For nearly half a century, passionate Thomas Jefferson and savvy James Madison formed a political alliance that led to the two-party political system, religious liberty, and the Louisiana Purchase. "Their relationship was not one where Jefferson was in charge and Madison was Jefferson's dutiful lieutenant," argues Nancy Isenberg, coauthor with husband Andrew Burstein of Madison and Jefferson. In the book, Louisiana State University history professors Isenberg and Burstein explore the complicated interactions between the Founding Fathers who became the third and fourth presidents. U.S. News recently spoke with Isenberg about this legendary partnership and its impact on the American political system today. Excerpts:
How did the partnership form?
Their relationship begins within the context of Virginia politics. When Jefferson ends up becoming minister to France, you have very detailed letters. They begin to write about their political thinking.
What was a major disagreement?
Madison is often referred to as Father of the Constitution, which isn't really accurate because most of the proposals that Madison came to present at the Constitutional Convention failed. Madison is frustrated, and he then has to go to the Virginia Ratifying Convention. He knows that Patrick Henry, who ends up being the thorn in the side to both Madison and Jefferson, is going to be there arguing against it and calling for Virginia to reject the Constitution. And then he is forewarned that his good friend Jefferson has been sending personal letters to people to be circulated not only in Virginia but in Maryland, calling for both of these states to reject the Constitution. And then to his utter chagrin, Patrick Henry reads from the letter. But even when they have these serious disagreements, they are able to move beyond it. It's not as if Madison concedes that Jefferson was right or that Jefferson concedes his position—they have very strong personalities—but they're able to survive these episodes.
What kept them together?
That they're able to discuss intellectual ideas. To debate these ideas and how will they be applied is incredibly important to the nature of their relationship.
What was the dynamic of their relationship?
We see Madison playing this role of Jefferson's political handler when Jefferson ran for the presidency. Jefferson wants to write a letter to John Adams after he's been defeated in 1796. He sends it to Madison to look over, and Madison writes back and says, "No, you cannot send this letter," and he provides a list of reasons why. Often Madison's role is to pull Jefferson back from the brink.
What was their role in forming the parties?
In the 1790s, they begin to see that [Alexander] Hamilton is beginning to have a great deal of influence over [George] Washington. Madison is the first one to speak out in Congress against Hamilton's policies, and then in the cabinet, Jefferson also begins to oppose Hamilton's policies. When that is not effective enough, they decide they need to create an opposition party newspaper.
How are present-day parties similar?
Jefferson later would refer to the Revolution, and I think this still continues to be part of American politics, that somehow they are reclaiming the true principles of the Revolution. And that somehow the opposition—in this case Hamilton and Washington's party—had moved away from the true principles that were established in the American Revolution. And they are more than willing to use the newspapers. Attacks and criticism in the newspapers are extremely hostile and vicious, so that's not new today.
What would they think of the parties today?
Madison and Jefferson would be completely horrified by the amount of money connected to elections. There's no way that Madison or Jefferson would have supported the Supreme Court's recent [Citizens United] ruling or would support the idea that a powerful group of wealthy donors could have that much influence over the outcome of elections.
What did they accomplish together that they couldn't have alone?
Religious liberty. It's humorous today that people who are religious and conservative are criticizing Jefferson because they saw him as supporting the separation of church and state. But what they don't understand is that their position on religion made it possible for various evangelical religions to flourish—the Baptists, the Methodists—by diminishing the power of the state church.
Why should President Obama read your book?
Political events are not shaped out of thin air, not only because of the constitutional legacy but the political legacy, the partisan legacy. I think that Obama assumed he could reach across the aisle. It may not be possible. I think if he read about Madison and Jefferson, he would realize that there are moments in history when you can't reach across the aisle.