Did the whale swallow Jonah? Or did Jonah swallow the whale?

Thomas Jefferson Leadership

The confederation of the States, while on the carpet before the old Congress, was strenuously opposed by the smaller States, under apprehensions that they would be swallowed up by the larger ones. We were long engaged in the discussion; it produced great heats, much ill humor, and intemperate declarations from some members.

Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin at length brought the debate to a close with one of his little apologues. [Webster’s 7th: “an allegorical narrative usu. intended to convey a moral”] He observed that “at the time of the union of England and Scotland, the Duke of Argyle was most violently opposed to that measure, and among other things predicted that, as the whale had swallowed Jonah, so Scotland would be swallowed by England. However,” said the Doctor, “when Lord Bute came into the government, he soon brought into its administration so many of his countrymen, that it was found in event that Jonah swallowed the whale.”

This little story produced a general laugh, and restored good humor, and the article of difficulty was passed.

Source: “Anecdotes of Benjamin Franklin”
(included with a letter to Robert Walsh, Dec. 4, 1818)


Patrick Lee’s Explanation

Wise leaders recognize and appreciate:
– the contribution of other leaders.
– the value of humor to ease conflict and restore good faith.

In the Continental Congress, smaller states naturally feared the power of larger ones. That wrangling produced bad faith and a deadlock. (Does the word “partisanship” come to mind?) In to the heated debate came the wisdom and humor of Ben Franklin.

Franklin recalled a dispute between Scotland and England, where Scotland feared they would be swallowed by their much larger neighbor, as Jonah in the Bible had been swallowed by the whale. When the Scotsman Lord Bute became Prime Minister of Great Britain, he so packed the government with his fellow Scotsmen that it looked like tiny Jonah had swallowed the huge fish! The ensuing laugh “restored good humor,” and the delegates were able to move ahead.

Jefferson may have been referring to the large state / small state conflict in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which deadlocked progress. It was Franklin who eventually proposed a solution acceptable to all. That solution was a Congress, comprised of a House, where each state was represented by population (which the large states wanted), and a Senate, where each state had equal representation (which protected the small states).

Don’t they call that compromise?

Jefferson wasn’t one to offer humor himself, but he recognized and appreciated its value when offered by another!


What value would Thomas Jefferson bring to your audience?
(Sorry – not many jokes! You’ll need Franklin for that.)
Invite him to speak and find out! 573-657-2739

The Moral Liberal Thomas Jefferson Editor, Patrick Lee, is a professional speaker, actor and writer. Since 1990, he has inspired, entertained and educated audiences from Maine to Hawaii with his authentic, first person leadership presentations as President Thomas Jefferson, Frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Lewis & Clark Co-Leader William Clark. He also appears as himself, The Hopeful Humorist™, with a program of motivational humor, patriotism and inspiration.

His business address is ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com.