Orderly revolutionaries

The Republic of Letters
June 9, 1995

Here in three stout volumes is the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison presented in its entirety -some 1,250 letters, meticulously edited and annotated, spanning 47 years from 1779 to 1826. Almost all are known to scholars, and two thirds are already available in modern scholarly editions. Indeed it is the very bulk of the on-going Jefferson papers (28 volumes to date) and Madison papers (21 volumes to date) that gives this collection its particular value. By selecting from this vast corpus one central and sustained dialogue, James Morton Smith makes Madison and Jefferson accessible - and affordable - for scholars, readers and libraries.

Between the letters and Smith's well-crafted commentaries, we are presented with a remarkable political narrative - but it is political and it is narrative. Other concerns are apparent at times - principally books, architecture and natural history - but these were diversions, momentary respites from the burdens of public life. Although both men concerned themselves with political economy (to them the science whereby statecraft increased national wealth), there is no conception of the social and economic bases of politics. Slavery is hardly mentioned. Jefferson habitually fulminates about debt and bankers, but only one letter alludes directly to his own ruinous indebtedness. These men lived public lives, and in commenting on affairs they seldom revealed secrets or concerned themselves with personalities. They collaborated closely and grew to be close friends, but even in their own correspondence they were concerned to record events and fit them into a high-level narrative of American republicanism.

How does the narrative go? There are lapses and longueurs. The extensive correspondence during Jefferson's presidency (when, of course, they dealt mostly face-to-face) primarily concerns the minutiae of administration, but it is striking how overwhelmingly concerned they were with foreign affairs. In the 1790s there were long periods of silence, but it is also clear how great was the impact of the crisis with France and the Alien and Sedition Laws and how intense their sense of threat and of the revolution betrayed. This is the key to the coherence of the narrative - the constant reference back to the formative experience(s) of revolution.

Sadly, the correspondence begins after Jefferson's first revolutionary career - the time of his meteoric rise in national affairs and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. But for each man there is a formative period chronicled in the correspondence. For Jefferson it was his time in France in the last years of the ancien regime, from which he reported the first stirrings of liberty with exhilaration and considerable naivety.

For Madison the significant period was the altogether more sombre crisis of American domestic politics in the 1780s culminating in his great work drafting the constitution in 1787. It was reflections on these events (not the Procrustean paradigms of political theories) which remained their touchstones, half remembered, half imagined, for the rest of their lives.

Just as their formative experiences were different, so were their responses and their personalities; none the less theirs was a harmonious, orderly collaboration. Jefferson's mind worked by leaps, and he did not easily recant or forgive. Madison was cautious, dogged and somewhat dogmatic. They disagreed on a few notable occasions - when Jefferson questioned the distribution of property, suggested that laws should last only one generation or observed in response to Daniel Shays that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing". Madison moderated his responses, but usually there was no need; mostly the two men watched events with profound agreement and a stoical reserve.

Even in the fevered politics of the 1790s there was a revealing contrast with the excitable Federalist hotspurs among their opponents. Madison and Jefferson worried intensely and laboured prodigiously, but they eschewed overheated emotion and ultimately remained convinced that history was on their side. On only a couple of occasions did either react passionately against someone, and those occasions are revealing too.

Madison could never understand what Jefferson saw in John Adams and even suppressed the conciliatory letter which Jefferson proposed to send to Adams at the beginning of Adams's presidency. Jefferson could not tolerate his distant cousin, later chief justice, John Marshall "with his lax lounging manners". Neither Adams nor Marshall was viewed as particularly evil; Jefferson and Madison accepted other men they judged more wicked with considerable equanimity. The problem was that Adams and Marshall did not easily fit into appropriate categories - friend or foe, right or wrong.

It mattered to Jefferson and Madison where people fitted in, how events fitted together. Ultimately, they were categorisers and theorisers; for them the ultimate reality was in their minds. The American Enlightenment is currently an unfashionable historiographical concept, but no concept better sums up Madison and Jefferson's view of the world. They were not unworldly; they delighted in practical details, and there is no more charming vignette in their correspondence than Jefferson arranging for local farmers to help Madison up the muddy road to Monticello. But they did try to order their world according to a prior mental picture.

On occasion the results could be disastrous, as in their policy towards Britain during their respective presidencies. (Jefferson, in particular, clung to his own vision of European affairs like a fond alumnus clinging to the memory of long vanished college life.) At the end of their lives the results were hilarious. There is an almost comic opera quality in their attempt to fashion an unenthusiastic faculty and refractory sons of Virginian squireens into a great university.

Still, for all the practical pitfalls into which theory led, it was their concern for ideas that explains their influence in their own time and their lasting importance. They consistently and clearly laid out the events of their time according to a pattern and according to their principles. They never wavered from their own particular understanding of and faith in liberty, from their own vision of America's promise. It was this which rallied their supporters, and it is this which still speaks to us today.

Jefferson never produced a true book, nor did Madison after The Federalist (in which project he was junior partner to Alexander Hamilton); none the less, they were truly citizens of "the republic of letters". It was in their correspondence (deliberately preserved for posterity) that they sketched their great commentary on American government and recorded their own commitment to the republican experiment.

Mark Kaplanoff is a fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford.

The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson & James Madison, 1776-1826

ISBN - 0 393 03691 X
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £110.00
Pages - 2,073pp (three volumes)

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments