When a group of Nobel laureates visited the White House during his administration, John F. Kennedy remarked, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." A hundred years before that, Abraham Lincoln deferred to Jefferson, when articulating his own philosophy of liberty, describing him as "the most distinguished politician in our history," and a 19th century biographer, James Parton, depicted Jefferson as a man who, "could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin."
In many ways, Jefferson is the President’s President: the exceptional achiever amongst a breed of exceptional achievers. But what was the undoubted diversity and depth of his talent attributable to?
Political scientist James David Barber cites Jefferson as one of the most accomplished Presidents in US history because he, “was able to apply his reason to organizing connections with Congress and was thus able to express a clear and open vision of what the country could be with a profound political sense”. In other words, he was able to connect with people on multiple levels; both the policy wonks in Congress, and also the wider public beyond, driven by a clear sense of vision. In a paper on Presidential leadership, Sarah Ofosu-Ameyaw, describes how, “Jefferson’s ability to apply reason and clearly express his vision of what this country should be, shows that he is indeed an individual who had a high level of emotional intelligence; he was emotionally self-aware, assertive, he had a high self-regard, he was capable of problem solving, and he had good impulse control.”
Emotional intelligence, therefore, was key to his success. At the heart of emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, harness and manage emotions, both in yourself and others. Clearly he was able to tune in to the emotions of those around him and, as a result, connect with them by managing his own too. We all have differing degrees of emotional intelligence and the extent of it has been found to strongly correlate with accomplishment in leadership positions more strongly than intellectual or other forms of intelligence.
Jefferson was not without his own emotional intelligence deficits, however, and his attitude to slavery is the primary example of this. The man who literally coined the phrase “all men are created equal” was himself a slave owner, though, to his credit, Jefferson recognized the contradiction and, ultimately, foresaw that slavery could not prevail, "nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a personal failing that he was unable to act decisively on these feelings himself.
In totality, Jefferson’s ability to emotionally connect made him, ultimately, a visionary whose prophetic words and assessments have stood the test of time, right up to the present day. Take, for example, his attitude to the Supreme Court: he apparently abhorred the notion that the Supreme Court could decide the constitutionality of laws and acts of the executive, “a development he regarded as unwarranted and disastrous,” according to Douglas Wilson of The Atlantic. And on the issue of banking, he said, "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies… the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."
In what seems to be an increasingly politically and economically unstable world, we could probably all do with channeling a dose of Jefferson’s emotional intelligence.