The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation
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What could elicit such a strong reaction from the nation's original first lady? Though history tends to cast the early years of America in a glow of camaraderie, there were, in fact, many conflicts among the Founding Fathers—none more important than the one between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The chief disagreement between these former friends centered on the highest, most original public office created by the Constitutional Convention—the presidency. They also argued violently about the nation's foreign policy, the role of merchants and farmers in a republic, and the durability of the union itself. At the root of all these disagreements were two sharply different visions for the nation's future.
Acclaimed historian Thomas Fleming examines how the differing temperaments and leadership styles of Washington and Jefferson shaped two opposing views of the presidency—and the nation. The clash between these two gifted men, both of whom cared deeply about the United States of America, profoundly influenced the next two centuries of America's history and resonates in the present day.
favoring a foreign nation. “Tis folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another.” It is too likely to pay “with a portion of its independence” for accepting privileges offered under this guise. Here the words stirred memories of Citizen Genet and his hopes of turning America into a French satellite. “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from Nation to Nation.” It was “an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to
Federalists in the House, the Vice President called them “renegadoes.”10 Jefferson lived at the St. Francis Hotel, where, one Federalist sourly remarked, he was surrounded by a “knot of Jacobins”—also known as Democratic-Republican senators and congressmen. He eagerly thrust his oar into the nomination of Elbridge Gerry as a peace commissioner. In a letter to Gerry, Jefferson said he was “a spring of hope” in the darkness of Federalist hostility to France.11 When dismissed envoy James Monroe
disapproval from the Washington devotees. Jefferson described all this in delighted terms. He added a touch for which he may have been responsible. The Democratic-Republicans went “in number,” he told Madison. This encouraged the idea that all the previous celebrations had been “for the General and not the President.” It was a neat way of dismissing Washington’s presidency as worthy of no more than a glimmer of respect.23 Across the wintry Atlantic came only silence from the three envoys to
and Jefferson, 350. 2. TJ to John Breckinridge, Jan 29 1800, PTJ, Digital. Also see ROL, Vol. 2, 1112. 3. JM to TJ, ROL, Feb 14, 1800, and Apr 4, 1800, ROL, Vol. 2, 1113. TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, Feb. 2, 1800, PTJ Digital. 4. Malone, Vol III, op. cit., 484-5. 5. Charles O. Lerche, Jr. Jefferson and the Election of 1800, A Case Study in the Political Smear, William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 1948, 472. Also see Burstein-Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, 355. 6. Malone, Vol III, op. cit.,
Robespierre. Among the dead was Armand Kersaint, the delegate who had assured the National Convention that Britain would be easy to conquer. When the Committee of Safety read Jefferson’s letter, they apologized profusely for Genet’s wild schemes and repudiated all of them—including the attack on New Orleans and the insurrection in Canada. Having rediscovered the importance of executive power in government, Robespierre was reportedly fascinated by the American presidency and doubly appalled by