Colleagues and Friends
Younger than George Washington by 19 years, James Madison admired the General but did not know him personally until late in the Revolutionary War. Beginning in 1784, the two men developed a personal and political friendship, leading to their collaboration on the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Political differences disrupted their relationship during Washington’s second term as president. In the last years of Washington’s life (from his retirement in 1797 until his death in 1799), he and Madison neither saw nor wrote to each other again.
The two men first met in August 1781 when General Washington, on his way to Yorktown, stopped in Philadelphia to meet with Congress. Congressman James Madison finally saw the man whose dispatches he had been reading for the past three years. Washington met with Congress again for four months beginning in November 1781. Washington and Madison became better acquainted as they attended committee sessions, dined at Mrs. House’s lodgings, and went to the theater.
In 1784, Madison supported Washington’s plan to open the Potomac River to trade by clearing blockages, constructing canals, and building roads to the Ohio River. Madison, as a member of the Virginia Assembly, worked to pass legislation chartering a private Potomac River company, while Washington worked with the Maryland Assembly to pass similar legislation. Washington and Madison’s mutual admiration increased as they coordinated the charters in both states in just two months.
Madison made his first visits to Mount Vernon in the fall of 1785. At Washington’s request, Madison drafted a letter on the General’s behalf to politely decline a gift from the Virginia Assembly. This was the first of many times when Madison served as Washington’s ghostwriter. After Washington invited his younger colleague to correspond more frequently, the two men discovered common interests in science and farming, in addition to their shared views on national politics.
Congressman Madison kept the retired General Washington informed of efforts to revise the Articles of Confederation, including the Federal Convention called for Philadelphia in 1787. Madison nominated Washington to the Virginia delegation, hoping his name would attract the best minds from other states, and pressed him until he agreed to attend. Washington was unanimously chosen as the Convention’s president. Madison came to Philadelphia with proposals for a new constitution, which Washington had already approved. This made it easy for the Virginia delegates to embrace Madison’s ideas and present them to the Convention as the Virginia Plan.
Once the Constitution was written, Washington and Madison corresponded frequently regarding the ratification process in each state. Just as Madison had pressed Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention, Washington urged Madison to take part in the Virginia ratifying convention, viewing him as the best qualified to explain the reasoning behind the Constitution. Washington also urged the publication of The Federalist in Virginia newspapers.
After ratification, Madison encouraged Washington to accept the Presidency. At Washington’s request, Madison drafted his inaugural address. (He also drafted the House of Representatives’ response, and Washington’s replies to both houses.) Until a cabinet was installed, Congressman Madison served as Washington’s closest advisor, assisting with appointments and matters of etiquette and precedents.
In the following years, however, a rift developed between Madison and Washington over financial policies advocated by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton believed that the United States needed to finance its debt and create a central Bank of the United States. Madison was suspicious of the Bank and worried that Hamilton was conspiring to overthrow republicanism in favor of a British-style monarchy. Washington did not believe a conspiracy existed. When Washington learned that Madison had helped to set up an anti-Hamiltonian newspaper, he was dismayed at the discord among his closest advisors. He began to consult Madison less often. Washington did, however, invite Madison to take Jefferson’s place as Secretary of State in 1793. Madison declined, leaving Washington with a primarily Federalist cabinet.
Despite their political clashes, Washington and Madison continued as personal friends through 1794. Both Washington and his wife Martha took an interest in Madison’s courtship of Dolley Payne Todd. (Dolley’s sister Lucy had already married Washington’s nephew, George Steptoe Washington.) Their political differences continued to grow, however. In the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion (an uprising against a Hamiltonian tax on spirits), Washington blamed self-organized Democratic Societies. Madison saw Washington’s comments as an attack on First Amendment freedoms, while Washington suspected Madison of disloyalty.
Jay’s Treaty (a commercial agreement with Great Britain) proved to be the breaking point of Washington and Madison’s friendship. The Senate ratified the treaty, but Madison was determined to stop the treaty by failing to fund it in the House of Representatives. (Although the Constitution called for the President and Senate to approve treaties, Madison believed that the commercial aspect of the treaty put it in the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives.) Washington felt personally betrayed by Madison and drew back from their friendship. Madison continued to respect Washington, blaming their differences on the influence of Hamilton and other Federalists. Washington and Madison initially shared a belief in a strong federal republic; they ultimately parted ways over the degree of strength the central government should have.
"Death has robbed our country of its most distinguished ornament, and the world of one of its greatest benefactors. George Washington, the Hero of Liberty, the father of his Country, and the friend of man is no more. The General Assembly of his native state were ever the first to render him, living, the honors due to his virtues. They will not be the second, to pay to his memory the tribute of their tears."
-James Madison, Speech in the Virginia General Assembly, December 18, 1799