Washington’s association with Jefferson dated back to their years in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, decades prior to Washington’s terms as president. Additionally, they shared similar backgrounds as Virginia planters and passionate revolutionaries. Both men were destined to become the central figures in American political life and yet, despite these common characteristics, they represented the two divergent interpretations of the American Revolution. Washington’s experience as the commander of the Continental Army had convinced him of the necessity of a strong central government to secure American liberty, whereas Jefferson saw such a government as its greatest threat.
This disagreement also rested upon fundamental philosophical differences. Washington, by nature, was a cold-blooded realist while Jefferson was more of an lofty idealist (although Jefferson, too, proved to be a shrewd politician). Whatever can be said about Jefferson’s actions, it is clear that he was motivated more by his passionate beliefs that by pure self-interest. He dreamed of a global tide of republicanism with America leading the way as an “Empire of Liberty.’ Few Americans have ever spoke so eloquently about America’s republican ideals. “These principles,” Jefferson would later declare upon his own elevation to the presidency, “form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment.”
Washington recognized Jefferson’s manifold intellectual talents, consulting him on public as well as private issues. For decades, they discussed everything from American independence and foreign policy to crop rotations and domestic gadgetry. Washington’s selection of Jefferson to be his Secretary of State was a fateful one as it catapulted Jefferson into premier status in the new government, which he would use as a springboard for his own brand of republicanism. Jefferson’s clashes with Alexander Hamilton led him to wage a secret opposition, not only against Hamilton, but indirectly against Washington.
While Jefferson publicly revered Washington during and after his life, his personal letters reveal a more complicated reality. Jefferson’s views on Washington fluctuated from early hero worship to awkwardness and tension, ultimately resulting in a tragic alienation between the two most famous of the founders. The lowest point came in Washington’s retirement as a letter written by Jefferson came out publicly. In it, Jefferson indirectly referred to Washington, implying that he had been duped by the British. Washington, Jefferson wrote, was like a “Samson in the field” who was seduced by “the harlot England.” The following excerpts from Jefferson’s papers reflect this difficult relationship.
Letter to Washington, April 16, 1784
“The moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
Letter to William Branch Giles, December 31, 1795
“He errs as other men do, but errs with integrity.”
Letter to James Madison, March 27, 1796
“I wish that his honesty and his political errors may not furnish a second occasion to exclaim, ‘Curse on his virtues, they have undone his country.'”
Jefferson’s first inaugural address, March 4, 1801
“Without pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose pre-eminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country’s love, and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. ”
Excerpt of letter to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814:
You say that in taking General Washington on your shoulders, to bear him harmless through the federal coalition, you encounter a perilous topic. I do not think so. You have given the genuine history of the course of his mind through the trying scenes in which it was engaged, and of the seductions by which it was deceived, but not depraved. I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.
His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers, of the advantage he derived from councils of war, where hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no General ever planned his battles more judiciously. But if deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstances, he was slow in re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath. In his expenses he was honorable, but exact; liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility; but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects and all unworthy calls on his charity. His heart was not warm in its affections; but he exactly calculated every man’s value, and gave him a solid esteem proportioned to it. His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback. Although in the circle of his friends, where he might be unreserved with safety, he took a free share in conversation, his colloquial talents were not above mediocrity, possessing neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words. In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short and embarrassed. Yet he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy and correct style. This he had acquired by conversation with the world, for his education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic, to which he added surveying at a later day. His time was employed in action chiefly, reading little, and that only in agriculture and English history. His correspondence became necessarily extensive, and, with journalizing his agricultural proceedings, occupied most of his leisure hours within doors. On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.
How, then, can it be perilous for you to take such a man on your shoulders? I am satisfied the great body of republicans think of him as I do. We were, indeed, dissatisfied with him on his ratification of the British treaty. But this was short lived. We knew his honesty, the wiles with which he was encompassed, and that age had already begun to relax the firmness of his purposes; and I am convinced he is more deeply seated in the love and gratitude of the republicans, than in the Pharisaical homage of the federal monarchists. For he was no monarchist from preference of his judgment. The soundness of that gave him correct views of the rights of man, and his severe justice devoted him to them. He has often declared to me that he considered our new constitution as an experiment on the practicability of republican government, and with what dose of liberty man could be trusted for his own good; that he was determined the experiment should have a fair trial, and would lose the last drop of his blood in support of it. And these declarations he repeated to me the oftener and more pointedly, because he knew my suspicions of Colonel Hamilton’s views, and probably had heard from him the same declarations which I had, to wit, “that the British constitution, with its unequal representation, corruption and other existing abuses, was the most perfect government which had ever been established on earth, and that a reformation of those abuses would make it an impracticable government.” I do believe that General Washington had not a firm confidence in the durability of our government. He was naturally distrustful of men, and inclined to gloomy apprehensions; and I was ever persuaded that a belief that we must at length end in something like a British constitution, had some weight in his adoption of the ceremonies of levees, birth-days, pompous meetings with Congress, and other forms of the same character, calculated to prepare us gradually for a change which he believed possible, and to let it come on with as little shock as might be to the public mind.
These are my opinions of General Washington, which I would vouch at the judgment seat of God, having been formed on an acquaintance of thirty years. I served with him in the Virginia legislature from 1769 to the Revolutionary war, and again, a short time in Congress, until he left us to take command of the army. During the war and after it we corresponded occasionally, and in the four years of my continuance in the office of Secretary of State, our intercourse was daily, confidential and cordial. After I retired from that office, great and malignant pains were taken by our federal monarchists, and not entirely without effect, to make him view me as a theorist, holding French principles of government, which would lead infallibly to licentiousness and anarchy. And to this he listened the more easily, from my known disapprobation of the British treaty. I never saw him afterwards, or these malignant insinuations should have been dissipated before his just judgment, as mists before the sun. I felt on his death, with my countrymen that “verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.”
Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 11. Chapter: TO DOCTOR WALTER JONES
Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/807/88123 on 2011-01-04
Jefferson in the Anas, 1818
“From the moment, where they end, of my retiring from the administration, the federalists got unchecked hold of Genl. Washington. His memory was already sensibly impaired by age, the firm tone of mind for which he had been remarkable, was beginning to relax, it’s energy was abated; a listlessness of labor, a desire for tranquillity had crept on him, and a willingness to let others act and even think for him. Like the rest of mankind, he was disgusted with atrocities of the French revolution, and was not sufficiently aware of the difference between the rabble who were used as instruments of their perpetration, and the steady & rational character of the American people, in which he had not sufficient confidence. The opposition too of the republicans to the British treaty, and zealous support of the federalists in that unpopular, but favorite measure of theirs, had made him all their own. Understanding moreover that I disapproved of that treaty, & copiously nourished with falsehoods by a malignant neighbor2 of mine, who ambitioned to be his correspondent, he had become alienated from myself personally, as from the republican body generally of his fellow citizens; & he wrote the letters to Mr. Adams, and Mr. Carroll, over which, in devotion to his imperishable fame, we must forever weep as monuments of mortal decay.”
Letter to Martin Van Buren, 1824
“General Washington was himself sincerely a friend to the republican principles of our Constitution. His faith perhaps in its duration, might not have been as confident as mine; but he repeatedly declared to me. that he was determined it should have a fair chance for success, and that he would lose the last drop of his blood in its support, against any attempt which might be made to change it from its republican form. He made these declarations the oftener, because he knew my suspicions that Hamilton had other views, and he wished to quiet my jealousies on this subject.”