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We’re prone to imagine our Founding Fathers as genteel, upright figures. Paintings, viewed through the lens of history, seem to depict them as saints.* But beyond these careful brushstrokes, our Founding Fathers, in modern-speak, were a bunch of bad asses. Their triumphs had nothing to do with refinement and grace. Instead, sharp skills and shrewd strategies, different for each, delivered their immortal successes.
I recently read an article about picking a theme song for personal success. Picking a theme song is nice, but picking a Founding Father is better. For your long-term success, Alexander Hamilton offers more than We Are the Champions.
Hamilton, Adams & Jefferson: 3 Paths to Success
Alexander Hamilton: Hamilton was blessed with superhuman stamina, especially when it came to writing. While Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton’s congressional opponents demanded a written accounting and tied it to a nearly impossible deadline. Hamilton vanquished the deadline, delivering timely reports filled with tables, lists and statistics.
But Hamilton’s writing stamina is best demonstrated by the Federalist Papers. Of the Federalist Papers’ 85 essays, John Jay authored 5, James Madison authored 26 and Hamilton authored a whopping 51.
Even Lin-Manuel Miranda, star and creator of the musical Hamilton, recognized the magnitude and force of Hamilton’s writing. Here’s a few lyrics from the Hamilton song Non-Stop:
Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Ev’ry day you fight, like you’re running out of time
Your Hamilton success lesson: Stamina by itself - great! But specifically, if you have the stamina to write, then write and write and write … and continue to write. Digital publication is free to everyone, but most blogs/social media die on the vine, victims of writing drought. However, some survive (and thrive), pouring out words with Hamiltonian velocity.
Writers who, like Hamilton, churn out ideas and arguments not only sharpen their pens, they also sharpen their thoughts. And of greater value, they build their personal brands and prove themselves thought leaders.
John Adams: The Comte de Vergennes, France’s Foreign Minister, said this about John Adams:
[Adams] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents.
The old word “obstinacy” might be better known today as the more positive word “grit,” i.e., a passion and motivation to achieve one’s goal. Adams knew he had it when he said:
Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams was dispatched to the Netherlands to obtain support/money for the United States. However, because of diplomatic form, Adams could not proclaim his mission until the Dutch government was ready to receive him. To do otherwise was considered bad form.
Throwing form aside, Adams broke the rules of diplomacy and, of his own volition, delivered a 16 page memorial to The Hague. When advised against it, Adams said he was:
Determined, and unalterably determined, I am.
Your Adams success lesson: Be determined … be unalterably determined in your goals. As with Adams, grit will push you beyond the limits of your peers. By being dogged and gritty, you might, at times, have to cast sanity to the wind. Some may see you as Benjamin Franklin saw Adams:
Always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.
An unyielding passion to achieve your goal will look like madness to some … especially those unwilling to go the distance. But if it looks like madness, then you’re focused, determined and resilient, which means you’re doing it right. With grit, you’ll press on as others fall by the wayside.
And as you press on, remember this gritty mantra from Adams:
But it is my destiny to dig treasures with my own fingers. Nobody will lend me or sell me a pick axe.
Thomas Jefferson: Thomas Jefferson liked to think in high thoughts, but he understood that high thoughts didn’t always work well when grounded. Jefferson believed that adherence to dogma could be impractical, as noted by biographer Jon Meacham. Observing that things are often “neat only in theory,” Meacham writes:
[D]espite his love of ideas and image of himself, Thomas Jefferson was as much a man of action as he was of theory.
This contrast between action and theory spills over in Jefferson’s thoughts on strict adherence to the law. Jefferson once said:
A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of a higher obligation. To lose our country to scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself ….
A “wise exercise of power” - this is how Meacham describes Jefferson’s mindfulness of action vs. theory.
Your Jefferson success lesson: Jefferson’s lesson on power is a lesson on flexibility. Rigidity … your refusal to listen, your all-or-nothing mentality … can burn bridges, destroy goodwill and roadblock opportunities.
Jefferson didn’t abandon his ideals; rather, he consciously assessed each situation and determined the best course of action. It’s the basic definition of “wisdom”: the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Yes, it’s admirable to stand firm on certain ideals, but if Jefferson had always stood firm, Louisiana might never have been.**
*Saints, they were not. Jefferson was a slave owner, and Hamilton had an affair - that became very public - with Maria Reynolds. While not as repugnant, Adams supported rank, distinction and grand titles (e.g., "His Majesty the President").
**In arranging the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson doubted his executive powers. He thought it was “an act beyond the Constitution.” He compared his power grab to a guardian purchasing property for his ward, with the guardian saying, “I did this for your good …. I thought it my duty to risk myself for you.”