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Washington vs. Jefferson: The conflict that continues to trouble America

Conflict between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Although numerous historians have explored Jefferson’s differences with Alexander Hamilton, little has been written of—and thus, few Americans know about—the fascinatingly complex and, at times, contentious, relationship that developed between the two most famous founding fathers.

By Thomas Fleming


The differences in temperament and experience between the two men were readily apparent. During the eight-year struggle for independence, George Washington learned to live dangerously. Surmounting military defeats and attempted betrayals by fellow revolutionists, he rose to worldwide fame as the commander of the American Continental Army. With independence secured, he rejected pleas to banish the bankrupt Continental Congress and become the new nation’s dictator. Instead, he resigned his commission and became a private citizen once more.

Frescoed mural showing President George Washington meeting with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, by Constantino Brumidi. (Architect of the Capitol)
Frescoed mural showing President George Washington meeting with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, by Constantino Brumidi. (Architect of the Capitol)

Jefferson’s chief contribution to the struggle was drafting the Declaration of Independence. The opening paragraph’s soaring insistence that every human being was entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would ultimately give America’s revolution world-transforming power. While our nation’s most sacred document was ultimately edited and issued by the Continental Congress, Jefferson is widely acknowledged to be its principal architect.

Jefferson also served for two years (1779–81) as governor of Virginia, the nation’s largest state, during which he struggled to deal with such daunting and discouraging problems—from imminent bankruptcy to British invasions—that he refused to accept a third term. When a disillusioned member of the state’s legislature suggested the governor’s performance deserved a reprimand, the deeply wounded Jefferson told his friend James Madison that he would never again hold public office. The contrast between this emotional reaction and Washington’s eight years of steadfast leadership is striking.

Fundamental Differences

In September 1785, James Madison began visiting ex-general Washington at Mount Vernon to discuss the need for a more effective federal government. They agreed that the Articles of Confederation, the primitive charter Congress had created, was inadequate to the task of governing 13 contentious states. Absent from these conversations, which would have a large influence on the new constitution, was their mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson. Madison had persuaded him to accept Congress’s appointment as ambassador to France.

Washington was first, last, and always a realist. “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals,” was one of his favorite maxims. But he combined this realism with a visionary faith that America was destined to become a beacon of freedom for men and women everywhere. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was a pervasive optimist who believed that if left to their own devices, free men would inevitably find the path to a good government. Experience had convinced Washington that this happy outcome would only occur with the help of strong leadership. This was the missing ingredient in the Articles of Confederation; Congress, a body with frequently conflicting opinions, was the sole governing power in the nation.

At the Constitutional Convention, Washington and Madison persuaded the delegates to create a new office—a president who could speak and act as a coequal of Congress. “No one signed the Constitution with more enthusiasm than General Washington,” Madison recalled.

Washington also played a central role in the debate over ratifying the Constitution, repeatedly using his influence to persuade wavering states—notably his native Virginia—to approve the new charter. Ambassador Jefferson, abroad and absorbed in another drama—the first rumblings of what became the French Revolution—missed this entire struggle. When a copy of the Constitution reached Jefferson in Paris, his reaction was very different from Washington’s. “I must confess that there are things in it that stagger all my disposition to subscribe to it,” the ambassador told his friend John Adams. Jefferson was especially critical of the office of the presidency. He thought it was much too powerful to entrust to one man.

Washington was the inevitable choice to be the first president and swiftly made clear his intentions regarding how to govern the nation. He sent a circular letter to the countries of Europe, informing them that communications should be addressed to him, President Washington—not to Congress. He traveled from state to state, determined to make the presidency a popular reality to the whole nation.

In 1790, Jefferson returned to America and accepted Washington’s offer to become his secretary of state, despite their dissimilar views on the Constitution and other policies. Of particular dispute was a proposal from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton to establish a National Bank of the United States to help manage the consolidated Revolutionary War debt. Nowhere in the Constitution was there any mention of the federal government’s power to create a corporation, much less a national bank, but Hamilton argued that authority for such ventures was implied within the document.

Jefferson disagreed with the policy. He considered banks to be sources of corruption and feared the new country might be run by a clique of financiers rather than by honest citizens. But President Washington endorsed Hamilton’s idea of implied powers and refused to veto the bank. He thought it made sense to assume the government had the right to create institutions that allowed it to better organize and regulate the commerce of the United States. He welcomed the idea of turning the former colonies into a unified commercial nation, strong enough to maintain their financial independence, and if need be, pay for their defense against the great powers of Europe.

The president seemed vindicated as Hamilton’s system began restoring America’s ruined credit abroad and creating prosperity at home. Jefferson continued to predict the system would create a corrupt upper class and insisted America should remain a nation of virtuous farmers.

When creditors, including some Virginia merchants, rushed to purchase shares in the Bank of the United States, Jefferson deplored their eagerness to acquire “federal filth.” Upon learning that the Bank of the United States planned to establish a branch in Virginia, Jefferson wrote an angry letter to Madison, telling him that any Virginian who did business with this bank should be prosecuted for committing treason against their native state.

Jefferson convinced Madison that it was vital to expose Hamilton’s unhealthy influence. With their support, Philip Freneau, a State Department translator who had been a classmate of Madison’s at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), launched the National Gazette. The newspaper savagely attacked Hamilton, his program, and soon, Washington. Using pseudonyms, Madison wrote no less than 18 critical articles as part of this assault. His partnership with the president was clearly over.

"George Washington," Gilbert Stuart, c. 1798

"Thomas Jefferson," Gilbert Stuart, c. 1821.

"[Washington] welcomed the idea of turning the former colonies into a unified commercial nation, strong enough to maintain their financial independence, and if need be, pay for their defense against the great powers of Europe."

The French Dispute

Jefferson had returned to America a passionate advocate of the French Revolution, which added new tensions to his relationship with President Washington. When the radical Jacobins seized control, guillotined King Louis XVI, and began wars against Great Britain and many European states, Washington decided that America must and would remain neutral. He issued a proclamation urging all Americans to refrain from acts of violence favoring either side.

Learn More About French Neutrality


Jefferson objected vehemently to this proclamation, believing that its issuance should have required congressional approval. Washington, after consulting with Hamilton and his attorney general, argued that the Constitution gave the president the power to issue the proclamation independently.

In Paris and other French cities, massacre became the order of the day as the Jacobins proclaimed a new motto: “The republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.” Secretary of State Jefferson seemed oblivious to this moral collapse of France’s government, dismissing reports of such violence as British propaganda.

Jefferson did not deny that innocent people had died and mourned them “as I would if they had died in battle.” What enabled him to tolerate their loss was the goal of the struggle: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest. Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”

The president and the secretary of state found themselves face-to-face with the French Revolution in the person of headstrong, red-haired French ambassador Edmond Charles Genet. Ever the realist, Washington saw the French Revolution not as a force that would transform the world, but as a plunge into mass murder. Jefferson continued to express frustration with America’s policy of strict neutrality, and many of his supporters began to portray Washington as a virtual captive of Hamilton’s influence. Genet, accordingly, began to talk of the president with growing contempt.

During his time as ambassador, Genet encouraged Americans to support revolutionary France, and even commissioned privateers in American ports to seize British ships. Next, he revealed a plan to persuade the State of Kentucky to seize Spanish-held Florida and New Orleans, creating an independent nation loyal to France. Jefferson made only perfunctory objections to this idea. President Washington was appalled. He ordered General Anthony Wayne, American military commander in the west, to station troops on all rivers leading to New Orleans to ensure nothing came of the plot.

Washington’s partisans revealed the ability to play an equally rough political game when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay leaked to a New York newspaper Genet’s statement that he would appeal to the American people over the head of George Washington. An explosion of anger swept the nation as pledges of devotion to Washington poured into Philadelphia from mass meetings in cities, towns, and villages across America. Soon the president was able to ask his secretary of state to request envoy Genet’s recall.

Genet’s defeat marked the turning point in the relationship between Washington and Jefferson. In three separate meetings, Jefferson sought to convince the president that Hamilton and his coterie were plotting to transform America’s government into some version of a pro-British monarchy. Tempers became strained; Washington accused Jefferson of having a low opinion of his intelligence and angrily declared he was the last man in the world who would tolerate the emergence of an American king. Realizing he had lost, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state in December 1793.

"Citizen Genet Formally Presented to Washington," Howard Pyle, published in Harper's new monthly magazine, April 1897.

Edmond Charles Genet, by Adolf Ulrich Wertmuller, ca. 1784, Bequest of Nancy Fuller Genet, [1978.6.1]. Courtesy Albany Institute of History & Art.

"An explosion of anger swept the nation as pledges of devotion to Washington poured into Philadelphia from mass meetings in cities, towns, and villages across America."

A Strong Executive

Retreating to his hilltop mansion, Monticello, Jefferson again declared himself through with politics. Meanwhile, he wrote letters to James Madison and James Monroe—now leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively—advising them on how to oppose Washington’s policies. In state after state, “Democratic Societies” founded by Jefferson’s followers preached opposition to, and even revolution against, Washington’s government.

Learn More About Political Parties


In western Pennsylvania, opposition to a federal tax on whiskey coalesced with this hostility to threaten Washington’s presidency and the survival of the Union. Farmers in that section of the Keystone State made greater profits by converting their grain into liquor than by transporting it to markets in the east. Soon, reports claimed the Pennsylvanians and others in the western sections of neighboring states were planning to secede from the Union.

In the autumn of 1794, Washington summoned 13,000 militiamen and placed Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, the most famous cavalryman of the Revolutionary War, at their head. The president personally accompanied this formidable army, signaling his determination to crush this threat to the Union as swiftly and thoroughly as possible.

Washington Reviewing the Western Army at Fort Cumberland, Maryland, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer, after 1795. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Resistance evaporated so quickly that Jefferson remarked that the president had marched 100 miles to crush a nonexistent rebellion. Washington returned to Philadelphia, and in a no-nonsense speech to Congress, blamed the crisis on the Democratic Societies. Jeffersonians accused Washington of attacking freedom of speech, but few people listened, and the Democratic Societies were soon extinct. However, their methods of mobilizing the population in opposition to the government laid the foundation for national political parties.

Learn more about the Whiskey Rebellion


A few months later, in 1795, Washington’s commitment to a strong presidency faced another test, when special envoy John Jay negotiated a deeply imperfect commercial “Treaty of Amity” with England. About the only positive advantage it offered the Americans was a promise to evacuate six western forts from which the British had supplied restless Indians with weapons and encouragement to drive American pioneers back east of the Appalachian Mountains.

Washington’s desire to keep western Americans in the Union and his hope that the treaty might prevent a ruinous war with Britain prompted him to sign it despite its defects and send it to the Senate for approval. Jefferson was incensed, and his followers staged massive protests throughout the country. Washington refused to be intimidated and asked Hamilton to defend the treaty in a series of tough-minded newspaper articles. As the agitation subsided, the president delivered his annual message to Congress. Jeffersonian legislators expected another angry lecture echoing the president’s wrath over the Democratic Societies.

Instead, Washington smiled at the astonished legislators and told them good news: after years of negotiation, American diplomats had persuaded Spain to let western farmers ship their produce down the Mississippi and export it from New Orleans. As the president congratulated Congress on the happiness of a country at peace while most of Europe was wracked by war, it dawned on his listeners that they were dealing with the master politician of his era.

Washington deepened this realization when he decided to forgo a third term and wrote a farewell address to the American people. In this moving essay, he exhorted them to consider their Union a crucial value. It was “the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, your prosperity, of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.” He also warned them against excessively favoring or disliking foreign nations. What is today viewed as a historic state paper was, simultaneously, a searing critique of Thomas Jefferson and his followers.

"John Jay," Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull, begun 1784; completed by 1818.

A Changing Tide

With Washington’s covert backing, Vice President John Adams defeated Jefferson in the ensuing election to become the second president. France, brooding over the Jay Treaty, began seizing American merchant ships and threatened an invasion. Pro-Jefferson newspapers relentlessly assailed Adams, blaming him and his political party for the conflict. Congress passed a Sedition Act, making it a crime for an orator or a newspaper editor to libel the president or other federal officials. Former president Washington and many others saw it as a justifiable war measure.

An enraged Jefferson persuaded Madison to write a protest to be issued by the Virginia legislature, declaring a state had the power to “interpose” a refusal to obey such a law. In a statement for the Kentucky legislature, Jefferson went even further. He asserted that a state could and should consider “cission”—secession—to protect its citizens’ right to free speech.

A dismayed Washington saw these ideas as fatal to the future of the Union and urged their opposition. As the argument raged, Washington died of a throat infection. Deprived of his leadership, the political party supporting Adams faltered badly. Ultimately, the people did not want war with France and war measures that struck at their fundamental freedoms. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s third president.

A Jeffersonian Presidency

Almost everything President Jefferson said and did in the next eight years was the opposite of Washington’s style and policies. Instead of addressing Congress each year, Jefferson sent a message that was read by a clerk. Instead of leading Congress with words and acts, he conferred with key congressmen at private dinners in his residence and persuaded them to vote for the policies he wanted. Thus he diminished the importance of the presidency and created the illusion that Congress was running the country.

At times Jefferson’s tilt toward Congress revealed his basic dislike of the Constitution. But in his April 30, 1803, purchase of the Louisiana Territory, he was forced to call upon the once-hated implied powers to justify a decision that was not foreseen by the framers of the Constitution. His followers ignored this inconsistency and trumpeted the acquisition as a victory that had been achieved without shedding a drop of blood—a not very subtle attempt to elevate Jefferson above George Washington. They began calling Jefferson’s presidency “The Revolution of 1800.”

In his 1801 inaugural address, Jefferson praised Washington as “our first and greatest revolutionary character ... whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country’s love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history.” But he did not dwell further on Washington’s skill as a political leader. The immense popularity of the Louisiana Purchase among American voters enabled Jefferson to shift the focus to his own agenda and away from Washington’s presidency.

Jefferson’s determination to distance himself from Washington has had a large impact on the nation’s history. Washington’s presidency virtually vanished from the public mind. Even the handful of chief executives who favored a strong presidency have been unaware of Washington’s achievements. Well-read Harvard-educated Theodore Roosevelt said his dynamic style was built upon the Jackson-Lincoln tradition rather than Washington’s original example.

"Thomas Jefferson," John Trumbull, 1788.

Washington's Legacy

Toward the end of his life, James Madison—Jefferson’s most devoted disciple—had a change of mind and heart. He said students at the University of Virginia should be urged to read Washington’s Farewell Address. He issued a statement warning all Americans to cherish and perpetuate the Union of the United States. “Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened,” he wrote. “And the disguised one as a serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into paradise.”

These words suggest that Madison had returned to the sunny porch of Mount Vernon as a partner of that realistic visionary, George Washington. As conflicts between assertive presidents and a hostile Congress continue to divide America, our leaders would do well to rediscover the presidency of George Washington, who demonstrated how much executive leadership could accomplish, even as he retained the affection of the American people.


This article is based on Thomas Fleming’s book, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined A Nation.