I’ve been reading Jon Meacham’s book “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.”
It’s the portrait of a man who declared all men are created equal, but kept slaves, and was in part urged to revolution because the British threatened to free those slaves. He comes across as more inconsistent and conflicted than the image we get in school.
But one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that he understood politics, and how to get things done.
And in 1797, when he was Vice President, and the new nation was facing crisis after crisis – he wrote a letter to his grandson, laying out what he’d learned about political debate.
The language is a little stilted, 215 years later, but here’s what he says. His most important rule for social interaction was “never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument.”
He goes on. “I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another. ” And then he says this – and when he uses the word conviction, he means it in the sense of convincing someone – he says, “Conviction is the effect of our own dispassionate reasoning, either in solitude, or weighing within ourselves dispassionately what we hear from others, standing uncommitted in argument ourselves.”
In other words, you can never change anyone’s mind by arguing with them in front of others. People only change their minds upon quiet reflection, weighing what they’ve heard, and then coming to their own conclusions.
And then he ends by quoting Benjamin Franklin who used to tell him, “Never contradict anybody.”