Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII

Candidate à Centre Coeur

Let those come to the helm who think they can steer clear of the difficulties. I have no confidence in myself for the undertaking.

Jefferson to Madison, December 17, 1796 1

James Madison was the nation's first president-maker. Unlike the later political catalysts who played this role—Van Buren for Jackson, Mark Hanna for McKinley, Colonel House for Wilson, and Louis Howe for Franklin Roosevelt—Madison already had real political stature. In 1796, he was as deserving of the high office as Jefferson simply by virtue of his service to the republic as the essential father of the Constitution, to say nothing of his zealous role in vote-getting and direction of the Republican party in Congress. This Jefferson himself recognized, and told Madison that it was he who should succeed Washington. Such a prospect, he wrote, is "the first wish of my heart." 2

As presidential timber, however, Madison was never Jefferson's match, as he recognized from the beginning. Even in his physical presence Jefferson dominated like a benign deity. Though Madison never went out without his high conical hat, nothing served really to enhance the physical stature of this small tense man, and it is not surprising that Washington Irving should shrivel his image among American school children with the contemptuous epithet "withered little applejohn." The lively Margaret Bayard Smith, who adored Jefferson, found Madison only moderately impressive. He was "entertaining, interesting and communicative" in private, she wrote, but once a stranger came into the gathering he became "mute, cold and repulsive." 3 Benjamin Rush remembered that Jefferson in 1790 described Madison as "the

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