Handle Criticism Like Jefferson

Handle Criticism Like Jefferson | Self Governance Project
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Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:38-39 KJV

Criticism and personal attacks are ever-present in our technologically connected society. So when they find you, how do you deal with them?

Do you get defensive and retaliate? Or do you keep your head down and ignore it?

Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with criticism during his lifetime. As one historian wrote, Jefferson “suffered open personal attacks which in severity and obscenity have rarely if ever been matched in presidential history in the United States.”1Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801 – 1805. Jefferson and His Time, vol. 4 p. 206 Despite sharp criticism, attacks, and slanders, Jefferson handled each of them with poise and dignity. In fact, some of the greatest lessons on handling criticism can be found in the life of Thomas Jefferson. So, here are several stories from the life of Jefferson that give us an example of how we might act when the critics raise their voices.

The Declaration of Independence

Drafting the document

In June of 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to prepare a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was decided by the committee that one person should create a draft of the document. Adams believed it should be Jefferson to write it, but Jefferson believed that Adams was more equipped. However, Adams eventually convinced Jefferson to take up the task.

Unbeknownst to many people, Jefferson labored in drafting the Declaration in the summer of 1776 under great personal stress. His mother and his daughter had recently died, and he was becoming increasingly concerned with the health of his beloved wife.

Despite these matters that weighed on his mind, after Congress adjourned each day, Jefferson would run to his rented apartment in Philadelphia and work on his draft from about 6 pm until midnight. He composed and revised this document over and over for seventeen days. From the surviving manuscripts, we can see that Jefferson took this task very seriously. He repeatedly changed words and modified passages in order to give the document both strength and beauty.

Reception from congress

When Jefferson had completed his draft, he presented it to the committee where John Adams and Benjamin Franklin made only a few minor changes to some wording. Jefferson then submitted the document to Congress on Friday, June 28.

On Tuesday, July 2, 1776, Congress voted in favor of Independence and took up a debate over the document that Jefferson had written. For nearly three days, Congress debated the document that Jefferson had worked hard to produce. The Congressmen debated over every word, and Dr. Franklin later remarked that he noticed Jefferson “writhing a little under the acrimonious criticisms.”2Bergh, Albert Ellery. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 volumes. 18:168-70.

Lessons from Jefferson’s reaction

However, Jefferson said not a word. They skewered the document with criticism and debate. So why did he not say anything? When someone has criticized your best work or said it wasn’t good enough, what was your reaction?

Jefferson provided the reason he was silent to James Madison saying he believed it a “duty to be on that occasion a passive auditor of the opinions of others, more impartial judges than I could be of its merits or demerits.”3Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (30 Aug. 1823), Bergh 15:463.

From this, we learn a couple of things.

First, despite all the negativity toward the document that certainly must have been shared, Jefferson did not feel the need to get defensive, believing that the Declaration would stand or fall due to its own merits. Although, it was helpful that John Adams was a fierce defender of the document in the debate. How often do we build our own creations and works up in our mind and shield them from criticism? Would it not be better to let them succeed or fail based on their own merits?

The second thing we can learn is that there may be someone who knows better than we do, and it is wise to seek and listen to their counsel. Arguably one of the most well-educated men in America at the time, Jefferson did not believe himself to be above criticism or error. By remaining silent through the debate, he humbly showed that he wanted the feedback because there might be some in Congress who could say an idea better than he could or someone who might think of something he had missed. Are we willing to have our ideas examined by others because they might have insights we don’t?

This virtue of remaining silent in the face of criticism would be one that Jefferson would practice often throughout his life, even amidst the most bitter personal attacks.

Personal Attacks

Now here’s where things might get controversial.

I’m going to challenge some of the preconceived notions you may have about Thomas Jefferson, but I’m going to do it with facts and evidence. So keep an open mind, don’t necessarily take my word for it, search it out yourself, but do pay attention to the principle exemplified by Jefferson at the end.

To really understand this story, we have to know who James Callender

Who Is James Callender?

During the Presidency of John Adams, the Federalist controlled Congress passed a law known as the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act gave the government power to imprison anyone who intended to oppose any measure of the government or anyone who wrote anything false, scandalous, or malicious about the government or any officials.

James Callender was a Republican “journalist” who had been very critical of the Federalists. He was, of course, imprisoned for his writings against the government. When Jefferson took office, he pardoned Callender, but Callender wanted more. That same year he told Secretary of State James Madison that he wanted to be appointed postmaster in Richmond, Virginia. The administration declined his request. Further adding insult to Callender, a sheriff who had collected a $200 fine from Callender refused to return the money even when ordered by the Jefferson administration.

Feeling that Jefferson had personally slighted him, Callender went to work for a Federalist paper in Richmond even though he had exclusively worked for Republican papers previously. And the Federalists did not like Jefferson.

Here is what one historian had to say about Callender: He was “the most unscrupulous scandalmonger of the day,…a journalist who stopped at nothing and stooped to anything… [He] was not an investigative journalist; he never bothered to investigate anything. For him, the story, especially if it reeked of scandal, was everything; truth, if it stood in his way, was summarily mowed down.”4Miller, John Chester, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, pp. 153-54.

Hardly sounds like a trustworthy guy, yet people believed (and still believe) him.

Accusations by Callender and the Federalists

Callender created a number of scandalous stories about Jefferson and his personal life which included Jefferson having attempted to seduce a married neighbor, and the most famous story – that he fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Of course, today many will say that DNA evidence brought forward in the 90s “confirmed” that Jefferson fathered children with Sally. However, Jefferson did not have any sons, and so making such a conclusion from DNA is rather difficult (see this article for more info). All the “DNA evidence” could conclude was that A Jefferson was the father, not necessarily THE Jefferson. Additionally, contemporary accounts confirmed that Sally Hemmings was the mistress of Thomas Jefferson’s nephew, Peter Carr.5Henry S. Randall to James Parton (1 June 1868), in Milton E. Flower, James Parton: The Father of Modern Biography (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1951), pp. 236-37.

Interestingly enough, Callender admitted in the very first story of Jefferson’s alleged misdeeds his personal vendetta against the president: “When Mr. Jefferson has read this article, he will find leisure to estimate how much has been lost or gained by so many unprovoked attacks on J. T. Callender.”6Callender, J. T., “The President Again”, The Recorder, September 1, 1802.

Over the course of Jefferson’s presidency, Federalist editors took these stories created by Callender and spread them like wildfire. Jefferson was charged with other evils such as being a “violent democrat,” a “vulgar demagogue,” and a “profligate man.”

As one historian has put it, “almost every scandalous story about Jefferson which is still whispered or believed” can be traced to Callender.7Adams, James Truslow, The Living Jefferson, p. 315 It is unfortunate that the same attacks Jefferson suffered in his own day have lasted until today.

Thomas Jefferson’s Character

However, these accusations simply don’t align with his actions.

Putting aside the evidence contrary to the charge that Jefferson engaged in extramarital affairs, Jefferson’s character around the death of his wife should give us some insight into who he was and how he cherished relationships. Before his wife passed away, his daughter wrote:

As a nurse no female ever had more tenderness nor anxiety. He nursed my poor mother…sitting up with her and administering her medicines and drink to the last. For four months that she lingered, he was never out of calling; when not at her bedside, he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed.8Randolph, Sarah N., The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 63.

When his wife finally passed away on September 6, 1782, the same daughter recounted:

A moment before the closing scene, he was led from the room in a state of insensibility by his siter, Mrs. Carr, who, with great difficulty got him into the library, where he fainted, and remained so long insensibl that they feared he never would revive. The scene that followed, I did not witness, but the violence of his emotion, when almost by stealth, I entered his room by night, to this day I dare not describe to myself.

He kept his room three weeks, and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly night and day, only lying down occasionally, when nature was completely exhausted…9Randolph, Sarah N., The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 63.

Thomas Jefferson loved his wife so dearly. He would never remarry.

Another experience from a woman who harbored ill feelings toward Jefferson indicates what kind of man he actually was. Having met Jefferson for the first time, the woman later remarked:

Can this man so meek and mild, yet dignified in his manners, with a voice so soft and low, with a countenance so benignant and intelligent, can he be that daring leader of a faction, that disturber of the peace, that enemy of all rank and order?

I felt that I had been the victim of prejudice, that I had been unjust… Not only was he great, but a truly good man!10Smith, Margaret Bayard, The First Forty Years of Washington Society in the Family Letters of Margaret Bayard Smith. pp. 5-6, 8.

In an interview, his eldest grandson (who spent the most time with Thomas Jefferson of anyone) stated:

I never heard from him the expression of one thought, feeling, or sentiment inconsistent with the highest moral standard, or the purest Christian charity in its most enlarged sense. His moral character was of the highest order, founded upon the purest and sternest models of antiquity, [but] softened, chastened, and developed by the influences of the all-pervading benevolence of the doctrines of Christ – which he had intensely and admiringly studied.11Randall, Henry S. Life of Thomas Jefferson. Pages 671-76.

According to these witnesses, he was not a “violent democrat.” He was not a “vulgar demagogue.” Nor was he a “profligate man.”

Jefferson’s Response

The evidence set forth about Jefferson’s moral character is certainly not exhaustive. Many books have been written about this very subject. Much of this evidence is still argued about today.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Jefferson never did or was the things of which he was accused because he certainly believed himself to be innocent. What was his response?

In one letter to a friend he wrote:

I know that I might have filled the courts of the United States with actions for these slanders, and have ruined perhaps many persons who are not innocent. But this would be no equivalent to the loss of [my own] character [by retaliating]. I leave them, therefore, to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will yet come a day when the false witness will meet a judge Who has not slept over his slanders.12Thomas Jefferson to Uriah McGregory. Memior, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, Vol. III, p. 439. August 13, 1800.

How could any mortal remain so silent in the face of such personal attacks, especially when they were untrue?

Again, Jefferson’s eldest grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph explained exactly how he was able to do it.

In speaking of the calumnies which his enemies had uttered against his public and private character with such unmitigated and untiring bitterness, he said that he had not considered them as abusing him; they had never known him. They had created an imaginary being clothed with odious attributes, to whom they had given his name; and it was against that creature of their imaginations they had levelled their anathemas.13Thomas Jefferson Randolph to Henry S. Randall in The Life of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 3, p. 544.

How much better off would each one of us be when we face criticisms or attacks if we were to take this approach? More often than not, people who demean us don’t really know who we truly are. The person they are criticizing is just someone they have conjured up in their mind with only small resemblances of the actual person.

By pursuing this line of thinking whenever faced with what we deem as personal attacks, we would not only be able to avoid potential conflict and hate, but we would also be able to assume the best intentions of others. Many times, people level criticisms our way simply because they are acting on bad or false information. We need not assume that these people are necessarily nefarious. And if they are, Jefferson had a reason for not retaliating against them either: “I leave them, therefore, to the reproof of their own consciences. If these do not condemn them, there will yet come a day when the false witness will meet a judge Who has not slept over his slanders.”14Barton, David. The Jefferson Lies. p. 57

God is the ultimate judge of our conduct. Jefferson was confident that the charges raised against him were false and that God would ultimately punish those who broke the 9th commandment. Indeed, this kind of thinking brings to mind the words of Jesus Christ where he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

None of this is to say that Jefferson was a perfect man. He certainly had his faults. But these stories and accounts are ones that have been forgotten in our modern “woke” culture. The great irony of our time, however, is that in this our age of microaggressions, exalted victimhood, and social justice, we have forgotten how to let untrue words fall to the wayside. Our personal lives (and our society) would be much better off if we would not spend so much emotional capital on the haters and nay-sayers. Taking the Jefferson route would allow us to spend our time in pursuit of better things.


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