Kevin R. C. Gutzman calls them “the Jeffersonians” in his new book of that title.1 One might also call them “the Virginia Dynasty,” but there have been other presidents from Virginia: Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Wilson, and of course Washington. But Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were something unique in our history: three men who immediately succeeded each other as president—for a total of six terms, twenty-four years—and who were also longtime friends, cronies, confidants, and political allies. They were even neighbors, an easy ride from each other’s houses in Virginia’s Piedmont. Present-day pilgrims to Albemarle County can visit Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier, and Monroe’s Highland in a single weekend—in a single day, even, if they wanted to get up early enough. The alliance between Jefferson and Madison, which dated back to as early as 1779, was particularly meaningful. “There has been no other such relationship in American history,” Gutzman asserts: “Jefferson and Madison not only were the closest of political allies, but each was the other’s best friend. . . . Their minds were so closely in tune as to seem indistinguishable to anyone in their own day.” Jefferson, throughout his career a canny spider at the center of a very large web, was the trio’s “chieftain,” as Gutzman puts it; Madison, for all the legal and political virtuosity he had displayed during the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention, turned out, when he ascended to the presidency, to lack natural authority, leadership skills, and on-the-spot judgment. A surprising number of his cabinet picks were disastrous. “I do not know in what way I shall account for the singular infelicity of many of your appointments,” Henry Lee IV (the half-brother of Robert E.) wrote him many years later, and went on to comment that Madison’s generals were “probably phenomena, in the history of apparent and actual unfitness, that no other administration in any country can equal.” Ouch! Gutzman summarizes President Madison rather cruelly: he “had rhetorical gifts, and leadership aptitude generally, appropriate to a second-in-command, to the last aide who proof-read a speech before the leader gave it.” He would always be Jefferson’s adjutant.

Gutzman, now a professor at Western Connecticut State University, is a product of the history department at the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” When he entered the graduate program in the early 1990s, the institution’s holy writ would still have been Dumas Malone’s great six-volume Jefferson biography. By the time Gutzman received his Ph.D., in 1999, dna tests had finally revealed the likelihood of the Sally Hemings rumors, bandied since Jefferson’s presidency but always rebutted by the faithful. The institutional reverence affected by the University not only for Jefferson but for the entire Albemarle dynasty was shifting to a more nuanced and “conflicted” picture of the founders, as Gutzman puts it in his acknowledgments.

His purpose is to give a detailed political history of his three protagonists’ presidencies, the years spanning from 1801 to 1825, and in this he has succeeded.

Gutzman wastes little ink on the Hemings affair; it has been voluminously treated elsewhere and indeed is by now almost the only thing most people know about the third president. His purpose is to give a detailed political history of his three protagonists’ presidencies, the years spanning from 1801 to 1825, and in this he has succeeded. The book is dense, full of details on Supreme Court cases and cabinet infighting. The sort of readers who hanker for smooth and digestible histories like those of Joseph Ellis or David McCullough might find themselves choking on this rich, overstuffed volume.

The Albemarle dynasty led the Republican Party of the era (whose policies of course should not be confused with those of either the modern Republican or Democratic parties). The party of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe

subscribed to eighteenth-century British Opposition nostrums: they generally opposed war, standing armies, banks, taxes, debt, and Executive Branch influence over the Legislative Branch. They favored individual rights and decentralization of authority. The utility of written constitutions lay in limiting government power.

But Jefferson, decades before Otto von Bismarck, understood politics to be the art of the possible. He always denied—of course!—having made a deal with Hamilton and the Federalists to break his deadlock with Aaron Burr in the 1800 election, but Gutzman leans towards the theory that he did so, especially considering that President Jefferson “ultimately provided all three items on Hamilton’s wish list”: the maintenance of the Federalist administration’s system of public credit, the navy, and neutrality. In 1800, “When the House finally did elect Jefferson, the public did not know why.”

Of course all this came back to bite them in the War of 1812.

Jefferson might have acted cynically when the occasion demanded, but he stuck by his ideology when he could, though not always with the desired results. He was a small-government, low-expenditure man, and it was painful to him to spend money on the military, “for wars to happen we know not when.” In fact, he argued, a military buildup could lead to future wars “which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure”—a reasonable enough fear. President Jefferson, Secretary of State Madison, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (about whom Gutzman otherwise has only good things to say) were especially loath to waste money on the navy, feeling that “America could not compete with Britain, France, or Spain in the naval line, and so it should not try.” Of course all this came back to bite them in the War of 1812, during the course of which British forces humiliated American defenders at Bladensburg and then entered Washington more or less unopposed, putting Madison and his wife Dolley ignominiously to flight. The American public, always shaky about its own history, now has a vague idea—probably thanks to Francis Scott Key—that the War of 1812 was a glorious affair for our nation, but after two and a half years of fighting all that was achieved was a return to the status quo antebellum. Jingos then and now have tried to paint it as a victory, but, as John Quincy Adams remarked at the time, “When it is so notorious that the issue of our late War with [England] was at best a drawn game, there is nothing but the most egregious National vanity that can turn it into a triumph.”

Gutzman gives an admirably detailed account of the negotiations over the Louisiana Purchase, going back and forth between Jefferson in the White House, Madison at the state department, Robert Livingston and James Monroe in Paris, and Edward Pinckney in Spain. They were all well aware of the extra-constitutional nature of the acquisition, and Jefferson pushed ahead with a constitutional amendment; in the meantime, he begged the American people’s pardon, “as we have treated, for a thing beyond the constitution, and rely on the nation to sanction an act done for its great good, without its previous authority.” Monroe correctly predicted that the Federalists, who had initially wished to seize the territory in question by force, would now “declaim ag[ain]st the govt. & its agents for getting too much. But,” he went on smugly, “the clamor will not avail them.”

Nowadays we hear endless palaver from political commentators that today’s political divisions are unprecedented. Anyone who believes this really ought to read Gutzman’s book for a bit of perspective. During those years, both sides, Republican and Federalist, were prepared to commit all sorts of mischief to further their parties’ ends and aims. During Jefferson’s runoff with Burr, “Not only did Madison advise Jefferson how he should act, but two Republican governors, including Jefferson’s onetime law student James Monroe . . . mulled sending their militiamen to Washington to install ‘the people’s choice,’ Jefferson.” In Jefferson’s first administration, a group of Federalists, led by the so-called Essex Junto, plotted a dissolution of the Union and the establishment of an independent Northern confederacy; the Louisiana Purchase, they feared, would annihilate the Northern states’ weight and influence in Congress. Later, during the War of 1812, a significant number of New Englanders again wanted to form an independent federation and to reach a separate peace with the British. Britain had exempted the New England states from their naval blockade, and many New Englanders felt they had fewer quarrels with the “enemy” than they did with their fellow Americans. But “the American negotiators’ success in obtaining British agreement to the status quo antebellum and [General Andrew] Jackson’s smashing success on the battlefield cut the legs out from under the marginally loyal New Englanders.” Still, neither side forgave the other, and the loathing, then as now, was regional as well as political. Cary Nicholas, the governor of Virginia and a friend of the Albemarle dynasts, regretted what he saw as Northern hatred for his fellow Southerners: “I do not believe national antipathy, was ever stronger in an Englishman towards a Frenchman, than that which is felt by these men towards us.” And the same dynamic played out again during the Missouri crisis, in Monroe’s administration: “The slave men,” observed John Quincy Adams, have indeed a deeper immediate stake in the issue,” while “their antagonists[’] . . . only individual interest in this case arises from its bearing on the balance of political power, between North and South.” Gutzman points out that Adams’s account “provides ammunition neither to the ‘it was about principle’ nor to the ‘it was about political power’ side of the historians’ argument, as he says it was both.”

Unlike previous historians, Gutzman is not the slightest bit charmed by Dolley.

The three dynasts’ personal styles said a great deal about their effectiveness as politicians. Gutzman quotes the historian Robert M. Johnstone Jr. on “the skill with which Jefferson pursued his political purposes while outwardly avoiding the merest breath of politics.” Dinners at Jefferson’s White House, he writes, and at Monticello as well, “gave every appearance of being purely social occasions. And Jefferson’s charm, hospitality, and excellent taste in food and wine as well as in the selection of his guests managed to veil from all but the most detached of witnesses the full extent of political advantage that these evenings afforded their host.” Madison, on the other hand, was socially awkward and shifted much of that burden onto Dolley’s willing shoulders. Unlike previous historians, Gutzman is not the slightest bit charmed by Dolley: she spent an unconscionable amount on decorating the White House, he complains, and also “assembled a phantasmagorical wardrobe”; “Jefferson, uncomfortable with slavery, had done what he could to keep his human chattels’ household labors out of sight, in the White House as at Monticello. Dolley, while still referring to herself as a Quaker (which should have meant she opposed slavery), moved slavery out into the open in a way calculated to call it to guests’ attention.”

Monroe had a more opaque personality than either of his predecessors; at least, Gutzman does not delve very deeply into it. It was Monroe’s (vain) hope that parties would disappear: “Discord does not belong to our system,” he claimed—all evidence to the contrary—and he launched himself on a grueling series of goodwill tours that took him all over the country. It was the Era of Good Feelings, as one newspaper dubbed the Monroe presidency. He even managed, mirabile dictu, to balance the budget and repeal all internal taxes! No surprise, he was reelected in 1820 with an overwhelming majority, receiving all but one electoral vote.

The dynasts proved able to jettison Republican dogma when such dogma ceased to function. Monroe overhauled and expanded the military. Madison eventually came to advocate the charter of a new bank to manage the public debt and provide a uniform currency; he also proposed that major roads and canals be executed under the national authority. Jefferson outwardly adhered to Republican principles but tended to be pragmatic when it came time to act. We could still take a few lessons from him today: “Impeachment is a farce which will not be tried again,” he announced after a failed attempt to remove Justice Samuel Chase from office; later, he asserted that “experience has . . . shewn that the impeachment [the constitution] has provided is not even a scare-crow.” Indeed!

Gutzman is not as good on the British scene as he is on the American; he wrongly names Lord Harrowby (actually foreign secretary) as prime minister, and does the same for Lord Hawkesbury, who in fact was president of the Board of Trade and, by then, the Earl of Liverpool. But his command of American political intricacies in his chosen period is strong, and his attitude toward his three subjects—critical and admiring in turns—is balanced. As a historian, he proves an honest broker.

  1.   The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, by Kevin R. C. Gutzman; St. Martin’s Press, 608 pages, $37.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 9, on page 66
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