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The Company Of Giants

Madison and Jefferson
By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg
(Random House, 809 pp., $35)

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were more than good friends. These two Virginians and Founding Fathers participated in what was probably the greatest political collaboration in American history. Indeed, the history of the early republic is incomprehensible without an understanding of this political partnership. As John Quincy Adams once observed, “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.”

Sixty or so years ago, the distinguished historian Adrienne Koch wrote a three-hundred-page book on this political partnership called Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration. Now Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg have themselves collaborated in a much longer and much more detailed account of the Virginians’ alliance. The two authors cite Koch’s account as their book’s “closest relative,” one that “remains a serviceable piece of scholarship” but also in their opinion needs to be revised and amplified. In their title they have quite consciously reversed Koch’s order of the names, putting Madison ahead of Jefferson. For too long Jefferson has been regarded as the dominant partner in the partnership; it is time, they say, to redress the balance.

Most people certainly see Madison as standing in Jefferson’s shadow. He seems smaller than his Virginia colleague in every way. He was only about five foot five or five foot six, compared with Jefferson’s six foot two or three, and somehow that difference in height has carried over into the different degrees of popular esteem in which the country has held these founders. Jefferson has a huge temple erected in his honor in the nation’s capital, but until 1980, with the naming of a new Library of Congress building after him, Madison had no such memorial. Jefferson’s ringing statements on behalf of freedom and democracy are inscribed everywhere, but very few of Madison’s stirring words are widely known or revered. Jefferson’s home at Monticello has been restored to Jeffersonian perfection and become a shrine visited by thousands of people every year. Madison’s home at Montpelier has only recently been opened to visitors.

Burstein and Isenberg want to change this popular view of Madison. They want their readers to come away from their book with a fuller appreciation of Madison—an appreciation not only of the hidden warmth and humor of his personality, but also of his important role in the politics of the period, and of his equal participation in his partnership with Jefferson. Their aim is to dismantle the false and misleading image of the collaboration that they believe some wrongheaded but unnamed historians and biographers have created. “History,” they assert, “has imagined that Madison looked up to Jefferson, read his mind, and found ways to pursue policies in partnership without any concern that he was subordinating himself.” Since Burstein and Isenberg believe that the two Virginians made equal contributions to history, they are puzzled by the way historians over the years have gotten the story so wrong. “Nothing in the historical record,” they write, “supports the convenient narrative in which Madison yields to Jefferson’s stronger position or stronger views.”

But that is not how Madison saw the relationship. Despite the fact that Madison took the lead in building the Republican Party in opposition to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, he nonetheless tended to defer to Jefferson—ready “always,” as he told him in 1794, to “receive your commands with pleasure.” The Federalists were not wrong in calling Madison “the General” and Jefferson “the Generalissimo” of the Republican Party. Burstein and Isenberg seem not to have cited either quotation—which is understandable, since these words tend to undermine one of their central contentions.

Although the two authors may not have established the “essential equality” between Madison and Jefferson in our historical memory, they certainly have made a convincing case for the historical importance of Madison. They are quite right to lament that Americans do not remember Madison as well as they should, especially when we recall who he was and what he achieved: the major architect of the Constitution; the father of the Bill of Rights, and one of the strongest proponents of the rights of conscience and religious liberty in American history; the co-author of The Federalist, the most significant work of political theory in American history; the leader and most important member of the first House of Representatives in 1789; the founder or at least the co-founder of the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1790s; the secretary of state in Jefferson’s administration; and the fourth president of the United States.


Burstein and Isenberg begin their account with the opinion of a bookseller who met both men in 1824 and concluded that Jefferson was a man of “more imagination and passion,” while Madison was “more natural, candid, and profound.” The authors spend the rest of their long book spelling out these sorts of differences between the two Virginians. The two men certainly had different styles and temperaments. Jefferson was high-minded, optimistic, visionary, and often quick to grab hold of new and sometimes bizarre ideas. In 1773, during the imperial crisis, he thought the colonists could use their Italian connections to get all the commercial Italians with “immense sums” in London banks to create financial chaos in Britain by demanding a return of their money all at once. This was not how Madison thought. He was generally more direct, deliberate, and practical.

In 1789, Jefferson suggested to Madison his theory that no generation ought to be bound by the actions of its predecessors. Calculating that a generation lasted about nineteen years, Jefferson proposed that all personal and national debts, all laws, even all constitutions, ought to expire every nineteen years. Madison’s reply to this odd notion was a model of tact. He pointed out that some debts, like those created by the American Revolution, were actually incurred for the benefit of future generations. To bring all constitutions and all laws to an end every nineteen years, moreover, would surely erode confidence between people and breed struggles over property that would unhinge the society. Still, he confessed that perhaps he had only the eye of an “ordinary Politician” who was unable to perceive “the sublime truths ... seen thro’ the medium of Philosophy.”

Although Jefferson could be a superb politician at times—acutely sensitive to what was possible and workable—he was also a radical utopian; he often dreamed of the future and was inspired by how things might be. Madison, by contrast, had a conservative strain that mingled with his visionary thinking. He valued legitimacy and stability, and was usually more willing than Jefferson to accept things as they were. He was often prudent, cold-eyed if not pessimistic, analytical, and skeptical of radical schemes, especially if they might unleash popular passions. He never assumed an idea without questioning it, and he never possessed the kind of uncritical faith in the people that Jefferson did. Since Burstein and Isenberg admit that “Madison was guarded about the wisdom of the people” and Jefferson was not, this very different attitude toward the people by itself might answer the authors’ puzzling question of why Jefferson has always stood higher in America’s memory than Madison. The American people have always venerated political leaders who have had an unqualified faith in them.

Both Jefferson and Madison were suspicious of governmental power, including the power of elected representative legislatures. But Jefferson’s suspicion was based on his fear of the unrepresentative character of the elected officials—that is, that the representatives might have drifted away from the virtuous people who had elected them. Madison’s suspicion was based on his fear that the elected officials were only too representative, only too expressive, of the passions of the people who had elected them. Jefferson worried about the rights of the majority; Madison worried about the rights of the minority. As far as Jefferson was concerned, the people could do no wrong. When Madison was wringing his hands in the late 1780s over the turbulence of Shays’s Rebellion, Jefferson was writing blithely from France about the value of the spirit of popular resistance to government and the need to keep it alive. “I like a little rebellion now and then,” he said. Like a storm in the atmosphere, it cleared the air.

This extended comparison of Madison and Jefferson is only the top layer of a multilayered and richly annotated book. Beneath the comparison of the two Founders is an extraordinarily full and clearly written narrative of politics from the Revolution to the 1830s, with Virginia always present. Since Madison and Jefferson were Virginians, and since Virginia throughout much of this period was the largest, most populous, and richest state in the Union, Burstein and Isenberg’s history becomes in many places a history of Virginia. Their “dual biography,” they admit, “is as much a collective biography of the Virginians whose weight and whose prejudices were brought to bear on their state and nation.” Hence we learn a lot about Edmund Pendleton, Edmund Randolph, John Randolph, James Monroe, George Mason, George Washington, John Taylor, Patrick Henry and his son-in-law Spencer Roane. It was these Virginians and their state that dominated the lives of Jefferson and Madison.

Burstein and Isenberg use Jefferson and Madison’s loyalty to Virginia, which the authors claim nearly always trumped their loyalty to the United States, to explain a number of issues and problems that otherwise seem perplexing. This loyalty helps to account, they say, for Madison’s stubbornness in holding out for proportional representation in the Senate during the Constitutional Convention. It explains their interest in expansion to the West as a solution to the excess population of the state. It also accounts, according to Burstein and Isenberg, for Madison’s turn against Hamilton in 1792, and for his formation of the Republican Party. The fact that “they were Virginians first, Americans second” lay behind their stand in 1798 against the federal government. And their loyalty to Virginia, the authors further claim, makes sense of their defensiveness about slavery, their willingness to table the issue rather than confront it directly. Since Virginia was initially so dominant in the Union, its citizens, according to Burstein and Isenberg, could not easily accept any diminution of its power. Ultimately Jefferson and Madison, like other Virginians, felt “trapped in their inherited sense of bigness,” always ready to contest against a federal “tyranny that was unlikely ever to present itself.”

Virginia was no doubt important to both Founders, but it was perhaps not always as important as Burstein and Isenberg suggest. Madison did not turn against Hamilton, his co-author of The Federalist, simply because of his loyalty to Virginia. The authors seem to think that, having written The Federalist together, Hamilton and Madison must have held a similar view of the nature of the national government that they were promoting. But this was not the case. Hamilton wanted the government of the United States to resemble the modern states of Europe, especially the fiscalmilitary state of Britain, with a large bureaucracy, a standing army, a modern financial system, and perpetual debts—the very kind of monarch-like war-making state that radical Whigs in England had been contesting for generations.

Madison wanted nothing of the kind. He intended his national government to be judicial-like—to be a “disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests” in the various states. His model, as he admitted, was “the British System” under the empire. “Nothing could maintain the harmony & subordination of the various parts of the empire,” he claimed, “but the prerogative by which the Crown stifles in the birth every Act of every part tending to discord or encroachment.” Madison suggested that the new federal government would play the same role in the United States that the king was ideally supposed to have played in the empire. That is why Madison gave the national government a veto power over all the state laws: “a power of negativing the improper laws of the States,” he declared, “is at once the most mild & certain means of preserving the harmony of the system.” He conceded that the prerogative of the king to disallow colonial legislation had been “sometimes misapplied thro’ ignorance or a partiality to one particular part of the empire,” but this, he believed, was unlikely to happen in the United States, where knowledge of particular interests was more widespread.

Burstein and Isenberg do not grasp this connection between Madison’s Virginia Plan and the model of the king in the empire. “The negative was a radical idea,” they write, and Madison’s sponsorship of it “rested on the theories of John Locke,” particularly his Some Thoughts Concerning Education. They base this strange judgment on the fact that Madison used some Lockean words such as “guardianship” in explaining the Constitution to Jefferson. But when Madison came to realize that Hamilton’s national government was not at all going to be the kind of dispassionate and disinterested adjudicatory state that he had envisioned, he naturally went into opposition. He did not need to be a Virginian to do that. There were many non-Virginians who felt the same way about Hamilton’s centralizing program.


At another, deeper layer of their book Burstein and Isenberg see themselves as cynical investigative reporters uncovering the sordid motives and the secret schemes that lay behind the surface scenes of politics in the early Republic. So Madison and Jefferson, they suggest, were linked through their fathers and Edmund Pendleton to land companies and land speculation in the West. According to Burstein and Isenberg, few people back then, especially elites, did anything except for themselves. In the authors’ opinion, the Revolution was the consequence mainly of the self-interestedness of its leaders. Despite the egalitarian rhetoric used to rally support for the Revolution among the general public, the “colonial elites aimed principally to replace the British as America’s lawgivers. They went to war for themselves.”

So, too, was the gathering of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 driven by the most self-serving motives. “Modern Americans would, of course, prefer to focus on the nobler motives of the framers,” Burstein and Isenberg declare, “but money matters doubtless roused most of the delegates to come to Philadelphia.” Most historians believe that Charles A. Beard’s crude sense of selfish economic motivation behind the calling of the Convention has been long dead and buried, but for Burstein and Isenberg it seems to be still very much alive.

They regard their stripping away Madison’s title as “Father of the Constitution” as one of their biggest exposés—a remarkable finding, since a main purpose of their book is to enhance, not to diminish, Madison’s reputation. How could Madison be given such a title, the authors ask, since during the Convention he “had witnessed the rejection of virtually every one of his ideas,” including the power of Congress to “negative,” or veto, all state laws and proportional representation in the Senate? Burstein and Isenberg are missing the forest for the trees. Although Madison always claimed that the Constitution was the work of many hands, there is no doubt that no single person contributed more to the Constitution than he did, since his Virginia Plan remained the working model for the final document. The authors also conclude that, given the “constant wrangling” in the Convention, “to read the proceedings as ‘the miracle at Philadelphia,’ as tradition has dubbed it, is a willful oversimplification, if not a delusion.” Burstein and Isenberg have it backward. Many delegates concluded that it was precisely because of the constant wrangling among the conflicting interests in the Convention that the result seemed to many of the participants to be truly a “miracle.”

Burstein and Isenberg do not appear to grasp why the delegates did what they did at the convention. Since Madison, according to their reading, had only Virginia in mind, “the utter failure of the Virginia Plan to take root” led him to focus all his remaining attention on the presidency, which would be, with George Washington’s inevitable election, “the one office wherein his state might still retain preeminence.” It is true that Madison lost his battles over his congressional negative and his proposal for proportional representation in both houses of the Congress, but his Virginia Plan of a tripartite government consisting of an executive, a bicameral legislature, and a judiciary operating directly on its citizens remained intact—hardly an “utter failure.” And Madison was not the only delegate who sought to strengthen the presidency following the failure of proportional representation in the Senate. Pennsylvanians, such as James Wilson, did likewise, even though a Pennsylvanian was not going to become president.

Burstein and Isenberg find Hamilton’s six-hour speech to the Constitutional Convention on June 18 to be “perplexing.” They do not realize that Hamilton’s outrageous suggestion of a president and senate for life was his tactical effort to make the Virginia Plan seem more moderate than in fact it was. That is why Hamilton tried to lump it in with the rival New Jersey Plan, which only involved amending the old Articles of Confederation, as “pork with little change of the sauce.” Moreover, the authors are puzzled by Hamilton’s leaving the Convention on June 29 and not returning until September 2. “Hamilton’s almost complete abandonment of the Convention,” they say, “has never been adequately explained.” They suggest that he was “hypersensitive by nature” and was “no doubt vexed when his biggest speech fell flat.” They also suggest that, lacking the diplomatic skills needed in the give-and-take of the Convention, Hamilton could only conclude that his presence would be a “waste of time.” What Burstein and Isenberg never mention is the fact that once Hamilton’s fellow New York delegates John Lansing and Robert Yates walked out of the Convention, New York’s delegation lacked a quorum, and the state no longer had a vote in the proceedings. For this reason, Hamilton’s statement that his attendance would be a “waste of time” was not entirely wrong.


But uncovering the hidden and sordid motives of eighteenth-century elites was only one of the authors’ aims in writing the book, aims that sometimes seem contradictory. At times Burstein and Isenberg claim to be favoring a structural analysis of politics, society, and culture, and they criticize those who focus on individual personalities. Instead of concentrating on the private character of Madison and Jefferson, they tell us that they want to emphasize the political culture in which the two men operated, in particular “the culture of competition amid a nationwide struggle to define how a republic should constitute itself.” Too often, they complain, “when Americans look for their favorite founders and judge them based on personality, they lose sight of the real dynamic of history: relationships of power.” Burstein and Isenberg hope in their book “to get inside the all-important political culture of the Revolutionary generation and to resist, as much as possible, favoring one actor over another.”

But their book is anything but a structural study of politics and culture. They make almost no effort to recover the culture of the late eighteenth century. In their opinion, whatever ideas Madison, Jefferson, or Hamilton held were products not of the general culture but of these individuals’ peculiar upbringings or particular psychological dispositions. The authors provide no background and no context, for example, for Jefferson’s belief in minimal government. One would never know from their book that Jefferson’s beliefs were expressions of popular radical thinking in the late eighteenth-century English-speaking world, notions shared by others such as Thomas Paine and William Godwin.

Far from analyzing the social or cultural context, Burstein and Isenberg tell their story almost exclusively in terms of individual personalities—particularly Jefferson’s and Madison’s, but not only theirs. They present the titanic struggle between the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1790s as essentially a clash between individuals who could not get along. Jefferson hated Hamilton and Hamilton hated Jefferson and thus no harmony could be achieved. “Could Madison and Jefferson have made a more concerted effort to work with Hamilton?” they ask. “Probably they could have, though only in a limited way.” Burstein and Isenberg seem to believe that they all might have tried a little harder to avoid the wrangling. Since they regard Madison as a cooler character than Jefferson, “the least prone to mood swings” of all the members of the Virginia Dynasty, they suggest that Madison’s presence in the Cabinet in place of Jefferson might have altered the dynamic: “While he would have argued at least as forcefully against Hamilton’s ideas, he might not have reacted with the level of outrage Jefferson exuded.”

Hamilton seems to have been the major problem. “Some people are happy to be team players,” the authors write. “Alexander Hamilton was not.... He assumed he knew best, and he did what he wanted.” During the early 1790s, Hamilton was responsible for mistakenly making Jefferson the leader of the Republican Party at the expense of Madison. He may have done this because he recognized Madison’s separate role in the legislature, whereas Jefferson in the Cabinet “competed directly with him for the president’s ear.” But, the authors admit, “that is a rational explanation, and politics is an irrational business driven by strong personalities and skewed perceptions.” Then again, they add, Hamilton may have thought “that Jefferson more directly threatened him because of his ‘worldly’ experience.” For Burstein and Isenberg, “the politics of the 1790s must be viewed through the prism of ‘manly’ pride.” Even Presidents Jefferson and Madison and their Republican associates “justified acts of aggression in order to prove their manhood on an international stage.”

Hamilton is the authors’ bête noire. He apparently hated everyone, even Washington, though only unconsciously. Burstein and Isenberg tell us that “Washington was a clever politician; as such, he probably caught on to Hamilton’s repressed dislike of him”—a remarkably new and strange judgment. Although Burstein and Isenberg contend that Washington and Hamilton “used each other equally,” their examples suggest that Hamilton was doing most of the using. During the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Hamilton “roped Washington into confronting a minor protest that was built up to appear a major threat to civil order.” The words of Washington’s Farewell Address were “the obvious contrivances of Hamilton,” and therefore “disingenuous”; the fact that they were written by Hamilton made the president’s appeal for harmony “insincere.” Even though he was not a Virginian, Hamilton “exploited the Washington image as no one else could.”

Burstein and Isenberg do not seem to understand Washington or his place in the culture. “In 1789,” they write, “George Washington was probably the only Virginian with a larger reputation than James Madison, Jr.” What were the authors thinking when they wrote “probably”? There was no doubt in any American’s mind in 1789 about the overwhelming superiority of Washington’s reputation. Washington towered over all his contemporaries both morally and politically, which is why the Constitutional Convention made the presidency as strong as it was: the delegates knew that the great man would be the first president.

Although Burstein and Isenberg pay lip service to the differentness of the past and want to avoid the anachronism of blaming historical figures for not holding “our own cherished cultural views,” they nevertheless cannot help indicting Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others for the “prejudices” and “blind spots” that kept them from adopting “enlightened ideas about social equality for African Americans, Native Americans, and women.” Although the authors criticize Madison and Jefferson for “their common inability to address issues of race in a truly enlightened way,” they admit in almost the same breath that such criticism is misguided. “Madison and Jefferson had a constituency that is not ours. They do not know us.... It goes without saying that they remained oblivious to the shape of the world to come.”

So it goes. This massive book is full of contradictions and discrepancies. All the authors’ many insights into the characters of Jefferson and Madison and their relationship (and they are often acute and sensible) are repeatedly offset by their many strange and bewildering ideas and findings. In attempting to reverse the erroneous and one-dimensional image of Madison and Jefferson’s collaboration, Burstein and Isenberg have presented us with several layers of historical reconstruction and have overwhelmed us with a multitude of often inconsistent facts and judgments, many of which are not relevant to the subject of their book. There are nuggets of wisdom and good judgment here, but discovering them amid all the odd opinions and strange conclusions is a formidable task.

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University and the author, most recently, of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press). This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine. For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.