Partners in revolution

Sunday, December 19, 2010; B06


By Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg

Random House. 809 pp. $35

There is an old adage that Thomas Jefferson's reputation rises and falls according to how positive Americans feel about their country. If so, we are in trouble. David McCullough's "John Adams" (2001) began as a joint study of Jefferson and Adams, but McCullough decided that Jefferson could not stand up against his sometime friend from Braintree, Mass. Now Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, both professors at Louisiana State University, argue that Madison was the senior partner in his long and fruitful political partnership with Jefferson.

That Madison and Jefferson worked together creatively and productively over many decades is not news. In 1950, when Americans were feeling good about themselves, Adrienne Koch published "Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration," giving Jefferson a titular edge. A half-century later, Joseph Ellis briefly described the Jefferson-Madison partnership in "Founding Brothers." By then "The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826" (1995), a three-volume collection edited by James Morton Smith, had pulled together the two men's delightfully literate letters and provided succinct summaries of their interactions from when they first met at the Virginia legislature in 1776 until Jefferson's death a half-century later.

Perhaps reflecting our gloomy present, Burstein and Isenberg distinguish their work from their predecessors' by emphasizing the "gritty" political world in which Madison and Jefferson operated; their "clannish" or "tribal" identity, which led them to act "out of an attachment to Virginia as much as a desire to defend the Union"; and Madison's leading role in their relationship. It was Madison, they note, who nudged Jefferson out of retirement after his wife's death in 1782, initiated the criticisms of Hamilton that Jefferson continued in the early 1790s, was the "driving force" behind Jefferson's candidacy for the presidency in 1796, and helped reverse Jefferson's dangerously disunionist impulses three years later, after the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions had failed to rally the states against the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Rather than focus closely on the two men's relationship, however, Burstein and Isenberg place it within a loose history of American politics that, in an effort to de-heroicize the founders, makes a number of highly questionable assertions. They suggest, for example, that a consuming greed for western land - along with hatred of Indians and commitment to slavery - explains leading Virginians' support for independence. Jefferson's complex "Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774) - a plea for redress of grievances addressed to the king - becomes a simple argument that the colonists' land claims "superseded their former ties to Britain." The assertion that Jefferson "conceived of the Declaration [of Independence] as a kind of divorce petition" again ignores the document's essential constitutional argument. The book also insists - twice - that George Washington had "an intellect no better than average," which confuses education with intellect and leaves unexplained Washington's achievements and his capacity to command the respect of very smart men, including Madison.

As the authors move beyond 1800, and especially after 1809, the story gets lost in a bewildering maze of details. Curiously, this overlong book devotes only a few pages to the Virginia ratifying convention of June 1788, where Madison's performance was arguably more effective than at Philadelphia, and where he and other Federalists explained at length that Virginia's vulnerability to invasion and slave insurrection meant it needed the Union more than the Union needed it. There, at least, devotion to Virginia and to the Union were not at odds. The Virginia debates also bring into question Burstein and Isenberg's claim that Jefferson "sought to undermine the ratification" of the Constitution "to Madison's severe embarrassment." To be sure, Patrick Henry claimed that Jefferson opposed ratification, which put Madison in an awkward position. Henry's source was a letter of February 1788 that Burstein and Isenberg do not quote. In it Jefferson said that he hoped the requisite nine states would ratify the Constitution to "secure to us the good it contains," but that the other four states would hold out until a bill of rights was added to the document. As Edmund Pendleton observed, Henry had misread the letter, which actually supported ratification. Moreover, by May of 1788 Jefferson had changed his mind and recommended that subsequent state conventions follow the example of Massachusetts and ratify the Constitution while recommending amendments for adoption once the new government began. That was precisely the position Madison grudgingly adopted at the Virginia convention in June. Far from being at odds, the two men ended up within whispering distance of each other.

Koch ended her book of fewer than 300 pages with a brief comparison of her subjects. Jefferson was more bold, charming and cosmopolitan, and had a talent for stirring language. Madison never left America, but he was the more consistent public servant, and his "strongly logical" mind could "cut deeper on certain kinds of issues than Jefferson did." His political and personal style was more tempered - and he had a better sense of humor than Jefferson. They were, Koch concluded, "complementary in their talents."

In such a relationship, ranking one man over the other makes little sense. Madison's and Jefferson's contrasting strengths explain their effectiveness over the 50 years they worked together, as Jefferson recalled in his will, for "what we have deemed . . . the greatest good of our country." Their country - the United States, not just Virginia - was the better for their partnership.

Pauline Maier is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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