A Revolutionary Friendship: Washington, Jefferson, and the American Republic


May 6, 2024
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: A Revolutionary Friendship: Washington, Jefferson, and the American Republic by Francis D. Cogliano (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2024. $37.95 Cloth)

Comparative founder profiles are a crowded book genre with numerous volumes depicting any combination of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin as rivals, friends, or brothers. Professor Francis D. Cogliano adds a well-researched book on the friendship between Washington and Jefferson, avowing a two-part thesis to stand out in this congested field. First, he argues that Washington and Jefferson agreed politically on more issues than they disagreed on. A partisan divergence only surfaced late in their political careers, which has overly clouded many historians’ views of their thirty-year relationship.[1] Second, as the two founders were political allies for most of their lives, they evolved into warm, personal friends. The first assertion is well-supported and thought-provoking, but the latter is open to further investigation and debate.

The relationship between Jefferson and Washington began in 1769 while attending Virginia’s House of Burgess and ended with the first president’s death in 1799. The University of Edinburgh Professor and visiting scholar at Monticello compares the two founders’ early lives, concluding that they shared the social and political outlook of the wealthy Virginia planter class. With the outbreak of the American War for Independence, Washington began his transformation into a national leader through the command of the Continental Army and the need to support common colonial objectives. While Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence for the new nation, he espoused more state authority and less central government power. He wrote extensively to reform Virginia law and served as a two-time governor. Despite differing views on sovereignty, Washington and Jefferson deepened their political association during this period, exchanging almost one hundred letters (page 319). Cogliano believes that the two revolutionaries developed a solid mutual trust during the armed conflict, engendering a warm postwar friendship (p. 137). Cogliano argues that as president, Jefferson adopted many nationalist views, such as the Louisiana Purchase, and, later in life, embraced Washington’s legacy of founding a new nation.

Displaying excellent historiography, Cogliano cites Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century dictionary to define friendship in the context of the Revolutionary Era. The authoritative lexicographer’s definition encompasses affinity, conformity, aptness to unite, assistance, help, correspondence, the highest degree of intimacy, favour, personal kindness, leading to states of mind united by mutual benevolence (p. 11). Cogliano provides compelling evidence that the Washington/Jefferson relationship exhibited several of these descriptors. Before the Rebellion, Washington and Jefferson shared the affinity and conformity of the Virginia planter class. This pre-war relationship fostered a trusting relationship during the Revolutionary War to provide each other with the aptness to unite, assist, help, and correspond. Outside the conflict and demonstrating a common interest, the two planters shared tips on agricultural cultivation and employing technology to improve productivity (p. 211).

There is less evidence that intimacy with personal favour and kindness best describes the Washington-Jefferson relationship. The author cites a letter closing, “I am Dear sir Yr. Most Obedt. & Hble. Servt.” as an effusive display of affectionate friendship (p. 153). Looking at Washington’s letter openings, another Washington scholar, Stuart Leibiger, believes he reserved the salutation “My Dear Sir” for his most intimate friends. Leibiger analyzed letters sent by Washington to James Madison and noted that they changed from “Dear Sir” to “My Dear Sir” in 1785 when their friendship blossomed.[2] Another investigator of the Washington-Jefferson relationship observes that by 1792, on occasion, Washington used this intimate-signaling opening in letters to Jefferson.[3] It would be interesting to replicate Leibiger’s analysis with the corpus of Washington’s letters to Jefferson to assess Washington’s intended level of intimacy.

While there may have been eighteenth-century correspondence intimacy, in modern terms, the author describes an excellent collaborative work relationship but not one extending to a personal bond outside of work or politics. For example, there is little evidence that Washington and Jefferson enjoyed each other’s company as they did not socialize outside of political-related events other than a potential fishing trip noted in the book’s opening. The political leaders did not get to know each other’s spouses as Jefferson had with Abigail Adams. In another mark of personal rapport, it is not clear that they traveled to each other’s homes other than for political meetings and Jefferson’s stilted trip to Mt. Vernon to pay his respects to Martha Washington after the first president’s death.

While we will never know if Washington and Jefferson would have reconciled after Washington’s presidency, their relationship appears to have centered around politics and not mutual benevolence. Perhaps the best evidence of the lack of a personal connection comes from the people who knew them best. It is striking that contemporaries did not recognize Washington and Jefferson as personal friends, which they sometimes did with other founders. For example, Benjamin Rush understood the prior warm, friendly relationship between John Adams and Jefferson and assisted in reconstituting it when politics came between them.

While one can quibble over whether the founding duo were political or personal friends, Cogliano provides two excellent chapters on their views on Native Americans and slavery, for which alone are worth acquiring the book. Both Virginian planters were familiar with Native Americans from an early age (p. 164). Indians generally regarded the two founders as their adversaries, dubbing Washington a “town destroyer” and wary of Jefferson, who supported similar tactics in early nineteenth-century Native conflicts. After the Revolution, Jefferson and Washington publicly advocated for dealing with Native Americans fairly. However, the interests of Western white settlers were their top priorities, to the Native Nations’ detriment (p. 181). The principal difference in their views on Native Americans is that Jefferson professed an interest in Indian culture and romanticized their plight, while Washington’s interest was solely in possessing Native lands.

The duo’s views on slavery showed more divergence. Washington’s anti-slavery journey was slow, gradual, and private, ending with the eventual manumission of the Washington-owned Mt. Vernon’s enslaved people after his death. On the other hand, Jefferson recognized as a young man that slavery was wrong, publicly advocated for emancipation earlier in his political career, but freed only a handful of enslaved people in his will. Jefferson was an outspoken idealist who did not act in any official capacity to end slavery (p. 275). Both founders chose to politically support creating and preserving a union of states over ending the known evil of slavery (p. 278). Washington took action to end enslaving people under his control, but Jefferson merely discussed the righteousness of ending slavery.

Another of the book’s strong points are the pithy descriptors of the two founders’ character. Cogliano concludes that Washington was thin-skinned, deliberatively obtuse, and short-tempered. On the other hand, Jefferson shirked interpersonal conflict, had a reputation for duplicity, was somewhat deceitful, and told people what they wanted to hear (p. 243, 253). The author concludes that both men saw the worst in each other, and that is why, when tested, their political relationship imploded, and the former allies became enemies. While historians can debate the warmth of their mostly long-distance friendship, readers will recognize attributes of the founding duo’s revolutionary dealings in their day-to-day relationships with work colleagues and associates. The difference between a work friendship and an intimate friend is striking, and Cogliano’s book is an excellent example of the need to discern the difference.


[1] Peter R. Henriques also argues that for the majority of the thirty years that Washington and Jefferson knew each other; they were friends. He attributes historians’ clouded judgment as coming from Jefferson’s portrayal of Washington’s mental failings which led to adopting Alexander Hamilton’s policies. Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 108, 116.

[2] Stuart Leibiger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001, 3, 53.

[3] Henriques, Realistic Visionary, 110.

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