Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thomas Fleming's "The Great Divide"

Thomas Fleming is a distinguished historian and the author of more than fifty books. A frequent guest on PBS, C-SPAN, and the History Channel, Fleming has contributed articles to American Heritage, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and many other magazines. He lives in New York City.

He  applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation, and reported the following:
My page 99 could not be better, from the viewpoint of summing up the book’s basic purpose – dramatizing the many-sided clash between Washington and Jefferson, with James Madison trapped between them. The book opens with Jefferson in Paris as ambassador and Madison as Washington’s collaborator (or vice versa) in creating the Constitution. Those who have read the preceding 98 pages know that Jefferson’s arrival as Secretary of State is forcing Madison to play a two-faced role, which must have caused him considerable anguish.

At the top of the page we have Congress ensconced in luxurious armchairs in their Philadelphia headquarters, having completed the transfer of the capital from New York, in accordance with a deal that Jefferson struck with Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. In return for Jefferson’s agreement to support Hamilton’s plan to pay both state and federal debts, he got Hamilton’s agreement to move the national capital to the District of Columbia, after a ten year hiatus in Philadelphia while the “federal city” (which would remain a village for 100 years) was being built.

Meanwhile, on this same page, Congressman Madison is still Washington’s right hand man, composing both the president’s message to Congress and his reply to the lawmakers, and Washington’s reply to that response. Nothing could be cozier. But in the next paragraph we see the conflict looming. Jefferson is presenting Madison with a series of reports to submit to Congress. They are an assault on America’s relationship with Britain. The Secretary of State blamed London for everything that was wrong with America’s overseas commerce, from Muslims in North Africa preying on our ships to the collapse of the Newfoundland fishing industry.

Jefferson’s answer to these insults and irritants was a congressional tonnage law, which would favor French ships over British ones by raising import duties on the latter vessels. It was a classic example of Jeffersonian unrealism. The tariffs that the British were paying were the main income of the federal government. There was no hope of France replacing this river of cash. The page ends with a shock. None of these reports produced even a glimmer of a response from Congress. “Jefferson and his covert partner Congressman Madison….”
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--Marshal Zeringue