The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries (review)
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The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. By John P. Kaminski. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 249. $27.95 cloth)

Over the last fifteen years, John Kaminski has compiled a database of descriptions of over four hundred Americans from the late eighteenth century entitled "The Founders on the Founders." In 2008, he published a collection of the same name, which presented quotations about thirty prominent persons. His new book also draws on this database for three biographical essays on Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. While the broad outlines of their public careers are certainly familiar, Kaminski has unearthed accounts of each man's private demeanor and routine at home that convey a real sense of their daily lives and of their interactions with family members, friends, and visitors. Kaminski's exhaustive knowledge of the sources and his ability to fashion them into a gripping story are particularly evident in his treatment of Madison's contributions to the U.S. Constitution [End Page 263] (the debates around which Kaminski has documented for decades as coeditor of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).

Given the skill with which these short biographies are crafted, it is ironic that Kaminski claims merely to let his subjects speak for themselves. In the preface, Kaminski contends that "the fog of time and veneration" has obscured the "complexities and subtleties" of the founders' characters. In order to cut through that fog of myth, he chose to rely almost exclusively on the words of his subjects and their contemporaries to achieve "an otherwise unattainable immediacy" and to allow "the founders [to] become their own collective biographers" (pp. ix-xi).

Yet Kaminski does not hide his own strong views about his subjects. He is often exuberant in his praise for their accomplishments, calling the beginning of the Declaration of Independence "the greatest statement in political literature" and depicting Washington as "the able charioteer [who] guided and tamed the wild horses [the American states] and made them manageable for his successors" (pp. 93, 70). He also shows a keen appreciation for less-well-known sides of their characters. A particularly interesting section of the essay on Washington concerns his library which convincingly argues that "in reality, Washington was more bookish than most of his contemporaries would have us believe" (p. 47).

Despite Kaminski's stated aim of assembling the various testimonies by and about his subjects into a "mosaic" which suggests multiple and conflicting perspectives, he generally selects evidence that confirms the founders' self-image as virtuous, selfless, honest, simple, and principled (p. x). The only views that Kaminski challenges are those of critics, such as William Maclay, who gives a less-than-flattering account of Washington's table manners but is described as "neurotic" twice on one page (p. 66). Kaminski quotes at length Fisher Ames's disparaging remarks about Madison, but mostly for Ames's description of Madison's speaking style, while reminding the reader that Ames "greatly underestimated the steel in Madison and his leadership ability" (p. 202). [End Page 264]

Still, Kaminski is too conscientious a historian not to acknowledge the vast gap between rhetoric and reality regarding the problem of slavery, which is discussed with great evenhandedness in each of the three biographies. In these sections, it becomes unavoidably clear that the founders are not their own best biographers but that we depend on historians like Kaminski to make sense of their often-contradictory words and actions.

Philipp Ziesche

Philipp Ziesche is an assistant editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin and the author of Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution (2010).

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