Founding Friendship

By Leibiger, Stuart | History Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Founding Friendship


Leibiger, Stuart, History Today


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.

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