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An Interview with Thomas Fleming

great-divideRenowned historian Thomas Fleming graciously and generously agreed to answer a few questions about his last book, The Great Divide reviewed here.  The interview is below.

Marcia: How did you decide what to include in The Great Divide?

Thomas Fleming: Every book is rooted in a fundamental insight or idea. My book on the year 1776 came alive for me when the phrase: “Year of Illusions” leaped into my head, after years of research. I realized the central idea was:  Both the British and the Americans began the war with the wrong strategy.  In The Great Divide, the central idea was created by an anecdote in a congressman’s diary. When he visited Mount Vernon after Washington’s death, Martha Washington told him the two worst days of her life were: 1. The day George died. 2: the day Jefferson came to pay his condolences.  The depth and intensity of the antagonism between the two foremost founders, its origins and growth, became the focus of the book. Gradually, when I discovered the political depths behind the clash, I realized it was a “divide” that runs through American history – the power struggle between the strong presidency Washington and Madison created – and an often resentful congress, backed by Jefferson’s claim that they are the true voice of  the people.

Marcia: Jefferson’s animosity seems more personal than political.  Did his earlier humbling as wartime governor have something to do with it?

Thomas Fleming: No.  I think Jefferson’s animosity –  and envy –  was a gradual process.  He said lavish and almost certainly sincere things about Washington’s refusal to become an American Oliver Cromwell at the close of the Revolutionary War.  But Jefferson saw himself as much more intelligent than Washington. This was hardly surprising for a graduate of the College of Wm and Mary, a trained lawyer facing a man whose education ended in the third or fourth year of grammar school. Thus it was easy to see Washington as manipulated by another college graduate, Alexander Hamilton. Gradually envy became part of the process. Jefferson, a man who was almost impeached as Virginia’s governor, watched as President Washington revealed a Teflon political persona – worshiped and admired by so many Americans, it was virtual suicide to attack him.

Marcia: How and why did Madison change from Washington’s ally to Jefferson’s right hand man?

Thomas Fleming: The psychological component of history is very hard to grasp with any certainty. Madison was deeply grateful to Governor Jefferson for making him his chief councilor. The tall, self confident Jefferson was already famous as the author of the Declaration.  The much younger Madison was his opposite in many ways. Short slight, shy, he could never stop being grateful to the man who rescued him from obscurity.  The discovery that Washington, too, valued his advice did not seem a problem at first. On the contrary. Madison played a crucial role in persuading Jefferson to become Secretary of State. But when Jefferson became a critic of Hamilton’s program to create a commercial nation, an idea Washington warmly approved,  a fissure slowly developed. Another factor was Virginia’s politics. As the nation’s largest state, its popular opinions, swayed at first by Patrick Henry, a fierce foe of the Constitution,  forced Madison to distance himself somewhat from Washington in order to be elected to Congress.

Marcia: You see the Bank of the United States as a turning point. Does the correspondence show any evidence of reluctance from Madison or cajoling by Jefferson?

Thomas Fleming: A turning point is a useful concept. But it has to be used carefully. Madison shared Jefferson’s instinctive dislike of banks. Most Virginia plantation owners also shared this prejudice, since debt was their constant companion. Washington, thanks to his friendship with merchant Robert Morris, founder of the first American bank and a crucial backer during the war,  had a broader view, based on experience. There was no need for Jefferson to cajole Madison on this point. Madison did not say a word when Jefferson called shares in the BUS “federal filth” and said anyone who did business with a BUS Virginia branch deserved to be executed for treason.  These extreme statements no doubt ignited resistance in Madison’s head. But Jefferson wielded so much power over his heart, no criticism was forthcoming.

Marcia: Why did Washington want Jefferson and Madison (it would be more correct to say Jefferson or Madison) to remain as Secretary of State during his second term?

Thomas Fleming: A good question, considering how clear it had become that either and/or both were opposed to Washington’s policies.  By this time they were backing a  newspaper, The National Gazette, which was slashing away at the president. But Washington was a very shrewd politician. He saw as long as he had one of these two men in his cabinet, there was an unspoken statement of basic support in their mere presence. There was also an implied limitation in how far they were able to go in their opposition. Today we call it “cover.” In the end, Jefferson retired  and Madison stayed in the House of Representatives, combating Washington from a safer distance.

Marcia: Was sending Gouverneur Morris to London in 1789 evidence that Washington did not entirely trust Jefferson?

Thomas Fleming: No, I think it was only evidence that President Washington was determined to take control of the nation’s foreign policy and Jefferson was  being very slow to respond to his invitation to become secretary of state.

Marcia: Was Madison troubled by his betrayal of Washington? Was there a falling out and then a rapprochement between Madison and Jefferson in later years?

Thomas Fleming: I think Madison was troubled in later years about Washington, thanks in large part to his presidency during the War of 1812. That was when he saw that Jefferson’s thinking on military matters was deeply flawed, and the same conclusion applied to his opposition to the BUS. But his deep friendship with Jefferson made it impossible for them to have a face to face confrontation. They had worked out a sort of arrangement, in which they avoided serious verbal disagreement. In 1789., when Jefferson sent Madison one of  his favorite ideas,  “The earth belongs to the living,” in which he proposed that every nineteen years, a new generation should cancel the debts of the previous generation and create a new government, with a new constitution, Madison demolished the idea. Jefferson never mentioned the idea again. Similarly, when President Madison called for a new Bank of the US, modeled on the Bank of England, Jefferson was appalled, but said nothing to him.

Marcia: In Federalist #47 Madison argues that the separation of powers is a bulwark against an imperial presidency. Has that device been nullified by the legislative branch having gradually ceded its prerogatives to the executive? Was Jefferson right about the imperial president ultimately overwhelming Congress in the decades following his confrontation with Washington?

Thomas Fleming: Did Madison say the separation of powers would tame a potentially imperial presidency? I don’t think Madison feared an imperial presidency. He saw the separation of powers preventing any branch of the government from accumulating dictatorial power. But Jefferson feared a powerful presidency, to the point of near paranoia.  That was the reason why, when he became president, he did  his utmost to create the illusion that Congress was running the country. He led from behind, cajoling legislative leaders at dinners in his residence, and encouraged the caucus, which enabled his majority party to smother opposition. Alas, he was dolorously wrong in encouraging Congress this way. I note in the book that in 1865 after Lincoln’s assassination, and  in 1974, after Nixon’s resignation,  imperial congresses emerged, determined to shrink the presidency.   The results were disarray in both cases. As Woodrow Wilson pointed out in his great book, Congressional Government,  giving Congress executive powers is an invitation to corruption and irresolution.  The goal of 21st Century  reform should be taming Congress, forcing them to return to two sessions a year, instead of their current perpetual presence, and limiting their influence on foreign policy to the Senate’s approval of treaties and the House to financing expenditures connected with fulfilling agreements with foreign governments. I urge everyone to read my article, The Imperial Congress, on American Heritage Magazine’s website, along with the final chapter of The Great Divide.

Marcia: What did you wish you could have included in the book, from the three volumes of letters between Jefferson and Madison, The Republic of Letters, that is the foundation of The Great Divide?

Thomas Fleming: I wish I could have gone on at more length on the later years of their lives, where their letters are categorized as “Reminiscing.” Here, in the 1820s, Madison took firm but polite issue with Jefferson’s attempts to argue that the federal government was a danger to the sovereignty of the states. For instance. Madison  supported judicial review by the Supreme Court as the last word on most disputes. Whereas Jefferson, his hatred of John Marshall undimmed by time, wanted constitutional conventions to decide things – -a formula, Madison rightly foresaw, for  eventual anarchy. But it was all done temperately, politely, and their friendship remained unbroken. I came away from this book sympathizing with all three of these remarkable men.

NOTE: Mr. Fleming’s responses are much appreciated and make me  even more curious about those letters. I read the American Heritage article he references and recommend it.


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