Review of “The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation” by Thomas Fleming

In Thomas Fleming’s retelling of the early days of the American republic, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson not only held widely disparate views of the proper role of the president, but they also grew to despise one another.

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Jefferson distrusted central power—he was pretty much content to live in an autonomous Virginia, and let the other states go their own ways. However, in the early days of the republic, both Great Britain and France posed significant threats to American interests and even to the country’s very continued existence. Under such circumstances, Washington recognized the need for a relatively powerful central government with the power to tax and a strong executive to lead it. Accordingly, he was instrumental in leading the country to adopt the Constitution to replace the feckless Articles of Confederation.

Jefferson’s affection for the French nation and its bloody revolution was another issue that separated him from Washington. Washington preferred to avoid “entangling alliances,” and so he did not take sides in Britain’s long war with (first) revolutionary France and then Napoleonic France. Fleming attributes Jefferson’s favoritism toward France as an underlying cause of the War of 1812.

In Fleming’s account, Washington is clearly a wise hero who guided the young nation through perilous times, while Jefferson is a wily, unscrupulous, hypocritical pretender whose distrust of the very government he oversaw nearly left the new republic defenseless at a time when most of the world went to war. Fleming is especially critical of Jefferson’s efforts to change the public’s memory of Washington from strong leader to mere caretaker.

Evaluation: Fleming is a reliable historian and a lucid writer. This book adds to a recent spate of works diminishing the reputation of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015

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