The Letters Between Jefferson and Madison

In the golden century of letter writing, their 'illuminating conversation' spoke to the ages even as it helped found a nation


Edited by James Morton Smith

W.W. Norton and Company 3 vols., 2073 pp., $150

President Kennedy told the Nobel laureates he was entertaining one night that they represented "the most extraordinary collection that has been ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." James Morton Smith introduces these letters by retelling this story - it seems to have become obligatory for collections in which Jefferson figures.

These three volumes appear to be designed to trump this anecdote. Madison, who was Jefferson's secretary of state, must on occasion have dined with him, and then what company could be remotely comparable to these two tete a tete!

To be sure, the personal aspect of the letters flags, as is only natural, when the two friends are in the same place - though not the interest in watching them carry on the country's business. Jefferson and Madison had known each other since the year of independence, but their friendship grew into intimacy only when Madison joined Governor Jefferson's Executive Council.

The early communications are, thus, fairly impersonal and official, but before long a copious and trusting exchange develops. It rises, especially in the last years, to great warmth, the more poignant for being contained by a nearly unfailing formality, from the unvarying salutation ("Dear Sir:") to the complimentary close (e.g., "I pray you accept the assurance of my constant and affectionate esteem and respect")

On February 17, 1826, less than half a year before his death, Jefferson closes a long letter on the necessity of finding a law professor with acceptably republican principles for his university and on his own dire financial straits, with the touching words: "Take care of me when dead, and be assured I shall leave you with my last affections."

Madison replies, following their rule of putting public affairs first in the letter and personal matters last:

"You cannot look back to the long period of our private friendship and political harmony, with more affecting resolutions than I do.... Wishing and hoping that you may yet live to increase the debt which our Country owes you, and to witness the increasing gratitude, which alone can pay it, I offer you the fullest return of affectionate assurances."

Here is a friendship of like-minded opposites. Jefferson was only eight years older than Madison, but "father never loved son more than he loves Mr. Madison."

Yet it was the "son" who was sober, prudent, restrained, evidently physically unhandy, but inventive in practical political ideas, while the "father" was impetuous, experimental, radical, full of clever mechanical devices and impractical political theory.

One of the delightful items is Madison's unconvincing attempt to help his brilliantly ingenuous friend with a mystifying "mechanism for a table."

These volumes are for browsing. Wherever they fall open there is something wonderful, something that delineates the framework and detail of that "republic of letters," that communion of inquiry, which these two noble souls established between themselves.

There is Madison putting much effort into getting Jefferson in Paris some American "peccan Nuts." There is Jefferson trying to find a bridge to the third member of that great revolutionary triumvirate, John Adams, to whom he has a personal aversion, while Madison discreetly manages the attempt. There is Madison at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, trying faithfully to observe the agreed-upon rule of secrecy without leaving his radical friend, who is - providentially - in France, totally in the dark, while Jefferson gives advice anyhow. There is the exchange of 1789 on the Bill of Rights, in which Madison, though the bill's author, expresses his fear that such "parchment barriers" to abuse might actually restrict liberties, while Jefferson characteristically favors a bold positive declaration of rights.

Shortly after, in the same year, come the letters in which Jefferson argues that the social compact is, in effect, dissolved in every generation, a wild notion that Madison, the constitution-maker, very tactfully tears apart. This list is only the tiniest sample of an illuminating conversation that lasted for 50 years.

The boxed set is very reader-friendly. It looks beautiful: Each volume is well-produced and imprinted with a golden American eagle. It is easy to use: Smith has divided the letter sequence into 50 chapters with titles giving the main theme and with a scene-setting mini-introduction; there is a full index to help the reader find a favorite subject; the apparatus is light but helpful.

And then there are the pictures: The letters are preceded by chronologically arranged facing portraits of the two friends, waiting to be brought to speaking life by the million words that follow.

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