Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

A. Washington's Greatness

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

A. Washington's Greatness

Article excerpt

Letter to Walter Jones

Thomas Jefferson

The most suitable mirror for taking the measure of a great man, it has been commonly observed, is a man of comparable greatness, good if a friend, sometimes even better if a rival or an enemy. Throughout their long association, culminating in his serving as Secretary of State in Washington's first administration, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was at various times Washington's friend, rival, and, on important matters of policy, an opponent, if not quite an enemy. Writing to Virginia physician, scholar, and member of Congress, Dr. Walter Jones (1745-1815), 15 years after Washington's death, Jefferson describes Washington's character and assesses his stature, providing information to Jones who was apparently planning to write something about Washington.

What virtues does Jefferson ascribe to Washington? What shortcomings does he report? Why does he so often adopt formulations that qualify or balance his praise (for example, "His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though, not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke;" or "In his expenses he was honorable, but exact.")? Do you think Jefferson is being sincere or ironic when he sums up as follows: "His character was, in its mass, perfect ... [N]ever did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance"? Do you detect ongoing signs of Jefferson's rivalry with Washington (for example, in the comments about Washington's intellect and reading habits), enough to say that the letter reveals more about Jefferson than about Washington? Or do you think that the evidence of rivalry make Jefferson's praise all the more impressive?

Monticello, January 2, 1814

You say that in taking General Washington on your shoulders, to bear him harmless through the federal coalition, you encounter a perilous topic. I do not think so. You have given the genuine history of the course of his mind through the trying scenes in which it was engaged, and of the seductions by which it was deceived, but not depraved. I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers, of the advantage he derived from councils of war, where hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no General ever planned his battles more judiciously. But if deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstances, he was slow in a re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally irritable and high-toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath. In his expenses he was honorable, but exact; liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility; but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects, and all unworthy calls on his charity. …

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