The best way to understand what type of leader, and how effective someone will be is to observe them when they are a follower. When someone is in a subordinate position, they have a great deal of options available to them, even more so than the leader whom they are following. The leader has been chosen, or has chosen for themselves, a specific position to which they usually must stay for a certain period of time. As a follower, there is much more freedom to come and go as one pleases, being that they are more dispensable to the organization than their leader. This being the case, the follower can choose to support the leader, to stand behind their every decision, thereby making them an even better leader. If they do not like that option, they can simply leave and pursue a different path. The other option is to stay, but circumvent, question, and undermine the leader. This type of follower makes the worst leader. Often times how someone follows is indicative of how they will lead. To demonstrate this principle, let us evaluate the two men who are often considered the greatest leaders of the Revolutionary era in American history: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These two men more than all others in their generation, are often considered foundational to the birth and development of this country. Their leadership is the subject of much historical scholarship, and is the building block for democracy and the responsibility of government. Very little, however, has been written about their followership. This is a highly important subject because both of these men were, in some capacity, followers before they were leaders. By examining their followership you can see precisely how it led to their style of leadership. In the case of George Washington, the bulk of his followership stems from his military service. Washington’s first military experience came in 1754 as a young major in the service of the British. His series of blunders here, which were not minor, were the opening events in the French and Indian War. In characterizing Washington’s followership in his early military career, one group of authors describes Washington by saying that, “He was headstrong, ambitious, egotistical, and was known to lose his temper with superior officers.” (Barlow, Jordan, and Hendrix, 2003, pg. 565) If this was any indication of the type of leadership Washington would later display, his followers would be few and far between. The very next year Washington would get a chance to demonstrate if he would choose a different type of followership. He would tag along with General Braddock as a Lieutenant Colonel in the familiar territory of the Ohio. Being familiar with both the terrain and the style of warfare, Washington felt it necessary to speak to Braddock about it. History would record their conversation as follows. Washington, after speaking to Braddock for a while, concludes by saying "I beg of your excellency the honor to allow me to lead on with the Virginia Riflemen, and fight them in their own way." General Braddock, who had all along treated the American officers with infinite contempt, rejected Washington's counsel, and swelling with most unmanly rage, replied, "High times, by God, High times! When a young Buckskin can teach a British General how to fight!" (Neely, 1999, pg. 48) Just a short time later, Braddock would be a casualty of war and Washington, after taking charge of the men, would come to be known forever as the “Hero of the Monongahela”. Here is the best example of the mistakes of Washington’s followership turning into brilliances in his leadership. Noting specifically Washington’s failure at Fort Necessity in 1754 and his heroism at the Monongahela, Sylvia Neely notes that, “In some ways, the American victory in the Revolution stemmed from the lessons [he] had learned in past Indian wars.” (Neely, 1999, pg. 51) Washington, like all young, ambitious men, was initially a follower who thought he knew it all, and especially better than his commanding officers. He was able to control his own weaknesses and tendencies for the sake of “the mission”; for the sake of maintaining one unified purpose, even if it did not align with his own personal goals. Here is where we move to Thomas Jefferson, the focal point of this analysis. Little is known about Jefferson in his younger years. He was a student, and a very excellent one, until he was admitted to the Virginia Bar at the age of 24. Jefferson was involved in politics, but was never put in a position where he had to be an unwavering follower until 1789, when he became the first Secretary of State under George Washington. It is starting at this point that we will begin to examine Jefferson’s followership. One precept that must be laid out is the importance of followership in this specific period in American history. America was a brand new country, which inherently makes it a relatively unstable one. However, the America of 1789 was exceedingly more unstable because they had just come off of a devastating seven year war for independence against the greatest military power in the world. Additionally, they had just created an altogether new form of government under which no person in the world had ever lived, and the “Founding Fathers” were trying to work out all of the chinks in the armor as they went along. If anything was needed at this time, it was for leaders to have loyal followers. Unity was a top priority now more than ever because all it takes is one individual to dissent, take some followers with him, and the America that we know today would have been non-existent. With this precept understood, let us examine the actions of Jefferson as an influential governmental actor in the early days of the United States. Washington, as president, had two overwhelming challenges before him: it was his job to figure out what being a president meant, and thus it was his job to establish presidential precedents for all those who were to follow him. His other job, and by far the more difficult of the two, was to hold the young nation together. Either of these jobs in isolation would have been difficult enough, but combining the two was a tall order, even for George Washington. Having to accomplish these tasks meant that it was all the more important that Washington had followers who would support him and not subvert his authority. Joseph J. Ellis, in his book “Founding Brothers”, describes the Washington cabinet and the attitudes of those serving. Vice President John Adams, who had virtually no power or influence, had more reason than anyone to be disgruntled about his position in the administration. Of Adams, he writes, “In the American pantheon…he ranked second only to Washington himself.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 166) When Adams was given the Vice Presidency, he had no real role in the Executive Branch of government, and thus of all the cabinet members had ample reason to be upset. Yet, as Ellis writes, “He steadfastly supported all the major initiatives of the Washington administration, including Hamilton’s financial plan, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, the Proclamation of Neutrality, and Jay’s Treaty.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 167) It is highly unlikely that Adams agreed with all these policies, yet he understood the importance and necessity of supporting them. Alexander Hamilton had served under Washington in the American Revolution, and had developed an excellent knowledge of what constitutes a good follower, and, no doubt, understood the particular importance of that followership in the early days of American government. Of Hamilton, we read, “He was therefore well practiced in subordinating his own inclinations and style to Washington’s larger purposes.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 151) Jefferson, as brilliant as he was, had never had to practice serious followership and apparently could not grasp what that meant. Ellis writes a few telling things about how Jefferson thought, which of course dictated how he acted. He says that, “Jefferson’s views…were only seductive pieces of sentimentality, juvenile illusions in the real world of international relations.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 153) Speaking again of his thought processes, Ellis states that Jefferson “was more theoretical” and spoke and acted based on “the moralistic categories he carried around in his head”. (Ellis, 2000, pg. 143) If ever there was an ideologue, it was Thomas Jefferson. If Washington’s actions did not fit in with what he had read in his books, or fit in to the correct ideas of government as he thought of them, he simply could not bring himself to support them. As brilliant as Jefferson was, he was the worst follower of all the Founding Fathers. Let us look at some specific examples to better understand just how terrible of a follower Jefferson was, and how that failure of his led to a lack of leadership. In summarizing the Washington cabinet, Ellis says that “the need to subordinate narrow interests to the larger cause” was the central theme. (Ellis, pg. 148) Time and time again, Jefferson placed his “narrow interests” above the “larger cause” which resulted in immense turmoil. When John Adams wrote a series of essays about the need for a strong executive presence, Jefferson, in print, labeled them as “political heresies”. (Ellis, 2000, pg. 169) This would be the first step in the dissolution of his close friendship with Adams. This action fits perfectly into the mold which Ellis outlined for Jefferson. Jefferson’s ideas of limited government, and consequentially a weak executive branch, overruled his friendship with Adams and, more importantly, the actions that Washington had to perform to keep his beloved country together. Stemming from the same ideologies, Jefferson was constantly at feud with Hamilton over his financial plans, which, more than likely, were backed by Washington. For most of the time that Jefferson was Secretary of State, he constantly argued with Hamilton. Even when Jefferson was at home in his neo-classical mansion, supposedly being a farmer and botanist, he was stirring up trouble for Washington with James Madison, the ambassador to France. Neither Jefferson nor Madison were fond of Jay’s Treaty, and neither were terribly shy about it either. Madison in particular had to practice excellent followership given his government position. Jay’s Treaty gave international favor to Britain and slighted France and, as the representative of the United States to France under Washington, Madison would have to be very diplomatic, which he was usually quite skilled at. Ellis states the influence that Jefferson’s correspondence had on Madison by describing him as a “zealous Jefferson protégé”. (Ellis, 2000, pg. 146) This influence seemed to be so strong that it prompted Madison to do something so devastating to Washington, but more importantly to the entire country. Upon passage of Jay’s Treaty, Madison said, to the French government that “the French should feel perfectly free to retaliate against American ships on the high seas”, which “they began to do in the spring of 1796.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 146) Interestingly, Ellis notes what likely caused Jefferson and Madison’s lack of followership. “Intriguingly, the two chieftains of the Republican opposition, Jefferson and Madison, had never served in the army. They obviously did not understand.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 155) It is very interesting to note that the institution in which Washington developed excellent followership, and as a by-product leadership, Jefferson and Madison had never been a part of. Perhaps this is the biggest reason for their lack of followership. Washington had managed to stay above all of Jefferson’s feuding, since Jefferson had not attacked Washington directly. But this would not last forever. Jefferson, bound so tightly by his idealistic views of government, even began to attack Washington, which Ellis notes, “was the fastest way to commit political suicide in the revolutionary era.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 126) This is a wonderful example of how Jefferson could not flip the override switch if something conflicted with his theoretical and intellectual views of government, because even Jefferson himself noted that Washington was, “the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 138) Jefferson’s main point of contention with Washington was Jay’s Treaty, which gave Britain a great deal of international power and, in many ways, relegated America on the international scene. Ellis says that Washington “was attempting to steer a middle passage between England and France that required tacking back and forth to preserve American neutrality and avoid war” and notes that it “turned out to be the correct policy”. (Ellis, 2000, pg. 139) Upon passage of Jay’s Treaty, Jefferson wrote a comment which found its way into the newspapers, “men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council…have had their heads shorn by the harlot of England.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 141) With these references, Jefferson was plainly referring to Washington, which all of the readers knew as well. Jefferson wrote a letter to Washington in which he attempted to assure him that, contrary to the gossip, he thought very highly of Washington and was not responsible for such slanderous remarks. Ellis states very poignantly that, “The historical record makes it very clear, to be sure, that Jefferson was orchestrating the campaign of vilification.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 143) Even while serving as Secretary of State under Washington, Jefferson had done the exact same thing. As Barry Balleck notes, “As a member of the Washington administration, Jefferson hired a journalist to criticize the president and his policies but denied doing so.” (Balleck, 1992, pg. 380) Here is where we see the part of Jefferson’s followership that was so terrible and so lacking that he could never be an able and dependable follower to anyone. Washington, who had quite literally the weight of world on his shoulders, was not only being undermined by Jefferson, conspired against by Jefferson, and attacked directly by Jefferson, but now he was being blatantly lied to about the whole thing. The moment Washington read Jefferson’s words in the newspaper was the final straw, “all communication from Mount Vernon to Monticello ceased forever.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 145) Jefferson would go on to with the election of 1800 against his old friend, John Adams. They were no longer friends because, like everyone else, Adams had done something that did not sit well with Jefferson’s idealistic views of government, which of course were inherently problematic because America was not in the ideal situation for any type of government. It was during his presidency that his lack of followership became a lack of leadership, which led to trouble for America. If Jefferson had been a faithful follower of Washington, he could have avoided a lot of trouble. The purpose of Jay’s Treaty was to prevent another war with Britain, or starting one with France. Jefferson’s correspondence, combined with Madison actions, caused a “quasi-war” with France during the presidency of John Adams. Adams, unlike Jefferson, had practiced good followership under Washington and had learned that America could ill-afford a war with anybody, but especially France or Britain. Jefferson’s actions, again highlighted by poor followership, would lead to the War of 1812. Jefferson was a staunch critic of Jay’s Treaty, thinking that it violated American principles fought for in the American Revolution and hampered self-government, which was so near and dear to him. Ironically, it would be his failure to heed Washington’s advice that led to his greatest folly as President. As Gordon Wood puts it, “It is the ultimate irony of Jefferson's life, in a life filled with ironies, that he should not have understood the democratic revolution that he himself supremely spoke for.” (Wood, 1993, pg. 43) Washington understood that America was incredibly weak and vulnerable, and therefore needed trade with Britain primarily, but also France. This was the purpose of Jay’s Treaty. While it may have temporarily demoted America’s status on the international scene, Washington saw the big picture which, no doubt, he tried to communicate to those close to him, which would have included Jefferson. Jefferson was blind to the big picture, the necessity of trade for survival, and bound by the small picture, those republican principles which he had construed in the confines of his mind. In 1807 this fault of his became painfully evident. Not only was it a personal fault, which can be overcome, but it was a deliberate failure to follow, which is much harder to overcome. Jefferson had every chance to learn as a follower, but to Jefferson books and internal reason trumped experience and wisdom, and thus he never learned from Washington. As a response to British and French aggression, which he incited with Madison, Jefferson passed the Embargo Act of 1807. This act restricted all trade between America and any other nation in the world. This is the layout of Jefferson’s logic. He was thinking that the principles of self-government would sustain the union. He was thinking that back during the Revolution, we needed nothing but ourselves. Our determination, our ability to raise our own crops, our sheer will and intellect got us where we are. Now was Jefferson’s chance to demonstrate to the world that his theoretical views of government could function in the practical. Now was Jefferson’s chance to show America that Washington was wrong by seeing Jay’s Treaty put into effect. The results were nothing less than catastrophic. While Jefferson intended the effect to be seeing his ideas of limited government come to fruition, “The principal effect of the embargo, however, was to close American ports, foster smuggling, and cripple the economy, particularly that of New England.” (Balleck, 1992, pg. 383) Seeing these effects of Jefferson’s actions, it is interesting to note the effects of Washington’s actions, which Jefferson so heavily criticized. Ellis notes that, by the time Washington retired in 1797, “the British were removing their troops from posts in the West in accordance with Jay’s Treaty; thanks primarily to the resumption of trade with Great Britain, the American economy was humming along quite nicely, with revenues from the increased trade reducing the national debt faster than had been anticipated.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 156) Followership is an extremely important aspect of leadership. Everyone who wishes to be a leader must first be a follower. Every single person, when they first begin their journey to leadership, is a terrible follower. Everybody considers himself the smartest, bravest, visionary who ever lived. Then after an embarrassing military defeat, he is humbled. He learns from his mistakes and resigns to being the best follower, absorbing everything and listening to the wisdom of his leaders; or so he should. In the case of Jefferson, he never did learn. For the duration of his life, or at least until 1807 to be sure, he thought that his own intellect and reason were superior to all other contributing factors. This Jeffersonian characteristic is one not to be aspired to and one that is commented on by multiple historians and political scientists. Gordon Wood has the best description of Jefferson when he says, “Not only did Jefferson lack an original or skeptical mind; he could in fact be downright doctrinaire.” (Wood, 1993, pg. 40) The definition of the word “doctrinaire” is “stubbornly holding on to an idea without concern for practicalities or reality.” A quote from Washington about his leadership that best defines his followership is the best way to end this analysis. “I am anxious, always, to compare the opinions of those in whom I confide with one another, and these again with my own, that I may extract all the good I can.” (Ellis, 2000, pg. 150)
Ellis, Joseph J. (2000). Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Random House, Inc.
Balleck, Barry J. (1992). “When the Ends Justify the Means: Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase”. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4, pgs. 679-696. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27551031
Barlow, Cassie B., Jordan, Mark, and Hendrix, William H. (2003). “Character Assessment: An Examination of Leadership Levels”. Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 4, pgs. 563-584. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25092839
Neely, Sylvia. (1999). “Mason Locke Weems’s “Life of George Washington” and the Myth of Braddock’s Defeat”. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 107, No. 1, pgs. 45-72. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4249752
Wood, Gordon. (1993). “Jefferson in His Time”. The Wilson Quarterly (1976- ), Vol. 17, No. 2, pgs. 38-51. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40258681
NG, LR, NCU, USAR
My collection of personal papers written over the years