George Washington and Thomas Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia as the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775. They had met years before as members of the Virginia House of Burgesses, though their acquaintanceship was slight. But they had much in common, as tall, wealthy, Virginia aristocrats and planters who owned thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves. Each chafed under what they considered to be British tyranny and longed to undo the bonds between the colonies and the mother country.
And the two made a vivid impression. Jefferson had reddish hair and a dandyish style, riding into Philadelphia in a phaeton drawn by four horses. Washington, eleven years older, his hair powdered and tied in a queue, wore the blue and red uniform of a colonel in the Virginia regiment, which he had been during the French and Indian War.
It later fell to Jefferson to articulate—in the Declaration of Independence—the case for separation from Britain, and to George Washington to consummate it on the battlefield. They played their parts well and entered the pantheon of early American heroes. When the infant nation adopted a new Constitution in 1788, under which a powerful president was to be elected, Washington was the choice. When Jefferson returned to Virginia the following year after diplomatic service in France, he received a letter from Washington inviting him to be the first secretary of state. Their revolutionary partnership looked set to continue.
But their differences were profound. Washington was austere and obsessed with honor; he was uncomfortable with the dark arts of politics and viewed the rise of political parties with horror. There were passions beneath the surface; but even those historians who have sought to scrape away the marble have found more marble beneath.
Jefferson was more sinuous and almost feline in his sensibilities. The historian Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, observed, “The contradictions in Jefferson’s character have always rendered it a fascinating study…A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this exception…but Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transparent shadows.”
Washington sought harmony in his Cabinet, but the tension between Jefferson, a Francophile who wished to limit the power of the federal government, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, Anglophile, and a firm believer in centralized and consolidated government, soon led to open conflict. Jefferson worked with his political lieutenant, James Madison, to thwart Hamilton’s vision, and upon his retirement in 1793 and return to Monticello, devoted himself to founding the nation’s first opposition party, the Democratic-Republicans.
For all his professions of nonpartisanship, it was clear that Washington was more in sympathy with the Federalists. Hamilton had his ear. This led to a growing political and personal estrangement from Jefferson, although each professed admiration and respect for the other.
This foundered after the publication of what Jefferson meant to be a private letter to his friend Philip Mazzei in 1796. In it, Jefferson condemned Washington and his colleagues as “timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty,” and continued, “It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” After Washington read these words, the two men never spoke again.
The animosity continued after Washington’s death in 1799; Martha Washington told a visitor to Mount Vernon that Jefferson’s election to the presidency was “the greatest misfortune our country had ever experienced.”
Washington emerged as the moral victor in this rivalry, declaring in his will—as Jefferson did not–that his slaves should be freed. But both men played honorable and indispensable roles in the founding of the United States, and Mount Vernon and Monticello—one hundred miles apart–remain shrines to their memory.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.