The Founding Fathers Strike Back

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America: Love it or leave it.

We’re in the midst of a pretty interesting, remarkably successful (even for the most cynical) 200-plus-year experiment in governing.

It took many men—but the efforts of seven in particular—to turn a cacophonic group of colonies into a united union that proved it could govern itself.

A few weeks ago, we explored the contributions George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson made to the American cause, and how their approaches to governing and working could be leveraged to boost your own productivity.

Today, we’ll turn to the other four Founding Fathers—John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Adams—to see what we can glean from them.

Lessons from John Jay

John_Jay_at_National_Portrait_Gallery_IMG_4446America’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Jay was born to a wealthy New York City family in 1745. An incredibly intelligent man, Jay was the second youngest member of the First Continental Congress when it convened in 1774. He favored a strong centralized government and authored five of the Federalist Papers—though penned those words under a pseudonym at the time.

Jay played an integral role in getting the British to sign the Jay Treaty in 1795 thereby preventing another war between America and its former parent. On a more localized level, he also helped sculpt New York state government, serving two terms as The Empire State’s second governor.

Among other things, Jay teaches us that:

You’re never too young to do anything. By the time he was 8, Jay was already studying at an elite boarding school. He then went on to graduate college with the highest honors before he was 20. He studied law and was admitted to the Bar of New York by the time he was 22, opening his own practice three years later in 1771.

Like Jay, people like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg prove time and again that you don’t need to have been alive for four or five decades before you’re able to make a considerable impact on your career—or on the world. Work toward your goals now; you never know when they’re within reach.

You need to earn your time off. After he wrapped up his second gubernatorial term, a 55-year-old Jay turned down President John Adams’ request to take a seat on the Supreme Court once more. At the time, he had already refused to run for a third term as New York’s chief executive.

To this day, historians speculate as to why Jay decided to stay out of politics altogether for the last three decades of his life. But maybe the answer is an easy one: After putting in a life’s work of building a country, serving it in many capacities and arguably shaping American foreign policy for years to come, Jay simply wanted to relax at his farm.

With a resume that full, who can blame him?

Lessons from Alexander Hamilton

2The nation’s first secretary treasury, Alexander Hamilton is probably more remembered for two different reasons: His face appears on the $10 bill, and he was killed in a duel by a sitting vice president over political differences. (And we think it’s bad today, eh?)

Orphaned at the age of 11 or 13—no one is exactly sure when Hamilton was born; records indicate his birth year as 1755 but he himself claimed it to be 1757—Hamilton, to some, was the indirect father of the Constitution. Though his life was cut short in 1804, the treasurer was a prolific writer and left behind some tips on effective management. Here are some highlights:

  • Communicate consistently and regularly.
  • Make it easier for your employees to communicate with you.
  • Listen to criticism, even if it’s crazy.
  • Ask your employees for their input.
  • Encourage innovation broadly.

Lessons from James Madison

James_MadisonMost scholars agree that James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, was the bona fide “Father of the Constitution” as he believed a strong federal government—held in check with balances—was critical to the prosperity of the blossoming nation. Earning the honor of the nation’s shortest president at 5’4’’, Madison proved that you didn’t have to tower over men physically to be their intellectual superiors.

Even as a young man, Madison sensed his country was on the brink of something great in 1774, proving the old maxim that sometimes, you’ve got no choice but to trust your gut. Writing to a friend when he was just 23, Madison accurately predicted the outcome of the American Revolution:

There is something at hand that shall greatly augment the history of the world.

On top of that, Madison understood the necessity of peace:

No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

While we might not find ourselves running countries or conducting foreign policy, Madison’s wisdom can still be applied to our professional lives. You won’t be productive if you’re continually combative.

Madison also taught us the importance of believing in your life’s work. You can’t create something truly great if your mind isn’t completely invested in the process. Even on his deathbed, he dreamed of his greatest accomplishment:

The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.

Lessons from John Adams

john adamsThough he played an insanely important role in the formation of the United States, John Adams is one of the Founding Fathers who often gets lost to the annals of history. The man’s one-term presidency was sandwiched between those of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, so it shouldn’t come as a complete shock as to why that might be.

But Adams is a man certainly worth remembering. An independent thinker of the utmost integrity, Adams was a lawyer by trade who successfully defended the soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre. At the time, it certainly wasn’t the most popular position to take. But Adams believed the soldiers were victims of circumstance, and he stuck to his convictions and earned their acquittals and reduced sentences. His handling of the case cemented him as one of the nation’s brightest attorneys.

Like Madison, Adams was a small man. But his intelligence knew no bounds. The country’s second president would be the first to admit he wasn’t the right man for the job if he wasn’t. By those admissions, however, Adams was able to quickly find the men he needed to complement his cabinet and optimize his government. It takes true wisdom to recognize your shortcomings, but once you do, you’re able to figure out how to conquer them. The results will speak for themselves.

Finally, like Madison, Adams teaches us that we are to have a sense of duty and a sense of purpose in what we do—we need to believe in our callings. Here’s Adams, writing to his wife Abigail in 1780:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture … in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.

He was called to his work, and you should be, too.

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