The True George Washington: Enemies: Jefferson

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


The political course of Washington while President produced the alienation of the two Virginians whom he most closely associated with himself in the early part of his administration. With Madison the break does not seem to have come from any positive ill-feeling, but was rather an abandonment of intercourse as the differences of opinion became more pronounced. The disagreement with Jefferson was more acute, though probably never forced to an open rupture. To his political friends Jefferson in 1796 wrote that the measures pursued by the administration were carried out "under the sanction of a name which has done too much good not to be sufficient to cover harm also," and that he hoped the President's "honesty and his political errors may not furnish a second occasion to exclaim, 'curse on his virtues, they've undone his country.'" Henry Lee warned Washington of the undercurrent of criticism, and when Jefferson heard indirectly of this he wrote his former chief that "I learn that [Lee] has thought it worth his while to try to sow tares between you and me, by representing me as still engaged in the bustle of politics & in turbulence & intrigue against the government. I never believed for a moment that this could make any impression on you, or that your knowledge of me would not overweigh the slander of an intriguer dirtily employed in sifting the conversations of my table." To this Washington replied,?

"As you have mentioned the subject yourself, it would not be frank, candid or friendly to conceal, that your conduct has been represented as derogating from that opinion I had conceived you entertained of me; that, to your particular friends and connexions you have described, and they have denounced me as a person under a dangerous influence; and that, if I would listen more to some other opinions, all would be well. My answer invariably has been, that I had never discovered any thing in the conduct of Mr. Jefferson to raise suspicions in my mind of his insincerity; that, if he would retrace my public conduct while he was in the administration, abundant proofs would occur to him, that truth and right decisions were the sole objects of my pursuit; that there was as many instances within his own knowledge of my having decided against as in favor of the opinions of the person evidently alluded to; and, I was no believer in the infallibility of the politics or measures of any man living. In short that I was no party man myself and the first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them."

As proof upon proof of Jefferson's secret enmity accumulated, Washington ceased to trust his disclaimers, and finally wrote to one of his informants, "Nothing short of the evidence you have adduced, corroborative of intimations which I had received long before through another channel, could have shaken my belief in the sincerity of a friendship, which I had conceived as possessed for me by the person to whom you allude. But attempts to injure those, who are supposed to stand well in the estimation of the people, and are stumbling blocks in the way, by misrepresenting their political tenets, thereby to destroy all confidence in them, are among the means by which the government is to be assailed, and the constitution destroyed."

Once convinced, all relations with Jefferson were terminated. It is interesting in this connection to note something repeated by Madison, to the effect that "General Lafayette related to me the following anecdote, which I shall repeat as nearly as I can in his own words. 'When I last saw Mr. Jefferson,' he observed, 'we conversed a good deal about General Washington, and Mr. Jefferson expressed high admiration of his character. He remarked particularly that he and Hamilton often disagreed when they were members of the Cabinet, and that General Washington would sometimes favor the opinion of one and sometimes the other, with an apparent strict impartiality. And Mr. Jefferson added that, so sound was Washington's judgment, that he was commonly convinced afterwards of the accuracy of his decision, whether it accorded with the opinion he had himself first advanced or not.'"

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