The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 17761826
edited by James Morton Smith
Norton, three volumes, 2,073 pp., $150.00
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were, in the words of one historian, “the two greatest philosopher statesmen of the American Enlightenment.” Who can deny it? Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; Madison wrote not only the United States Constitution, or at least most of it, but also the most searching commentary on it that has ever appeared. Each of them served as president of the United States for eight years. What they had to say to each other has to command attention. And they had a lot to say. They first met while serving in the Virginia state legislature in 1776, when Madison was twenty-six and Jefferson thirty-three, and within a few years began a correspondence and collaboration that ended only with Jefferson’s death on the fiftieth anniversary of his great Declaration, July 4, 1826. During that time they exchanged 1,250 letters that have been preserved, and here they are, in chronological order, from small enigmatic one-liners to lengthy discursive ruminations.
The editor, James Morton Smith, has divided them into chapters, each with an introduction furnishing the background of events and issues that prompted the exchanges. It is no accident that the introductions, taken together, form a running political history of the United States in its first half-century, for the letters themselves are devoted almost entirely to politics—they include a very little about natural history, a little about books (each procured them for the other), a little about the weather, scarcely anything about art, literature, science, history, or even political philosophy. Jefferson and Madison wrote to each other about politics, the day-to-day business of running the government, whether of Virginia or the United States.
Their letters have long served as a principal source for historians studying the period. Complete scholarly editions of each man’s papers have been under way for forty-odd years; and biographies and monographs are abundant, including Dumas Malone’s six volumes on Jefferson and Irving Brant’s four volumes on Madison. The relationship between the two men is itself the subject of a classic study by Adrienne Koch, written when most of the letters published here were available only in manuscript. What the new volumes offer is a chance to explore that relationship for ourselves, to observe the operation of what is commonly called Jeffersonian democracy, though it could as well be called Madisonian. By whatever name we call it the written exchanges of the two men suggest that it was not the monolithic product of a mutual admiration society. While the two held views similar enough to enable them to work together for fifty years, they brought to their work, as one can see in these pages, different objectives and different strategies for reaching them.
The differences are most apparent in the early years, the 1780s, when they both knew that the government of the United States needed fixing but neither had yet fastened on a satisfactory way to fix it. During much of that time (1784–1789), Jefferson was in …