George Washington & Thomas Jefferson: Relationship & Differences

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  • 0:04 A Strained Relationship
  • 1:08 Commonalities
  • 2:34 Partisan Politics
  • 4:09 Later Years
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll explore the relationship between two of America's most beloved Founding Fathers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. We'll highlight their similarities and explore the differences that led to their strained relationship.

A Strained Relationship

In her later years, Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington, reflected on the two saddest days of her life. The first was the day her husband died, and the next was the day Thomas Jefferson visited Mount Vernon. At another point, shortly before her death, Martha Washington referred to Jefferson as ''one of the most detestable of mankind.'' Martha Washington was a little more outspoken than her husband, but it is safe to say America's first and third presidents had a relatively fractured relationship in their later years. These two great Virginians had once been friends, but party politics got in the way.

Martha Washington had very strong feelings against Thomas Jefferson.
martha

We often think of America's Founding Fathers as one big group of friends. We tend to think they all got along well and held similar beliefs. That is not accurate, however. America's founders were a diverse group holding diverse beliefs. After the Revolutionary War and the creation of the American Republic, factionalism was rampant. Let's dig deeper and learn more about the sometimes-strained relationship between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Commonalities

Washington and Jefferson had much in common. They were both Virginians. Washington was born in the northeast part of the state in 1732, whereas Jefferson was born outside of Charlottesville in 1743. They both deeply loved Virginia and felt a deep connection to the land. They were both fairly wealthy planters who enjoyed agriculture. Washington adored and tended to his home, Mount Vernon, in much the same way as Jefferson did to his home, Monticello.

The American Revolution brought these two great men together. As tension between Great Britain and the American colonies mounted, and especially after blood was spilled at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, both Washington and Jefferson believed the colonies should engage in resistance. In Philadelphia in May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress, a revolutionary assembly consisting of delegates from all of the 13 colonies, was established. Representing Virginia were Washington and Jefferson, among others. Here these two great men met and developed a mutual respect for one another. Washington later described Jefferson to the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette as ''a man of whom I early imbibed the highest opinion.'' In turn, Jefferson thought highly of the commander of the Continental Army, referring to him as ''in every sense of the words, a good and a great man.'' Their allegiance to the revolutionary cause, however strong, would later be strained by partisan politics.

Thomas Jefferson developed a deep respect for George Washington after working with him at the Second Continental Congress.
tj

Partisan Politics

When Washington became president of the United States in 1789, he invited Jefferson to serve as his first secretary of state, a position that Jefferson accepted. In the coming years, political factionalism drove the two men further from one another. Washington, while officially not belonging to a political party, tended to have more of a Federalist leaning. Federalists supported a strong, centralized government with the power to tax and regulate the economy. Jefferson, however, was a committed Anti-Federalist. The Anti-Federalists feared a powerful federal government and believed power should be invested among the people at a local level. To the Anti-Federalists, President Washington was something akin to a monarchist, or one who favors a monarchy. This charge was often levied against Washington (and his vice president, John Adams, as well).

One man was especially involved in the widening rift between Washington and Jefferson: Alexander Hamilton. Whereas the Anti-Federalist Jefferson served as Washington's secretary of state, the staunch Federalist Hamilton served as Washington's secretary of treasury. Jefferson and Hamilton couldn't have been more different. Jefferson supported close relations with France; Hamilton supported close relations with Great Britain. Jefferson favored agrarianism; Hamilton favored industry and commerce. Washington found himself forced to choose between two competing visions of America presented by his secretaries. When Washington chose to follow Hamilton's approach, Jefferson was deeply hurt.

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