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The Great Divide
The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation
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What could elicit such a strong reaction from the nation’s original first lady? Though history tends to cast the early years of America in a glow of camaraderie, there were, in fact, many conflicts among the Founding Fathers — none more important than the one between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The chief disagreement between these former friends centered on the highest, most original public office created by the Constitutional Convention — the presidency. They also argued violently about the nation’s foreign policy, the role of merchants and farmers in a republic, and the durability of the union itself. At the root of all these disagreements were two sharply different visions for the nation’s future.
Acclaimed historian Thomas Fleming examines how the differing temperaments and leadership styles of Washington and Jefferson shaped two opposing views of the presidency — and the nation. The clash between these two gifted men, both of whom cared deeply about the United States of America, profoundly influenced the next two centuries of America’s history and resonates in the present day.
The Man Who Lived Dangerously
AN ADMIRING ENGLISH TRAVELER who saw Mount Vernon before the American Revolution said the house “commands a noble prospect of water, of cliffs, woods, and plantations.” Anyone who has visited George Washington’s home and gazed out at the broad Potomac River flowing past the green lawn will agree with this description. The similarity of the contemporary landscape makes it easy to imagine Washington and James Madison there on the sunny piazza, discussing what might and should be done to rescue the infant republic they had done so much to launch.
Simultaneously, the house helps us understand its proprietor. As his own architect, Washington had created a mansion from the unassuming one-and-a-half-story building he had inherited from his older brother. He had raised the roof and added four full-sized rooms upstairs. A few years later, he expanded both sides of the house, adding a library on the south end with a bedroom above it, and a double-sized dining room on the north end. He also ordered the exterior “rusticated”—a process that utilized sand-laced paint to make the wooden walls resemble stone. Mount Vernon became a house that revealed its owner’s sense of himself as a man of dignity and importance. But it retained the simple straightforward lines of a home for a country gentleman.1
The erect, soldierly Washington and the slim, short Madison were an unlikely pair of friends. The thirty-four-year-old congressman was nineteen years younger than the grey-haired retired general. In public, Washington’s formal manner could be almost forbidding; his blue eyes often seemed judgmental, even stern. In private, they could sparkle with delight at a witty remark, especially if it came from a clever woman.
Madison, a graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), impressed most people as a shy, scholarly man with a history of ill-health. But friends found “Jemmy” a lively conversationalist, with an amazingly rich mind, thanks to years of omnivorous reading. He had a wicked eye for the flaws and foibles of human nature. He was fond of wry aphorisms, such as: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary”—a viewpoint that matched nicely with Washington’s realism.
Madison’s contribution to the Revolution started with his service as a councillor to Governor Patrick Henry in 1778 and to Thomas Jefferson in 1779. The following year, the Virginia legislature elected the talented young man to the Continental Congress. There, Madison soon attracted General Washington’s attention because he did his utmost to push two measures that Washington considered vital. One was giving Congress the power to govern the restless states. The second was to raise enough money to pay the back salaries owed to the officers and men of the army he commanded. Almost as important were funds to finance a pension for the army’s officers. Washington told Congress, if they did not make good on this long promised reward, they would “embitter every moment of my future life.”2
Too often, George Washington has been portrayed as a formidable-looking figurehead, whose fame and leadership abilities were exaggerated and even invented by shrewder, more intelligent men, such as Madison or the general’s wartime aide, Alexander Hamilton. One of these skeptics, who has published a dozen books on the Revolution, has expressed the opinion that Washington’s entire career could be summed up in a single word: luck. Such people may have paid too much attention to Washington’s labored speech accepting command of the American army, in which he protested that he was unfit for the large task confronting him.
What singles out Washington as a leader was the way he dealt with challenges to his army and his reputation almost from the day he took command in 1775. Again and again, he revealed an ability to think for himself and find the right solution to the daunting problems that confronted him. Year after year, he maintained an amazing equanimity in spite of the constant awareness that failure meant disgrace and death. He was unquestionably a man ready, willing, and able to live dangerously.
One of General Washington’s first tests was his 1775 discovery that he intensely disliked a great many of the New England soldiers he was supposed to command. In a letter to fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, he remarked that the Yankee enlisted men were “an exceeding dirty and nasty people” with the “most indifferent” officers he ever saw. His secretary and aide-de-camp, Joseph Reed, warned him that Lee had shown this letter to John Adams, who had undoubtedly shown it to his fiery cousin, Samuel Adams. Sam would almost certainly resent the slur and be quick to seek revenge. That was the last time Washington ever said anything derogatory about a soldier or politician from any part of their embryo nation. In a painful flash, he saw he must become not only a victorious battlefield leader, but the creator of a sense of brotherhood and mission in his “Continental” army.3
In 1776, Washington faced a British army three or four times larger than the one that self-appointed military experts such as Thomas Paine had predicted the supposedly bankrupt royal government could send to America. In battles on Long Island and in Manhattan, the redcoated regulars and their hired German allies routed Washington’s mix of regulars bolstered by untrained militia. As he watched fleeing Connecticut militiamen race past him, ignoring his orders to stand and fight at present-day Forty-second Street and the East River, the general roared: “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”4
A few nights later, Washington wrote a letter to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, informing him that, henceforth, he would never risk the American army in another all-out confrontation with the British. Instead, he would “protract the war.” This meant the Continental Army would frequently retreat in order to fight another day. Washington hoped Congress would see no disgrace in this new strategy.
Not a few military historians have considered this decision to change the basic thinking of the war proof of Washington’s ability to make crucial decisions. Many of his staff officers and subordinate generals were too badly rattled by the British victories to do more than wring their hands. He was well aware that he was abandoning the theory that Congress had formulated in 1775—the war would be won in one titanic battle—a “general action”—in which overwhelming numbers of spirited American amateurs would crush King George III’s comparative handful of dispirited mercenaries.5
Several days later, General Washington declared that Congress’s policy of using untrained militia to save the cost of a large regular army was threatening their cause with ruin. Only a well-trained army, equipped with cannon and cavalry, and strong enough to “look the enemy in the face,” would win the war. It took seven often harrowing years but this combination of a protracted war and a dependable regular army proved to be the formula for victory.6
A protracted war did not mean that General Washington was unwilling to fight when he thought he had a good chance of winning. In the final weeks of 1776, when the American cause seemed destined for oblivion, he struck two electrifying blows, killing or capturing the German garrison at Trenton, and routing British regiments from Princeton. America, groaned one dismayed loyalist, became “liberty mad again.”
A year later, in the army’s winter camp at Valley Forge, Washington discovered that the British were not his only enemies. Disillusioned congressmen, under the leadership of Samuel Adams, a foe of a regular army, with neither sympathy nor understanding of the protracted war strategy, tried to oust Washington with a nasty mix of politics and slander. Wealthy Thomas Mifflin, the army’s quartermaster general, was also in on the conspiracy.
Their chief complaint was the Continental Army’s failure to stop the British army from seizing the American capital, Philadelphia. Adams, Mifflin, and their followers wanted to downgrade Washington and elevate the victor in the 1777 battle of Saratoga, General Horatio Gates. They made Gates chairman of a “Board of War,” with the power to issue orders without bothering to consult the commander in chief. They also began smearing Washington as an overcautious, egotistic fake who thought his two small victories at the close of 1776 had won him enduring fame.
A congressional delegation came to Valley Forge, ready, one of its backers smugly told Samuel Adams, “to rap a demigod over the knuckles” and embarrass Washington into resigning. The general invited the chairman to dinner, and in two hours turned him into an ally. Next he presented him and his fellow would-be knuckle-rappers with a twenty thousand-word statement, written by a young West Indian–born aide, Alexander Hamilton, who had recently joined his staff. The essay informed the stunned delegation that Congress was responsible for the mess in the quartermaster and commissary departments that had brought the army to the edge of starvation. The would-be knuckle-rappers returned to Congress with Washington’s solution to the problem, plus an insistence on a pension for the officers, to prevent the army’s collapse. Despite frantic objections from the Samuel Adams clique in Congress, the pension passed by a single vote.7
At the battle of Monmouth, a few months after the ordeal at Valley Forge, Washington placed his second-in-command, former British colonel, Charles Lee, in charge of the advance guard as they pursued the British army retreating from Philadelphia. The French had entered the war as America’s ally and the British had abandoned the American capital to concentrate their forces in New York. Like General Gates, the outspoken Lee had many friends in Congress. He scoffed at Washington’s strategy and urged them to discharge the regular army and rely completely on militia to fight a “partisan” (guerilla) war—with him in command.
As Washington and the main body of his army approached the British camp near Monmouth Court House, the general was stunned to see Lee’s soldiers reeling toward him, panic on their faces. Convinced that Americans could not stand and fight the British in a face-to-face confrontation, Lee had ordered a retreat the moment the enemy attacked. The pursuing redcoats were only fifteen minutes away.
Washington roared curses at Lee and took charge of the situation. In ten frantic minutes, his troops were manning nearby hills and hasty barricades. They fought the King’s soldiers to a bloody draw, which Washington called a victory. Soon afterward, he court-martialed Lee, implicitly daring Congress to override him. They glumly confirmed the guilty verdict.8
A year later, a French expeditionary force was scheduled to land at Newport, Rhode Island, to bolster the American army. Washington’s spies discovered that the British planned a massive assault on the French soldiers as they came ashore, weary from their long Atlantic voyage. The day before the British fleet and army were to depart from New York, a purported American loyalist handed the British commander a packet of letters that an American messenger had apparently dropped on the road. It contained plans for a major assault on New York. The panicked British cancelled their Newport attack and manned fortifications around the city, until it dawned on them that they had been hoodwinked.
After two more years of seesaw warfare, a French fleet helped Washington trap the main British field army at Yorktown, and the fighting war began to dwindle. A weary British parliament pressed King George III into initiating peace talks, which ended in a preliminary treaty negotiated by Ambassador Benjamin Franklin and his fellow diplomats in Europe.
This dawn of peace was suddenly darkened by a threat of a counterrevolution, organized by restless officers in the American army’s winter camp at New Windsor, on the Hudson River above New York. Incendiary broadsides urged the army to march on Congress and demand at gunpoint the years of back pay they were owed—and a confirmation of the promised pension for the officers. Behind the conspirators was Washington’s old enemy, General Horatio Gates, who was always eager to listen to the voices of the people, especially when they were criticizing Washington.
Without consulting their commander in chief, the conspirators called a meeting to vote on whether to begin their march. Washington coolly asserted his authority by banning the meeting as “disorderly.” He summoned another conclave four days later. When the officers convened, Washington strode onto the stage of the large building called “The Temple” and asked the startled chairman, none other than General Gates, if he could say a few words.
With an emotional intensity that few had seen before, Washington asked the officers “in the name of our common country” and “your own sacred honor” to join him in expressing their “detestation” of any man who wanted to “overturn the liberties of our country” and “open the floodgates of civil discord.” Instead, he asked them to remain loyal to their dignity and honor as officers and Americans. Someday people would praise their “glorious example.” This later generation would say: “Had this day been wanting, the world would never have seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
Washington took from his pocket a message from Virginia congressman Joseph Jones, a close friend. It declared that Congress was still trying to find a way to raise the money it owed the army. After reading a few lines, Washington paused and drew a pair of glasses from an inner pocket of his coat. “Gentleman,” he said. “You will permit me to put on my spectacles—I have not only grown grey but almost blind in the service of this country.”
A rush of emotion swept through the room. Not a few officers wept openly. Washington finished the letter and strode from the stage. Instantly, his most loyal general, artillery commander Henry Knox, took charge. By the time the meeting ended, the officers had voted their complete approval of Washington’s words and condemned the incendiary broadsides. The most perilous moment in the brief history of the United States of America ended peacefully, thanks to one extraordinary man.9
Finally came the day in 1783 when the British army rowed the last of its regiments from New York’s docks to waiting transports in the harbor. General Washington and his army, reduced to a mere seven hundred men, took possession of the city. Soon Washington rode south to Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was meeting. Although the legislators had failed to heed his plea to pay the officers and men their back pay or their promised pensions, he put aside his personal embitterment and treated Congress with the same respect he had displayed for its dubious authority throughout the war.
Solemnly, earnestly, he congratulated the delegates for their victory in the long struggle, and resigned his commission as lieutenant general and commander in chief. In Europe, amazement was virtually universal. Everyone—especially George III—had expected Washington to take power as a dictator, like Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the victor in England’s civil war in the previous century.
By 1785, the defects of the Articles of Confederation had became glaringly apparent. The president of Congress—theoretically, the president of the nation—was a powerless figurehead who could not even answer a letter addressed to him without the legislators’ permission. Congress had no authority to raise money beyond pleading with the states for “requisitions,” which they largely ignored. Each state had one vote, and it required nine votes to make a decision. To pass a money bill required unanimous approval. In 1783, twelve states backed James Madison’s proposal to levy a 5 percent duty on imports. Tiny Rhode Island voted no, leaving Congress mired in bankruptcy.
General Washington admitted his growing distress about the future of the nation to several of his many correspondents. As the popularity and power of Congress sank to zero-minus, various states became alarmingly autonomous. New York taxed every farmer’s rowboat that crossed the Hudson River from New Jersey with produce to sell. Massachusetts was playing a similar game with Connecticut and New Hampshire. Virginia grew truculent when Pennsylvania attempted these extortions. Other states, notably Rhode Island, began printing their own money in reckless amounts, enabling their businessmen to pay debts in depreciated currency. “I see one head turning into thirteen,” Washington warned.10
Washington’s ex-aide, Colonel Alexander Hamilton, quit Congress in disgust, and advised the governor of New York to give land to discharged Continental soldiers. They would be useful if a civil war erupted. He was not alone in seeing bloody internal strife as the next chapter in the American story.
On August 31, 1786, a disgruntled former Continental Army captain named Daniel Shays launched a revolution in western Massachusetts to protest the state government’s seizure of farms and houses for failure to pay taxes. Armed Shaysites closed courthouses and sent judges fleeing for their lives. Similar revolts shut down courts in the western counties of nearby states. Former General Henry Knox told Washington the rebels could raise between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand “desperate and unprincipled men.”11
Massachusetts asked Congress for assistance. The nation’s legislators voted to raise $530,000 for an army of forty-four hundred men, and appealed to the supposedly united states to send them the money. Twelve of the thirteen semi-independent legislatures ignored the request. Total disaster was averted when wealthy men in Massachusetts raised enough cash to hire a local army. Led by another former Continental Army general, Benjamin Lincoln, this force routed the Shaysites. But bands of discontented men continued a guerilla war until February 1787, kidnapping merchants and judges, looting and burning stores.
When a worried Virginian asked Washington to go to Massachusetts and lend his “influence” to calm the upheaval, he angrily replied: “Influence is no government!” He saw anarchy in the careening Shaysites—along with the ruin of the central reality that Americans had to preserve if they hoped to escape Europe’s history of destructive wars—their national union.12
“There are combustibles in every state,” Washington wrote to Madison. “Let us look to our national character and to things beyond the present moment.”13
After Madison began visiting Mount Vernon in 1785, he advanced steadily in Washington’s estimation. The general soon began his letters to the young congressman with “My Dear Sir,” an expression he reserved for close friends. (Others received a standard “Dear Sir.”) Just as frequently, Washington closed his letters with “Affectionately.” It took Madison another year to begin adding that word to his own closing lines, perhaps evidence that Washington’s fame—or his age—inhibited easy familiarity.14
By this time, the two men realized they were in almost complete agreement on the need for a drastic reform of the federal government. Washington warmly endorsed Madison’s call for a conference to be held at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the situation. Madison shrewdly described the meeting’s purpose as an attempt to find ways to remove barriers that limited trade and commerce between the states.
Complicating the situation was a growing distrust between North and South. Shays’ Rebellion was not a factor in this malaise. When the delegates met at Annapolis on September 11, 1786, the size and seriousness of Shays’ upheaval was not yet apparent. More divisive was a move by John Jay, the Foreign Secretary of Congress, to negotiate a deal with Madrid, surrendering the right of the United States to use the Mississippi River in return for the lifting of trade restrictions preventing American commerce with Spain and her colonies in the West Indies and South America. Virginia and other southern states with western counties were infuriated when seven northern states, led by Massachusetts, voted in favor of Jay’s proposal.15
This sectional antagonism discouraged attendance at Annapolis. Only twelve delegates representing five states (New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) showed up. Madison found an ally in New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, with whom he had served in Congress in the closing months of the war. Hamilton heartily backed Madison’s suggestion that the Annapolis meeting adjourn and issue a call for a truly national convention. Hamilton drafted this exhortation and portrayed the situation as so alarming, Madison had to persuade him to tone it down. In private talks, the two men found they were in almost complete agreement on the need for a drastic overhaul of the federal government.
Back in Richmond, Madison had no trouble persuading the Virginia legislature to send delegates to a convention the following year in Philadelphia. As inhabitants of the nation’s largest state, Virginians thought of themselves as America’s natural leaders. Madison now went to work behind the scenes to persuade a reluctant ex-General Washington to preside at the convention. Many people have attributed Washington’s hesitation to a fear of risking the fame he had achieved in the armed struggle with Britain. This writer is more inclined to see it as another episode in the career of a man who had lived dangerously for a long time.
Washington’s well-honed political judgment had convinced him that he would have only one chance to use his reputation to reform the federal government. In every state there were vocal politicians and businessmen who were profiting from the weaknesses of the current government and were ready to defend the status quo with the same savagery that his enemies had displayed at Valley Forge. What Washington needed and wanted to see was evidence that thoughtful men were ready to join him in Philadelphia.
Madison understood this estimate of their situation and soon found an answer to it. He assured numerous Virginians that General Washington planned to attend the convention. This news inspired leaders such as Governor Edmund Randolph and George Mason (author of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights) to volunteer to serve as delegates. When Washington learned that the state’s delegation would have so many “respectable” names, he became much more inclined to join them.
Madison combined this canny politicking with long hours spent absorbing dozens of books on government. He found numerous examples in history of weak confederations that were overthrown by a scheming strongman, often with the help of foreign allies. The specter of Britain seducing one of the disunited states was starkly probable in this historical light. Soon Madison was writing an essay, “Of Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” in which he noted how often unions of this type had collapsed because the central government was weak or nonexistent. The result of Madison’s research was a forty-one-page booklet, which George Washington liked so much, he copied it in his own handwriting. It would prove an invaluable resource for both men in the coming convention.
Early in 1787, Madison undertook an even more important task. In atrocious winter weather, the man whom college friends had considered a chronic invalid rode from Virginia to New York City, where Congress was meeting. Rivers, Madison later told a friend, “were clogged with ice and a half congealed mixture of snow and water.” Next came a Northeast blizzard that made the road from Philadelphia to New York an ordeal.16
The ex-invalid survived and was soon reporting to General Washington that Congress was financially and politically bankrupt. Few people wanted to waste time serving as delegates. At first, the few congressmen on hand resisted the idea of approving a constitutional convention. But Madison persuaded them to acquiesce in a tepid endorsement, specifying that the convention was “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Madison knew wary states would now be more inclined to send delegates to Philadelphia—and Washington would almost certainly join them.17
Madison also spent not a few hours persuading congressmen from the seven northern states who had voted for John Jay’s proposed treaty on the Mississippi to abandon the measure. Although the proponents were two states short of the nine votes needed to pass a law or treaty, Madison wanted to eliminate the divisive issue from the agenda of the coming constitutional convention. As a weapon, he used a resolution from former army officers and others settled in what would soon become the state of Kentucky, deploring the idea.
Next, Madison sought out the Spanish ambassador and discovered he and John Jay had abandoned any hope of passing the treaty. The Congressman was able to tell Washington and other influential Virginians the good news that “The Mississippi sleeps.” Thus, he removed the last obstacle to the state’s participation in the Philadelphia convention.
During these fall and winter weeks, General Washington became more and more radical in his thinking about a new federal government. On March 31, 1787, he told Madison he would not be satisfied with a few amendments to the Articles of Confederation. He wanted “a thorough reform of the present system”—a new constitution.
In letters to other correspondents, Washington spelled out some of the changes he had in mind. He wanted the federal government to repay the millions of dollars that America had borrowed from France and Holland to finance the War for Independence. Congress had defaulted on paying even the interest, ruining American credit around the world. Washington also wanted a government with the power to control the reckless policies of individual states. Above all, he wanted a government strong enough to suppress any further outbreaks of violence like Shays’ Rebellion.
Praise for The Great Divide
Named one of the best books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews
"Historians often speak of the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton. Tom Fleming rightly focuses on Jefferson and Washington, for it was in the nexus of their competing visions of the nation's destiny that the United States truly took shape. In this superb book, Fleming compellingly captures the drama of this clash of titans, showing how its outcome made the difference between national ruin and prosperity."Edward G. Lengel, Director, Papers of George Washington and author of General George Washington, A Military Life
"George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both tall Virginians who made curcial contributions to winning American independence. But they were otherwise polar opposites, with wildly diverging visions of their fledgling nation's destiny. In The Great Divide, Thomas Fleming quarries a lifetime's study of America's turbulent Founding Era to recount a character-clash waged against the backdrop of chronic domestic discord and overshadowed by blood-soaked revolution in France. The author's robust prose leaves no doubt where his own sympathies lie, but all readers of history will relish his gripping exploration of a conflict between realism and idealism that still resonates today."Stephen Brumwell, author of George Washington: Gentleman Warrior and winner of the George Washington Book Prize
Prolific historian Fleming delivers a vivid, opinionated history of this conflict.... Among historians, Jefferson's star has been falling for 50 years. Fleming's frank hostility puts him at the far end of the scale, but he makes a fascinating case that Jefferson's charismawhich peaked early with the Declaration of Independencewas accompanied by fanciful political beliefs that continue to exert a malign influence on the office of the presidency.”Kirkus Reviews
"An absorbing book that will enlighten many and shock some."What Would the Founders Think?
- "The Great Divide has a dramatic flow to it that informs and entertains. The book brings to life prominent characters and events that shaped American political development."—The Historian
- On Sale
- Mar 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 440 pages
- Da Capo Press