Friends and Founders

"Friends and Founders," review of The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson & James Madison, John Morton Smith, ed., New Criterion, May 1995.


The publication of the Jefferson–Madison correspondence is an event, for all who take a serious interest in American politics, that should have happened a long time ago.  The letters have been available in older, separate editions of the works of the two founders, and also in the newer, critical editions of their “papers,” still far from completion, which are turned out, one volume at a time, with such agonizing slowness as to suggest an involuntary retentiveness in the editors.  But here, suddenly, are three beautiful volumes all at once, and of the whole correspondence. They are a credit to both editor and publisher.

James Morton Smith, the editor, helped produce The Adams–Jefferson Letters(edited by Lester J. Cappon and published in 1959), an exchange remarkable for its charm and detachment. Now he gives us Jefferson’s correspondence with Madison, an even more valuable resource, with just as much philosophy but also full of the business at hand and the confidences necessary for common action.  The letters are organized chronologically into chapters, each beginning with an introduction by Smith that provides the context of the period (usually a year or two, depending on the frequency of the exchange) and tells the reader about the latest historical scholarship.  The notes are useful and admirably unintrusive, the bibliography is informative, the index is of uncommon quality.  Altogether, these are books to own and to master.  Every current political debate can be illuminated, directly or indirectly, by what these two men once said to each other.

Indeed, it is with some awe that any American enters upon a correspondence between the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Father of the Constitution.  Here are the two main documents in American politics joined together in a lifelong friendship of the two men responsible for them.  The Adams–Jefferson letters were so captivating because they were exchanged between two fellow revolutionaries who became political adversaries, and all the more so because Jefferson was vice president under President Adams.  It was interesting to see how far mutual esteem could extend despite political disagreement and how much one party could concede to the other outside public view.  It was to Adams that Jefferson made the best statement of his undemocratic support for a “natural aristocracy” of talents. But Jefferson’s friendship with Madison was political and partisan. They were not merely in the same party, they formed it together—the first American political party.  Curiously, Madison, though a friend of Jefferson, never had any liking for Jefferson’s friend John Adams.  In friendship, things equal to the same thing are not necessarily equal to each other.

New Criterion