The camaraderie among America’s Founding Fathers did not survive independence in 1783. Disagreement over the role of government grew into virulent antagonism, and that acrimony persists today. Prolific historian Fleming (A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War, 2013, etc.) delivers a vivid, opinionated history of this conflict.
The author clearly favors George Washington’s famous practicality over Thomas Jefferson’s fiery revolutionary fervor. Fleming begins with the Constitutional Convention, chaired by Washington, whose eight years of failure to persuade the Continental Congress to support his Revolutionary army convinced him that the United States needed a strong central government. In France as America’s ambassador, Jefferson took no part in the debates and was lukewarm to the outcome. Described by Fleming as “that most troublesome of politicians—an ideologue,” Jefferson believed that humans in their natural state—i.e., virtuous American farmers—did not require government. This utopian faith included passionate support of the French Revolution, during which he defended the Terror and mass executions. Fleming portrays Jefferson as a disloyal secretary of state to President Washington and an equally disloyal vice president to John Adams, working behind the scenes to defeat their policies and lying to their faces. As president, he downsized the government, eliminating all internal taxes and crippling the Army and Navy, which were unable to resist the increasing British depredations that led to the War of 1812.
Among historians, Jefferson’s star has been falling for 50 years. Fleming’s frank hostility puts him at the far end of the scale, but he makes a fascinating case that Jefferson’s charisma—which peaked early with the Declaration of Independence—was accompanied by fanciful political beliefs that continue to exert a malign influence on the office of the presidency.