constituting the Executive, that of easing and aiding our President by permitting him to choose Secretaries of State, of Finance, of War and of the Navy with whom he may advise, either separately or all together, and remedy their divisions by adopting or controlling their opinions at his discretion; this saves the nation from the evils of a divided will and secures to it a steady march in the systematic course which the President may have adopted for that of his administration." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Coray, 1823.

This is the essence of a strong executive, one able to lead and to accomplish things, but yet moving ahead well-advised and well-informed. Being responsible to the people and subject to the force of public opinion, means that maintaining the confidence of the people is of prime importance. President Nixon was considered outstanding in foreign relations, but such excellence was not sufficient to save him.

    "It is not wisdom alone but public confidence in that wisdom which can support an administration." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1824.

President Clinton is often criticized for his attention to the polls and for bending policy to conform to public opinion. But as we have seen, public opinion is an essential element of government in a free nation. It provides national leaders with a sense of how far they can go in pursuit of certain objects.

    "The advantage of public opinion is like that of the weather-gauge in a naval action." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815.

Would such critics of the President suggest that he ignore public opinion and do whatever he wishes, adopting the attitude, "Let the public be damned"? Of course not! A President cannot be faulted for seeking policies that will retain the public confidence.

    "The energy of the government depending mainly on the confidence of the people in the Chief Magistrate makes it his duty to spare nothing which can strengthen him with that confidence." --Thomas Jefferson to H. Turpin, 1807.

Where those critics find fault is when President Clinton neglects the educational function of the Presidency which we addressed above. He frequently does not, as a wise leader must, determine what is a rightful course for the nation to follow, whether the people are supportive of that course or not, and then seek to educate them so that they become supportive. An effective leader builds confidence in the people, even when it may not be there at first. This is the "blood, sweat and tears" approach that is necessary when difficult policies must be pursued. This was the essential element that made Winston Churchill such a great leader, whatever his other failings. One means for building this confidence is to be honest with the people and to outline to them unequivocally the problems that are faced. Jefferson spoke to this issue with special reference to foreign nations; but the principle applies at home as well.

    "I hope that to preserve this weather-gauge of public opinion and to counteract the slanders and falsehoods disseminated by the... papers, the government will make it a standing instruction... to keep [the people] truly informed of occurrences here by publishing in [the] papers the naked truth always, whether favorable or unfavorable. For they will believe the good if we candidly tell them the bad also." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815.

We are familiar with the government agencies that try to hide their foul-ups from the public, that do not notify the public when they have mistakenly done something to harm them, thus often making the harm that much greater. The cover-up is a natural human tendency: we all try to sweep things under the rug in hopes that they will either go away or not be noticed, and sometimes it works. But a government that takes the opposite course displays more maturity and receives greater confidence from the people. Instead of that, however, we find an excess of secrecy in government as it seeks to hide its actions from the very people it is meant to serve!

    "No ground of support for the Executive will ever be so sure as a complete knowledge of their proceedings by the people; and it is only in cases where the public good would be injured, and because it would be injured, that proceedings should be secret. In such cases it is the duty of the Executive to sacrifice their personal interest (which would be promoted by publicity) to the public interest." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Washington, 1793.

This means honest, forthright dealings with the public. Never would this countenance deceiving the public in order to pursue a policy that the public would oppose if known. Secrecy is justified only when knowledge of proceedings would injure the public. Even if the President would have a personal advantage for facts to be made known, they should remain secret to protect the public good. This defines integrity in government. This was where officials failed in the prosecution of the Vietnam War, because secrecy was maintained, not to prevent knowledge by the enemy and consequently injury to the nation, but to prevent the people themselves from knowing the true nature of the proceedings. Secrecy is too often the accomplice of dishonesty and deceit, and to that extent, it undermines the foundations of free government.

    "Government [is] founded in opinion and confidence." --Thomas Jefferson: Anas, 1792.

It might seem inconceivable that a government of the people, in which the people themselves are the ultimate sovereign, would seek to deceive the people and carry on operations that the people would strongly disapprove, were they know to them. To the extent it does that, such a government has ceased being a government of the people, of course. It has become a power unto itself, and has stopped serving the people and started demanding the people serve it. Through dishonesty, deceit and secrecy, government evades its responsibility to a free people. And to that extent, it has placed itself and the whole nation in danger, for as Jefferson wrote:

    "Let nothing be spared of either reason or passion to preserve the public confidence entire as the only rock of our safety." --Thomas Jefferson to C. Rodney, 1810.

Presidential leadership, then, means informed guidance from a man of the people, who respects the people, who desires their confidence and does not abuse it. It means a person of simple honesty who tells things like they are, and informs the people of what they need to do, even if it entails great difficulty or suffering. A nation is great, not just because of great leaders, but because its people are great. At most, a great leader can only give expression to the spirit of the nation while guiding and nurturing that spirit.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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