Author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, first Secretary of State, Minister to France and founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson continues to inspire people today. A skilled diplomat, philosopher, architect, archeologist, inventor, writer and musician, Jefferson is often referred to as “America’s Leonardo Da Vinci.” But, while his accomplishments are impressive, it is some of his actions that provide leadership lessons we can emulate. Consider the following piece of history:
In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, American colonies traded extensively across the Mediterranean Sea. During this time, British tribute treaties—exorbitant fees paid to North Africa’s Barbary States for the right to use international waters near their shorelines—protected American trade ships. But, when the American colonies broke away from English rule, we lost this protection. Barbary pirates immediately attacked our ships, captured American sailors and held them as slaves, demanding ransom far beyond what our new nation could afford.
Crippled by these attacks, American trade across the Mediterranean stopped almost entirely. In 1784, Congress decided it would be cheaper to pay tributes to the Barbary States than to lose the income the trade route provided, and it appointed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate the fees. Jefferson, adopting a stance well ahead of his time, advised against giving in to the pirates’ demands, stating, “Our trade to Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive.” In short: We should not negotiate with terrorists. Unfortunately, no one listened, and Congress appropriated money for tributes—but the attacks continued.
Within months of George Washington’s election as president, pirates from Algiers had captured 11 American ships and more than 100 American prisoners. Jefferson, serving as Washington’s Secretary of State asked the President to declare war on the pirates, stating the tribute payments would only fund the attacks into perpetuity. Washington did not heed this advice, and sent diplomats to negotiate for the prisoners’ release, but without success. Washington agreed to pay Algiers a sum so large, the United States had to borrow money just to cover the initial payment.
When John Adams became president in 1797, he continued to pay the tributes. Jefferson, in a strongly worded letter, urged Adams to take military action against the pirates, stating, “Justice is in favor of this opinion! Honor favors it!” President Adams disagreed, and by 1800, the United States was paying 20% of its annual revenue to the pirates.
When Jefferson took office as president in 1801, tension between our new nation and the Barbary pirates was at an all-time high. Believing the tributes only made the pirates more greedy and violent, Jefferson announced there would be no more payments. When Tripoli demanded a lump sum of $225,000 in addition to its annual tribute of $25,000, Jefferson refused to pay, and Tripoli declared war. Already prepared, President Jefferson sent our newly equipped Navy by sea and a detachment of Marines by land to defeat the pirates and establish a lasting legacy that American citizens would not bow to terrorists.
A careful examination of this narrative reveals more than is, at first, apparent. Jefferson saw the solution, almost from the start, but no one listened. We, as leaders face similar challenges where we can only affect change within our scope of power. So, what do we do when the problem extends beyond what we can directly control?
Thomas Jefferson often said, “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act!” Jefferson didn’t give up when his suggestions were rejected—not the first time, and not the 20th time. Rather than feel defeated that he couldn’t persuade those in power to make a change, he concentrated on taking action where he could: He bought a copy of the Koran and studied it intently so he could understand the religious beliefs driving the attacks. He interviewed sailors who had been taken captive by the pirates, asking questions about the geography of the area, and he spent time with military officers, learning about warships and strategy and what our military needed to be successful during battle. Jefferson did the prep work to create forward change, and when the opportunity to enact that change presented itself, he was ready. Jefferson didn’t stand on the sidelines, watching others; he stayed in the game. How much do we accomplish when we do, too?
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Thomas Jefferson understood that leaders should always push forward. What are some small steps you’ve taken to solve large problems? Or, what do you wish you’d done differently? Please share your stories and ideas in the comments section, below!