George Washington by Charles Willson Peale
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
The story of George Washington’s death is well known: On December 12, 1799, the 67-year-old planter rode over his estate in snow and sleet, developing a throat infection that, within two days, proved fatal.
Less well known (and wonderfully humanizing) is what Washington talked about the night before he died. Washington and Tobias Lear, his personal secretary, sat in the parlor at Mount Vernon, perusing the newspapers. Washington “was very chearful [sic],” Lear recalled, and read aloud “as well as his hoarseness would permit.”
When Washington found speech increasingly difficult, Lear took over. When he heard how James Madison was supporting James Monroe for Virginia governor, Washington’s mood darkened, he “appeared much affected and spoke with some degree of asperity.”
Washington was displeased with Madison and Monroe at this time in his life and had also severed all ties with another great Virginian. This was Thomas Jefferson, an ally of Madison and Monroe who, six years earlier, had served in President Washington’s cabinet.
James Madison by John Vanderlyn
(White House Historical Association)
By the end of his life, Washington had come to regard Madison and Monroe as little more than pawns of Jefferson’s in a struggle over the country’s future. Disagreements over the nation’s direction dated back for years but only became public—and personal—in May 1797, after Washington had left the presidency and retired to Mount Vernon.
We like to think of our great statesmen going “gentle into that good night,” making peace with former adversaries and forgiving all past transgressions. But with Washington, the political wounds sustained in his efforts to put the fledgling republic on a sound footing still smarted. The stakes Washington and all these great men played for could not have been higher. That’s why they took their disputes so seriously. The future of liberty itself hung on the decisions they made, not only for America but—they believed—for mankind.
Why they took these disagreements so personally is revealing, too, as the case of Washington and Jefferson shows. These two men had much in common. They had worked together amiably and for much of their lives were friends, if not close ones.
Both were masters of great Virginia plantations. They served together in the Virginia legislature and in the Continental Congress, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and Washington was named Commander-in-Chief.
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
(White House Historical Association)
When President Washington asked Jefferson to join his cabinet, he described the man from Monticello to Lafayette as “a man of whom I early imbibed the highest opinion.” After Washington’s death, Jefferson described him in unforgettable terms. “His mind was great and powerful,” he was “incapable of fear,” and his “integrity was most pure.” Washington was “in every sense of the words, a good and a great man.”
It is sad, though probably inevitable, that they should ever quarrel. It was inevitable because they held deeply divergent visions for America’s future, which would not become apparent until after the Revolutionary War had been won. Once the patriot leaders had achieved independence, they actually had to govern, and governing revealed differences that could no longer be ignored.
These differences surfaced in the struggle over the Constitution, where the division of the Founders into supporters (federalists) and opponents (anti-federalists) anticipated the “factions” and, later, parties that play such a role in American politics to this day.
In the broadest terms, federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, supported ratification of the Constitution because they favored a strong central government tied to commercial interests. Anti-federalists, including George Mason and Patrick Henry, distrusted centralized power, favoring strong states and an agrarian economy.
To their opponents, the federalists were really “monarchists,” whose affection for Great Britain would undo the gains of the War for Independence itself. To their opponents, anti-federalists were radical “democrats,” whose zeal for France would similarly betray the Revolution.
As president, Washington, hoping to secure the fledgling nation’s survival, did his best put aside these “internal dissentions [sic] tearing [at] our vitals.” This proved impossible. With Jefferson as Secretary of State and Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Washington was forced to choose between their competing visions—between Hamilton’s commercial program and Jefferson’s agrarianism, and between Hamilton’s preference for Great Britain in its war with France, and Jefferson’s support for the French.
Head of the National Gazette newspaper edited by Philip Freneau (Library of Congress)
Weary of Washington’s perceived preference for Hamilton’s agenda, Jefferson resigned from the cabinet at the end of 1793. By this time, as the president discovered, Jefferson had become the behind-the-scenes leader of the opposition to Hamilton’s program—and therefore to Washington’s own administration. Two years earlier, Jefferson put Philip Freneau on the State Department payroll and installed him as editor of the National Gazette. There Freneau campaigned against the administration Jefferson still served, which struck critics—Washington among them—as disloyal, and even treasonous.
Washington was a proud and sensitive man, so why Jefferson’s actions seemed disloyal is obvious. Why they might be seen as treasonous requires an understanding of the Founders’ view of “factions” and of political opposition itself.
Ironically, both Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans (as the parties would become known) disapproved of parties. The Founders “did not believe, as modern democrats do, that partisan competition is an asset to the political order under what they called free government,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840.
In a republic, where the people elected officeholders to promote the public interest, parties were thought subversive, existing only to prevent legitimately constituted government from doing its job. Opposition parties must be secret agents of foreign powers—the Federalists of Great Britain and the Democratic-Republicans of France. The motives of members of opposition factions were therefore suspect.
Sharing this view, Jefferson became convinced that Washington had become a pawn of Hamilton’s Federalists, and that Hamilton’s Federalists were pawns of Great Britain. In April 1796, Jefferson wrote to a friend in Italy, bemoaning the state of American politics. “In place of that noble love of liberty and republican government which carried us triumphantly thro’ the war,” Jefferson wrote, “an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party has sprung up,” hoping to impose on the U.S. a government more British than American.
“It would give you a fever,” he went on, “were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who [were] Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.”
Unfortunately for Jefferson, in the spring of 1797, when Washington had retired to Mount Vernon, John Adams had succeeded him as president, and Jefferson was his vice president, the letter was reprinted in American newspapers. Though Jefferson denied it, Washington suspected that Jefferson meant him as one of those Samsons and Solomons. True or not, Jefferson’s acidic view of the Federalists was now public, and such trust as Washington still had in Jefferson, and in the other Democratic-Republicans, including Madison and Monroe, collapsed. Then and there, communication between Washington and Jefferson ceased.
Washington’s feeling of betrayal only intensified when he decided that Jefferson and Madison were helping Monroe research his View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, published in 1797. As Washington’s minister to France, Monroe had been recalled for insufficiently defending administration policy, and this book, defending his own conduct, was highly critical of Washington’s foreign policy.
Washington’s response, scribbled in the margins of his copy of the book, “comprise the most extended, unremitting, and pointed use of taunts and jibes, sarcasm, and scathing criticism in all of his writing,” as the editors of the Papers of George Washington put it.
Tobias Lear by Henry Bryan Hall, 1869
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Taunts, jibes and sarcasm were not this circumspect man’s usual mode of expression. He rarely spoke with the “asperity” Lear remembered, on learning, the day before he died, that Madison was supporting Monroe for governor.
But there’s reason to believe he did not mince words at Mount Vernon when he talked with his wife. Manasseh Cutler, a Congregationalist clergyman and Federalist congressman, recalled that just before her death in 1802, Martha Washington called Jefferson “most detestable” and his election to the presidency two years earlier as “the greatest misfortune our country had ever experienced.” Earlier, after Jefferson visited Mount Vernon in 1801 to pay his respects, Mrs. Washington would recall his appearance “the most painful” occurrence of her life, “next to the loss of her husband.”
Maybe Lady Washington spoke only for herself when she expressed such disdain for Jefferson, but it seems likely that her views were influenced by her husband. But it is impossible to know exactly how Washington felt about Jefferson at the end of his life, because he never said.
We would like to think these two great men came to view their disagreements with the perspective available to us today, but that is asking a lot. They were great men, after all, not gods.