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Madison and Thomas Jefferson: Their friendship, commonalities, and differences

Lynne Cheney, author of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” in conversation with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute.  Created by Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen in suit and i'm here with lynne cheney author of james madison a life reconsidered let's talk about Madison's friendship with Jefferson both from Virginia they meet right after 1776 tell me about their relationship well and they're both interested in government in building a nation and so that forms a key part being Virginians they had that in common they knew the seasons of Virginia the vegetation of Virginia they had great classical education both of them so their conversation could range widely they were both energetic in their efforts as opposed to getting involved in horse racing and gambling and drinking as many a young Virginian did in those days so there were many things they had in common but they also had differences that were important to the friendship Jefferson was more imaginative more airy in his thinking you know he would come up with an ocean for example that we ought to change constitutions every 19 years to renew the government and Madison I think while inspired by this kind of concept immediately said you know that won't work he was grounded not just in theory Madison was but in reality and he knew what would work and he knew what wouldn't work and he brought Jefferson back to earth so many times he could also poke fun at himself more than Jefferson could well that's a good point Madison like to tell stories on himself and you know there was a story about the time he lost his hat and had to buy one from a little Frenchman that was very funny looking he'd like to regale his friends and Jefferson never would have lost either the horse or the Hat like he did right exactly Jefferson was so well tended by slaves now Madison had slaves as well but Jefferson was so well tended that you know he didn't allow a spot of dirt to appear on his horse Madison was quite a bit more tolerant the realities of life horses get dirty you mentioned slavery in your book you say both hated slavery and both died owning slaves I know and it was to Madison at least it was one of the failures of his life something that toward the end of his life he felt desperate about he grabbed on to the idea of exporting freed slaves to Africa which many an important American did at that point John Marshall for example Henry Clay but it was totally impractical the idea that you could transport thousands of people to Africa who didn't want to go to the slaves this was home as much as it was to madison and jefferson so you know he grabbed on to this idea hoping there would be some way out but there wasn't and he knew it was a failure as a historian how do we historians of the present day look back on something like madison and jefferson the people who have these soaring rhetoric about equality how do we judge them or not judge them on something like slavery it's very difficult because clearly slavery is one of those things about which there is no debate it is wrong it is absolutely wrong for one human being to enslave another on the other hand they seem to be caught in a system that they didn't know how to get out of I've heard historians say it was a failure of imagination on their part but you know hard as I try to imagine what the solution was I don't know what it was Madison had a scheme that involved not only the exportation of freed slaves but financial recompense for a slave owners in order to free the slaves it was a plan exactly like the one Lincoln he had or very close to it before the Civil War you know but it didn't work and even a mind as great as Lincoln's and Madison's couldn't figure out and it took a great war to get rid of this great wrong thank you very much