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The Fixers

The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776–1826

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,1 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 France, representing the United States and pondering the superiority of the republican governments he had known at home to the monarchies he had to deal with in Europe. Madison, meanwhile, immersed in the Virginia government and the Continental Congress, was becoming obsessed with the irresponsible capriciousness of the state governments, the impotence of Congress, and the difficulty of giving republican government the stability needed to make it last. He did succeed in getting the Virginia legislature to pass Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom (for which he actually deserves more credit than Jefferson). But his early thoughts on giving stability to the national government were uncharacteristically naive: he proposed that the faltering United States Congress send a warship or a body of troops against any state that failed to comply with its requisitions—which would have been a quick way to dissolve the union altogether.

Jefferson’s way of strengthening the national government was equally unrealistic. Although he seems not to have discussed his solution in letters to Madison, he expected, as representative of the United States, to make commercial treaties with European countries. Since the Articles of Confederation gave Congress no power to regulate trade, but did give it sole power to make treaties, he would use treaties to regulate trade on a national basis. But when Jefferson tried to negotiate treaties, he found himself in a Catch-22 situation: other countries would not deal with the United States because it lacked the power Jefferson was seeking for it. Madison, of course, was finally able to solve the problem with the Constitution of 1787.

Jefferson came to accept that solution, but his first doubting reaction to it contrasts markedly with Madison’s own initial misgivings. Jefferson, like many others, was dismayed by the Constitutional Convention’s disregard of its instructions in creating a whole new union with a new government, instead of merely revising the Articles of Confederation. To Madison he confessed, “I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” The new one promised to turn oppressive quickly, he thought, because it lacked a bill of rights, lacked rotation in office, and created a president who would transform himself into a monarch. Madison, on the other hand, had engineered the bold stroke of the convention but was disappointed that he had been unable to get his colleagues to make the government more energetic. As the sessions drew to a close in September he confided to Jefferson the conviction that his Constitution, “should it be adopted will neither effectually answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which every where excite disgusts against the state governments.”

For Madison the irresponsibility of the states was enough “to alarm the most steadfast friends of Republicanism,” and he had tried again and again at the convention to arm the new national government with an absolute veto on state laws. The proposal was about as realistic as his former notion of sending troops or ships against them. The convention never came close to accepting it, and Jefferson made no bones about indicating that he too would have been against it.

The different approaches of the two men were apparent in other exchanges during this early period, not least in Jefferson’s formulation of the concept that the earth belongs to the living and in Madison’s reaction to it. The germ of the idea came to Jefferson when walking in the country around Fontainebleau in 1785. He told Madison how his encounter with a peasant woman “led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe.” The outcome of his reflections at this point was that

the earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.

By the time he returned to America, Jefferson had carried his reflections a step further. Just before leaving Paris, he wrote a long letter arguing against the unequal distribution of property imposed on the living by the dead. If the earth was a common stock for man to labor and live on, it belonged not to the dead but to the living. And from this premise he reached the conclusion that no person had the right to acquire debts that could not be paid in his own lifetime. Similarly no government could acquire debts that could not be paid within the lifetime of a majority of its members. And going still a step further, no government could make laws or constitutions that would extend beyond that lifetime. He calculated by actuarial tables that a majority of any population would expire in nineteen years. “Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be inforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

Jefferson urged Madison to apply this principle to the government of the United States, “particularly as to the power of contracting debts.” Madison’s response, like Jefferson’s letter, was the closest thing to a discussion of political philosophy that either man presented in their correspondence. To put Jefferson’s theory into practice, Madison said, would mean that no government could undertake debts for purposes that would benefit posterity, that “all the rights depending on positive laws, that is, most of the rights of property would become absolutely defunct; and the most violent struggles be generated between those interested in revising and those interested in new-modelling the former state of property.” In other words, forget it. Madison was interested in maintaining the stability of republican government, Jefferson in making that government subservient to its citizens. It was a difference of attitude and emphasis, not of contradiction, for their relations were continuously cordial, if always a little careful.

Jefferson was the more impulsive, Madison his quiet control. And while Madison, as the junior partner, always phrased his differences in a deferential manner, he did not conceal them. Jefferson, knowing perhaps his own tendency to fly off half-cocked, generally acceded to Madison’s advice. When he was out of office and Madison in, he did not hesitate to offer advice himself, but Madison seldom asked for it and did not feel obliged to follow it when given.

The difference of attitude, as might be expected, showed itself when the two contemplated rebellion, even rebellion against a republican government. Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 Madison regarded as “distressing beyond measure to the zealous friends of the Revolution”;2 but he refrained from even mentioning its existence to Jefferson. Jefferson, who heard about it from other correspondents, wrote to Madison in another famous letter that he thought

a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much.

Madison’s only reply was to report the measures taken by Massachusetts, including an amnesty conditioned upon the disarming and temporary disfranchisement of the rebels. A great proportion of the rebels, Madison heard, had refused the amnesty, and it was said “that they not only appear openly on public occasions but distinguish themselves by badges of their character…” Moreover “this insolence” was countenanced by popular favor and election to public office. In Madison’s view, it would seem, their punishment had been far too mild. It is perhaps of interest that George Washington thought disfranchisement too severe, a view that aligned Jefferson more closely with Washington than with Madison.

On the occasion of another rebellion, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, after Jefferson had served and retired as secretary of state under Washington, Madison, sitting in Congress, sided with a much more severe Washington who called out 15,000 troops to put down the rebels. Madison told Jefferson that “the insurrection was universally and deservedly odious” and was concerned only to counter any attempt to associate his and Jefferson’s Republican Party with it. To another correspondent he made the same observation that Jefferson had made about Shays but drew a different conclusion: “The result of the insurrection ought to be a lesson to every part of the Union against disobedience to the laws. Examples of this kind are as favorable to the enemies of Republican Government, as the experiment proves them to be dangerous to the Authors.”3 Jefferson on the other hand, from his retreat in Monticello, was outraged by the heavy-handed suppression of the rebels. He told Madison that “you are all swept away in the torrent of governmental opinions.” He could not see that the supposed rebels “according to the definitions of the law, have been any thing more than riotous.”

As Jeffersonian or Madisonian democracy took shape in opposition to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and then in the presidencies first of Jefferson and then of Madison, it continued to exhibit their differing perspectives. By 1798, when the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, forbidding, in effect, public criticism of the government or its officers, Madison could rejoice that his proposal for a national veto on state laws had never been adopted. The states now offered the only counter-weight to an over-energetic national government, and he and Jefferson had to consider something like a rebellion of the states against the national government. Jefferson took the lead in getting the Kentucky legislature to pass resolutions declaring the Sedition Act to be “altogether void and of no force.” Madison followed by getting similar resolutions passed in Virginia, but Madison’s resolutions stopped short of inviting defiance to the act by simply declaring it to be “unconstitutional.” The distinction was more than verbal. If it came to a showdown, Jefferson leaned to the view that a state could be the final judge and nullify an act that it considered unconstitutional. Madison, still looking for national stability, thought that the final arbiter of constitutionality must be the Supreme Court of the United States.

No final arbiter was required in the case of the Sedition Act, because it expired in 1800, as Jefferson took over the presidency. But the question would emerge again shortly before Jefferson’s death, when Congress passed laws for building roads and canals, assuming a power that both Jefferson and Madison considered an unconstitutional usurpation of powers belonging only to the states. This time Jefferson proposed from Monticello that the question be submitted to the amending process provided by the Constitution and that meanwhile Virginia, to show attachment to the union, and at the same time assert its own sovereignty, should repass the laws as its own. Madison dissuaded his friend from placing the proposal before the legislature; and when a greater showdown came after Jefferson’s death, Madison supported Andrew Jackson in his firm suppression of South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a federal law.

The fifty-year collaboration of the two men is a memorial to the success of Madison’s Constitution in furnishing stability to a union that would ultimately come to arms over the very differences that the two were able to contain in friendship. (They did not differ over slavery, which is scarcely mentioned here.) The correspondence, published with all the scholarly apparatus needed to make it intelligible, offers solid evidence of that friendship and of the way it operated. But it has to be said that, taken by itself, most of it gives only the faintest clues to the character of the men who wrote it. During the years when they were separated by the Atlantic and to some extent during the years after retirement when they were separated by the distance between Montpelier and Monticello, they put much of themselves into their letters. But from the time Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 until he retired from the presidency in 1808, if the two men exchanged significant ideas, they must have done so face-to-face in their almost daily contacts. The bulk of the letters from these years, occupying nearly nine hundred pages, are the routine communications between two government officers about daily business, appointments to minor offices, meetings with subordinates, problems of protocol and precedent. Both men were writing serious letters and state papers at this time, but not to each other.

We have Madison’s brief suggested revisions in wording for Jefferson’s messages to Congress, but without the text of the messages, the words don’t tell us much in themselves. During the political contests with Hamilton and the Federalists, Jefferson continually urged Madison, “For god’s sake take up your pen,” “set apart a certain portion of every post day to write what may be proper for the public.” (He never explained why he did not do it himself.) Madison often obliged with pamphlets and newspaper columns, but since they were not a part of his correspondence with Jefferson, they are not included here; and since Jefferson could read them in print, Madison felt no need to tell him what they said.

The two men faced some problems that required a good deal of thought, such as the purchase of Louisiana, which in Jefferson’s own view exceeded the powers that Madison’s Constitution gave to the federal government. Jefferson recorded his scruples about the purchase in letters to other friends,4 but he and Madison (his secretary of state) evidently talked the matter out. They drafted possible amendments to the Constitution which are printed here, but they did not present them to the public and did not need to write each other about them. The only surviving trace in their correspondence is Jefferson’s comment that “the less we say about constitutional difficulties respecting Louisiana the better.” The lengthiest discussion of any question in their letters for these years was a ten-page report by Madison in 1804 on the momentous issue of whether the United States consul at Santo Domingo should be compensated for expenses he claimed for a mission there in 1799.

The two great philosopher statesmen, like other statesmen, had to spend much of their time dealing with trivial problems and trivial people, of which their correspondence gives painful proof. No wonder they both welcomed retirement from public office, when in their remaining years they could help each other in starting the University of Virginia as they had helped each other in starting the United States and in rescuing it from the Federalists. They must have found time for some real conversation about their philosophical differences during their years in office, but for whatever reason they put precious little of it into the correspondence now presented to us.

This will come as a disappointment to anyone who has enjoyed Jefferson’s scintillating correspondence with John Adams.5 Since Jefferson and Madison were kindred spirits, and Jefferson and Adams were not, one looked for a more revealing exchange. But Adams’s mocking wit and playful manner drew more thoughtful responses from Jefferson than Madison’s carefully phrased and deferential disagreements. It may be that a correspondence between two friends as intimate as Madison and Jefferson can never tell us as much about either man as we expect to find. Madison’s genius lay in politics and political thought, but though he wrote to Jefferson almost solely about politics, his published writings and even his letters to other correspondents often give his political views more explicitly than he allowed himself to do with his old friend. And Jefferson, whose mind ranged far more widely, if less sharply, than Madison’s, also let himself go more freely with others. For a more balanced firsthand understanding of either man, of the relation between them, and of the kind of democracy which bears their names, we still have to await the complete editions of their papers, underway at Princeton and Charlottesville.

  1. 1

    Adrienne Koch, Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration (Knopf, 1950).

  2. 2

    Madison to George Muter, January 7, 1787. Robert A. Rutland, et al., editors, The Papers of James Madison, Vol. IX (April 9, 1786–May 24, 1787) (University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 231.

  3. 3

    Madison to Hubbard Taylor, November 15, 1794, The Papers of James Madison, Vol. XV (March 24, 1793–April 20, 1795) (University Press of Virginia, 1985), p. 378.

  4. 4

    Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Vol. IV, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805 (Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 310–315.

  5. 5

    Lester J. Cappon, editor, The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (University of North Carolina Press, 1959).

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