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Founding Brothers

The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776-1826
edited by James Morton Smith
(W.W. Norton, 3 volumes, 2,073 pp., $150)

Perhaps all heroes are conveyed to posterity as singular and solitary beings. In the case of Thomas Jefferson, however, the splendor of his isolation seems an essential aspect of his reputation. Jefferson's ultimate act of solitary creation was, of course, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. Sitting in a Windsor chair with his lap-desk and a quill pen, he wrote the magic words of American history. President John Kennedy conjured up this solitary image of Jefferson in his often-quoted remark to the Nobel laureates invited to the White House in 1962: it was, Kennedy observed, "the most extraordinary collection of talents that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

James Morton Smith's magisterial collection of the complete correspondence between Jefferson and James Madison should prompt some spirited revisions of the popular imagery. Instead of a mystical loner always gazing presciently into the middle distance, we should now imagine Jefferson standing beside a diminutive fellow Virginian, a confidante who is forever whispering wisdom into his ear and silently editing all his speeches and writings. Indeed, John Quincy Adams long ago hinted at the collaborative character of all things Jeffersonian:

Mr. Madison was the intimate, confidential and devoted friend of Mr. Jefferson, and the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world, and in which the sagacity of the future historian may discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.

The special relationship between Jefferson and Madison became a human version of the principle of checks and balances. Jefferson was the visionary idealist; Madison, the canny realist. Together, they created an ideological whole greater than the sum of its parts, and it became the foundation of the liberal tradition in American politics.

Intellectually, the high point in each of their lives came early. For Jefferson, it was the authorship of the Declaration of Independence in 1776; for Madison, it was the burst of creativity in the 1780s, when he helped to write the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. But the collaboration was just getting started. It kept going for fifty years, through the tumultuous political battles of the 1790s against the Federalists, through Jefferson's presidency (when Madison was secretary of state), through Madison's presidency and the War of 1812 (here Jefferson was the patriarchal presence offering advice from Monticello), through their retirement years when they lived only a few miles from each other in Virginia. It did not even end with Jefferson's death in 1826, since Madison honored Jefferson's request to "take care of me when dead" by defending the Jeffersonian legacy against the claims of Southern secessionists in the 1830s. Smith's impeccable edition of their correspondence documents the doggedness of America's premier political partnership. The formidable team of Jefferson and Madison simply outsmarted and outlasted everybody else.

How did they do it? A part of the answer can be found in their instantaneous understanding of their different roles and their common purposes. Starting in 1778, when Jefferson was governor of Virginia and Madison served on his executive council, Jefferson was always the senior partner and Madison the loyal lieutenant. (In 1783 they began to encode the politically sensitive parts of their letters.) Madison became Jefferson's movable artillery piece in each political battle."I want you in the Virginia Assembly," wrote Jefferson in 1785, "and also in the Congress, yet we can't have you everywhere." When Patrick Henry came out against Jefferson's reforms of the Virginia Constitution, Madison was dispatched to thwart him, though Jefferson acknowledged that Henry's oratorical prowess rendered debate futile, concluding that the only thing to do was "devoutly to pray for his death."

The same pattern held true during the boisterous 1790s, with Hamilton and the Federalists cast in the role of the enemy: "Hamilton is really a colossus," Jefferson acknowledged to Madison in 1795. "Without numbers, he is a host within himself.... In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself who can meet him." When Hamilton proposed his banking and funding schemes, Jefferson ordered Madison into print: "For God's sake, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies and cut him to pieces." Throughout Jefferson's term as secretary of state and then vice president, Madison worked behind the scenes to mobilize the opposition party, allowing Jefferson to maintain what we would now call "deniability" by remaining above the fray.

In private, Jefferson described George Washington's remarks on the Whiskey Rebellion as "stuff from Aesop's fables and Tom Thumb." In public, however, he praised Washington's bottomless virtue and claimed to yearn for his own retirement at Monticello. (This prompted John Adams to observe that "it is marvelous how political plants grow in the shade.") Meanwhile, Madison was hiring journalists to defame Hamilton and Adams, and paving the way for Jefferson's election as president. "I shall always," he reported back to Monticello, "receive your commands with pleasure." Jefferson could afford to emphasize the broadest contours of a political problem because Madison was silently handling the messier specifics. If God was in the details, so the story goes, Madison was usually there to greet him upon arrival.

The sheer density of the details here is likely to pose a problem for some readers. Unlike the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, one does not encounter epiphanies on every page. These letters are not the distilled musings of two philosopher-kings so much as day-by-day battlefield reports from two commanders in the field. Especially during Jefferson's presidency, and to a slightly lesser extent during Madison's, the meditative moments are crowded out by memo-like exchanges about tariff rates, the shifting fortunes of Napoleon, British diplomatic maneuverings and the insufferable arrogance of the Barbary pirates. (Even within the dense diplomatic underbrush, there are occasional flashes of wit, as when the Tunisian ambassador demands concubines for his delegation in Washington and Madison tells Jefferson he is charging the expense to "appropriations to foreign intercourse.") The mutual trust at the heart of the collaboration and the friendship depended upon shared assumptions that did not require articulation. And because Madison, unlike Adams, tended to defer to Jefferson rather than defy and challenge him, the correspondence as a whole will disappoint anyone expecting a succession of intellectual airbursts.

But in friendship, as in politics, the importance of the ordinary is usually underestimated. This correspondence provides eloquent testimony on the binding and bonding effect of mundane events. The mutual plottings against Hamilton and Adams, for example, occur within a context of shared thoughts on falling wheat prices, the reproductive capacities of merino sheep, the anatomy of native American weasels and road conditions around Fredericksburg. Speculations on the likely outcome of the French Revolution are embedded within comical comments about "the mystery of the missing pecans," part of a futile effort to discover who pilfered the package of nuts Madison had sent to Jefferson in France.

They also shared their mutual inadequacies. Neither man was very good at managing a government during war-time; each had the dubious distinction of watching the capital entrusted to him burned to the ground by the British; both lived with the contradiction of owning slaves while claiming to abhor slavery, another subject they silently agreed not to talk about. In short, the collaboration worked because the friendship worked. And the friendship worked because the mutual trust on which it was based was regularly reinforced in all the countless little ways.

In some very big ways, however, the two patriarchs were sufficiently different in temperament and in the central thrusts of their political thinking to make one wonder just how the partnership endured with such apparent serenity. Granted, they both began their careers as opponents of British power over the Colonies and retained a strong hatred of English imperial arrogance throughout their lives. Both regarded the Federalists, especially the Hamiltonians, as Anglophiles with aristocratic tendencies that represented a betrayal of the republican faith. Both feared concentrations of political power at the federal level, most graphically illustrated by Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. Both misjudged the capacity of American commerce to influence English and French policy toward American nationhood and suffered the failure of the disastrous embargo of 1807 as a result. Beneath these areas of obvious agreement, however, lay several fundamental differences of opinion about the true meaning of the American Revolution.

The most famous exchange in the correspondence dramatizes these differences quite nicely. In 1789 an excited Jefferson presented Madison with a newfound political principle, the doctrine that "the earth belongs to the living." This bizarre but characteristically Jeffersonian idea was rooted in his aversion to any and all forms of overt coercion, to include the influence of past laws or inherited debts. "We seem not to have perceived," he explained to Madison, "that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation is to another." He produced elaborate calculations to show that, on average, a generation lasted about nineteen years, which meant that all debts, laws, even constitutions, should expire after that time.

Madison complimented Jefferson on his "interesting reflections," then proceeded to demolish the entire notion of generational sovereignty by observing that generational cohorts do not come into the world as discrete aggregates. There is a seamless web of arrivals and departures, along with an analogous web of obligatory connections between past and present generations that are not only unavoidable but also essential for the continuation of civilized society. Jefferson clung to the idea, which was really a fantasy, for the rest of his life; it satisfied some deep craving in his imagination for a world of perfect freedom and independence. (And, given his perpetual and eventually tragic indebtedness, it had economic attraction as well.) But he never put it forward to Madison or anyone else as a serious legislative proposal.

A similar exchange occurred at almost the same time, when Madison sent Jefferson a lengthy analysis of the arguments over the recently drafted Constitution, explaining in great detail the beauty of overlapping jurisdiction between federal and state power and the important role government must play in protecting individual rights. Jefferson wrote back to register his worries about a strong executive. "I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government," he concluded, noting that "after all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority shall always prevail." Since Madison's whole point was that majority rule was the chief threat to individual liberty in the American republic, and that therefore the main task of the new Constitution was to restrain popular majorities rather than release them, the two friends were occupying opposite ends of a great political divide. When Madison sent Jefferson a copy of the Federalist Papers to amplify his explanation, Jefferson acknowledged that "it has rectified me in several points." But the truth was that Jefferson found it impossible to think about the powers of government in positive ways, or to believe that popular majorities should ever threaten individual rights. Madison's entire emphasis on balance was at odds with Jefferson's commitment to liberation.

The list of rather stunning disagreements could go on. Although they collaborated in writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798, agreeing that the Sedition Act was an unwarranted and unconstitutional abuse of federal power, Madison was careful to blur the question of state versus federal authority. Jefferson, on the other hand, denied the federal government any jurisdiction over domestic affairs within the states and sanctioned the right of states to overturn or "nullify" federal laws in terms that Southern secessionists later found immensely helpful. Madison came to the rescue again, excusing Jefferson's states' rights argument as an unfortunate outburst of Jeffersonian excess, and suggesting that, when it came down to the question of the Framers' intent, his credentials were far superior.

The role of the Supreme Court generated the same kind of division. Jefferson despised John Marshall because his rulings enlarged the power of a handful of nonelected judges. "The judiciary of the United States," he wrote in 1820, "is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundation of our confederated republic." Whenever a landmark constitutional decision was necessary, Jefferson thought it should be put to a democratic vote. Madison considered such a course impractical, unwise and, once again, at odds with the original intent of the Framers.

The Jefferson who comes through in this correspondence is more a political visionary or dreamer than a thinker. The animating impulse of his vision was an instinctive hostility to government, indeed to all forms of authority outside the self. The Jeffersonian cast of mind was moralistic and melodramatic, tending to divide the world into moral dichotomies: liberty versus tyranny; virtue versus corruption; the people versus government. The Declaration of Independence, with its exaltation of American rights and indictment of English wrongs, accurately represented the primal categories of his political system. His abiding appeal is less to our minds than to our imaginations and expectations.

Madison, on the other hand, was every inch a realistic political thinker with an affinity for paradox. Madisonian thought rejected simple polarities in favor of multiple sources of power. If Jefferson's favorite European philosophers were French, Madison's were Scottish. (Adams's were English.) The Madisonian goal was not personal liberation so much as social stability, which he tended to regard as a product of countervailing forces that government must attempt to orchestrate. Federalist No. 10, with its diagnosis of interacting and off-setting factions within an extended republic, captured the essence of his political wisdom. Madison is more of an acquired taste than Jefferson, but unquestionably the sharper and deeper political thinker.

From the very beginning, then, the American liberal tradition has been an inherently hybrid creature. At the level of mainstream politics, the Jeffersonian side of the legacy has dominated in the same way that Jefferson dominated the relationship with Madison. The seductive simplicities and the eerie optimism of Jefferson's dream are more accessible to a mass audience and also enjoy the incalculable advantage of telling us what we want to hear. Youthful radicals rediscovered the romantic utopianism in the 1960s. Ronald Reagan mastered its idiom and rhetoric with equivalent authenticity in the 1980s. It is the core expression of America's will to believe.

The Madisonian side of the liberal legacy is more prosaic and legalistic. It tells us what we need to know rather than what we want to hear; how republican institutions actually work rather than the ideals toward which they aspire. The Madisonian tradition is more compelling to scholars, jurists and thoughtful journalists than to the larger public. In a sense, it performs the same function that Madison performed for Jefferson; namely, to discipline democratic excesses, edit down great expectations and consolidate gains after a spasm of liberal reform. Or, as Robert Frost put it, the dream of Jefferson was the youthful dream of unabashed and uncomplicated personal freedom and independence; but the dream of Madison was more satisfying to the elders: "It was a dream of a new land to fulfill with people in self-control." Something there was in Jefferson that didn't love that wall, while Madison thought that good fences make good neighbors.

By bringing these letters together for the first time, this comprehensive edition of the Jefferson-Madison correspondence invites such speculations. Not that James Morton Smith would agree with most of mine. To his everlasting credit, Smith's extensive introductions to each section of the correspondence provide a sufficient scholarly context for general readers to understand the issues at stake and reach their own conclusions. Some will surely prefer to interpret the exchange as a gift-package from the past, a reminder of the way it was back when giants walked the earth and American statesmen actually wrote literate and thoughtful letters. Others will want to read the dialogue as an instructive commentary on the strange birth of the liberal tradition in America, particularly intriguing and revealing for those of us in late-liberal America who are wondering whether the tradition has a future.

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. (W.W. Norton)