Scholars are wont to paint antipodally Jefferson and Madison. Most depictions show, in effect, that by psychological disposition, Madison was better suited to be a Hamiltonian Federalist than a Jeffersonian Republican. I offer a few illustrations.

Merrill D. Peterson, in his Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, states that Madison had a “more penetrating mind, sharp, probing, and persistent,” while Jefferson was the “bolder thinker, more inventive, more talented in generalization and synthesis, and easily caught up in any idea that promised improvement to mankind.” In gist, Madison was an analytic political realist; Jefferson was an imaginative political idealist.

James Morton Smith, editor of the vast correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, writes: “Jefferson was the more speculative, inventive, and theoretical, gifted at coining generalizations and powerful metaphors and writing felicitous prose.” In contrast, “Madison was tougher-minded, more analytical, and the more persistent student of politics, the harder-headed thinker of the art of the possible.” While Jefferson’s focus was liberty and government’s first role, he thought, was to protect human liberty, Madison’s focus was power, and thus, he viewed “the new and more powerful government under the Constitution as a protector of liberty.”

Gordon Wood in “Thomas Jefferson in His Time,” notes that Jefferson was a futurist and progressivist, while Madison was a presentist who seemed indifferent to human progress. “Jefferson was inspired by a vision of how things could and should be. Madison tended to accept things as they were. … Jefferson had nothing but the people and the future to fall back on; they were really all he ever believed in. That is why we remember Jefferson, and not Madison.”

In sum, while Jefferson was imaginative, Madison was often his political imagineer—the one who put into praxis Jefferson’s political ideals. One has only to consider how many times Jefferson enjoined Madison, “Take up your pen against this champion” for the cause of Republicanism (e.g., TJ to Madison, 5 Apr. 1798; see also 7 July 1793 and 21 Sept. 1795).

The psychological traits of which Madison was in possession were traits quite like those of Hamilton, not Jefferson. Why then did Madison turn to Jefferson and not to Hamilton for political leadership?

It is sufficient to say that Madison was Jeffersonian merely because he thought that the nuts and bolts of Jeffersonian republicanism, minus certain philosophical “excrescences,” were preferable to the nuts and bolts of Hamiltonian federalism. Drew McCoy in The Elusive Republic argues that those nuts and bolts were essentially economic. “Madison and his followers were appalled by what they saw as a corrupted legislature… manipulated by Hamilton from his vantage point in the Treasury and tied to a fiscal system that encouraged reckless speculation and immoral behavior in the society at large.”

Madison was also disturbed by what he took to be Hamilton’s willowy interpretation of the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution that invited further political corruption through enticing monied speculators to advantage themselves at the expense of the common people. Furthermore, Madison was repulsed by Hamiltonian commercialization and its perceived unwholesome division of labor. Jefferson’s notions of thin government, pay-as-you-go economics, relatively even distribution of wealth, agrarianism, and a self-sufficient citizenry proffered a wholesome alternative to the corrupt British system, embraced by Hamilton—a system that was the provenance of the Revolutionary War. It, however, must be acknowledged that when president, Madison certainly did not follow the Jeffersonian blueprint for republicanism to the letter, but for that matter, neither did Jefferson.

Jefferson was a lifelong empiricist in the manner of his three heroes: Bacon, Locke, and Newton. Thus, he was fond of noting that theory must always be answerable to facts (TJ to Charles Thomson, 20 Sept. 1787) and that his form of republicanism was an experiment. “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying,” wrote Jefferson to John Tyler (28 June 1804), “and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.” Aristocratic forms of government throughout the centuries have been tried and have failed, so representative government in the Jeffersonian mold must be given its chance.

We may thus characterize a Jeffersonian republic as I have done in Thomas Jefferson’s Political Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Utopia:

A government is Jeffersonian republican if and only if it allows each citizen the same opportunity to participate politically in affairs within their reach and competency; it employs representatives, chosen and recallable by the citizenry and functioning for short periods, for affairs outside citizens’ reach and competency; it functions according to the rules (periodically revisable) established by the majority of the citizens; and it guarantees the equal rights, in person and property, of all citizens.

We may take this skeletal definition as the nuts and bolts of Jeffersonian republicanism that Madison in the main found attractive.

For Jefferson, and for Madison, it was the people, through elected representatives, who were to be politically empowered.  Madison wrote in Federalist 49 that “the people are the only legitimate fountain of power.” Representatives of the interests of the citizenry allowed for just governing over a large expanse, and as Madison noted in Federalist 10, largeness swamped out the effects of parochial factionalism. In an 1816 letter to John Taylor, Jefferson wrote that “governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition.” Moreover, Jefferson, in his Second Inaugural Address, echoed the sentiment that representative government allowed for a republic of substantial size and that size would prevent factionalism by drowning out local passions.

Both Jefferson and Madison distrusted elected governors. Madison said to Jefferson on (25 Dec. 1797), that “Ambition … can not be too closely watched, or too vigorously checked.” In Federalist 55, he added that had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, the Athenian Assembly “would still have been a mob.” He solved thus the problem, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition”—viz., that the legislative, executive, and judiciary must not be “in the same hands” and there must be “constitutional means” by which one branch of the federal government can check corruption in another branch. While Jefferson agreed with Madison, his chief solution—a solution that was never fully implemented—was construction of a system of education to empower the general citizenry to be capable of conducting daily affairs without governmental intrusions and to entice the most virtuous and those persons with most genius to participate at the highest levels of governing.

Because they distrusted those governing, Jefferson and Madison were strict constructionists. Both worried that plastic interpretations of the Constitution, even on behalf of the general welfare, would quickly lead, in Madison’s words, to a government “without any limits at all” (Fed. 37). Thus, Madison, who studied assiduously ancient politeiai (political systems) and political theorists throughout history, was insistent that the Constitution was to be crafted without any “degree of obscurity” (Fed. 37) to allow for tendentious interpretations.

Both Jefferson and Madison had faith in the good judgment of the general citizenry. Jefferson tells Dupont de Nemours (24 Apr. 1816), “Morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements in the human constitution.” Madison writes on June 20, 1788, in an address titled Judicial Powers of the National Government, “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” The virtue and intelligence of the people will “be exercised in the selection of these men” so we “do not [need to] depend on their virtue.”

Yet here was where Jefferson parted with Madison. Madison recognized that Jeffersonian republicanism could not work unless there was some degree of virtue and native intelligence in the general citizenry. He did not have Jefferson’s faith in the general, innate goodness of all persons. He was too much of a realist for that.

Jefferson, a true disciple of the Enlightenment, was also a dyed-in-the-wool progressivist. He believed firmly that the overall genius of humans was advancing with each generation; so too was their moral sensibility. Hence, he insisted there needed to be constitutional renewal with each generation and that tenure in all offices should be limited to dissuade ambition and to allow younger and generally more intelligent politicians to assume political duties.

Future generations would have a better grasp of how things work—nature being one of the things—and they would have technological advances to ease the burdens of everyday life. Future generations would put their moral sense to more efficient use, militate against opportunities for war and for opportunities for peace, and look to Jesus as a moral cynosure. Future generations, most importantly, would reap the benefits of republican governing—government neatly aligned with the science of its day. Jefferson, like many others of his time—e.g., Condorcet, Mercier, Rush, and Priestley—believed that republican government was an advance over the unvarying (usually mixed) systems of the past. For instance, Aristotle’s critique of different forms of government in Politics—kingship, aristocracy, and polity, and their degenerate forms—was based on an invariant cosmos: there being no change in the superlunary realm and there being cycles of change in the sublunary realm that overall resulted in material constancy and relative constancy of events. In contrast, Jefferson’s cosmos, I have argued in Thomas Jefferson’s Political Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Utopia, was in gist Kantian—driven forward by the hand of deity. Political systems thus were evolving and advancing. There is nothing metaphysically comparable in Madison’s thoughts on politics.

Jefferson’s faith in representative government was grounded in his firm belief that all persons were roughly equally endowed with a moral sense, in no need of schooling but in need of prompting. The moral sense enabled them to sense both moral goodness and moral obliquity. Moreover, given a modicum of education—i.e., instruction in reading, writing, and basic math—citizens would be enabled to conduct wisely their own affairs and participate in the process of governing, insofar as their time and talents would allow. He wrote to Dupont de Nemours  on April 24th, 1816: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Thus, sound moral sensibility and a basic education, he thought, would enable them to elect and oversee politicians and to participate in local politics. Moreover, implementation of a system of education—Virginia had no system in his day—would give the more ambitious citizens an opportunity to matriculate at college (grammar schools), and the most ambitious, at a school like University of Virginia. University of Virginia, he hoped, would be the leading institution for a Southern education, and would churn out tomorrow’s politicians and scientists, who would then work, at the expense of their own happiness, for the happiness of the general citizenry, chiefly agrarian.

Furthermore, Jefferson’s liberalism was robustly individualistic—a sentiment Madison shared. He adopted what might be dubbed the principle of dissolution of powers. The federal government was to be lean. It was to have only such meat on its bones to allow it to function to protect citizens’ liberties and to conduct treaties of amity and commerce with other nations on behalf of the states. Jefferson summed to James Madison (16 Dec. 1786), “To make us one nation as to foreign concerns, and keep us distinct in domestic ones, gives the outline of the proper division of powers between the general and particular governments.” He writes too to Gideon Granger (13 Aug. 1800):

Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, & from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer & overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens, and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder & waste.

Jefferson’s robust individualism through dissolution of powers was manifest in his divide-and-divide-again policy (e.g., TJ to Joseph Cabell, 2 Feb. 1816). As the federal government was to keep a safe distance from states’ governments, it was the same with counties and states, with states and wards, and with wards and individuals’ households.

Jeffersonian republicanism was a campaign for human happiness. Should persons be allowed to conduct their own matters, without the intrusions of government, they would thrive. Madisonian republicanism, in contrast, as he wrote in an 1833 letter, was an attempt to instantiate a government, based the “misfortune” of needing government, on that form of government that is “least imperfect.” Jefferson, in effect, was a philosopher and utopist; Madison, a practicalist and problem-solver.

Jefferson’s political musings have been roundly animadverted in the secondary literature. In The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Forrest McDonald said that Jefferson’s political vision was oversimple, as it failed to accommodate human foibles. Morton Frisch, in “Jeffersonianism and the New Deal,” asserted that Jeffersonian republicanism failed because of its undue atomistic individualism. In “Jefferson and American Foreign Policy,” Walter LaFeber stated that Jefferson’s promotion of thin government led to a strong presidency to protect that ideal. At the heart of all such judgments, there was the sentiment that Jefferson had too high of an opinion of humans.

It is always easy to judge the demerits of a political philosophy and to criticize the person entertaining it from the lofty perch of the future. That things went in a Hamiltonian direction is evident, but that does not show that things could not have gone in a Jeffersonian direction or that things would not have been better for all had they gone in a Jeffersonian direction. Jeffersonian republicanism, if it is an ideal incapable of actualization, just might be an ideal at least worth approximating. For instance, it might be conceded that strict constructionism in times of large crisis (e.g., impending war) is an ideal to which we cannot adhere, but the violability of the principle does not mean it cannot be a generally useful and highly valued guide of political action for all other occasions.

Jeffersonian republicanism overall was a political investment in the general goodness of humans. Yet Americans today live in a time when wokism predominates—when we see all history as motivated by wicked aims, when we have lost any sense of the decency of people, when disagreement is grounds for anger and resentment. Without any sense of our own decency, there can be no reason for optimism about a better tomorrow.

Both today speak to us. Madison tells us that we can identify our problems and work toward solutions, if we can check human political ambition. Jefferson tells us that we can expect a better tomorrow, if we generally educate the citizenry and keep government out of citizens’ affairs. Both are motivated by the aim of human self-sufficiency.

Scholars tell us that Jefferson was naïve. That is perhaps true, but naïveté can sometimes be refreshing, reinvigorating, for when we give up on optimism, we give up also on working toward a better tomorrow, and that makes meaningless human existence.

Jefferson was ever a decent man. He never lost his faith in the future and in the general goodness of the people. And so, Madison, though by rational disposition more of a Hamiltonian than a Jeffersonian, was emotionally, and ineluctably, drawn to Jefferson, not Hamilton. Madison too was a decent man, and decency attracts decency.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “Virginia had no system in his day”
    And damn little today.

  • scott thompson says:

    “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Thus, sound moral sensibility and a basic education, he thought, would enable them……. and ” Forrest McDonald said that Jefferson’s political vision was oversimple, as it failed to accommodate human foibles…..”

    I’m not sure this sounds ‘atomistic’ . TJ is calling for state level ‘human assistance and inprovements’. did he advocate state spending on other fronts as well?

    i assume by having the soverign state educate (in a TJ approved way) its own where they might not be otherwise be was some accounting for foible.

    maybe the broad tissue that Tj was avoiding centralized-power doing this as opposed to the -state level, canton sized- public entity doing this. iow, give the central this power and they will soon demand it in all others.

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