WASHINGTON, MADISON AND THE CREATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC Smart Leibiger looks at one of the most significant relationships behind the politics that produced the American Constitution.
THE FRIENDSHIPS AND political collaborations among America's founding fathers have long been a source of fascination. In fact, scholars have generated a whole literature about the critical roles these collaborations played in the American Revolution, for example, the John Adams-Thomas Jefferson friendship that produced the Declaration of Independence, and that of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that yielded the Federalist Papers, perhaps the greatest American political commentary ever written. Historians have also studied the James Madison-Thomas Jefferson collaboration that brought about, in the words of the documentary editor Julian Boyd, `the most extended, the most elevated, the most significant exchange of letters between any two men in the whole sweep of American history'. Yet all this scholarship neglects the most important founding father of all: George Washington (1732-99).
Washington has been called the Revolution's `Indispensable Man'. If you took him out of the equation, then most likely the American Revolution would have failed. Yet, none of the so-called `great collaborations' that historians have written about includes Washington, whose friendship with James Madison was the most important association in the founding of the United States.
The American Revolution is unusual among modern world revolutions because it produced not a dictatorship, but a republic. One of the main reasons for this outcome was Washington's careful use of power. By never abusing it, and by giving it away, his power increased: from commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he became president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and finally President of the United States for two terms in 1789 and 1793. In these roles, he resisted the temptation to use the army as his personal bodyguard and remained true to the ideals of American Republicanism.
When he was commissioned to portray Washington in 1785, the celebrated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) chose not to depict the General's glorious victories at Trenton or Yorktown, but instead Houdon's statue of 1788 shows Washington in the act of retiring from the army, returning his military cloak and sword to the state and resuming civilian life, represented by a walking stick and ploughshare. Houdon understood that Washington exhibited greatness by returning power to the people, and by going home to Mount Vernon.
Few people today realise that Washington and Madison were close friends. On the surface they had little in common. True, both men came out of the Virginia gentry, and thus shared a distinct political and social culture, but the similarities end there. George Washington was a military officer and a farmer, a large and athletic man of action. He possessed intelligence, but not a university education. Gracious and magnanimous, he was also taciturn, demanding and unforgiving. In contrast, Madison was small and sickly, perhaps even an epileptic. A bookworm, educated at Princeton University, Madison was highly intellectual and philosophical. Though shy and retiring in large social gatherings, he was remarkably sweet-tempered and a wonderful conversationalist.
The relationship flourished because each man shared similar goals and possessed something the other needed. Both were committed to finalising the American Revolution by establishing an extremely republican and energetic federal government. Washington relied on Madison's advice, pen and legislative skill, while Madison manipulated Washington's prestige to achieve his own political goals.
The two first came face to face in August 1781, when Washington marched his army through Philadelphia on his way south to try to capture British troops under General Cornwallis in Virginia. Madison, at the time, was a member of the Confederation Congress. The relationship had actually begun, however, years before in 1777, when Madison became a member of the Virginia council of state under Governor Patrick Henry. In this role, Madison engaged in an extensive correspondence between the Virginia executive and Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The correspondence dealt primarily with keeping Washington's troops manned and supplied. Through this communication, Madison developed a tremendous admiration for Washington. He also received a first-hand education in civilian-military relations from the finest practitioner of that delicate art. As a result, Madison became more continental minded, and supportive of Washington's attempts to turn the American army into a paid, professional force.
By 1780, the calibre of delegates to Congress had declined precipitously, as talented men opted for state over federal service. Alarmed by this trend, Washington appealed to his native state to send men of the highest ability to Philadelphia. Virginia responded by electing four new delegates, including Madison. Thus Washington initiated Madison's advancement from state to federal service. During his years in Congress, Madison's political education continued. While in Philadelphia, he got to know Washington personally and their collaboration began.
The Newburgh Conspiracy exemplifies their association at this stage. In 1783, a faction of Congressmen (including Alexander Hamilton) and several Continental Army officers toyed with the idea of using a military coup led by Washington to scare Congress into raising revenue to pay the troops. At this moment the Revolution could have spun out of control. But the plan went nowhere, because Washington refused to have anything to do with it. During the crisis, he co-operated closely with a small group of moderate Congressmen, especially Madison. While Washington pleaded with the army to have faith in Congress, Madison's forces worked feverishly on a plan to generate revenue, working within the republican ideals of the Revolution, rather than trying to scare Congress into raising money.
At the end of 1783, with the Revolutionary War over, both Washington and Madison retired to Virginia. Here they recognised something that few other Americans could see at this point: that the British Empire had been the glue that had held the thirteen colonies together. When Americans won their independence, the thirteen states started to spin off in separate directions, with new republics going their own ways. Washington and Madison believed that a new glue would have to be found to bind the states together again. They set about pushing for a stronger federal government.
In 1785, the two men launched a project to improve the Potomac River (making it navigable) deep into the Ohio country, then the western frontier. As the project grew beyond the borders of Virginia, more and more states participated -- first Maryland, then Pennsylvania, and so on. The movement led to a series of conventions, first at Mount Vernon in 1785, then at Annapolis in 1786, and finally at Philadelphia in 1787, which of course produced the United States Constitution.
Between 1784 and 1787, the relationship between Washington and Madison developed as they became political confidants and intimate friends. The growth of their friendship is echoed in subtle shifts in the way they addressed each other and signed off in their letters. A typical eighteenth-century letter between two gentlemen might have closed with the words, `your most obedient and humble servant'. At first, Washington's and Madison's letters ended in fairly generic terms. But after Madison made a three-day visit to Mount Vernon in 1785, Washington began adding the word `affectionately' to the closings of his letters. Madison did not immediately reciprocate -- not surprisingly considering he was nineteen years Washington's junior. But Madison visited Mount Vernon again in 1786. After this second visit, he, too, began closing his letters with the word `affectionately'.
Exactly what went on during Madison's sojourns at Mount Vernon is hard to say. One hopes to find a detailed account in Washington's diary; instead, he writes only, `home all day with Mr Madison'. Washington's reticence nevertheless speaks volumes. For him to forgo his daily ride to his farms to stay at home with a guest was truly remarkable. Clearly there was not only socialising, but serious business taking place. Madison visited Washington's plantation a total of ten times between 1785 and 1791. During the visits, which lasted up to a week, the two discussed important state affairs, such as Washington's decision to attend the Federal Convention and to accept the presidency.
Washington was reluctant to participate in the Federal Convention of 1787 because he did not want to waste his immense prestige on what could well turn out to be an abortive assembly (as the Annapolis convention had been which he had wisely not attended). Acting on his own, Madison, as a member of the Virginia legislature, nominated Washington as a delegate to the convention. When Washington insisted that his name be removed from the Virginia list, Madison persuaded him to leave it there. Even if Washington planned not to attend, Madison argued, the idea that he would participate would convince other states to send their best men. Madison's tactics worked. Washington's name secured a full turnout, allowing him to attend after all.
The fifty-five delegates to the Federal Convention met from May to September 1787 in Philadelphia's Independence Hall, then known as the Pennsylvania State House because it was the state capitol building. Washington and Madison stood out in their commitment to a government that was both very powerful and extremely republican. They voted alike nearly all of the time. The convention was often frustrating, especially for Madison, who failed to work many favourite details into the Constitution. On days that he suffered bitter defeats, such as the day the convention decided to grant two senators to each state instead of basing Senate representation on population, as Madison had hoped, he and Washington would dine together in the evening, Washington bucking up his dejected friend.
Individually, Washington and Madison played vital roles at Philadelphia, but their collaboration was also crucial in that together they constituted a bulwark within the Virginia delegation. Without Washington and Madison, the Virginia delegation as a whole might have opposed the Constitution. As a pair they offset fellow members George Mason and Edmund Randolph, who opposed the final document. Had the most influential state refused to endorse the Constitution at Philadelphia, ratification could never have been achieved.
During the ratification campaign, Washington -- as the nation's inevitable choice for the presidency -- maintained a low profile. Nevertheless, he collaborated closely with Madison to win approval of the Constitution. Together Washington at Mount Vernon in the south and Madison at Congress in the north helped co-ordinate the entire Federalist campaign. Madison secretly provided Washington with copies of his essays for the Federalist Papers and other propaganda to be reprinted in Richmond. Interestingly, Madison revealed his authorship of the essays to Washington, but not to Thomas Jefferson or even to his own father.
Madison had not planned to attend the Virginia ratifying convention because he thought that the authors of the Constitution should not pass judgement on it. But Washington, knowing that Madison alone could answer the Antifederalist objections of Patrick Henry, convinced him to seek election. At the Virginia Convention in June 1788, Madison delivered perhaps his finest performance, parrying Henry's every thrust until the Constitution won approval by a narrow margin. However, Madison became so stressed by the contest that he became ill. Back at Mount Vernon, Washington, as worried about Madison's health as he was about the Constitution, wrote pleading with him to take a few days vacation at Mount Vernon, where he could regain his strength. In closing, Washington wrote:
I can assure you that no one will be happier in your company than your sincere & Affecte Servt, Go: Washington.
Not often did so exacting a man as Washington urge someone to take a break, especially with the country's fate at stake. But he could see that Madison's labours might take too heavy a toll on a man whose friendship he cherished and whose abilities he needed.
Washington's election as first president under the new Constitution was a foregone conclusion. However, Madison made sure that his friend did not waver about accepting the presidency. To ghostwrite his inaugural address, Washington turned to his collaborator. Washington provided him with an outline of major points, which Madison worked into a draft. Madison, in short, served much like a modern speechwriter -- while Washington deserves credit for the ideas, both men deserve credit for the language. Not only did Madison ghostwrite Washington's First Inaugural Address, as a member of the House of Representatives he wrote the House's reply to the Address, and, finally, the President's response to the House's reply. This dialogue with himself captures the central role Madison played in launching the federal government in 1789. Even though he held no official position, he acted as something of a prime minister, providing a bridge between the legislature and the executive.
When Washington took office, he and John Adams were virtually the entire executive branch of the federal government because it took months to create the executive departments. For example, Thomas Jefferson did not come aboard as Secretary of State for nearly a year. Not only was Washington initially alone, but virtually everything he did set important precedents that would be followed by his successors. Aware of this responsibility, Washington relied heavily on his right-hand man during these months. Madison provided advice on policy, appointments and presidential etiquette.
He also acted as Washington's `hidden-hand' in resolving the fiasco over a title for the President. In 1789, the Senate, led by John Adams, voted to bestow on Washington the elaborate title `His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties'. Washington, who realised that such a designation sounded too monarchical, was horrified. But he had to be careful not to offend or alienate the Senate. So he briefed Madison that the House must insist on the simpler title `Mr President'. Madison convinced the House to hold firm, and eventually the Senate backed down.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's financial programme is often seen as having driven a wedge between Washington and the emerging Republican Party, including Madison. But more important than the disagreements that arose between them over Hamilton's funding and assumption plan is the fact that all sides supported the Compromise of 1790. This bargain not only settled the national debt, but also permanently located the national capital on the Potomac River (after a ten-year stop in Philadelphia during the 1790s).
After 1790, with the cabinet finally in place, Madison stopped providing day-to-day advice, but he was still called in when precedent-setting situations arose. The best example is Washington's planned retirement in 1792. Concerned not to establish a tradition of dying in office that might allow his successors to serve for life, Washington hoped to retire at the end of one term. He turned to Madison for help in drafting a farewell message. Madison pleaded with the President to serve another term, warning that without Washington's stabilising influence, the emerging political parties might destroy the fledgling nation. Eventually, Washington agreed to serve a second term.
A year into this, Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, unhappy over constantly fighting Hamilton in cabinet meetings, decided to resign. Hoping to replace Jefferson with a Republican strong enough to balance the Federalist Hamilton, Washington invited Madison to succeed Jefferson. But Madison, equally reluctant to become locked in combat with Hamilton, declined. Madison's refusal to join the cabinet was a crucial turning point both in Washington's presidency and in the two men's friendship. Without a strong Republican in the cabinet, Washington's policies inevitably turned Federalist because virtually all his advisers were Federalists.
Despite their growing political differences, Washington and Madison remained close friends. Even as late as 1794, Washington and his wife, Martha, played a pivotal role on behalf of Madison in helping to arrange his marriage. Dolley Todd, a young Quaker widow, had lost her husband in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia. Many suitors, including James Madison, came to court her. Finding that the forty-three-year-old Madison had been courting the twenty-six-year-old Dolley, Washington's wife Martha summoned Dolley to the President's house. Dolley's grand-niece recorded what happened:
A report soon got about of their engagement; such unwonted attentions from Mr Madison excited comment ... It reached the Presidential mansion, where General and Mrs Washington were much interested; and impatient to hear the truth, sent for Mrs Todd, who all unconscious obeyed the summons at once. `Dolley', said Mrs Washington, `is it tree that you are engaged to James Madison?' The fair widow, taken aback, answered stammeringly, `No', she `thought not'. `If it is so', Mrs Washington continued, `do not be ashamed to confess it: rather be proud; he will make thee a good husband, and all the better for being so much older. We both approve of it; the esteem and friendship existing between Mr Madison and my husband is very great, and we would wish thee to be happy'.
And so, with a little encouragement from the Washingtons, Dolley married James, or, as she called him `the great Little Madison'. The ceremony took place on September 15th, 1794, at Harewood, the home of Washington's nephew George Step-toe Washington, near present Charles Town, West Virginia.
Sadly, much of the goodwill generated by Madison's marriage was shattered by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 (in response to Hamilton's Whiskey Tax of 1791, which excited strong feeling from the backcountry where whiskey was the chief commodity, culminating in open rebellion in the four western counties of Pennsylvania). Unlike many Republicans, Madison supported Washington's decision to put down the Whiskey Rebellion by force. But he could not support his friend's decision to blame the rebellion on the Democratic Societies and political clubs that supported the Republican Party. Madison's act of defiance in this respect infuriated h Washington, causing him to question the younger man's loyalty to him personally and to the nation. From this point onwards the friendship between the two men went downhill, as their politics polarised; Washington, increasingly Federalist, wanted to go further in his quest for a strong federal government. While Madison, staunch Republican, worried that the President's policies -- political, financial, and industrial -- threatened to restore America's connection to Britain that had been severed during the Revolution.
The controversy over the 1795 Jay Treaty with Britain confirmed Washington's suspicions about Madison. Madison and the Republicans opposed the Jay Treaty because they believed that it neglected American interests, and that it virtually overturned the American Revolution by re-attaching the United States to Britain. When Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to block the appropriations necessary to implement the treaty, a major showdown between Washington and Madison ensued. The issue was whether the treaty power belonged only to the President and Senate, or whether the House could pass judgement on treaties as well by refusing appropriations. Not only did Madison loose this fight over the Jay Treaty, he lost his friendship with Washington as well. Convinced that Madison's behaviour had been virtually treasonous, Washington broke off their association once and for all.
After they both retired to Virginia in March 1797, neither man saw or corresponded with the other again. Instead, they drifted further apart ideologically. On the day he died Washington complained about having been betrayed by Madison. On December 13th, 1799, Washington, suffering from a cold, spent the evening reading newspapers with Tobias Lear, his secretary. According to Lear, Washington
requested me to read to him the debates of the Virginia Assembly ... On hearing Mr Madison's observations ... he appeared much affected and spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject, which I endeavored to moderate, as I always did on such occasions.
The next night, the first president died of complications from an inflamed throat. One can't help wondering whether yelling about Madison had helped initiate his demise.
In many ways Washington and Madison have been misunderstood. Washington has been portrayed as a popular figurehead, a hands-off leader who reigned, but did not rule. His collaboration with Madison casts him in a new light, showing that he possessed a strong constitutional vision and always maintained control of his administration. Indeed, he was the central politician of his age. Conversely, the relationship with Washington shows that Madison richly deserves the attention historians have lavished on him as the Father of the Constitution. He was Washington's ideal collaborator in meeting the challenges posed by American independence: the need to design a government where the majority rules, but the minority is protected.
Why has the greatest partnership of the American founding, also been the most unheralded? Perhaps because Washington and Madison kept it a secret, with one or both partners working behind the scenes. Even at its zenith in 1789 and 1790, only the highest federal officials had an inkling of its existence, and few of them understood its true extent. The main evidence of their collaboration was their private correspondence, which each guarded carefully as long as he lived. Madison never wrote a tell-all book after Washington died, revealing his insider status in the first administration. Not only did Madison avoid enhancing his own reputation at Washington's expense, he (unlike John Adams) never became jealous of Washington's fame. Instead he quietly enjoyed knowing that he had been the Indispensable Man's `Indispensable Collaborator'.
FOR FURTHER READING
Stuart Leibiger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University Press of Virginia, 1999); Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Cornell University Press, 1995); Drew McCoy, The Last of The Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge University Press, 1989); John E. Ferling, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (University of Tennessee Press, 1988); Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Doubleday, 1984); Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Macmillan New York, 1971). www.mountvernon.org www.virginia.edu/gwpapers www.virginia.edu/pjm, www.montpelier.org
Stuart Leibiger is Assistant Professor of History at La Salle University, Philadelphia.…