Paul Aron, Director of Publications for Colonial Williamsburg, joins to discuss his new book “Founding Feuds: The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts that Forged a Nation.” In this podcast, Paul delves into some of the most infamous feuds of the 18th and 19th centuries that included some very famous names such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.
Rachel West: Welcome back to the Past and Present podcast, I’m Rachel West. Today, my guest is Paul Aron, Director of Publications here at Colonial Williamsburg to talk about his new book “Founding Feuds: The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts That Forged a Nation.” Thank you so much for joining me, Paul!
Paul Aron: Thank you.
Rachel: So let’s get into this new book, Founding Feuds. What’s it about?
Paul: Well, this is one where the title does say what it’s about. We tend to think that partisanship is worse today than it’s ever been in the past, and politics can be pretty nasty today, but it could be pretty nasty then, too. The founders were anything but united and they disliked each other every bit as much as a modern-day Democrat or Republican. Whether it’s Hamilton and Jefferson or Adams and Jefferson or Adams and Hamilton, the founders feuded a great deal.
Rachel: What inspired you to write it?
Paul: Part of it was just that. We’re surrounded by so much talk about how partisanship has never been worse today, was interested in showing that was not the case. But part of it was living and working in Williamsburg, surrounded by the history of the Revolution in Williamsburg, seeing the programs here, you get a pretty clear sense that the founders were not entirely united, that the divisions that we have today are not unprecedented. Of course the founders were much more eloquent in their feuds. They were just as nasty, but much more eloquent than politicians today, and their insults were so much more fun than the insults we hear today, so part of it, why I wrote the book, was I thought it would be fun to learn more about; and read more about; and tell more about the way the founders insulted each other.
Rachel: One of my personal favorites of those feuds involves Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. They had a lot of insults to throw at each other in their early years when we were starting to build our nation. What made their relationship so volatile at that point?
Paul: Part of it was Adams was such a volatile personality. I mean, even when they were allies, and they were great allies before they were enemies in 1776, they did more for the Revolution than arguably anyone besides maybe Washington or Franklin, Adams was so adamant, so devoted to the cause of independence that he really admitted that his fellow Congressmen considered him obnoxious, and the certainly could lead to feuds; Jefferson was so eloquent, but they were great personal friends. Jefferson wrote to Madison that Adams, though he found him irritable, that you could not help but love him if you knew him. What tore apart the friendship was the politics of the 1790s. Adams was a big believer in a strong Executive, Jefferson suspected he was a Monarchist. In fact, one of the sillier things they fought about were what the title should be for the president. Adams suggested that the president should be “His Highness,” which didn’t go over to well in a nation that just fought a revolution against a king, and Jefferson called it “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of” and quoted Franklin saying that Adams was sometimes absolutely mad. What brought the feud between Adams and Jefferson to a head; well they faced off against each other twice, in the election of 1796 when Adams won and the election of 1800 when Jefferson won, and the rhetoric by 1800 was comparable to anything today. Adams in the mind of Jefferson and the Republicans was a warmonger and a tyrant, Jefferson was an anarchist and an atheist. When Jefferson won, he referred to his victory as the Revolution of 1800 and it was as much a victory for democracy as 1776. Adams’ attitude toward the election can be judged from the fact that on the morning of the day that Jefferson was inaugurated, Adams got on the 4 a.m. stage, left for Massachusetts and never returned to Washington. But there is actually some hope, sometimes, to be found in these feuds and the Adams/Jefferson feud is an example of that, because though it was as bitter a feud as any in our history, it did take a happy turn ultimately. In 1812, Adams sent Jefferson a New Year’s greeting and that unleased a flood of letters—I think it was 158—between 1812 and their deaths, and this is an amazing story, it’s been told many times, but the fact that they both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence is amazing, but the point is between 1812 and 1826 they wrote each other all these letters. Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other” and that’s what they did. They explained themselves to each other and to us and it’s a remarkable record of not just a reconciliation of their feud, but a record of what America’s founding meant to them and to us.
Rachel: That particular scene in the miniseries “John Adams,” which was partially filmed here in Williamsburg, was so poignant of them writing back and forth to each other and then the death scenes at the end, you know, culminating Adams’ life with that, it showed exactly that: that they explained themselves to each other and ultimately reconciled and became best friends again and it was a beautiful moment.
Paul: It may even be a sign of hope for us today: torn apart as we are, we as Americans have a great deal in common—that’s not to say our differences aren’t deep and important—but it is perhaps, and this may be true of the feuds in general in this book that though I started by talking about how deeply divided the founders were, and they were, they also did manage despite all of their divisions, to create a nation, to follow through on what was, after all, just an experiment with democracy but one that has certainly continued. Jefferson, after the 1800 election, despite all of the rhetoric that led up to it, despite all of the vitriol that led up to it, Jefferson’s inaugural address was very conciliatory. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he said. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” and perhaps that’s something we could learn from today. We are all Democrats and we are all Republicans.
Rachel: Absolutely. Along with Jefferson, two other figures that can be seen at any time here in Williamsburg are Patrick Henry and James Madison. That’s another feud that you’ve highlighted in this book. What happened between them?
Paul: Well that’s a classic feud because it pitted the Revolution’s greatest orator versus the father of the Constitution, Henry being the orator and Madison the father of the Constitution, with the fate of that document at stake. The basis of their feud was that Henry was an Anti-Federalist. He did not want to see the Constitution adopted. Madison was the leading Federalist and they faced off at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788. Joseph Ellis, a wonderful historian, described it as the most consequential debate in American history, more so even than the Lincoln/Douglass over slavery. And Jefferson—there was no love lost between Jefferson and Henry either, Jefferson said of Henry that he was all tongue without either head or heart. And in fact, Jefferson wrote to Madison at one point: “What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for his death.” It all came to a head during the Ratification fight over the Constitution in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Henry has always spoke long, and loud and eloquently. Over the course of three and a half weeks of debate, he spoke nearly a quarter of the time. At one point, a huge thunderstorm took place in the middle of the debate and one of the other delegates described Henry as “rising on the wings of the tempest to seize upon the artillery of heaven and directs its fiercest thunders against the heads of his adversaries.” Henry challenged the basic premise of the Constitution. He said “Why does it say ‘we the people?’ It’s the states that have the power. He said there basically is no need for a new Constitution. Madison in many ways is the opposite of Henry. He was very quiet—in fact at one point the stenographer taking notes complained that he couldn’t hear what Madison was saying—but Madison was systematic in his arguments that checks and balances would limit the power of the federal government, would prevent abuses from any branch of government. The Constitution was of course enacted, so in one sense Madison won this feud, but certainly we continue to debate how much power the federal government should have. And here too, there’s an interesting twist that perhaps gives us some hope for our own time. Henry ultimately became reconciled to the new Constitution. Partly this is because he took some satisfaction in the Bill of Rights being passed, which reassured him that there would be limits to the abuses that the federal government could possibly enact. I mean, Henry also took satisfaction in the fact that he really got revenge on Madison. He prevented Madison from getting the Senate seat in Virginia and almost prevented him from getting the House seat, though Madison was elected to the house and played a key role in making sure the Bill of Rights was passed. Just a point of trivia: Henry supported James Monroe in the election between Madison and Monroe for the House of Representatives seat which was the first and I believe the last time that two future presidents would run against each other for a House seat. But another twist was that just as Henry came to embrace the Constitution, Madison ended up embracing many of Henry’s arguments. When he, with Jefferson, founded the Republican party, it was based on the two of them strongly objecting to the power of the federal government—this is one of the great ironies of founding history and American history.
Rachel: You mentioned Jefferson again in that one, and he seems to kind of be a theme throughout this book. What is it about Thomas Jefferson that made him butt heads with other people so much?
Paul: Jefferson not only butted heads with his contemporaries, but his historians. Jefferson is probably the most disputed figure in American history, or one of the most disputed figures of American history. His critics would probably say—his critics then as well as now would probably say that’s because he was a hypocrite. He was the greatest proponent of liberty, yet he owned slaves. He fought against federal power—that was the basis of the Republican opposition to the Federalists—until he became president and then he was perfectly happy to wield power. He pretended to be a philosopher and a writer and not to care deeply about politics, but he did care deeply about politics. And yet, he is deservedly celebrated both by his contemporaries and today. Jon Meacham, in one of his most recent biographies, wrote that despite the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America and the world in a better place, and I think the same could be said for all of the founders.
Rachel: I have to give a shout out to all of the Hamilton fans. We know this Broadway show has just taken off, you can’t get tickets now, it’s amazing. The soundtrack is something I listen to quite often. One of the features in this book is that feud between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, which as we know culminated in the death of one of them. What led up to that infamous duel?
Paul: Well it is remarkable given the depths of disagreements, that in a way it’s surprising that there weren’t more deaths, that violence didn’t break out more often than it did between Burr and Hamilton. One of the interesting points little known about the Burr/Hamilton feud is that twice Burr may have actually saved Hamilton’s life. In 1776, when Hamilton was trapped behind British lines in Manhattan. Burr, who was a New Yorker and knew his way around New York, led Hamilton and his men to safety. And in 1797, Burr headed off a duel between Hamilton and Monroe—Hamilton suspected Monroe of having leaked some documents about an affair, a scandalous affair, that Hamilton had had—but Burr managed to calm affairs that time. They also worked together. They were both lawyers, they jointly represented a man charged with murdering his fiancée and they got him off. But to your question of what was behind the feud, I guess you have to start with the 1800 election. Jefferson had selected Burr as his running mate in the expectation, which turned out to be correct, that Burr would deliver the New York electoral vote. But at the time, the Constitution didn’t distinguish between a vote for a president and a vice president, so they ended up tied—Jefferson and Burr—with electoral votes. That sent the decision to the House of Representatives, which was still controlled by Federalists, and at this point some Federalists wondered if they might not be better off with Burr. He was less committed to the Republican ideology, he was from New York, not Virginia, and he was ambitious more for himself than for his party. And here’s where Hamilton stepped in and basically said that, you know, Jefferson’s principles were dangerous but Burr had no principles at all. This certainly didn’t help Burr’s case for president. It is unlikely that Burr would have managed anyway, but it is certainly likely the Burr remembered that Hamilton had worked against him. And then in 1804, Hamilton did it again. This time Burr was running for governor of New York. Jefferson had made clear that he wanted nothing more to do with Burr, so Burr returned to New York, ran for governor, and Hamilton again strongly worked against him. He believed Burr saw the governorship as just a stepping stone to president of a northern Confederacy that would break up the United States, and Hamilton made no secret of how much he despised Burr. The immediate cause of the feud was a letter in a newspaper where a man named Charles Cooper was quoted about Hamilton’s “despicable opinion” of Burr and exactly what Cooper was referring to was never clear—some historians have concluded that Burr was sleeping with his daughter—Hamilton in any case offered no explanation, but he also offered no denial that he had said something despicable about Burr, and that’s basically because he considered Burr despicable. And at that point, much as Hamilton or Burr might have wanted to avoid a duel, they both found themselves trapped into it. But here too there’s a somewhat hopeful perhaps coda to this story: Burr was definitely an opportunist, but he appealed both to Federalists and to Republicans and perhaps there’s some sort of lesson for our own ideological divides there. In the last days of his life, Burr was reading the novel “Tristram Shandy”—this was a novel in which a character is being annoyed by a fly buzzing around him and he catches it and then he lets it go, and in the novel, Tristram Shandy says, “This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” And according to one 19th-century biographer, Burr said about Hamilton, “I should have known that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
Rachel: That’s powerful. Do you have a favorite feud?
Paul: I don’t and one. I think Jefferson was involved in so many and Jefferson is just such a fascinating figure that almost any of the Jefferson ones—whether it’s Hamilton and Jefferson or Adams and Jefferson or Burr and Jefferson or Jefferson and John Marshall, they were cousins but enemies—I think Jefferson is such a fascinating character that I am sort of intrigued by any Jefferson feud.
Rachel: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Paul: Well, I hope they take away a sense that the divisions we have now are not as unprecedented as we sometimes think they are and as today’s commentators often say they are. That democracy depends on differences of opinion. You can’t have a democracy if everyone agrees. The founders might not have even fully understand this, each one thought that they were right about each feud, they weren’t trying to establish that democracy depended on differences of opinions. But nonetheless it did and therefore we should not take our differences as cause for despair, but as confirmation that we are living in a democracy. That’s not to say that we couldn’t benefit from some additional civility in our political discourse. It certainly not to suggest that we ought, like Burr and Hamilton, to start shooting each other, but it is perhaps to realize that democracy depends on differences as much as it depends on unity.
Rachel: Again, this book Founding Feuds: The Rivalries, Clashes, and Conflicts that Forged a Nation is available now here in Williamsburg on site and also online. If you want to find that, just head to colonialwilliamsburg.com. If you have any questions about the book or anything, you can always email us a firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Paul, I appreciate it.
Paul: Thank you.