The rise and fall of a founding friendship.
Two presidential terms were more than enough for George Washington. In 1796 he published his Farewell Address, a letter announcing his retirement and imparting his final words of wisdom and warning to the American people.
The address covered political parties, foreign policy and religion, but one underlying message ran throughout – James Madison was a weaselly turd.
The Farewell Address
Washington, who made a career of retiring, tried to get out of his presidential gig once before. Four years earlier, he asked his trusted adviser Madison to ghostwrite a farewell letter, unaware at the time that Madison was running the opposition party. Madison delivered a draft, but Washington stuck around for another term because everyone (Madison included) convinced him the Union was too fragile to survive his departure. Nobody wanted to mutiny on a sinking ship.
When partisan politics exploded during his second term, Washington decided he really couldn’t take anymore.
Barely on speaking terms with Madison after the Jay Treaty fiasco, Washington asked his new Ghostwriter-in-Chief, Alexander Hamilton, to prepare another farewell address – and to include Madison’s earlier draft at the beginning. On one hand Washington wanted to honor his former friend’s work, and on the other he wanted to get Madison’s attention so he wouldn’t miss what came next – a thinly veiled attack on the political monster he had become.
Washington (in Hamilton’s sexy words) warned that parties could become “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” The appeal of parties was “a fire not to be quenched…lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
Those burning hot unprincipled men Hamilton wrote about weren’t hypothetical – they were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Washington was finally piecing together the treasonable actions they took to advance their party, including conspiring to create an anti-government newspaper funded by the government.
The editor they recruited for The National Gazette was Madison’s college friend, Philip Freneau. “Recruited” might not be the right word for Freneau – he was unleashed. A Princeton-educated poet, Freneau was captured and confined on a British prison ship for six tortuous weeks during the war, making him the perfect weapon for Jefferson and Madison to sic on the Federalist Party. He was Rambo with a quill.
|Philip Freneau (pictured) sent George Washington three copies of The National Gazette every day. Because he was a monster.|
Freneau portrayed Washington as a tyrannical king, and even wrote a pamphlet describing Washington being executed by guillotine. Washington was so infuriated with “that rascal Freneau” that he decided to awkwardly call him out in his Farewell Address:
…as some of the Gazettes of the United States have teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in utter silence.
Maybe Washington really was going senile, because he doesn’t seem to realize that whining about something at length is not the same as passing it over in utter silence. Hamilton wisely convinced Washington to cut that section out – his address needed to be a John Philip Sousa march, not an Alanis Morissette song.
Washington’s feelings still resonate throughout the address, especially in passages like this about parties gaining power by misrepresenting their opponents:
You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
By the end of Washington’s presidency, James Madison had rendered himself completely alien to him – a heartburning reversal from 1789 when Washington signed his letters to Madison with a love he reserved for few:
With the most sincere & perfect friendship, I remain, My dear Sir Your Affectionate,
Die Hard with a Grudge
Washington never got over Madison’s betrayal. In fact, some of the last words he ever spoke were about Little Jemmy, and they were probably obscene.
On December 13, 1799, Washington’s voice was hoarse from a cold so his secretary Tobias Lear read the newspaper aloud to him. When Lear got to news about James Madison endorsing fellow Democratic-Republican James Monroe as Virginia’s next governor, Washington “appeared much affected and spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject.”
|Thank you, Kindle dictionary. (Don’t tell my dusty Oxford English Dictionary.)|
I don’t know Washington’s exact words about Madison that night, but I know one of his officers said he “swore like an angel” and could dish out profanities “till the leaves shook on the trees.” Based on that, and my leisurely study of actual slang terms from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, I believe Washington’s final raspy breaths were probably spent calling James Madison a damned Frenchified dunghill, or maybe Thomas Jefferson’s fart catcher. Perhaps even a chicken-hearted cock robin, and almost definitely a weasel-faced shit sack.
As Washington hissed some or all of these asperities, his blood pressure must have skyrocketed. Maybe the very thought of Madison was enough to make his blood careen from his veins during the four bleedings his doctors performed on his final day, removing an estimated total of 80 ounces or 40% of the blood in his body.
On his deathbed (and woozy from the blood loss) Washington reportedly said, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” It’s probably best that he missed out on the 19th century and didn’t get to see the presidency dominated for 24 straight years by the top three names on his shit list – Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.
If Washington had lived ten more years, he would have seen his Federalist policies systematically dismantled with disastrous consequences. The Democratic-Republicans decimated the military, shuttered the National Bank, failed to renew the Jay Treaty, and banned trade with Britain (and everyone else) causing a depression-causing embargo. These actions seemed part of a self-fulfilling prophesy where they hated Britain so much that they goaded her into The War of 1812 to make everyone else hate her too.
If Washington had lived twenty more years, he would have seen another reversal on his policies, with the National Bank reinstated and a trained army established – all by James Madison.
The War of 1812 hit particularly close to home for Madison, as in it literally burned down his home. He was America’s first wartime president, and he got to see firsthand the difficulty of fighting a war with a lack of funds and trained soldiers. That experience transformed him. It’s a shame it took 15,000 American deaths for Madison to remember the federalist values he once championed, and to start putting his love for the United States ahead of politics.
Tell Me Something Good
After my wife read drafts of the first three parts of this series, she asked me if there was anything good about Madison. I struggled to answer.
I could have cited his amazing contributions to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, if he hadn’t turned his back on those principles. I admire his work to legislate religious freedom and separate church and state, even though Washington might disagree – he may have had Madison in mind in his Farewell Address when he said “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
I don’t blame a lack of religious principles for Madison’s turdliness. My biggest beef with him is that he put politics before people. It’s hard to look past that, especially when one of those people is John Adams, the president I’ve identified with most along my journey.
When Jefferson came in second place to Adams in the election of 1796 (making him vice-president under their weird-ass rules), he wrote a nice conciliatory letter to his old friend and political opponent. Madison convinced Jefferson not to send it because it would make him look weak and hurt their cause. That heartless political maneuver helped set the tone for the obstructionism we have today.
|Thou shalt not reconcile!|
One later act of Madison’s slightly redeems him. In 1825, Jefferson asked him to suggest readings for University of Virginia students. Madison suggested Washington’s Inaugural and Farewell Addresses, saying “they may help down what might be less readily swallowed, and contain nothing which is not good.” Madison was telling Jefferson that he agreed with an address dedicated to tearing apart their actions.
Little Jemmy Madison wanted to do the same thing for those students that I set out to do in this series – provide a little light reading about how George Washington’s judgment and integrity eventually prevailed, over a couple damned Frenchified shit sacks.
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; mountvernon.org
I love these comments. I also love the idea that one of the most iconic images of Dolly Madison is of her saving the portrait of Washington from a burning White House. I believe that is what is now known as a "mad sick burn" (pun intended).The book that I read about Washington was the Ron Chernow biography. It was a monster. I can't believe that in 816 pages Chernow failed to mention that George named his dog Sweet Lips. He was very descriptive about each and every time George had dysentery, though. Maybe his time could have been better spent on other info. You mentioned you may swing back around and read it. If you already have a Washington book under your belt, don't. Just click on the link to my blog "Facts Are Stubborn Things." Think of it as the Cliff Notes on Chernow. You're welcome.Have you read Alexander Hamilton by Chernow? It was the one that started me on my Presidential book bucket list. Now I know he technically wasn't a president, but he sure was a great puppet master. I still can't decide if he convinced George to implement 99% of his policies or if they really believed in 99% of the same ideals. Your thoughts?
Thanks for commenting! I love your name, by the way. I have not read Chernow's Hamilton bio yet, but I've heard great things. (And I can't get enough of the musical based on it.)I think Washington's military experience (which Democratic-Republican party founders Jefferson and Madison lacked) showed him that a strong federal government was essential in defending and preserving the union, and that may have informed his preference for Hamilton's policies. It's hard to say how much Hamilton's power of persuasion came into play, but I think Washington was already a receptive audience.I look forward to your other reviews. Please feel free to share them here and let me know what you think of my thoughts as well!
Thank you for this incredible read- it has made my morning (and perhaps even my week!). As a self-proclaimed Presidents nerd, I am continually amazed by the stories of interpersonal relationships that changed American History. How can anyone think that History is boring, with stories like these?!? And you tell it so well. Thank you.
Thank you for your comment, it made my day!
Just stumbled upon your article while looking for something related to Washington’s Presidential Papers. Once I started reading I couldn’t stop – very entertaining and educational!
Thank you so much Lisa!!