It is a curiosity of American history that, for the first four decades under our nation’s Constitution, all presidents who were not named Adams hailed from the same small area of central Virginia: an area that circumscribes the Piedmont region of the Old Dominion. If George Washington’s boyhood home of Ferry Farm were considered the center of a circle, these four remarkable lives were born, raised, and reached maturity within a radius of only 60 miles.
This is the curiosity that Lynne Cheney explores in Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation, which aims to showcase only the highlights within the eventful lives of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Cheney, who wrote what is arguably the best biography of Madison on the market, tackles this new assignment with her usual impeccable research, keen but cautious psychological insights, and graceful, unassuming prose. This book does not break new ground or discover hidden depths in these familiar figures, nor does it attempt such revelations. Here we find a collection of good stories, well told.
While each man in this quartet was a complicated figure in his own right, they also had complicated and evolving relationships with the other members. Each one had been, if not a close friend, at least a close confederate with the others. They had also received help and encouragement from the others which spurred them on to greater achievements, especially when the felicity of domestic tranquility seemed more attractive than the glory of political conquest.
President Washington had dissuaded Jefferson from resigning his post as secretary of state, even though Jefferson’s influence in the cabinet frequently made his administration disagreeable. Madison dissuaded Washington from stepping down after his first term, even though his own partisan machinations would make Washington’s second term an agony.
Madison, who more than once urged Washington to undertake more public service than he wished, played an equally valuable role in occasionally restraining Jefferson’s rash and intemperate choices.
Jefferson reciprocated by looking out for Madison’s interests. Upon learning that the widow Dolley Payne Todd had captured his friend’s heart, he counseled Madison that he should not allow his new bride to persuade him to retire from public life. (He would grow to appreciate Mrs. Madison’s own political talents, and enjoy her friendship, in time.)
Monroe had twice retired from public life determined never to enter politics again, only to reenter the fray after succumbing to the blandishments of his friends. He never could have accomplished so much without their encouragement and assistance, sometimes financial assistance, yet he repeatedly felt hurt that they were not doing more to consult his opinions, support his decisions, and advance his career.
These friendships were so important—both to the principal parties and to our nation’s history—that it becomes painful to witness their inevitable fissures and sporadic dissolutions.
Washington, who arguably never formed, or at least retained, a close male friendship in his life, had entrusted his fellow Virginians with important posts in his administration. While each had at certain moments enjoyed his confidence, they had all disappointed him in the end. Even worse, he believed they had betrayed him. He was permanently estranged from the remaining members of the Virginia Dynasty by the time he retired to Mount Vernon.
Madison’s friendship with Monroe was enduring, though rocky, and its durability is all the more remarkable considering that on three significant occasions they were rivals: during the 1788 ratification battle in Virginia, while vying for the same seat in Congress in 1789, and during the presidential election of 1808. In all three cases, not only did Madison triumph in the contest, but Monroe’s luster and prospects were dimmed by his attempts to prevail over his friend and frequent ally.
Yet it was not their rivalry that most strained their relationship; it was rather Monroe’s disappointing performance as minister to Britain during the Jefferson administration—as well as his prickliness when criticized for it—that disrupted their friendship for a number of years. Nevertheless, they were reconciled at last, and Madison was indispensable for placing Monroe in a position to be his successor when he stepped down from the presidency.
Many years later, Madison’s enslaved valet, Paul Jennings, recalled hearing “Mr. Madison and Colonel Monroe have many a hearty laugh” over an anecdote that occurred during the congressional race in 1789. Madison had brought a neighbor to the polls in his own carriage, only to have that neighbor declare “Put me down for Colonel Monroe” as soon as he arrived. It was just the sort of story calculated to bring out the mirth in Monroe—a rare instance of him triumphing over Madison.
Jefferson’s friendship with Monroe was more constant, but it was perhaps never as warm as some of his attachments to others. And even this friendship cooled at last—slowly growing tepid over the years rather than combusting after a burst of explosive anger, in the way that Washington’s friendships ended.
The attachment between Madison and Jefferson is unique among these four. Madison once described how the two became acquainted in that momentous year of 1776, and their alliance was soon devoted and unshakeable. For the next 50 years they enjoyed a friendship “which was for life and which was never interrupted in the slightest degree, for a moment,” Madison recalled. Jefferson returned Madison’s affection with no less warmth. In one of the last letters he wrote to him, Jefferson called him “a pillar of support through life,” and he asked his friend to “take care of me when dead.”
Cheney draws out the ebb and flow of these friendships, sometimes writing with the dramatic flair and psychological penetration of the novelist. Yet she is admirably circumspect when describing their thoughts and sentiments; she never steps beyond what can be gleaned from the historical record.
Cracks in the Marble
In the 19th century, histories about the Founding generation sometimes fell into the trap of hagiography: portraying the Founders as if they were saints, if not divinities. A visual representation of this tendency can be seen today in the fresco painted within the Capitol dome, which portrays Washington as a god surrounded by Roman deities. Jefferson, who once complained that some people regarded “constitutions with sanctimonious reverence,” and ascribed to the Framers “a wisdom more than human,” nevertheless contributed to this tendency by once calling the Constitution’s authors “an assembly of demigods.”
Histories from the start of the 20th century and continuing to the present day apostatized from that earlier cult and made amends for these excesses by swinging the pendulum in the other direction. Their “warts-and-all” approach to the American Founding quickly descended into “all warts.”
Cheney avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of hero-worship and philippics by reminding us that even heroes are mortals, endowed with all the failings, foibles, and foolishness which that condition entails. The reader is never permitted to forget that this grand narrative of the nation’s Founding occurred against the backdrop of African Americans who were enslaved and exploited, as well as Native Americans who were repeatedly plundered and betrayed. But these shameful episodes are related as an integral part of America’s origin story, not the whole of it.
More interesting and relevant to this story is the frank acknowledgment of the weaknesses and failings of the main actors in this volume. For instance, the stately George Washington had an ungovernable temper, one which occasionally burst forth in paroxysms of rage. And while Cheney concludes that Washington should not be blamed for siding with the Federalist Party during his administration, she agrees with other historians who find him blameworthy for doing so while believing that he hovered above the partisan fray.
If Washington’s temper was ungovernable, so was Jefferson’s pen, and the attacks he launched against his political adversaries were often nasty and unjust. But it was Jefferson’s abuse of the presidential office that brings home the truth that there is nothing new under the sun. The press at the time rightly blasted him for publicly declaring Aaron Burr guilty of treason before the man had even been indicted, much less tried. It was difficult to resist the suspicion that Jefferson’s zeal for prosecuting Burr might have been influenced by motives of personal revenge. Was he still incensed over Burr’s refusal to concede the top spot when the two received equal numbers of electoral votes in 1800? From behind the scenes, President Jefferson offered advice on prosecuting Burr. Claiming executive privilege, he also refused to hand over letters that Burr thought would exonerate him, even after they were subpoenaed by Chief Justice John Marshall.
Madison probably had more self-command than any of his compatriots. Yet his bare-knuckled partisan fervor made the 1790s a torment to any peace-loving politician who lived through that decade. Even Madison later regretted his youthful excesses, which were “explained if not excused by the excitements of the period.” Paradoxically, Madison was frequently perceived to be “too timid” by his adversaries. They probably failed to appreciate his real strengths; nevertheless, a widespread perception of weakness, even if it be misapplied, can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the real thing.
Monroe’s failings were probably the most petty of them all. He frequently wrote letters to his erstwhile Virginian friends, complaining about their treatment of him. He wisely never mailed these letters, but neither did he destroy them. He did decide to publish the pamphlet he wrote defending his performance under Washington’s administration while simultaneously criticizing the great man. This pamphlet is noteworthy for only one accomplishment: It elicited from Washington, who read it from his retirement at Mount Vernon, “the most extended, unremitting, and pointed use of taunts and jibes, sarcasm, and scathing criticism in all of his writings.”
Even Monroe’s election to the presidency did not quiet the perpetual irritation he felt over his perceived slights and injuries. During the victory tour he took after his win, basking in unaccustomed pomp and adulation, he was still smarting under the recent characterization of him penned by William Wirt (writing anonymously). Wirt had described him as having a slow intellect. It was a repeated refrain among many who knew him.
All four of these Virginian presidents had their faults, but only about Monroe can we say that his faults were perhaps the most interesting facet of his life and personality.
The Smerdyakov of the Virginia Dynasty
Three of the four men who made up the “Virginian Dynasty” were each a paragon of a sort, and they were all born at a moment when their particular genius would shine as a beacon to the world. By contrast, James Monroe—who was born seven years after Madison and who died five years before him—nevertheless exudes all the awkward strivings, shortcomings, and self-consciousness of a subsequent generation, and an inferior one at that.
Washington was a born leader, and he was born to lead a great nation into its own birth. With his commanding presence, his cool and nearly unerring judgment, and above all his disinterestedness, he embodied what Aristotle described as the magnanimous man. He is rightly remembered as the Father of his Country.
Jefferson was the wordsmith of this extraordinary generation. With his soaring prose in the Declaration of Independence, he gave utterance to our founding ideals. He established the political standard against which all of America’s subsequent actions would be judged—including his own.
Madison was the most intellectually profound and politically savvy of the four. His explications of America’s political structure continue to shape our understanding of all our political institutions. He is rightly called the Father of the Constitution.
In some ways, Monroe seems like Smerdyakov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Old Karamozov is likely the biological father of Smerdyakov, no less than his other three sons; he therefore should probably be included with the “Brothers” named in the title. Yet Smerdyakov wears that mantle awkwardly and under a cloud of illegitimacy. The others are known to be brothers by the circumstances of their birth, by their upbringing, and by their interactions with each other; Smerdyakov is their brother (if he is their brother) only by accident of birth.
The Smerdyakov analogy is not meant to suggest that he and Monroe were moral equivalents—far from it. Monroe was public-spirited, diligent, and upright. It is simply that his talents and accomplishments do not rise to the level of his predecessors; he is an ill fit. His popularity as a president was largely owing to the “Era of Good Feelings” he inherited from his immediate predecessor, James Madison. And even the most noteworthy accomplishment during his administration—the Monroe Doctrine that bears his name—owed more to the ingenuity of his secretary of state and immediate successor, John Quincy Adams, than to his own merits or efforts.
By the end of the book, Cheney acknowledges Monroe’s comparative lack of brilliance when standing alongside this glittering company. All four members of the Virginia Dynasty served as president for eight years, but Cheney wisely devotes the least amount of space to Monroe’s administration.
Monroe therefore represents the last of the Virginia Dynasty both in point of time and degree of importance. Though he clearly does not deserve to be classed with the “race of pygmies [who] came to infest the public councils” in the decades after the Founding generation had passed away (in Forrest McDonald’s words), he was standing on the first rung of that descending ladder.
Yet even the Virginia Dynasty in decline can be an inspiration when contrasted with recent political contests. And Cheney’s book is a reminder that it may be counted among our fledgling nation’s good fortune that this small pocket in Virginia somehow cultivated such a concentration of talent and idealism.