Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation

Article excerpt

The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation. By Thomas Fleming. (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2015. Pp. viii, 424. $27.99, ISBN 978-0-306-82127-1.)

Thomas Fleming, the author of numerous popular histories, turns his efforts to the contentious relationship between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The clash of personalities between these leading Virginians, Fleming contends, explains the political and constitutional divisions that marked the 1790s. Sadly, however, the book never develops beyond this potentially important insight. Rather than offering readers anything new, Fleming treats them to the outdated approach of the Federalist "good guys," led by an infallible, wise, and politically savvy Washington, versus the Jeffersonian Republican "bad guys," and their dreamy-eyed, somewhat treacherous Francophile leader, Thomas Jefferson.

Fleming's account opens with a brief, but telling, overview of the two men's roles in the Revolution. Washington, the war hero, "crowned his victory by rejecting pleas to banish the bankrupt Continental Congress and become the new nation's military dictator" (p. 1). Meanwhile Jefferson's "soaring insistence" in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence was ignored, but his "dismaying inability to deal with the crisis that confronted him" that supposedly characterized his governorship was well known to contemporaries (p. 2). From this point, the author's bias becomes more pronounced. Fleming suggests that Washington's force of personality single-handedly secured the Constitution's ratification, and in so doing Washington advanced a new political theory that power could be trusted. Jefferson's political thought, however, offered "nothing new," just "standard Whig ... doctrine" (p. 38).

Fleming's treatment of Washington's administration continues in the same biased manner. The clash between Washington and Jefferson is the standard story of the Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson conflict, with the president substituting for the treasury secretary. There is little that is new, fresh, or unbiased in this account. Fleming's argument, in fact, is virtually indistinguishable from Federalist polemics of the era. …

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