The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
|Sorry Wikipedia, but George Washington wasn’t “non-partisan.”|
Nobody hated the idea of political parties more than George Washington, but that doesn’t mean he never joined one. In fact, that’s why he joined one.
He found himself firmly in the Federalist camp because he loathed the “Democratic” societies popping up and inciting insurgencies like the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington took it personally that anyone would challenge the federal government, as if they were questioning his service to his country.
Imagine his reaction when he found out one of these Democratic societies was named after his most trusted friend. Attorney General Edmund Randolph warned him:
“A society under the democratic garb has arisen in South Carolina with the name of Madisonian.”
No… Could Washington’s own protégé be plotting against the government, against Washington himself? Not Little Jemmy.
Oh yes, Little Jemmy, with his BFF Thomas Jefferson. Not only were these underhanded schemers linked to these societies, but they had covertly founded the mother of them all, the Democratic-Republican party.
What could have made Madison turn his back on Washington and go from the nation’s #1 Federalist to the #1 opponent of the Federalist Party? The answer boils down to Alexander Hamilton’s big scary brain.
Madison’s betrayal of Washington started in 1791 when he went on a mission with Jefferson through New England. The mission was pest control, and the supposed pest they were investigating for the American Philosophical Society was the Hessian fly, Mayetiola destructor – a wheat-eating pest farmers dreaded as “a calamity more to be dreaded than the ravages of war.”
But the real pest they wanted to control – and an even greater threat to farmers – was Alexander Hamilton.
|Alexander Hamilton was pretty fly.|
Hamilton was a brilliant, hard-working visionary, and he would gladly tell you so himself. He wasn’t as well-versed in governmental theory as Madison, but he was everything Madison wasn’t – a world traveler, a soldier, and a shrewd businessman. It’s almost as if he spent his whole life training to be a threat to James Madison and the Virginia plantation master’s way of life. He was uniquely suited to bring them down.
At 13 years old, Hamilton was a poor, illegitimate orphan working at an international shipping port. At 20, George Washington promoted him to be his senior military aid because he needed someone “who can think for me, as well as execute orders.” Hamilton was practically commanding the American military at 20 years old!
I can’t even imagine. At 20, I could barely hold command of a cabin full of ten-year-old boys as a summer camp counselor. My definition of victory was moving them a quarter mile to the dining hall for breakfast by 8am without casualty, and victory was not assured.
Compare Hamilton’s real-world experience to Little Jemmy Madison, who never fired a shot in anger, never set foot outside American borders (because “crossing the sea would be unfriendly to a singular disease of my constitution”), and whose only learnin’ was book-learnin’.
It’s surprising Madison and Hamilton were ever allies, but they were practically inseparable while Jefferson was in France dealing with his own affairs. During that time, Madison and Hamilton shared intensely profound bonding experiences, like co-cranking out 80 of the 85 Federalist Papers in less than a year.
And even more profoundly, they were once observed in New York to “talk together in the summer and then turn, and laugh, and play with a monkey that was climbing in a neighbor’s yard.” Granted, this is according to the eyewitness testimony of an old lady recalling a childhood memory and there are no corroborating “Touched a monkey with Alex today!” journal entries, so there’s maybe a 40% chance this story is the product of one woman’s demented fever dream, but I choose to believe.
|Dramatic reenactment of Madison and Hamilton doing the “talk-turn-laugh monkey-dance.” By the way, I have an entirely new respect for the Founding Fathers considering that they accomplished so much when they could have been playing with monkeys.|
The monkey business stopped in 1789 when Hamilton shared his vision for a National Bank and economic expansion. The political-economic theory behind his plans was way too complex for the perpetually bankrupt philosopher-farmers Jefferson and Madison to understand. I can’t say I blame them.
When I decided to read a biography of each president, I thought starting at the beginning of the nation’s history would help me understand every little step along the way – from how we got from four Cabinet members all the way to the DMV. But then Alexander Hamilton started talking about funded debt as capital in the hands of spectators and my eyes glazed over. I found myself yearning for something simpler like military strategy, governmental philosophy, or John Adams’s recipe for manure.
Madison and Jefferson understood enough about Hamilton’s economic plans to know it favored businesses and cities as the economic centers of the country. The anti-slavery Treasury Secretary’s plans for growth did not require slavery to function. He was expanding the nation’s economy in a way that would spell the end of their unsustainable slave labor-dependent way of life.
That was something they had to stop, by any means necessary.
“The mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world, and in which the sagacity of the future historian may discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”
-John Quincy Adams describing Madison and Jefferson’s relationship
Translation: Someday the shady shit these guys pulled will finally come to light.
|Madison: “Is Washington going to be okay?”
Jefferson: “Shh. Never let go, Jemmy.”
Madison had successfully partnered with Washington and Hamilton to get a strong federal government. The problem now wasn’t that the government was too strong; it was that Madison wasn’t in charge of it. The best way to change that was to accuse the Federalists of abusing their power. Madison accomplished this by inventing partisan news.
He recruited a college buddy to edit a new newspaper, The National Gazette, that would serve as the mouthpiece of the Democratic-Republican party and constantly smear the Federalists. It was the 1790s version of Fox News. They also arranged for the newspaper to be paid for by the very administration it was demonizing. Jefferson hooked up its editor with a state department job as a translator, even though his French was so not très bien.
After receiving their merit badges for press manipulation and misappropriation of funds, the Democratic-Republicans moved on to fear tactics. They gained power by exploiting the fear that Federalists loved Britain and wanted to turn America into another monarchy. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton were portrayed as stuffy old kings – the other – when the power should instead be vested in the regular people, people like plain ol’ Farmer Jefferson and Farmer Madison.
Somehow it didn’t matter that Madison and Jefferson were born rich and privileged while Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate. It was just as true then that the very wealthy could get the support of the lower classes – even getting them to vote against their own economic self-interests – if they labeled the other party as the enemy trying to take what was theirs. That kind of argument appeals to a lot of people, whether the label is tyrant! or immigrant!
George Washington’s relationship with James Madison was never the same after he heard about the “Madisonian” society. Washington responded to the news by saying, “I should be extremely sorry therefore if [Madison] from any cause whatsoever should get entangled with them, or their politics.”
He went on to say, “My mind is so perfectly convinced, that if these self created societies cannot be destroyed discountenanced that they will destroy the government of this Country.” He literally wrote and crossed out the word “destroyed” and it makes me picture him sitting there, angry quill in hand, possibly with his new ghostwriter-in-chief Hamilton looking over his shoulder.
Alexander Hamilton: That’s too many destroyeds in one sentence, George.
George Washington: You’re right. I’ll change the first one to “clobbered.”
Alexander Hamilton: I like it…but I was thinking of something more high-brow.
George Washington: What’s a high-brow word for wanting to rip their faces off their smug heads?
Alexander Hamilton: How about…discountenanced?
George Washington: Fine. I still prefer clobbered though. Sometimes I wonder why I even need ghostwriters.
Alexander Hamilton: Because you named one of your dogs “Sweet Lips.”
George Washington: …
Alexander Hamilton: …
George Washington: Have you seen that dog’s lips though?
Hearing about the “Madisonian” societies troubled Washington, but up until then there had been no confrontation between them. That was about to change.
Their ultimate falling out, and the showdown that would leave Madison publicly humiliated, was yet to come. This time the blame would fall on Madison’s other Federalist Papers co-author, John Jay.
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