Interview with Thomas Fleming, Author of The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson


Image via Flickr

Image via Flickr

Recently, I was called out in an online debate by a prominent Tea Party activist in Michigan who allowed that I might be a communist infiltrator. This person, like most libertarians, likes to post Thomas Jefferson quotes as Facebook memes.

Even very conservative legislators can find themselves branded as enemies of freedom for life, based on a difference of opinion on one issue.  Here’s an experiment: post something about Marco Rubio, and see how many people just post that he’s “pro-amnesty” and that closes the issue for them.

In our last interview with Thomas Fleming, he outlined the history of the political battle between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, waged over the ratification of the Constitution with a President that was co-equal with Congress. Fleming wrote about these conflicts in his recently published book on the topic, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation

Today, we talk with Mr. Fleming about the lasting legacies of the two men.  George Washington, whose actions as President established precedent for how his successors should behave and conduct their offices; and Thomas Jefferson, whose greatest legacy seems to be the way in which rhetoric is used in political discussions and campaigns — and substituting ideology for governance.

Forsmark: Is there a similarity between Jefferson’s insistence on ideological purity and the libertarian and Tea Party elements of today’s Republican Party?  In particular, their heated rhetoric toward anyone who disagrees about the smallest issue?

Fleming: Jefferson unquestionably had a tendency to go to extremes, verbally. When he heard that Richmond merchants were hurrying to Philadelphia to buy shares in the Bank of the United States, he condemned their appetite for “federal filth.” He grew even more incensed when he learned the Bank was planning to open a branch in Virginia.

In a raging letter to James Madison, Jefferson declared that any Virginian who did business with this branch was committing treason against his native state and deserved to be executed. It was unthinkable that they should accept an institution created by “a foreign power.”  He was referring here to the Congress of the United States, which had chartered the Bank!

Just before he left France to return to America, Jefferson fell in love with one of the French Revolution’s wilder ideas: The earth belongs to the living. He wrote a long letter to Madison, arguing that each generation should be responsible only for its own debts. When that generation ended — Jefferson estimated it lasted 19 years — all its debts were cancelled. Ditto for its constitution. No one had a right to leave his money or property to his heirs. Everything  should  revert to the state.  Madison responded with a very tactful demolition of the idea. Jefferson never mentioned it again.

When he was secretary of state, Jefferson got many letters from his former assistant in Paris, William Short, describing the savage excesses of the Jacobins in Paris. Their motto declared: “The republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.”  Jefferson told Short he saw no difference between these mass murderers and the republican patriots of America.

He called the Jacobins’ revolution “The True God.” In a burst of supreme extremism, he informed Short: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest…Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.”  He added that these sentiments were “those of 99 of a hundred” Americans.

They definitely were NOT President George Washington’s sentiments. He saw the Jacobin version of the revolution as a menace to freedom everywhere. He was right. The Jacobins themselves wound up on the guillotines and they were succeeded by a dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Forsmark: As President, Thomas Jefferson instituted an embargo on Britain that crippled the U.S. economy.  But he kept issuing statements that all was well.  Is there a parallel between him and our current president, who puts his ideology above reality?

Fleming: The embargo – a ban on all trade with other nations — was a noble idea, a theoretically nonviolent attempt to avoid a shooting war with either Britain or France. Both had proclaimed blockades that entitled them to seize any ship attempting to trade with either nation. Both were dependent on American grain, lumber and other products.  But the embargo soon became full of the ironies that make history such a disturbing — and fascinating — business.

Jefferson seemed indifferent to the embargo’s impact on American workers and businessmen. Thousands of unemployed sailors were soon milling around American seaports. Merchants went bankrupt by the dozen, leaving hundreds of clerks and other assistants without an income. Farmers had nowhere to sell their surplus crops, which threatened them with bankruptcy and loss of their land.  Meanwhile the French and British replaced American exports with food and products from other countries.

As the embargo paralyzed the American economy, Jefferson took drastic steps to prevent desperate Americans from selling anything to any foreign buyer. He asked Congress to make it a crime to export goods or food to Canada or Spanish Florida. Armed sloops patrolled the coasts and inland waterways to make sure the law was obeyed. Jefferson became more grimly determined as the spirit of defiance rose in towns and cities.  He told a member of his cabinet that he was resolved to see if the embargo was an effective weapon. “I set down [dismiss] the exercise of commerce, merely for profit, as nothing when it carries with it the danger of defeating the objects of the embargo.” Those words – “merely for profit” — reveal Jefferson’s underlying hostility to American business enterprise.

Our current president shares Jefferson’s ideological view in this respect. Fixing the badly damaged U.S. economy was President Obama’s primary task when he took office in 2009. But he poured most of his energy into the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).   As a result, we still have a limping economy, an unhappy middle class, and an underpaid workforce, while the White House issues press releases assuring us how well everything is going.

Forsmark: Perhaps the most dangerous application of ideological purism and revolutionary fervor came from Jefferson’s love of the French Revolution, even after the reign of terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship. How did this endanger the very existence of the United States?

Fleming: Four months after Jefferson became president, a French diplomat asked him if he would object if France sent an army to regain control of St. Domingue (now called Haiti). Jefferson thumped his desk and declared: “nothing would be easier than for us to supply everything for your army and navy and starve out that black dictator, Toussaint!” He was talking about Toussaint Louverture, the black leader who had restored order and a modicum of prosperity to the France’s immensely valuable sugar colony.

Here Jefferson’s love affair with the French Revolution converged with his conviction that blacks lacked the intelligence to govern themselves. As a result, he allowed a French army to come within striking distance of a largely defenseless America.

The stage was set for a coup d’etat that could have reduced the United States to a submissive French satellite.  Secretly, Napoleon had persuaded Spain to “retrocede” New Orleans and the Louisiana territory to France. (The French king had given it to Spain in 1763 to compensate for their losses in the Seven Years War). Bonaparte gave equally secret orders to the army invading St. Domingue to transfer most of their men to New Orleans after their presumed swift conquest of the “gilded Africans,” as Bonaparte contemptuously called Loverture and his army. In New Orleans they would be joined by another army and would surge up the Mississippi to create a “wall of brass” that would intimidate and/or seduce the Americans into becoming humble yes men or risk a Bonapartean thunderbolt.

This disaster was averted by a totally unknown secret agent known as aedes egypti, the mosquito that carries yellow fever.  The tiny buzzing creature destroyed the French army, forcing Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States to prevent the British from seizing it. Thus was the United States rescued and Thomas Jefferson launched as one of the most popular presidents in American history.

Forsmark: Recently, on Jefferson’s birthday, I saw Facebook quotes from him about tyranny and corruption. It made me wonder how many of these were aimed at George Washington.

Jefferson seldom made a distinction between an act or policy that might lead to tyranny and/or corruption and the real thing.  This was the logic – if it deserves that word – behind his assaults on Secretary Hamilton’s policies. He saw them eventually creating a corrupt and corrupting wealthy class.

Presuming this were true, President Washington was guilty by association.  Unfortunately for Jefferson – but fortunately for the future of the United States, he was wrong on both counts.

Forsmark: Some guy on Amazon claims you hate Thomas Jefferson.

Fleming: That’s silly. My biography of him, The Man from Monticello, was rated among the best books of the year in 1969.  This was an “intimate biography” with the emphasis on his personal and family relations. He was a charming man. But as a politician, he had some serious flaws, that have had (and still have) a large impact on the American presidency. That’s why I wrote The Great Divide. If we meet in Elysium, I’ll assure him there was nothing personal in my criticism.

Click here to read Part One of David Forsmark’s fascinating interview with Thomas Fleming.