- The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation by Thomas Fleming
Thomas Fleming, the author of numerous popular histories, turns his efforts to the contentious relationship between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The clash of personalities between these leading Virginians, [End Page 663] Fleming contends, explains the political and constitutional divisions that marked the 1790s. Sadly, however, the book never develops beyond this potentially important insight. Rather than offering readers anything new, Fleming treats them to the outdated approach of the Federalist “good guys,” led by an infallible, wise, and politically savvy Washington, versus the Jeffersonian Republican “bad guys,” and their dreamy-eyed, somewhat treacherous Francophile leader, Thomas Jefferson.
Fleming’s account opens with a brief, but telling, overview of the two men’s roles in the Revolution. Washington, the war hero, “crowned his victory by rejecting pleas to banish the bankrupt Continental Congress and become the new nation’s military dictator” (p. 1). Meanwhile Jefferson’s “soaring insistence” in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence was ignored, but his “dismaying inability to deal with the crisis that confronted him” that supposedly characterized his governorship was well known to contemporaries (p. 2). From this point, the author’s bias becomes more pronounced. Fleming suggests that Washington’s force of personality single-handedly secured the Constitution’s ratification, and in so doing Washington advanced a new political theory that power could be trusted. Jefferson’s political thought, however, offered “nothing new,” just “standard Whig … doctrine” (p. 38).
Fleming’s treatment of Washington’s administration continues in the same biased manner. The clash between Washington and Jefferson is the standard story of the Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson conflict, with the president substituting for the treasury secretary. There is little that is new, fresh, or unbiased in this account. Fleming’s argument, in fact, is virtually indistinguishable from Federalist polemics of the era. Washington’s use of executive power, Fleming contends, was the critical element in the American system of governance, while Hamilton’s economic program was so obviously correct that Fleming finds it unnecessary to explain why. Jefferson’s resistance to both Washington and Hamilton demonstrated that “[e]motionally and psychologically Thomas Jefferson was not a friend of this new government” (p. 68). In the American reactions to the French Revolution, Fleming all but accuses Jefferson of treason. While Jefferson’s continual fidelity toward the French Revolution was not his finest moment, to accuse him of favoring the French government over that of the United States is nonsense.
Fleming’s hatred of Jefferson and the Republicans continues in the author’s treatment of the John Adams administration. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions became vital threats to the Union, Fleming writes, but the Alien and Sedition Acts were justifiable wartime measures that were minuscule assaults on civil liberties, especially when compared with those taken by future administrations. Fleming’s biased account accelerates during Jefferson’s administration. For example, rather than credit any of Jefferson’s actions or policies in securing the purchase of Louisiana, Fleming attributes Jefferson’s successes only to malaria-carrying mosquitoes and luck. Yet it is perhaps James Madison and the Tertium Quids who suffer most from Fleming’s bias. When Madison agrees with Washington and the Federalists, he is a brilliant political thinker, but when he sides with Jefferson, he becomes little more than a sycophantic devotee incapable of independent thought. The Quids [End Page 664] are not addressed by individual names, so readers have no way of knowing who these people were or why they broke with Jefferson’s administration.
It is unfortunate that Fleming, whose works are popular due to his ability to tell a good story, did not use his appeal to discuss the rich complexity that marks this era. His account represents a missed opportunity.