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Book Review

The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation by Thomas Fleming

 George Washington Dealmaker-in-Chief: The Story of How the Father of Our Country Unleashed the Entrepreneurial Spirit in America by Cyrus A. Ansary

Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg

Many of you know me as a magician. Others know me as a Pastor. But for many years I taught Social Studies and History. I have always loved history and still devour many works of history every year. I recently read 3 books that dealt with much of the same time period in question in American History, and all three involved to a certain extent three major characters, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, giants in American History.

All three books in question are the result of a great amount of research by the authors. All are valuable and well worth reading; however, I recommend one with a strong caveat. First let’s tackle The Great Divide by Thomas Fleming. In this work Fleming portrays the contrasting styles and leadership qualities of Washington and Jefferson. And the author makes no effort to conceal his utter disdain of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is portrayed as weak, a liar, a manipulator, filled with prejudices and erroneous opinions, and just not a good person. Washington, on the other hand, is portrayed as strong, honest, the very image of good and honest leadership.

There is certainly some truth in what Fleming portrays. Jefferson and Washington had very, very different personalities. They had a vastly different conception of what this new United States Government should look like. Washington in many ways was the poster child for strong leadership. He led the troops to victory in the Revolutionary War. He was accustomed to command. He certainly was the more hands-on, executive type.

However, a historian is supposed to present the facts, not present an all out editorial. For much of the book you get a sense that Fleming sees the world in simply black and white. Washington is good; Jefferson is bad. And that is regretful, because it is obvious the author has done a great deal of research into the acrimony that split apart Washington’s Cabinet and the resulting political divide between the two men. As a result, I recommend this book, but with the caveat that you read it for the research that is presented, but understand the underlying motives and biases of the author.

The next book, George Washington Dealmaker-in-Chief by Cyrus Ansary was such a surprise. I saw that rather than a historian, Cyrus was an economist and lawyer, so I approached this work with not a great deal of expectation. But, I was shocked at what a wonderful work on Washington Ansary has produced. His central thesis was that while numerous works have been written on Washington, they mostly dealt with his military and/or political career and ignored the strong foundations in business that formed the “core” of who Washington was, informed his military and political decisions, and helped Washington set this new country on an “entrepreneurial” path.

The research that has gone into this book is prodigious. He has 845 endnotes that constitute 69 pages and also provides a very useful and informative bibliography. He traces Washington’s life through his formative years, showing how by the time he was 22 he was already a multiple entrepreneur, and he would continue that path throughout his life. Washington realized that tobacco growing was not necessarily the best crop and thus he developed other crops for sale, built various small factories to produce necessary items, had many businesses going, and invested in land.

The author shows that at the time of his death, Washington’s estate and assets, if equated in today’s dollars, would have been worth many billions of dollars. The author, through his tremendous research, dispels the notion that the economic blueprint for this new nation was set primarily by Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was influential and important, but Ansary’s research demonstrates that even before taking the oath of office as President, Washington had a firm grasp on what economic path he wanted this new nation to embark upon. And while exploring this vision, the author also points out some of the differences between Washington and Jefferson’s vision of America. This book is highly recommended.

The last work, Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg is also meticulously researched and is highly recommended. This is a work that describes a 50-year friendship and partnership that had major impacts upon the development of our Country and political system. Thomas Jefferson, lead author of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

Burstein and Isenberg do a wonderful job in illustrating both the similarities and differences in personality, leadership, and political beliefs between the two men. It is an extremely well-balanced work. The authors hold up the brilliance of these two men, but also their faults and failings. In Flemings work on Washington, you will find not a single instance of a flaw or fault with Washington. In this work, the authors show where these men fell short.

One of the most persuasive arguments the authors make is that to understand the political philosophy and actions of Jefferson and Madison, you must understand that they were Virginians first and Americans second. They may not always have thought of themselves in that fashion, but Virginia and Virginia politics shaped their world, and as the colonies came together first in the Articles of Confederation and later under the Constitution, these men always tried to retain the importance of Virginia to the nation.

This was one of the guiding factors in Madison and Jefferson’s vision of the importance of State’s rights. It helped shaped the political divisions that formed in Washington’s Cabinet, leading to the creation of the two political parties, the Federalists and the Republicans. And it also shaped their reluctance to take on the divisive issue of slavery, an issue each knew could come to haunt the future of the country. And it ultimately led to a break in the political alliance and friendships that Madison and Jefferson had earlier enjoyed with George Washington.

If you are at all interested in Jefferson, Madison, or the early history of our country you should pick up a copy of this book. Highly recommended.

About the Author: Michael Reist is a professional magician that lives in Annville, PA with his wife Kathy. He performs all over the NE United States. If you would like to contact him you may e-mail [email protected] or call/text (610) 698-0311