Skip to main content

Two Powerful Pens

ISSUE:  Autumn 1995
The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, 1776—1826.> Edited by James Morton Smith. 3 vols. Norton. $150.00.

They had a personal and political friendship that lasted 50 years, encompassing the most critical and momentous events of the founding of the American Republic. The evidence of their pens and the imprint of their thoughts are found everywhere during the period: the Declaration of Independence, the Memorial and Remonstrance for Religious Freedom, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the U. S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, the Report of 1800. Their influence was felt, at one time or another, in the Virginia state legislature, the Continental Congress, the U. S. Congress, and as two-term presidents of the U. S. It is, therefore, not a stretch to say, as did Julian P. Boyd, the first editor of the modern edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, that the long written “conversation” between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is “the most significant exchange of letters between any two men in the whole sweep of American history.”

The publication of the nearly 1,250 letters of this important correspondence, collected in one elegantly-produced three-volume edition, is a monumental achievement, reflecting as it does the decade-long efforts of a single editor. For the first time, the public will have easy access to the full exchange of letters between the two men Adrienne Koch called the “greatest philosopher statesmen of the American Enlightenment.” And the edition also should encourage scholars to reexamine the “great collaboration,” the relationship between Madison and Jefferson, and their shared efforts to achieve independence for their country, create a new government, and direct its republican course.

What readers of these volumes will find is a portrait of two men nearly consumed with the gritty job of doing the world’s political work. Their letters are full of reports on political acts and government events, on elections, speeches, and legislative agendas. Since one or the other was at the center of political ferment for 40 years, as participant and eyewitness, the letters are a richly detailed feast of news, opinion, and events for the political historian. And, along with the thousands of men and measures scrutinized, criticized, and described over their respective public lives, quieter moments are recorded in these letters, times when Jefferson or Madison reflected at length on the larger aspects and consequences of the political arena they inhabited.

Madison and Jefferson shared other interests as well. They were passionate about books, and their letters contain many comments on and requests for the latest volumes, particularly when Jefferson was in France. There are exchanges of letters on scientific topics, especially in the early years, before the practical science of government occupied their energies to the exclusion of all else. There is also a running commentary throughout their correspondence on the pocketbook concerns of farming and the weather and, in their retirement, a long and detailed exchange on the work of their old age—the founding and early years of operation of the University of Virginia.

For the most part, however, their letters reveal the sheer grind of a lifetime in public service—reading, writing, arguing and persuading—in one forum after another. Smith has done a wonderful job of providing context for what could be described as our early political history writ small. The correspondence is broken up into chapters that include a year or two of letters, and each chapter has a well-written and detailed introduction, so detailed, in fact, that this prefatory material comprises well over a third of the edition and could almost stand alone as a political history of the era from the Jeffersonian point of view. The introductions are particularly useful for those periods when Madison and Jefferson are together in Philadelphia, New York, or Washington and the correspondence is thin, for then the editor pieces together a coherent narrative for the reader out of the jumble of notes and short messages the two exchanged. One might wish that Smith had not quoted so extensively from the very letters he prints later in the chapter, but at least no reader will be at a loss for the historical background of most of these letters. They will be at a loss if they try to find the original letter in a research collection, however, for there are no source notes, an omission that may trouble some users of the edition.

The editor has followed, in the main, successfully, a policy of selective annotation, acting, as he puts it, as a “facilitator” to set the stage, while stepping back to allow the principals full room to conduct their discussions, intervening only when necessary. Those readers who wish for more help in deciphering unidentified persons or events will want to consult the published volumes of the modern editions of Madison and Jefferson, of which Smith himself has made good use.

Given an edition of this size and scope, it is inevitable that a reviewer will find a few points of difference with the editor. Most of these arise when Smith tackles the particularly difficult executive correspondence, that period (1801—1809) when Jefferson was president and Madison was his secretary of state. At least once a year during that decade, the two were on vacation at their plantations in the Virginia Piedmont and kept up a heavy exchange of letters which sheds light on the way the two collaborated in the business of government. For the rest of the year the historian is not as lucky, for the existing record consists almost entirely of Madison’s transmission of reports for Congress, short, enigmatic notes between the two friends, and various presidential directives.

The scantiness of the surviving record poses problems for an editor. It seems clear that the personal friendship of the two men influenced the way they dealt with day-to-day political events in ways we have just begun to explore. And it is highly probable that the most important decisions were taken after private talks, the gist of which were never recorded by either participant. The most important issues, therefore, often have little or no documentation. For those parts of the existing record, extensive notes would elucidate the subject, but perhaps give it an importance it might not have had in the daily agenda; yet to give no annotation at all would leave some documents a mystery to the reader. For example, one document from this edition is a list of names Madison sent Jefferson on 1 January 1805. A note including Jefferson’s docket, which suggests that they were Madison’s candidates for the job of attorney general, would have been useful. This reviewer also would not have included a note said to be from Jefferson to Madison, dated 5 February 1803, which is in fact a docket penned by State Department clerk Jacob Wagner on a letter filed with one of Jefferson’s letters, an error that is easily attributed to the similarity of Wagner’s and Jefferson’s handwriting. And there are a few instances of transcription in these volumes about which honest men can differ.

All quibbling aside, the usefulness of this edition is self-evident. By bringing the Madison and Jefferson correspondence together in these volumes, Smith has not only gathered a political history of the Early Republic, but also the history of an extraordinary friendship. The edition will no doubt provoke scholars to examine in greater detail the relationship between the two Virginians. Without reading straight through the letters, this reviewer would never have noticed the great strains placed upon their relationship at times, and how each made particular efforts to maintain it upon grounds of intimacy and harmony. A peculiar instance of this is Jefferson’s several importunate attempts to entice Madison to live near him—whether at Monticello, in France, or in his house in Philadelphia—to each of which Madison politely, but decidedly, declined. Or when Madison présuméd on Jefferson’s friendship to offer his opinion that the latter could not resign from the State Department because he still owed service to his country, a claim for which Jefferson soundly rebuked him and then wrote curtly: “never let there be more between you and me, on this subject” (9 June 1793). In fact, the future historian of this friendship will probably begin by examining the differences between these two men who shared so much—and this edition will be an excellent place to start.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading