By Ray Blunt

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on how leaders are formed. Read the first part by Ray Blunt here.

In the study of history, there is a theory that the great transformations arise from the emergence of a heroic leader—a Napoleon, an Augustus Caesar, a Jesus. Thomas Carlyle’s thesis was later challenged by Herbert Spencer who argued that great leaders emerge from the culture around them; shaped by complex forces. My own training in leadership at the Air Force Academy in the early 1960s seemed to favor Carlyle, as we studied the attributes of Eddie Rickenbacher, George Marshall, Douglas Mac Arthur, and Omar Bradley, among others. In my mind the message was: “Do what they did; be like they were; avoid what bad leaders do.” Seemed plain enough to me. But once getting up on the two wheels of leadership, the going was wobbly, I found. The best current research shows that Spencer was closer to being accurate. Great leaders are formed out of complex forces that include challenging experiences and hardships, but without the honing influence of meaningful relationships, tough career challenges and personal or professional failure can derail even the highest potential person.

Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce were no exceptions. Their mentors, George Wythe and John Newton, particularly, were central. Yet, often overlooked is the influence of the people around a leader who not only help them get great things accomplished but also help in their maturing as leaders. Jefferson was blessed by what he called his “two pillars” that supported him for over fifty years: James Madison and James Monroe, his Virginia protégés and neighbors, who ultimately became his inner circle and protectors.

Though Jefferson had persisted for seventeen years to end slavery since his ill-fated bill was defeated in Virgina’s House of Burgesses, by 1786, he wrote from France to Madison that he would never speak publicly about slavery again. And, in large measure, he did not. One factor seems that when Jefferson was sent to France in 1784, the influence of Wythe faded and their communications by letter became more infrequent. But there was more to it than that. The two men who formed his inner circle for life had already begun to work in concert with him. Madison and Monroe became his eyes and ears at the Constitutional convention and in the Virginia legislature respectively, as Jefferson weighed in from afar and anonymously. Then, shortly after his return to become Washington’s first Secretary of State, they were his colleagues in the increasingly bitter fights with the Federalist followers of Washington, Adams, and especially Hamilton. First they collaborated clandestinely and then in the open, ultimately forming the first American political party when Jefferson was elected President in 1800.

Thomas Jefferson surrounded by James Madison and James Monroe. CC photos courtesy of cliff1066™.

Thomas Jefferson surrounded by James Madison and James Monroe.
CC photos courtesy of cliff1066™.

For the next 24 years, Jefferson and his two pillars held the highest office in the land with the Sage of Monticello offering offstage advice after 1808. In return, Madison and Monroe used their influence in Virginia to help Jefferson launch the University of Virginia. It was under their combined leadership in the next decades that slavery gradually made its way west as new states were added and Jefferson found himself quietly and reluctantly backing the Missouri Compromise that vexed Monroe as President. This compromise allowed one free and one slave state to enter the union together, keeping a balance of power.

For Jefferson, this small inner circle, and his behind the scenes role, even when campaigning, suited his style of solitary leadership best. What seemed to emerge from this historically unique collaboration was a subtle shift of purpose—from the tyranny of slavery to the potential tyranny of big government as threatened by the Federalists. Jefferson even broke with both Washington and Adams, anonymously savaging his two erstwhile mentors in the campaigns leading up to “the second American revolution.” Slavery was set aside in order that a balance of power be maintained.

Wilberforce, like Jefferson, also has a close cadre around him from his early years forward to his death—but his surrounding community was one that was quite different. What we know as the Clapham Sect or Circle was a term he and his colleagues never used. In their time, they were called The Saints, not necessarily an accolade. Several of them lived in the London suburb of Clapham and comprised a loose group of perhaps a dozen or more, each playing complementary roles very much like today’s modern team structure. They often visited in each other’s homes, worshipped in the same church, and were like a “conversation that never ceased.”

CC photo courtesy of davidshort

CC photo courtesy of davidshort

It was Wilberforce’s wealthy friend, Henry Thornton, who had the idea to gather as a group around Wilberforce in one community after the initial defeat. The two friends shared the same house for several years until Wilberforce married. Supporting Wilberforce for the next 40 years, many gave up promising careers, likely fortunes, and exhausting hours of labors for what they referred to as “the cause.” At the end, they could rejoice together that what they had persisted at so long had come to pass.

What marked them at every defeat and every difficult turn was the willingness of each member to do whatever it takes; plus they had an extraordinary mutual dependence on God for pursuing the purpose to which they were called, never deviating. They all had a willingness to be the streams that fed into the great river that was Wilberforce’s leadership. Ever the humble hound, Wilberforce in turn deflected the praise to his colleagues and to God and just before his end expressed deep regret for having accomplished so little. The Clapham Sect disbanded their informal organization upon his death.

Without Madison and Monroe there would have been no Jefferson. Without the Clapham Circle, there would have been no Wilberforce. But there is still one other important factor that helps explain Jefferson’s sharp turn and Wilberforce’s dogged pursuit of what he called his “two great objects:” their worldviews of which both were exemplars in their age.

Editor’s note: Hearts and Minds bookstore is the official fulfillment service of Ray’s book Crossed Lives – Crossed Purposes. Order a copy for yourself or a friend through their fantastic service and enjoy a discount off the full retail price! To order, visit their website.

Ray Blunt teaches Worldview and Apologetics at Ad Fontes Academy and is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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