In public they referred to each other as, “Mr. Madison” and “Mr. Jefferson”. They began their many letters to each other with the grave formality of, “Dear Sir”.
But in private, they were Jimmy and Tom.
They met in 1776 and became the best of friends instantly. They enjoyed an unshakable 50-year intellectually and emotionally satisfying friendship that had tremendous significance not only for their own generation, and not only across several continents, but for, as they called them, “the millions yet unborn” who would live and discuss their words, their philosophy and their decisions for hundreds of years after they were written.
The three volumes in the photo above are called The Republic of Letters. They contain the 1,250 letters Jefferson and Madison wrote to each other. For the most part, these are long, long letters going on for pages and pages. The letter Madison wrote to Jefferson about the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was 17 pages.
I am deeply immersed in these letters. They read like a fabulous novel.
Most people read books ABOUT people. I’m not crazy about that. I like to read what’s called “primary sources” – words directly communicated by the person themselves.
Let me put it this way. I would much prefer to spend three hours talking TO you than spend three hours with someone else talking ABOUT you (that would drive me nuts). I don’t like talking about people. I like talking to people.
They would have agreed with me on this. Madison wrote, “It has been remarked that the biography of an author must be a history of his writings. So must that of one whose whole life has in a manner been a public life, be gathered from his manuscript papers on public subjects, including to as well as from him.”
Jefferson agreed wholeheartedly: “The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life.”
These Republic of Letters are extraordinary. I find a level of intelligence here that I am constantly seeking. Reading them I directly get the spirit of the men, of the friendship, of their state of mind, of their ideas, of the time in which they lived. I feel their personalities. I feel them. They make me laugh. They make me think. They make me look. They make me take sides. They teach me. They develop my acumen, my ability to reason, to think critically, to make good judgments.
Their letters contain everything you would expect from best friends. They shared their life experiences, their emotions, their sympathies, their likes and dislikes, their views, their passions. They had lively arguments, they gave each other advice, they sent each other gadgets and plants. The letters are vibrant with lives lived during one of the most critical and exciting periods of history. They treasured each other’s thoughts.
When Jefferson sent Madison one of the first copies of his highly acclaimed book Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote him, “I beg you to peruse it carefully because I ask your advice on it and ask nobody’s else’s.”
They collaborated and worked together.
Jefferson had written a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.
In the preamble he argued that:
“Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry … and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
These ideas were very controversial and, encountering much opposition, Jefferson was unsuccessful in getting the necessary votes for adoption.
While Jefferson was in France in 1785, Madison successfully fought for passage of the Bill in the Virginia Assembly. He gleefully wrote to Jefferson of his victory, “The enacting clauses passed without a single alteration, and I flatter myself that I have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
Jefferson celebrated his friend’s achievement: “The Virginia act for religious freedom has been received with infinite approbation [approval] in Europe and propagated with enthusiasm. In fact, it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who has had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”
Like many friends, their spectrum of topics was far-ranging. After writing about very serious political issues, Jefferson could end one of his letters with something like, “PS Could you procure and send me a hundred or two nuts of the Pecan? The seeds of the sugar maple too would be a great present.”
If you ever ate pecans from the South, you would certainly understand this request! J
Madison was deliriously happy when Jefferson sent him phosphorescent matches.
In short, they wrote about everything. Their letters ended with the elegant manner of the time, “I am with very sincere esteem, Dear Sir, Your friend and servant …”
Reading their letters takes me through a long lifetime of hopes, dreams, aspirations, despairs, victories, loves, losses and deep reflections. It takes me through a period of history as an eye witness to the events of the day. I’m seeing what they see. I’m feeling what they feel. I’m understanding as if I were there.
In this beautiful 50-year friendship there were many, many disagreements. They each sought the other’s views and their friendship was big enough to accommodate their disagreements.
Jefferson was passionately disappointed the US Constitution was ratified in 1788 without a Bill of Rights, a shortcoming he felt was severely destructive of liberty. Madison in vain justified and tried to convince him to understand its absence. Their debate is respectfully conducted and enlightening to read.
In all of 50 years, there was never a conflict, never an unpleasant argument. Not a one. They understood each other, accepted each other, valued each other, respected each other, loved each other, and needed each other.
After Jefferson died, 10 years before Madison, Madison wrote, “We are more than consoled for the loss … by the assurance that he lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of Science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of human kind. In these characters, I have known him, and not less in the virtues and charms of social life, for a period of fifty years, during which there has not been an interruption or diminution of mutual confidence and cordial friendship, for a single moment in a single instance.”
Several months earlier Jefferson had written to Madison, “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 through that long period. To myself you have been a pillar of support through life … be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections.”
Sitting in the Sunday sunshine on my patio with cats scampering about, bees enjoying the lavender, butterflies dropping in for a visit and hummingbirds stopping by for lunch, I am grateful to be invited in by Tom and Jimmy’s letters to enjoy the luxury of such a friendship.
It greatly expands my vision. I clearly see what happens when two great beings, two great intellects, form a life-long friendship that strengthens and enhances each of them. A friendship that fulfills a greater purpose than most friendships entertain, a purpose to make a better world and the belief that we, as individuals, can make a difference far beyond our immediate lives.
I have never seen a friendship like this and I am grateful that these letters open a window for me to see so deeply and so intimately something so rare.
Wishing you the joys of deep friendships and great intellectual and emotional satisfaction.