The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
|They used to have Mad love.|
George Washington looked down at the speech in his trembling hand, trying to make out the words. The awkward silence was a stark contrast to moments before, when he was sworn in on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall to a 13-gun salute and the cheers of a massive crowd below.
Unlike his fellow Congressmen in the Senate chamber, James Madison did not have to strain to hear the President’s speech. He already knew what the Inaugural Address said, because he wrote it. On that day, April 30, 1789, he was Washington’s most trusted advisor.
Madison had no idea their friendship was about to go down in flames amid the birth of America’s two-party system and the first showdown between the President and the House of Representatives. But it appears that he buried the seeds for his strategic betrayal of George Washington in plain sight, in the words of that inaugural speech.
James Madison, or “Little Jemmy” as he was actually known, was 19 years younger, 8 inches shorter, and 100 pounds lighter than the walking monolith Washington. At 5’4” and 100 pounds, Madison was the Robin to Washington’s Batman, the Joe Pesci to his Robert De Niro – the Tobey Maguire to his Seabiscuit.
Seabiscuit might best describe their Constitutional partnership, as Madison was very much a jockey directing the war horse Washington to the lead. After orchestrating a convention to amend the weak sauce Articles of Confederation, Madison personally convinced Washington to attend. He knew that if there was one person who could convince the ragtag nation to adopt a centralized federal government with a powerful executive, it was George Washington. No two men were more responsible for the Constitution getting passed than Madison and Washington.
You could get away with crediting the Constitution to Washington, Madison, ol’ Moby Dick Morris, and a host of others. Or, like Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, you could pick someone who wasn’t there. Carson recently said he admired Thomas Jefferson for the way he crafted the Constitution, which would have been quite a feat since Jefferson was in Paris serving as minister to France at the time.
Jefferson did, however, play a crucial role in his friend Madison’s success. In 1786, he sent Madison a “literary cargo” from Paris of more than 200 books on ancient and modern history, effectively loading up his brain like Neo in The Matrix. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, when Little Jemmy went to Philly…he knew kung fu.
And he used it to father the hell out of the Constitution. He backed up his arguments with never-ending facts like they were breadsticks at the Olive Garden – first under Washington’s paternal presence at the Philadelphia Convention, then in New York where he teamed up with Alexander Hamilton to bang out The Federalist Papers (AKA “85 Essays on Why the Constitution is Awesome and You Should Totally Ratify It”), and then back home to Virginia where he out-convinced even Patrick “give me liberty or give me death” Henry.
After his successful whirlwind tour de force, Madison’s little body was spent. He turned to Washington, writing that he was “extremely feeble,” and Washington prescribed some Mount Vernon and Chill. “Moderate exercise, and books occasionally, with the mind unbent, will be your best restoratives,” Washington told him, adding that “no one will be happier in your company” than he would. Madison spent so much time at Mount Vernon that his friends sent him mail there.
The alliance between the Father of His Country and the Father of the Constitution was not just political; they were buds.
The Inaugural Address
If James Madison simply ghostwrote Washington’s historic inaugural address, that would be impressive. But Madison also wrote the House of Representatives’ official response to Washington’s address – and then he ghostwrote Washington’s response to the House’s response and Washington’s response to the Senate’s response (which somehow the Senate managed to write without Madison’s help.) He was having a conversation with himself. The first months of the U.S. government were basically an epistolary novel by James Madison.
|Epistolary novels are made up entirely of letters, usually between depraved French aristocrats or young boys and their favorite authors. These are the two greatest examples ever produced and/or the only ones I’ve read.|
These exchanges mostly boiled down to “We love you, George!” and “I’m not worthy!” But looking closer, I see hints of the political Madison already planting doubts about George Washington’s mental abilities. Look at the language Little Jemmy chose for Washington to humbly describe himself coming out of retirement to accept the presidency:
“On the one hand, I was summoned by my Country…from a retreat which I had chosen…as the asylum of my declining years: a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary…[by] frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.
On the other hand, the magnitude and difficulty of the trust… could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.” (Emphasis mine.)
That roughly translates to I am honored you chose me as your leader, in spite of my being a decrepit old limp-dicked shit-for-brains.
In the House response, Madison addressed Washington’s age with a skillful mixture of empathy and insult. “We well know the anxieties with which you must have obeyed a summons from the repose reserved for your declining years.” We appreciate you rolling out of your deathbed to join us, George. Thanks for not going toward the light today.
Madison’s language here is important because it foreshadows the only way Washington’s future political opponents could demonize his policies without committing political suicide by attacking the most beloved man in America. How could they say Washington’s actions were tyrannical without calling him a tyrant?
By making him a victim.
In the words of Washington’s most eloquent foe:
“[Washington’s] memory was already sensibly impaired by age, the firm tone of his mind, for which he had been remarkable, was beginning to relax…a desire for tranquility had crept on him, and a willingness to let others act, or even think, for him.”
With “the captain in his cabin attending to his log-book and chart, a rogue of a pilot has run them into an enemy’s port.”
That ageist shit talk made sense, since Washington himself said he was wasting away in his Inaugural Address. Except those words weren’t his – they were James Madison’s, written when he was the President’s protégé, ghostwriter, and friend.
That all suddenly changed when Jemmy the jockey changed horses midstream. Madison went from betting on Washington to putting all his winnings on the eloquent foe quoted above – Thomas Jefferson.
After four years in France, Jefferson returned to save his Neo from the matrix (and serve as Washington’s Secretary of State.) Madison greeted him like Hobbes waiting to pounce on Calvin when he got home from school.
In no time, Madison teamed up with Jefferson to underhandedly attack Washington’s policies and the man responsible for them: Alexander Hamilton. Secretary of the Treasury and ten dollar founding father, Hamilton was the “rogue of a pilot” Jefferson implied was doing Washington’s thinking for him. He was also Madison’s Federalist Papers writing partner and friend.
What could make Madison turn his back on the two men he’d worked so closely with to pass the Constitution? I’d like to think the conversation went like this:
Thomas Jefferson: Make any friends while I was in France?
James Madison: A couple.
Thomas Jefferson: Let’s destroy them.
James Madison: God I missed you.
The truth is a little more complicated and gets to the very heart of why our country is still so divided, and why appealing to the masses works – especially when your ideas are based on ignorance and fear.
Sources: James Madison by Richard Brookhiser; Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham; John Adams by David McCullough; Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner; Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick; founders.archives.gov
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