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Perhaps because he is next to George Washington on Mount Rushmore, Americans seem to think that Thomas Jefferson is equally essential to the American Founding. In a terrific and ferociously argued new book, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation, Thomas Fleming shows us that while Jefferson is a pivotal figure, the equivalence just isn’t so.
But Jefferson’s opening lines in the Declaration still define what we think of America and its Founding; and his penchant for rhetorical excess and arguing from each extreme of an issue — along with his establishment of the first political party caucus — set the pattern, for both good and ill, for how we conduct politics to this day.
Fleming is one of America’s premier historians—and also a bestselling historical novelist. While he gained much of his fame as a chronicler of the American Revolution, his more controversial works have changed perceptions of presidents and their times.
His book, The New Dealers’ War showed how the extreme socialists of the FDR Administration almost derailed the economic war effort that became famous as the Arsenal of Democracy.
In The Illusion of Victory, Fleming deconstructed the liberal myth of Woodrow Wilson as a great president, as over 100,000 Americans died in WWI, in order to promote Wilson’s pipe dream of the League of Nations.
We interviewed Fleming here for his perhaps most controversial book, A Disease in the Public Mind, that examined how inflamed rhetoric on both sides—but particularly in the extremes of the Abolitionist movement, made the Civil War all but inevitable.
Now, Fleming takes on perhaps the two most iconic figures of the American Founding, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in The Great Divide, and talks about how their nearly polar opposite visions of how to govern a free people led Jefferson to wage a bitter, long campaign against the man revered as The Father of His Country. He joins us to talk about that divide.
Forsmark: Essentially, what was the great divide between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington about?
Fleming: It was about the Constitution, with a special focus on the presidency.
Jefferson was in France while Washington and their mutual friend, James Madison, played leadership roles in the Constitutional Convention. Madison later wrote: “No one signed the Constitution with more enthusiasm than General Washington.” The chief reason for his enthusiasm was a new office – a president with powers coequal to Congress. He would provide the leadership that Congress had sadly lacked under the Articles of Confederation, the primitive charter that had governed the nation during the Revolutionary War.
When Jefferson read the Constitution in Paris, where he was serving as America’s ambassador, his reaction was virtually the opposite. “There are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed,” he told his friend John Adams. Jefferson had expected the Constitutional Convention to add only three or four “enlargements” to “the good old venerable fabrick” of the Articles of Confederation. He added an even nastier line about the office Washington and Madison valued most. “Their president seems a bad edition of a Polish King.” A Polish king was elected by the people but served for life. Jefferson was predicting American presidents would do likewise and become semi-kings.
Forsmark: It is commonly accepted that without George Washington the Revolution would have fallen apart. He is also given a fair amount of credit for holding the Constitutional Convention together. But you say he was more of an intellectual driving force behind the Constitution than is widely known. Explain.
Fleming: The creation of the Constitution began in 1785, when James Madison began visiting Mount Vernon to discuss the need for a new federal government to unify the thirteen contentious states. By the time the two men went to the Constitutional Convention, they were in agreement on the need for a strong presidency. As the convention’s chairman, Washington could not speak during the debates but he devoted many hours after each day’s adjournment to persuading delegates of the crucial importance of this new office.
Forsmark: What was Thomas Jefferson’s role in either of our founding documents?
Fleming: He wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Congress heavily edited the last half of his version but his opening lines, about the vital importance of liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness, gave the American Revolution world transforming power.
Jefferson played no role in creating the Constitution.
He was in Paris during the convention and the struggle for ratification that followed it. His negative view of the document was cited several times by opponents, but word of Washington’s positive opinion quickly overrode him.
Forsmark: Why was Jefferson content with the Articles of Confederation? Was he in love with chaos?
Fleming: Jefferson was convinced that Americans did not need a strong government to create their happiness.
William Short, the young Virginian who served as his secretary in Paris, may have given us the best description of Jefferson’s political thinking. “Mr. J,” he wrote, judged men “from himself.” He was sure that their innate sense of “moral rectitude” would keep them on a “straight path” with “little need of restraint.” The result was his “lifelong belief in human perfectibility.” His “greatest illusions in politics,” Short concluded, were rooted in this “amiable error.”
He wasn’t in love with chaos. He just didn’t believe it would happen. William Short had him right. He judged other people as copies of himself — a reasonable intelligent man who abhorred violence. In 1786, when the farmers of western Massachusetts erupted in a mini-revolution, and not a few people, including George Washington, feared the nation was about to unravel, Jefferson simply remarked that ”a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
Fleming: Was Alexander Hamilton actually more essential to the founding of the Republic than Thomas Jefferson?
They were both essential in the founding years. But in the long run the top prize goes to Hamilton.
Washington thought Jefferson’s Declaration was so important, he ordered it read aloud to his troops. It was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country.
Only political insiders were aware of Hamilton’s founding ideas — the decision to pay in full both state and federal war debts, the Bank of the United States, the plan to found a manufacturing economy. But all these innovations proved crucial in the long run to creating the great commercial nation America has become, while Jefferson’s vision of America as a nation of farmers in small cities now seems almost ludicrously naïve – a blindness to an essential element of the American character.
Forsmark: While the celebrated hatred between Hamilton and Jefferson was real, wasn’t Jefferson’s real target George Washington, but Jefferson knew he did not have the political capital to directly attack him?
Fleming: That’s true on both counts. But Washington proved a much tougher opponent. After Jefferson hired Philip Freneau as a state department translator and then turned him loose as the attack dog editor of The National Gazette, President Washington would have been very stupid (which he wasn’t) not to see the game that was being played. At first Freneau concentrated his fire on Hamilton, but he soon included Washington. At one point, the Gazette ran a cartoon of Washington, strapped to a board, being carried to a waiting guillotine.
In Washington’s papers are three anonymous letters, all warning him that Jefferson was trying to undermine him and succeed him as president. The fact that Washington saved these letters strongly suggests that the President knew what Jefferson was doing, and left the letters in his papers so that others would draw that conclusion.
Jefferson soon had to face the dismaying (to him) fact that Washington was a teflon politician, virtually immune to serious damage.
Forsmark: Without the Louisiana Purchase, funded by the bank Hamilton had founded and Jefferson hated, what would we think of Thomas Jefferson today?
Fleming: Not much. The immense popularity of Louisiana was the springboard of Jefferson’s fame. Until that point (1803) his presidency was on its way to becoming a battered wreck.
He was denounced for seducing his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings, an accusation that still haunts his reputation. Even Jefferson supporters have had to admit the “dark side” of his weak support of civil liberties. He pointed out that the Bill of Rights forbade the Federal government to prosecute newspaper editors, but there was nothing wrong with state governments giving them the business. Soon there were hostile editors in the dock in several states.
When it came to paying for Louisiana with money from Hamilton’s bank – Jefferson’s hypocrisy acquires capital letters. At first he talked of needing a constitutional amendment to acquire the immense territory. But when he was told this would take months — something he must have known — Jefferson closed the deal. That meant he was also accepting Hamilton’s argument that there were “implied powers” in the Constitution that enabled the president to approve acts that benefitted the country. Jefferson had denounced this idea with special vehemence.
He and his followers ignored both embarrassments. The followers cheered the way he had doubled the size of the nation without spilling a drop of blood – a not very subtle putdown of George Washington. Jefferson made no attempt to rebuke or correct them. The claim only reinforced his fondness for calling his administration “The Revolution of 1800.”
Forsmark: I think the most breathtaking thing in the book was implying the man who fought George III’s army for seven brutal years, then literally turned down a crown when it was offered to him and went back to his farm – was a “monarchist.” Really?
Fleming: Jefferson did not call Washington himself a monarchist. But he accused him of tolerating “monocrats” like Hamilton in his cabinet and claimed Washington was unable to see their plan to slowly shape the American government into some form of monacracy — either a king or a Cromwellian Lord High Protector.
When Jefferson tried to convince Washington of this danger in several face to face confrontations, the President testily replied that he was “the last man in the world who would tolerate the emergence of an American king.” Jefferson realized he had lost the argument and resigned as Secretary of State, declaring he was through with politics.
Back at Monticello, he wrote letter after letter to his two chief lieutanants, James Madison and James Monroe, advising them on how to attack and /or obstruct Washington’s policies.
Forsmark: What was the basic philosophicical difference in governing between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?
Washington made tough decisions and stood by them. Jefferson flinched. After three shattering defeats in 1776, Washington changed the strategy of the war. He abandoned the plan to win in one big battle and announced that henceforth they would “protract the war.” It took seven exhausting years but it worked. As president he summoned 13,000 men to suppress a secession movement in western Pennsylvania (the so-called Whiskey Rebellion) and smashed it flat in a few days.
Jefferson loved to write legislation, but he hated to govern. While he was governor of Virginia during the Revolution, he was reluctant to get tough with militia who ignored his call to resist British invasions. As result, resistance was so feeble, one of Jefferson’s best friends declared he was ashamed to call himself a Virginian. With the war still unwon, Jefferson quit after two one-year terms and announced he was through with politics.
As president he preferred to let Congress lead. He invented the party caucus, which enabled his followers to speak with a unified voice and smother opposition. Behind the scenes, Jefferson was getting what he wanted, but no one knew he was responsible. Even his most important political decision, the purchase of Louisiana, was made after weeks of doubts and hesitations about its constitutionality.
Forsmark: You maintain there are two ways of reading Washington’s Farewell Address.
First is the way most people read it today. It is a great state paper that urges people to consider their federal union a basic value and warns against excessively favoring or disliking any foreign country.
But in1796, when the address was issued, a lot of people saw it was also very tough criticism of Thomas Jefferson, who did not think the union was very important, excessively favored France, and even more excessively hated Great Britain.
Next: Jefferson’s lasting impact on the American way of political debate.