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Historian friends bond over historical friends at 'Revolutionary Friendship' book launch

Before Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, they’d had precious time to patch up their fractured friendship. Jefferson and George Washington weren’t as fortunate, as they remained estranged when Washington died in 1799, but a new book reveals that their bond was genuine.

When Frank Cogliano started researching the ties between a young nation’s first and third presidents, he discovered to his surprise that no one had studied the two friends’ letters in chronological order before.

“I read Jefferson and Washington’s correspondence from start to finish,” Cogliano said. “It was revelatory, and that was the story I tried to tell in this book.”

The resulting book, Cogliano’s 11th, is “A Revolutionary Friendship: Washington, Jefferson and the American Republic,” and the Howard and Abby Milstein Theater at Jefferson’s Monticello estate-turned-museum was packed Saturday for a celebratory book launch. The launch occurred on the actual date of publication from Harvard University Press.

Jane Kamensky, Monticello’s new president, welcomed the audience with opening remarks before Cogliano, who is serving as interim Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies until July, spoke about his book. Then it was time for Cogliano, who also serves as professor of American history and dean international at the University of Edinburgh, to join a spirited conversation with fellow historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf.

“These three are revolutionary friends,” Kamensky said.

Cogliano said that Jefferson and Washington knew each other for roughly three decades and were friends for about 10 of those years. He described the combination of personalities as “the valedictorian and the prom king,” adding that their traits were complementary.

“They mesh because each has what the other doesn’t,” Cogliano said. “Washington has got that physical presence. He has that charisma; he has military bearing and military experience.” Jefferson, 11 years Washington’s junior, knew multiple languages and had a more scholarly approach, and although Jefferson didn’t rise through military ranks, Washington had “a really good eye for talent.”

Although Jefferson and Washington had many qualities in common — as Gordon-Reed noted, they also were Virginians, slaveowners and tall — it was only a matter of time before their ideas of what the new nation should become would diverge.

“I think Washington outgrows Virginia and becomes a national leader, and Jefferson never does,” Cogliano said. “Jefferson wants America to be Virginia writ large. … They are both Anglo Virginians, and they both see this place as part of the British Empire.”

It’s easy for people today to forget that the creation of the United States was a bold experiment with major hurdles to overcome. In their letters, both Founding Fathers wondered if “the Declaration of Independence is a failure,” Cogliano said. “It’s an admission that this idea of a greater British Empire isn’t working. Jefferson is more pessimistic late in life, because he lives longer.”

When Gordon-Reed asked Cogliano if he felt he’d gotten to know Washington through the correspondence, he responded, “I don’t know if I got to know him, but I got to appreciate him.” He came away with an impression of Washington as smart and “a man of real convictions.”

“They agreed about much more than they disagreed about,” Cogliano said, adding that Washington saw Jefferson “both as a friend and a talented person he could work with.”

“Things end badly” for the founding friends after Jefferson wrote an unflattering letter about Washington in 1796 that ended up getting translated from Italian into French and later resurfaced when Jefferson was serving as vice president, Cogliano said. “Washington, who was very thin-skinned, was offended.”

Washington fell ill and died before he and Jefferson had a chance to reconcile. Jefferson gained valuable perspective about Washington in his own remaining years, Cogliano said.

“He served two terms as president and learned the hard way how difficult that job was,” the author said. “His respect for Washington grew.” Jefferson also had more time in retirement to reflect, he added.

The friendship, and the estrangement, hold lessons for leaders today, Cogliano said. Jefferson realized that “with time to reflect, once passions have cooled, we really agreed much more than we disagreed.”

Jefferson’s image may have taken a beating in recent years, but it’s premature to count him out, Cogliano said.

“I think he’s going to come back,” Cogliano said. “He always does. He should.” Jefferson will be remembered “despite his relationship with slavery, and not because of it,” he said.

“Jefferson is a person of world historical significance, but he was a person, and people are complicated,” he said.

When asked what surprised him the most during his time spent with the presidents’ correspondence, Cogliano said, “I was surprised by Washington’s brains, and I was surprised by the depth of their friendship.”

The nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, has faced a series of high-profile departures, a list that includes both Gordon-Reed and Onuf.

Gordon-Reed, who is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” resigned from the board late last year, telling The Daily Progress she is concerned about the foundation’s “future direction.”

Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, previously told The Daily Progress he resigned his spot on the International Center for Jefferson Studies’ advisory committee because of his “disappointment” that Cogliano was not named director of the center.

Last year, foundation President Leslie Greene Bowman stepped down after nearly 15 years in the top post. Bowman’s departure was later described by a foundation board member as a surprise.


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