Madison's Bad Blood with Washington Part I: Inferior Endowments

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 The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
They used to have Mad love.

George Washington looked down at the speech in his trembling hand, trying to make out the words. The awkward silence was a stark contrast to moments before, when he was sworn in on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall to a 13-gun salute and the cheers of a massive crowd below.

Unlike his fellow Congressmen in the Senate chamber, James Madison did not have to strain to hear the President’s speech. He already knew what the Inaugural Address said, because he wrote it. On that day, April 30, 1789, he was Washington’s most trusted advisor.

Madison had no idea their friendship was about to go down in flames amid the birth of America’s two-party system and the first showdown between the President and the House of Representatives. But it appears that he buried the seeds for his strategic betrayal of George Washington in plain sight, in the words of that inaugural speech.

Constitutional Comrades

James Madison, or “Little Jemmy” as he was actually known, was 19 years younger, 8 inches shorter, and 100 pounds lighter than the walking monolith Washington. At 5’4” and 100 pounds, Madison was the Robin to Washington’s Batman, the Joe Pesci to his Robert De Niro – the Tobey Maguire to his Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit might best describe their Constitutional partnership, as Madison was very much a jockey directing the war horse Washington to the lead. After orchestrating a convention to amend the weak sauce Articles of Confederation, Madison personally convinced Washington to attend. He knew that if there was one person who could convince the ragtag nation to adopt a centralized federal government with a powerful executive, it was George Washington. No two men were more responsible for the Constitution getting passed than Madison and Washington.

Note that James Madison is called the “father” of the Constitution and not the “author.” That’s because Gouverneur Morris (pictured) wrote most of it, but for some reason the United States didn’t want the face of the Constitution to be a peg-legged philanderer who died of internal injuries after sticking a whale bone up his urethra to cure a urinary blockage.
You could get away with crediting the Constitution to Washington, Madison, ol' Moby Dick Morris, and a host of others. Or, like Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, you could pick someone who wasn’t there. Carson recently said he admired Thomas Jefferson for the way he crafted the Constitution, which would have been quite a feat since Jefferson was in Paris serving as minister to France at the time.

Jefferson did, however, play a crucial role in his friend Madison’s success. In 1786, he sent Madison a “literary cargo” from Paris of more than 200 books on ancient and modern history, effectively loading up his brain like Neo in The Matrix. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, when Little Jemmy went to Philly…he knew kung fu.

And he used it to father the hell out of the Constitution. He backed up his arguments with never-ending facts like they were breadsticks at the Olive Garden – first under Washington's paternal presence at the Philadelphia Convention, then in New York where he teamed up with Alexander Hamilton to bang out The Federalist Papers (AKA “85 Essays on Why the Constitution is Awesome and You Should Totally Ratify It”), and then back home to Virginia where he out-convinced even Patrick “give me liberty or give me death” Henry.

After his successful whirlwind tour de force, Madison’s little body was spent. He turned to Washington, writing that he was “extremely feeble,” and Washington prescribed some Mount Vernon and Chill. “Moderate exercise, and books occasionally, with the mind unbent, will be your best restoratives,” Washington told him, adding that “no one will be happier in your company” than he would. Madison spent so much time at Mount Vernon that his friends sent him mail there.

The alliance between the Father of His Country and the Father of the Constitution was not just political; they were buds.

The Inaugural Address

If James Madison simply ghostwrote Washington’s historic inaugural address, that would be impressive. But Madison also wrote the House of Representatives’ official response to Washington’s address – and then he ghostwrote Washington’s response to the House’s response and Washington’s response to the Senate’s response (which somehow the Senate managed to write without Madison’s help.) He was having a conversation with himself. The first months of the U.S. government were basically an epistolary novel by James Madison.

Epistolary novels are made up entirely of letters, usually between depraved French aristocrats or young boys and their favorite authors. These are the two greatest examples ever produced and/or the only ones I've read.
These exchanges mostly boiled down to “We love you, George!” and “I’m not worthy!” But looking closer, I see hints of the political Madison already planting doubts about George Washington’s mental abilities. Look at the language Little Jemmy chose for Washington to humbly describe himself coming out of retirement to accept the presidency:
"On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country…from a retreat which I had chosen…as the asylum of my declining years: a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary…[by] frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.

On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust… could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.” (Emphasis mine.)
That roughly translates to I am honored you chose me as your leader, in spite of my being a decrepit old limp-dicked shit-for-brains.

In the House response, Madison addressed Washington’s age with a skillful mixture of empathy and insult. “We well know the anxieties with which you must have obeyed a summons from the repose reserved for your declining years.” We appreciate you rolling out of your deathbed to join us, George. Thanks for not going toward the light today.

Madison’s language here is important because it foreshadows the only way Washington’s future political opponents could demonize his policies without committing political suicide by attacking the most beloved man in America. How could they say Washington’s actions were tyrannical without calling him a tyrant?

By making him a victim.

In the words of Washington’s most eloquent foe:
“[Washington's] memory was already sensibly impaired by age, the firm tone of his mind, for which he had been remarkable, was beginning to relax...a desire for tranquility had crept on him, and a willingness to let others act, or even think, for him.”
With “the captain in his cabin attending to his log-book and chart, a rogue of a pilot has run them into an enemy's port.”
That ageist shit talk made sense, since Washington himself said he was wasting away in his Inaugural Address. Except those words weren’t his – they were James Madison’s, written when he was the President’s protégé, ghostwriter, and friend.

That all suddenly changed when Jemmy the jockey changed horses midstream. Madison went from betting on Washington to putting all his winnings on the eloquent foe quoted above – Thomas Jefferson.

After four years in France, Jefferson returned to save his Neo from the matrix (and serve as Washington’s Secretary of State.) Madison greeted him like Hobbes waiting to pounce on Calvin when he got home from school.

In no time, Madison teamed up with Jefferson to underhandedly attack Washington’s policies and the man responsible for them: Alexander Hamilton. Secretary of the Treasury and ten dollar founding father, Hamilton was the "rogue of a pilot" Jefferson implied was doing Washington's thinking for him. He was also Madison's Federalist Papers writing partner and friend.

What could make Madison turn his back on the two men he’d worked so closely with to pass the Constitution? I’d like to think the conversation went like this:

   Thomas Jefferson: Make any friends while I was in France?
   James Madison: A couple.
   Thomas Jefferson: Let's destroy them.
   James Madison: God I missed you.

The truth is a little more complicated and gets to the very heart of why our country is still so divided, and why appealing to the masses works – especially when your ideas are based on ignorance and fear.

NEXT: Madison's Bad Blood with Washington Part II: The Destructors

Part 1       Part 2       Part 3       Part 4

Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick;

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10 Things Thomas Jefferson Loved

       "He could not live without something to love." 
              –Margaret Bayard Smith, on Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson had more passions than most people have socks. As I move forward on my presidential biography quest, I bid adieu to Mr. Jefferson by looking at just ten of the many things he loved.


I hate to break it to conservatives, but Jefferson was a bona fide tree-hugger. He planted over 160 species of tree at Monticello and was dubbed the “father of American forestry.”

He wished the government could protect trees more than the law allowed at the time. “The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries,” he said, “seems to me a crime little short of murder, it pains me to an unspeakable degree.”


Jefferson collected Jameses like Ben Affleck collects Jennifers. Two of his closest friends and protégés were fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe. Both had indispensable impacts on his legacy.

Madison helped him form the Democratic-Republican Party, the nation's first political party and the ancestor of today's Democratic Party. Monroe helped him broker the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the United States at the bargain price of four cents an acre.

Jefferson’s friendship and support helped both Jameses succeed him as president, maintaining the Virginia Dynasty for 24 straight years.


A pet mockingbird named Dick was Jefferson’s “constant companion,” following him around the White House and even taking food from his lips. Margaret Smith wrote, “Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains. How he loved this bird!”

Dick was his favorite, but Jefferson loved all mockingbirds. When he heard the species reached Monticello in the wild, he wrote:
“Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.” 
I'm not sure if those kids grew up with a healthy respect for mockingbirds or in sheer terror at the mere thought of the winged demons, but Virginia's mockingbird population flourished.


Actually, Jefferson loved casual everydays. After visiting the White House a French ambassador wrote, “Mr. Jefferson has put aside all showing off. He greets guests in slovenly clothes and without the least formality.”

Jefferson often wore a frock coat and bedroom slippers, looking more like The Dude from The Big Lebowski than a president. This was a mixture of his Virginia upbringing, which emphasized intellect and manners over ostentatious dress, and a conscious decision to throw out the stuffy trappings of Washington and Adams’s administrations.


Thomas Jefferson knew how to throw a party. He was a poor public speaker, but he shone as a conversationalist at his intimate dinner parties, which one guest referred to as “a mental treat.” Aside from the obligatory delicious food and wine, Jefferson’s parties had three rules: 1. No healths (long boring toasts) 2. No politics and 3. No restraint.

Jefferson also used his soirees for political gain. Author Jon Meacham wrote, “It tends to be more difficult to oppose – or at least to vilify – someone with whom you have broken bread and drunk wine. Caricatures crack as courses are served; imagined demonic plots fade with dessert.” His plan worked, as Senators opposed to his agenda were heard saying “the President’s dinners had silenced them.”


Jefferson loved macaroni (he called all pasta “macaroni” in the same weird way Brits call all desserts “pudding”) and helped popularize it in America at his famous dinner parties. The inventor even drew up specs for a macaroni machine along with a recipe for pasta. To give you an idea of how Thomas Jefferson's mind worked, this is one of the ingredients of his pasta: 2 wine glasses of milk.

A White House guest in 1802 described Jefferson’s macaroni: “It was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.” Like I said, the dude knew how to throw a party.


One of Jefferson's greatest loves was the home he painstakingly designed, and never stopped redesigning. Monticello was a work in progress for over 50 years. “Putting up and pulling down is one of my favorite amusements,” he said.

He obsessed over its details – double doors where both opened when you pushed on one, a dumbwaiter inside a fireplace – and he had written plans with measurements to an impossible-to-measure one millionth of an inch. “I suspect it was just a kind of intellectual exercise,” Monticello’s architectural conservator Bob Self said. “There isn’t anything else it could be really.”

Built on a mountaintop (Monticello is Italian for little mountain), it allowed Jefferson to look down at the surrounding landscape like a god. “And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye?" he wrote. "Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms!”

Today Monticello is the only house in the United States designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.


No love could rival Jefferson's late wife Martha, but one came close. After four years of grieving Martha's loss, Jefferson met Maria Cosway in Paris and described her as “the most superb thing on earth.” Multi-talented like himself, she was a skilled painter who spoke several languages and played and composed music. She was perfect, except for the minor inconvenience of having a husband. Good thing this was France.

Maria inspired Jefferson to write a 4,000 word love letter with his left hand, after he mysteriously broke his right wrist, likely in her company. "How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell," he told a friend. "It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may." Oh Jefferson, you coy cuckold-maker.

Upon leaving France Jefferson wrote Maria, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.” They continued their correspondence for the rest of Jefferson’s life, each keeping a painting of the other in their homes.


Jefferson once told John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” He fell in love with reading as a child and developed an addiction to buying books to feed his insatiable thirst for knowledge.

His collection came in handy after the War of 1812 when the British burned the Capitol Building and its 3,000 volume library. He offered to sell his library to Congress, but they almost turned him down because Federalists feared Jefferson's books might spread his “infidel philosophy.” Good sense prevailed, and Congress more than doubled its library when Jefferson’s 6,707 books were delivered.


Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went from being BFFs to arch-rivals and back like a pair of soap opera divas. They worked together on the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and were practically family while diplomatting together in France, but everything fell apart during Washington’s first administration.

Vice-President Adams seemed to favor some monarchical ideas, which Secretary of State Jefferson considered a vile threat to keeping power in the hands of the people. These differences culminated in one of the bitterest elections in American history, which Jefferson called the “Revolution of 1800.” Jefferson beat the incumbent Adams, and Adams skipped out on Jefferson’s inauguration. The two did not speak for 12 years and never saw each other again.

Then in 1812 their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush orchestrated a rekindling of their friendship. “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote Jefferson. 

The old men exchanged 158 letters about everything from books, family, politics, education, and religion, to their roles in the American Revolution. The renewed correspondence lasted the rest of their lives. The Founding Frenemies died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

Jefferson loved far more than these ten things – his family, wine, science, France, horseback riding, the violin, and contradicting himself, to name just a few – but all those things are hard to illustrate with a doll whose knees don't bend. I'm sure I'll revisit Jefferson as my future plodding explores his legacy on the country and slavery, but for now it's time to move on to his protégés, James I and James II.

You may also like:
10 Things George Washington Loved
8 Things John Adams Loved
8 Things James Madison Loved

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
The First Forty Years of Washington Society by Margaret Bayard Smith 
John H.B. Latrobe and His Times (1803 - 1891) by John E. Semmes
At Home by Bill Bryson

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The Many Faces of Thomas Jefferson

Not all Thomas Jefferson faces are created equal.
One of the most frustrating things about Thomas Jefferson is how hard it is to categorize him, to pin him down to a single set of consistent beliefs. The Founding Father who said it was best "never to contradict anybody" was an expert at contradicting himself, and he was often accused of being two-faced.

Pictured above are two very different Thomas Jefferson action figures. Technically the one on the left is a doll – a lovingly sculpted piece from Effanbee my wife gave me for my birthday. She got it so I wouldn’t have to use the abomination on the right. Hastily purchased from eBay, this glorified chew toy was spawned by someone in China who clearly hated America.

Somehow it feels right to own two disparate figures of TJ. If any president is too complicated to be encompassed in a single action figure, it's Thomas Jefferson. He was a man of many faces, and I shall explore a few of them here.

The Two-Faced Face

Jefferson is famous for being a walking contradiction because his greatest beliefs are tainted by egregious examples of him doing exactly the opposite.

Some modern groups, like the Tea Party, revere Jefferson as a champion of small government and a huge proponent of states rights. They're absolutely right. He was all those things, especially when he was governor of Virginia. The real test of whether he believed in a small federal government would come when he was elected the leader of it. Spoiler alert: he failed that test.

As president, Jefferson treated federal power like my five-month-old daughter treats her Poppin' Play Piano – with haphazard blunt force.

He expanded federal power to a tyrannical level with the Embargo Act of 1807, forbidding all U.S. exports in a misguided effort to avoid war with Britain and France. The man who claimed government shouldn't interfere with the private business of its citizens suddenly ended the livelihoods of thousands of them with what historian Leonard Levy considers "the most repressive and unconstitutional legislation ever enacted by Congress in time of peace." After more than two years of the economy tanking and people starving, Jefferson repealed the act, right before he left office.

Jefferson is also celebrated as a great defender of the Constitution and strong advocate for a Bill of Rights, but the man dubbed "the apostle of democracy" did not always practice what he preached. He won the election of 1800 against John Adams in part because he condemned Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it illegal for journalists to speak out against the government. Once in office, Jefferson repealed the acts like he said he would, but he actually oversaw more prosecutions for sedition than Adams ever did – he just did it behind the scenes using state libel laws.

Those hypocrisies are like little baby hypocrisies – itty bitty kitten-in-a-teacup hypocrisies – compared to the greatest contradiction of Thomas Jefferson's life. It's one I still struggle to wrap my head around. In fact, I need to enlist my action figure friends to address this one. Together, they can help me channel my complicated feelings about him in a safe way. Like a child survivor on Law & Order: SVU, I can point to where on these dolls Thomas Jefferson confounded me.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:

A Conversation About Slavery Between Two Thomas Jefferson Action Figures

Thank you, Jeffersons. I feel better now. Sort of.

I don't know if Jefferson's reluctance to do anything meaningful in his lifetime to end slavery was a calculated move because he thought he could accomplish more if he didn't rock the fledgling America-boat, or if he was just a weak, selfish man who didn't want to compromise a damned thing about his cushy way of life.

What I do know is he was a man of tremendous influence living in a time when his neighbors were freeing their slaves. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant enough to have found a way to do something more about the problem, but instead he chose to kick the can down the road until it erupted past the point of no return in The Civil War.

That, to me, is despicable.

You might think I really hate Jefferson based on nearly everything I've said about him, but that’s not exactly the case. I definitely do not think he should be held up as a bastion of liberty and limited government, and I think his ideas about freedom are only great when applied to far more people than he intended. On the other hand, I would be honored to shake the hand of the man who invented the swivel chair. If that makes me a hypocrite, then I guess I'm in pretty good company.

The Facebook Face

Political posts on Facebook aren't known for their subtlety, so it makes sense that one of the more popular versions of Thomas Jefferson on Facebook would lack the finesse of its namesake.

This Facebook Thomas Jefferson exists to inform people of "PROPER and HONEST American history" which to him means "Thomas Jefferson WAS AND IS NOT A MODERN DAY LIBERAL." That's true, because Thomas Jefferson is not a modern day anything. He led the country 200 years ago when it was 2% its current size, so accurately transposing his views onto today's political arena is impossible.

But who cares about accuracy when you have an agenda? When not writing in all caps or posting Jefferson memes, Facebook Thomas Jefferson takes breaks to ask his fans insightful questions like:

Randomly apostrophizing the possessive "its" and baiting people's prejudices are equal sins in my book, but being unwilling or unable to do a simple internet search is unforgivable.

Full disclosure: I’m probably just upset because of the reaction I got when I tried to share one of my posts on his page:

Ouch! Excuse me for sharing, Facebook Thomas Jefferson. I’m sorry my well-researched treatise on the mysterious death of Elizabeth Jefferson wasn't to your taste. Maybe if I’d shared a page about “taking back” the government from the oppressive evil regime you believe we’re under, you would have liked and shared it.

Oh well. There are enough Jefferson beliefs for all of us to cling to. As for me, I prefer this quote:
Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. 
Those aren't the thoughts of a young idealist; this was Thomas Jefferson in 1813, the wise 73-year-old sage of Monticello. The quote is engraved on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial, but it would fit just as well in a university, a courtroom, or on a rainbow flag.

Facebook Thomas Jefferson helped me realize that it's tempting to pick out things on which we agree with Jefferson, or any Founding Father, and use those to flesh out the characters we'd like them to be. If we align ourselves with the people who founded the country, we can convince ourselves America was meant to be what we think it should be, that this country was meant for people like us.

That divisive thinking doesn't help anyone, but it reminds me of one thing America really was designed to be: a place where we can disagree about what this country was meant to be until we're blue, or red, in the face.

The Plaster Face

Pinning down Jefferson’s one “true” face is not only impossible; it's dangerous. Literally.

In 1825 an artist tried to make a life mask of Jefferson’s face, but the plaster hardened too quickly and nearly suffocated him. He couldn't call out for help, but he managed to grab a chair and slam it against the floor, getting the attention of a slave who saved his life.

Behold – the true face of Thomas Jefferson, made from that life mask. I think the artist did a great job capturing Jefferson's feelings about narrowly escaping assassination by plaster.

He reminds me of another great patriot.

Efforts to represent Jefferson in a single way are as messy as that effort to take a mold of his face. He cannot and should not be defined solely by the words of the Declaration of Independence or by his hypocritical views on slavery. As much as Thomas Jefferson's accomplishments define him, so do his contradictions. His true face is that of both the apostle of democracy and our barbarous ancestor.

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Valentines for your Presidents Day

Presidential Valentines for History Lovers
With both Valentine's Day and Presidents Day just around the corner, I decided to combine the two by making this special set of naughty little Valentines from the first three presidents.

UPDATE: You can now order these presidential Valentines here!

They can't all rhyme, folks.

Share these Valentines with someone you love, (available now at Zazzle) and you're sure to be elected the chief executive of their heart.

And check out Part II for more naughty presidential Valentines from James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson.

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