Jefferson on Washington

To Jefferson, Washington had been a grand, often distant figure whose grace and aloofness made him a living figure of myth. “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern,” Jefferson wrote long afterward. “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.” Jefferson was less impressed with Washington’s intellectual gifts. “His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”

There were hidden depths. “His temper was naturally irritable and high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendency over it,” Jefferson continued. “If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath.” Washington was a man, in other words, around whom one was careful.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham