April 02, 2015


The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $27.99.

     America’s rampant anti-intellectualism and suspicion of the “smart elite” has long had to contend, historically, with the unfortunate-to-those-of-this-persuasion reality that the nation was founded by well-born, elitist men of high intellect, steeped in the values of the Enlightenment (of which most modern Americans have never heard) and highly skilled in putting those values into practical context in elegantly written documents whose skilled prose resonated deeply with their contemporaries – even if few modern Americans have ever read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution from start to finish. Foremost among all the founding intellectuals was Thomas Jefferson, a rather poor speaker whose ability to communicate in writing was absolutely crucial to gaining support both at home and abroad for American independence from Great Britain. The anti-intellectuals of modern times have, however, had a field day bringing Jefferson down (or so they imagine) ever since the modern conclusion that he apparently fathered several of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings (an accusation that actually dates to Jefferson’s own lifetime but that only began to be used to “take him down a peg” in the 21st century). Some people seem to think that by denigrating Jefferson, they raise their own standing (at least in their own estimation).

     Given these factors, it is a shame to find a well-known historian and prolific writer such as Thomas Fleming jumping on the bash-Jefferson bandwagon. Fleming does not specifically present The Great Divide on that basis, of course, being himself too erudite and too knowledgeable to appear overtly to throw in with modern know-nothingism. But in exploring the very real philosophical and political differences and outlooks of the nation’s first and third presidents, Fleming so thoroughly “talks down” Jefferson that his book comes across as far more inequitable than he likely intended it to be.

     The basic differences between the Washingtonian and Jeffersonian outlooks are actually well known, although they are rarely explored with the depth and intensity of The Great Divide. Washington believed in a very strong central government and a presidency that, if scarcely the “imperial” type of which some presidents have been accused, was primus inter pares in case of conflicts among the three branches of government – and certainly so in instances of disagreements with Congress. Counterbalancing the power of the presidency, Washington believed, was the limitation of the time for which any one man could hold it: his decision not to seek a third term, which he would surely have won had he wanted it, was one of his great gifts to the young nation.

     Jefferson had more respect for states’ rights and for individual rights, as shown (among many other examples) in his famous statement on religion, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” Jefferson’s preference for a comparatively weak presidency meant he believed Congress should have more power than Washington thought it should, and Jefferson’s firm belief in individual rights as indispensable to freedom kept him an ardent supporter of the French Revolution (which was precipitated in part by the success of the American one) long after the violent excesses of the Reign of Terror had turned so many others against it.

     There are ironies aplenty in both men’s lives and actions – for example, Jefferson’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon represented just the kind of presidential overreaching to which Jefferson would have been adamantly opposed had it been practiced by anyone else. But The Great Divide goes beyond irony to paint Jefferson as a waffler and hypocrite, in contrast to the thoroughly upstanding Washington. For example, Fleming writes about Jefferson’s dislike of cities in general and of New York in particular: “Although he had five servants, including a slave chef , James Hemings, whom he had taken to Paris for training, as well as a maître d’hotel (essentially a butler) imported from the French capital, he told one correspondent that he was dismayed by the way hitherto unspoiled Americans were succumbing to extravagance and luxury. It was ‘a more baneful evil than Toryism was during the war.’” Fleming takes that obvious hyperbole and discusses it as if Jefferson meant it seriously and disingenuously (“the British and their loyalist American supporters were looking forward to hanging, drawing and quartering General Washington…”); and instead of interpreting Jefferson’s bringing of Hemings to Paris for culinary training as a positive thing, Fleming twists it into a negative “extravagance.”  And Fleming goes on, in a further discussion of Jefferson’s “hatred of cities” – in the context of arguments about where to locate the nation’s capital – to snidely remark, “It is hard to see how these convictions jibe with Jefferson’s faith in the ultimate triumph of the French Revolution, which was struggling to be born in one of the largest cities in the world, with an addiction to luxury that was second to none.”

     Then, writing about the eventual decision to create Washington, D.C., which “for the next two hundred years…would remain a small, isolated town, whose only industry was politics,” Fleming lays a truly bizarre criticism at Jefferson’s feet: “The preferences of three Virginia presidents (Jefferson and his two disciples, Madison and Monroe) played a significant part in Congress’s lack of interest in spending the money to create a federal metropolis. The million young men who died in the Civil War bear mute witness to one of the many prices America paid for this hostility to the kind of unified nation Washington and [Alexander] Hamilton hoped to create in America.”

     There is no doubt that Fleming means this extremely peculiar accusation sincerely. His writing is quite direct and forthright, although his style can be confusing and is scarcely error-free: “Thomas Jefferson displayed a painting of [Sir Francis] Bacon wherever he happened to be living, not unlike devout Catholics mounted portraits of favorite saints.” What is unfortunate is that Fleming’s highly skewed view of Jefferson creates thoroughgoing confirmation bias throughout The Great Divide: every hesitation by Jefferson is interpreted as a failure of decision-making ability, while every political action by Washington – and most of those by Hamilton – come across as forward-looking ones, actuated by the deepest possible commitment to a truly unified United States of America. The notion that Jefferson may have been led to his positions, even ones with which Fleming strongly disagrees, by deep intellectual curiosity and a kind of dogged determination, is simply absent here: Jefferson becomes a caricature, a would-be intellectual rather than a genuine one, a small man arranging for posterity to consider him larger than life through, in part, his denigration of the far greater Washington. Fleming is certainly quite free to make this argument – Jefferson would have supported his right to do so, and in fact put up with worse in his own lifetime – but hagiography of Washington and demonization of Jefferson do not, singly or together, make for a convincing interpretation or reinterpretation of the many and various philosophical, factional, sectional, regional and political disagreements (some of them extremely deep) among the Founders. The Great Divide is an interesting book to read and will surely make modern anti-intellectuals feel that they are somehow “one up” on Thomas Jefferson. But despite the many citations of primary as well as secondary sources, Fleming’s work is not particularly convincing as history and not particularly admirable from a scholarly or intellectual standpoint, being far too one-sided to make it possible for readers to know just where its clarities end and its condemnatory jeremiads begin.

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