This is William Bodkin’s fourth post for History is Now.  The first three touched on aspects of the lives of George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), and Thomas Jefferson (link here). Today William discusses the fourth president of the United States, James Madison (president from 1809-1817). Madison was to have a great influence on another Founding Father – or Founding Brother – Thomas Jefferson.


I have always been fascinated by the personal relationships among the American Founders.  As I mentioned in last month’s post on Thomas Jefferson, their friendships, rivalries, alliances and disagreements still shape the country’s political discourse, with Jefferson having the most lasting influence.  However, when reading all of Jefferson’s writings, this influence and reach can come as a surprise, as it often seems that posterity was neither his intent nor his goal. 

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

Jefferson was, of all the Founders, perhaps the truest revolutionary in spirit.  He expressed it unhesitatingly in his writings and letters when commenting on the events at the time.  One of Jefferson’s more famous expressions of his revolutionary fervor came not in the Declaration of Independence, but in a letter reflecting on Shays’ Rebellion in 1787.  Daniel Shays was a former captain in the Continental Army who took charge of a group of farmers in central and western Massachusetts protesting the Massachusetts’ government’s failure to take steps to alleviate the farmers’ debt burden, which often cost the farmers’ their property and landed them in prison.[1]  In response to a query about the rebellion, Jefferson stated “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”[2]{cke_protected_1}  Jefferson noted that the United States had been independent eleven years, with only one such rebellion.  He wrote “What county before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?  What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”  It was in this letter he also observed that the “tree of liberty” must be “refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3]

How then, was this literally bloody-minded revolutionary transformed into the guiding philosophical spirit of a nation?  The answer is simple: James Madison.  Madison spent a good portion of his political career serving as a check and balance on Jefferson’s revolutionary spirit.

Madison, the fourth President of the United States, is rightfully celebrated for many of his personal accomplishments, including being the ‘Father of the Constitution’.  He was, if not the document’s primary draftsman, (it is generally agreed that that distinction belongs to New York’s Gouverneur Morris)[4] the driving force behind the “Spirit of 1787”, with its realization that the decentralized government of the Articles of Confederation had failed.  A new, stronger central government was needed if the United States of America was to survive.  This idea, however, seemed incongruous with the revolution that had just passed.  The Spirit of 1776 had at its core an inherent distrust of removed, centralized governments that were unresponsive to the needs of the populace.[5]  The resolution of this tension between the Spirits of 1776 and 1787 can be found in Jefferson’s and Madison’s friendship.  As the sixth President, John Quincy Adams, noted, “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other” was “a phenomenon.”  Future historians, thought Adams, would, upon examining the Jefferson-Madison relationship, “discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.”[6]

Take, for example, Jefferson’s most famous pronouncement on the nature of law, expressed to Madison in a letter from 1789, where he questioned “whether one generation of man had the right to bind another” with its laws.  Jefferson believed that the earth belonged only to the living.  “By law of nature, one generation is to another as independent as one nation is to another.”[7]  Jefferson expressed this idea at a delicate time.  George Washington had just taken office as the new Republic’s first president.  Congress was sitting for the first time.  Questions abounded concerning whether the new nation could last.  Surely the word of Thomas Jefferson that the work being done could or should be undone in a mere twenty years would undermine the new government’s legitimacy.


Setting Jefferson straight

Madison took care to set Jefferson straight.  When he responded to Jefferson, he first hailed the “idea” as a “great one,” that offered “interesting reflections” to legislators.  That said, Madison remarked that he was skeptical of this “great idea” in practice.  Madison wrote that a government “so often revised” could never retain its best features, even if they were the most “rational” ideas of government in an “enlightened age.”  The result, Madison stated, would be anarchy. “All the rights depending on positive laws,” such as to property would be “absolutely defunct.”  The most “violent struggles” would ensue between those interested in maintaining the status quo and those interested in bringing about the new.  All this being said, Madison thought the idea should at least be mentioned in the “proceedings of the United States,” since it might help to prevent legislators “from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors.” [8]

Madison’s argument carried the day.  Jefferson never mentioned this idea to him again, and certainly never attempted to seriously advance the idea during his presidency.  As we know now, the great self-governance experiment envisioned by Madison has indeed carried on, allowing Jefferson, over time and history, to be honored as one of its great architects.  The idea that earth belonged only to the living, though, remained a philosophical theme to which Jefferson would return in his writings.  Indeed, it is perhaps “the single statement in the vast literature by and about Jefferson that provides a clear and deep look into his thinking about the way the world ought to work.”[9]

The relationship between Jefferson and Madison suffered not at all for this fundamental disagreement about the nature of law.  Madison went on to serve as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and then succeed him to the presidency.  Jefferson, always appreciative of Madison’s counsel, wrote toward the end of his life that “the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me.”  Jefferson also recognized Madison’s frequent advocacy on his behalf, writing in the same letter that it was a “great solace” to him that Madison was “engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued.”  Jefferson acknowledged to Madison that “you have been a pillar of support through life,” and asked his old friend to “take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.”[10]

The often warm personal relationships between the Founding Fathers cannot be understated.  Amongst their peers, they were Founding Brothers.  It was these bonds of genuine affection that permitted, despite their conflicts, John Adams’ dying words to be of Thomas Jefferson, and despite the dueling interests of the Spirit of 1776 and the Spirit of 1787 for Jefferson to ask Madison to take care of him when dead.  The founders inspire many things in the American experience.  The nation’s political discourse continues their arguments today.  What often seems to be missing, however, is perhaps the Founders’ most important idea - that friendship can transcend partisan differences when it comes to advancing the interests of the nation.


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A brief note from the author:

The good people who run this website have graciously agreed to let me contribute columns on one of my favorite topics, the presidents of the United States.  My plan is to focus, roughly once a month, on less appreciated aspects of their lives, hopefully some things that most people don’t think about when considering the presidents.  This task is far easier with the Founding Fathers; often their time as president was their least important contribution to the United States.  I anticipate some challenges with the presidents to come.  For example, other than Hawkeye in M*A*S*H being named for him, I am unsure what Franklin Pierce’s contribution to the nation was, prominent or otherwise.  In any event, I will try my best to continue delivering what I think are interesting columns about the presidents, and hope the readers agree.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see, Chapter 15 “Drafting the Constitution,” (a) Shays’ Rebellion.

[2] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen (1966).

[5] See e.g., Ellis, Joseph, “Founding Brothers,” Preface, “The Generation.”

[6] “The Jubilee of the Constitution,” A Discourse Delivered at the Request of the New York Historical Society in the City of New York, on Tuesday the 30th of April 1839; being the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday the 30th of April 1789 (Samuel Colman, VIII Astor House 1839).

[7] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[8] Letter of James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, February 4, 1790.

[9] Joseph Ellis, “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” 132-133 (Knopf, 1996).

[10] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, February 17, 1826

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Thomas Jefferson is today known as one of America’s greater presidents. So much so that both Democrats and Republicans claim him as their own. But he also undertook another remarkable feat – he re-wrote the Gospels to make them less miraculous. William Bodkin explains.


Few people in American history have been picked over as much as Thomas Jefferson. Of the Founding Fathers, he is considered second only to George Washington, and of the presidents, only Abraham Lincoln may have had more written about him. This is all with good reason. Jefferson, alongside John Adams, formed the original American frenemies; together they forged the creative relationship that gave birth to the United States. Their influence, and conflicts, remain to this day. The United States runs for political office in the language of Jefferson, that of personal freedom and self-determination, but governs in the language of Adams, that of a technocratic elite managing a strong central government.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Circa 1791.

In my last post, I considered John Adams’ Declaration of Independence, the May 15, 1776 resolution he believed to be the real Declaration, consigning Jefferson’s to a mere ceremonial afterthought.[1] Adams, eyes firmly locked on posterity, seemed to compete for immortality with Jefferson. However, despite recent efforts to rehabilitate the image of the second president, Adams, who knew he had made himself obnoxious to his colleagues[2], has largely lost this battle.

Jefferson, by contrast, is beloved as the genius Founding Father whom everyone claims as their own.  The Democrats revere him for founding their party, one of the oldest in the world. The Republicans, and the tea party movement in particular, love to quote his language of personal freedom and revolution, like invoking his statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[3] All agree that his “ceremonial afterthought” should be celebrated for all time.

And yet, though he has won history’s affections, there’s an excellent chance Jefferson would be irritated by being worshiped or followed today.  After all, Jefferson had “sworn eternal hostility” against “any form of tyranny over the mind of man,”[4] believing that one generation of humanity could not bind another with its ideas, or even its laws. Jefferson said that it was “self-evident” that “the earth belongs to the living.”[5] Indeed, were he alive today, he would probably encourage us to discard things such as the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers much in the same way he discarded the work of the Evangelists who wrote the Christian Gospels.



Jefferson was not known for his devotion to religion. Abigail Adams wrote, after Jefferson had defeated her husband John Adams for the presidency, that the young nation had “chosen as our chief Magistrate a man who makes no pretensions to the belief of an all wise and supreme Governor of the World.” Mrs. Adams did not think Jefferson was an atheist. Rather, Jefferson believed religion to only be as “useful as it may be made a political Engine” and that its rituals were a mere charade. Mrs. Adams concluded that Jefferson was “not a believer in the Christian system.”[6]

Jefferson, who always professed a high regard for the teachings of Jesus, found the Gospels to be “defective as a whole,” with Jesus’ teachings “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.”[7] Jefferson seemed most offended by the accounts of miracles. The Gospels could be improved, he concluded, by removing the magical thinking - that is, anything that could not be explained by human reason.

Following his presidency, Jefferson reconciled with John Adams once Adams had recovered from the bitter sting of presidential defeat. Jefferson confided in his old friend about the project he had undertaken to rewrite the Gospels. Jefferson wrote to Adams that “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book,” he was able to separate out “the matter which is evidently his (Jesus’),” which Jefferson found to be “as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”[8] Adams responded favorably to Jefferson’s project, commenting “if I had eyes and nerves I would go through both Testaments and mark all that I understand.”[9]

Jefferson, though, was not finished. He believed the effort he described to Adams was “too hastily done”.  It had been “the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived in Washington.”[10] Think, for a moment, how astounding that is. Jefferson’s first effort at reworking the Gospels came while he “lived in Washington,” meaning while he was president. So for fun, after steering the American ship of state, he rewrote the Gospels.



While working on his second Gospel revision, Jefferson described his complete disdain for the Evangelists. He found their work to be underpinned by “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” Yet he still believed that “intermixed with these” were “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being”, “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence,” that had been “sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors.” All had been expressed, by Jesus, “with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” Jefferson could not accept that Jesus’ purest teachings were the “inventions of the groveling authors who relate them.” Those teachings were “far beyond the powers of their feeble minds.” Yes, the Evangelists had shown that there was a character named Jesus, but his “splendid conceptions” could not be considered “interpolations from their hands.” To Jefferson, the task was clear once more. He would “undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff.”  It would not “require a moment's consideration”, as the difference “is obvious to the eye and to the understanding.”[11]

At the end of this process, Jefferson, in his seventy-sixth year, had completed his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English, an account of the life of Jesus, bereft of any mention of the miraculous. No wedding feast at Cana, no resurrection of Lazarus, and ending with the disciples laying Jesus in the tomb, rolling a great stone to the door, and then departing.

Jefferson’s rewriting of the Gospels is a perfect distillation of his belief that each generation could take and shape the meaning of the Gospels, or really, anything, for their own purposes. Jefferson took these beliefs to his gravestone. Prior to his death, he chose to list there, of all his accomplishments, his three great contributions to the freedom of thought: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence and the Virginia Statutes on Religious Freedom; Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson hoped, perhaps, to inspire successive generations not to follow his words, but rather, to live by his example, and cast off the intellectual bonds of the past in order to create a new way of thinking.


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[1] See, Ellis, Joseph, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, Chapter 1 , “Prudence Dictates.” (Knopf 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Novmeber 13, 1787.

[4] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800.

[5] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

[6] Letter of Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch (her sister) dated February 7, 1801.

[7] Jefferson, Thomas. “Syllabus of an estimate of the merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.” College of William and Mary, Digital Archive (

[8]Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 13, 1813.

[9] Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, November 14, 1813.

[10] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Rev. F.A. van der Kemp, May 25, 1816.

[11] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In this fascinating article, Wout Vergauwen tells us about the Monroe Doctrine, an Empire of Liberty – and America’s expansion across the West and beyond into the rest of the American Continent.



We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace … we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.”

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States


Thomas Jefferson was a great many things, but above all he was a visionary. Yet, it is hard to imagine that even he understood to the fullest extent what his Empire of Liberty could become. Several presidents have, at least to a certain extent, broadened the interpretation. Whereas Jefferson’s empire ideally stretched, as Katharine Lee Bates wrote “from sea to shining sea,” it would become an idea that was applied to the United States’ expansionist efforts, both at home and abroad. However, the first extension of Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty almost caused Mr. Madison to lose US territory in the War of 1812. Luckily for the Americans, the British were too busy fighting Napoleon to pursue their efforts in North America. Ultimately, the British and the Americans signed the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, reaching a modus vivendi on the expense of the Native Americans. Yet, it quickly became clear that Uncle Joe intended to look across the border. 

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson from 1791. At the time Jefferson was Secretary of State. Painted by Charles Willson Peale.

A portrait of Thomas Jefferson from 1791. At the time Jefferson was Secretary of State. Painted by Charles Willson Peale.

When the Spanish failed to control their colonial possessions in the Americas, another opportunity arose for the United States to expand their sphere of influence. Given that the United States had only gained independence as recently as half a century earlier, they did not feel confident to invade a world power’s possessions, even if that world power was waning. However, colonial insurrection in present-day Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico was too good a chance to let go by. Both the Monroe administration and Congress favored action of at least some sort, because the possibility of having Spain intervene in Latin America would first of all pose a threat to American security. Second of all, reinforced Spanish colonies would also prevent any further expansion of influence across the continent.

Although still dreaming of an Empire of Liberty, caution was required. Spain did indeed still possess Florida, and it would have been unwise to provoke more than strictly necessary. However, immediately after Florida was ceded to the United States, Washington was inevitably going to act quickly. As soon as 1822, the United States recognize the rebelling colonies as independent countries. And besides the ideological ‘support-another-former-colony’ idea, there were several important reasons for having done so. Indeed, a Holy Alliance consisting of Austria, France, Prussia, and Russia had formed in Europe, trying to uphold monarchy and suppress liberalism. The rumors were that after crushing rebellions in both Spain and Italy, the alliance might help Spain to regain control over its prestigious colonies. In a statement supported by Congress, James Monroe read a statement written by future president John Quincy Adams. The American continents, he declared, “are henceforth not to be considered subjects for future colonization by any European power.” That might have been the end of it supposing that there was such a thing as a capable American army. But this was 1823.



Just as in 1814, the Americans had the British to thank. Indeed, making a bold statement is one thing. Upholding it is another. Luckily, British interests aligned with America’s. By then, the British had already set up very profitable trade routes with Spain’s former colonies, and they were not going to give them up easily. Already in the early 18th century James Thomson wrote “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves.” And yes, by 1823, they did. Commanding the most powerful Navy ever seen, King George IV was not going to let an Armada supported by the Holy Alliance cross the Atlantic. The Spanish, still remembering the fate of the Great Armada, decided to hold back and let the Americans have it their way.

Finally having gained the confidence they had lacked since 1776, the Americans went the full mile by 1845. The trigger was, once again, a foreign threat. Although this threat was much less serious when compared to previous ones, some Americans still believed the British might cause trouble in California, Oregon, and Texas. The latter is a special case here. Ever since the Lone Star Republic gained independence from Mexico in 1836, a large majority of the population had wanted to join the United States. Southern states favored the admission of Texas, yet Northern states originally opposed the admission. They feared that Texas might be admitted as a slave state – or worse, divided in up to five slave states – and thus disturb the balance in Congress. Even though a treaty was finally drafted on February 27, 1844, it was not signed. John L. O’Sullivan, an editor from New York, urged President Polk to finally sign the treaty and admit Texas to the union, if only because it was their “manifest destiny.” The term quickly became popular and thrived on the assumption that Providence had intended the United States to control the entire North American continent.

Even though successful attempts were never made to annex Canada, as was Mr. Madison’s dream, Manifest Destiny guided US policy for the rest of the century. Whether manifest destiny caused Polk to annex Texas in 1845 is not entirely clear, and your guess is as good as mine. Yet, in the subsequent eight years, undoubtedly guided by manifest destiny, the US would gain control over the remaining third of its contingent states. An 1846 treaty with Britain gained them Oregon country, also including Washington and Idaho. An 1848 treaty with Mexico gained them present-day California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, the 1853 Gadsen purchase gained the United States the final part of its contingent states – a thirty thousand square mile border area between Mexico and the United States.

Ultimately, by the end of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt would square the circle by amending the Monroe doctrine, thereby confirming America’s global intent. His Roosevelt Corollary was thus the capstone of Thomas Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty.


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones