Colleagues and Friends

James & Dolley Madison

Thomas Jefferson

James Madison’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson was one of the longest and richest relationships of Madison’s life. The two men first met in October 1776, when both were members of the Virginia House of Delegates and served on the Committee on Religion. At twenty-five, Madison was eight years younger than Jefferson and admired his more experienced colleague. Several years passed before they came to know each other well. When Jefferson was inaugurated governor in 1779 while Madison served on the Governor’s Council, the two had daily discussions and became warm friends. 

Madison and Jefferson shared many common interests. They had similar outlooks on American government, approaching it as a great experiment in applying the principles of ancient republics. They loved books and were intellectually curious. They used scientific approaches to farm their plantations, and hired the same craftsmen to work on their homes.

From 1784 to 1789, when Jefferson served in France as commissioner and U.S. minister, he and Madison exchanged over 100 letters. They discussed mutual friends, scientific investigations, and political events, sometimes using a cypher, or code, to discuss sensitive topics. Madison recommended schools for Jefferson’s nephews.  Jefferson purchased books, prints, a watch, and a pedometer on Madison’s behalf.  Acknowledging the receipt of two trunks of books, Madison wrote that “the literary cargo for which I am so much indebted to your friendship ... is perfectly to my mind.”  

When writing to his friend in France during the Constitutional Convention, Madison respected the confidentiality of the debates. He explained to Jefferson, “In furnishing you with this list of names, I have exhausted all the means which I can make use of for gratifying your curiosity. It was thought expedient in order to secure unbiassed discussion within doors, and to prevent misconceptions & misconstructions without, to establish some rules of caution which will for no short time restrain even a confidential communication of our proceedings.”  This did not prevent Jefferson from offering his own opinions and suggestions for Madison‘s consideration. After the Convention closed, Madison confided to Jefferson his disappointment that the national government would have no executive veto power over state laws. 

During Washington’s presidency, Jefferson was Secretary of State and Madison a leading member of the House of Representatives. A rift gradually developed between Washington, who wanted a strong central government and Madison and Jefferson, who prized individual liberty. This split led to the development of the Federalist and Republican political parties.  When Jefferson became president in 1801, his natural choice for Secretary of State was James Madison. Even in retirement, Madison continued to be his friend’s “pillar of support,” as Jefferson described him.  Madison served on the Board of Visitors for Jefferson’s University of Virginia, and succeeded Jefferson as rector of the University after his death in 1826.

A few months before Jefferson died, he wrote to Madison, “The friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me through that long period.” Jefferson also entrusted his posthumous reputation to Madison, closing, “Take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave you with my last affections.” 

Madison paid tribute to his friend shortly after Jefferson’s death:  “He lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of science, as a votary or liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of human kind. In these characters, I have known him, and not less in the virtues and charms of social life, for a period of fifty years, during which there was not an interruption or diminution of mutual confidence and cordial friendship, for a single moment in a single instance.” 

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"The interest which your friendship takes on this occasion in my happiness is a pleasing proof that the disposetions which I feel are reciprocal."

-James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, April 22, 1783



Symposium on Madison and Jefferson

On October 13, 2012 Montpelier hosted a symposium entitled The Founding Friendship and Enduring Legacy of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Speakers included David Mattern, Ralph Ketcham, and Jack Rakove. A companion exhibit, including objects and manuscripts pertaining to the two men, also opened that day in the Grills Gallery.