Was it a relaxing retreat? A working vacation? Or merely an intriguing story that is more about how we view U.S. history than what actually happened?
In this episode of In the Course of Human Events, Frank Cogliano, a professor of American history at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, shares an oft-repeated story about a fishing trip taken by George Washington in the summer of 1790, possibly with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Helping him break it down are Kate Brown, assistant professor of American history at Western Kentucky University, and Jim Ambuske, of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Jim Ambuske: There's no way that these three guys got on a boat together and were like, all right, we're gonna go hang out for a few days, and it'll be fun.
I'm Dr. Jim Ambuske. I'm a historian and senior producer at R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Kate Brown: I'm Dr. Kate Brown and I teach at Western Kentucky University. I'm an Assistant Professor in the History Department.
Jim Ambuske: Welcome to In the Course of Human Events, a Monticello Podcast. Today we're going to hear a story about the time that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson went fishing, or did they?
Three men in a boat
Frank Cogliano: Hello. I am Frank Cogliano and I am Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and I am a Research Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies here at Monticello. I'm just completing a book manuscript, which I began when I had a long-term fellowship here a couple of years ago, on the relationship between Jefferson and George Washington.
I want to talk to you today about a fish tale. I think that this small story tells us some larger truths about the way we do history, but also our understanding of politics in the 1790s, and about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with George Washington.
The story, as it's traditionally told, and it's been told by biographers of Washington, biographers of Hamilton, and biographers of Jefferson, is as follows: In May of 1790, Washington had suffered a near fatal bout of pneumonia, but by the end of that month he was recovering. As part of his convalescence, Washington, who always liked outdoor activities, suggested a fishing trip. So, in early June of 1790, Thomas Jefferson went fishing with George Washington, and in some versions of the story, with Alexander Hamilton. New York was the capital of the United States in 1790, so they were living in New York City and they went fishing off the coast of New Jersey.
If you think about this image, we have three of the principal leaders of the United States and three of the most important of the so-called "founding fathers" on a small boat together fishing for several days in 1790. And given that we know that Jefferson and Hamilton would come to really detest each other during their time serving in Washington's cabinet, it's a moment that's quite pregnant with possibilities. We want to know, what did they say to each other? What was it like for the three of them to be on that boat together? Did George Washington want to knock their heads together or throw them overboard?
Jim Ambuske: In 1790, we're at a moment where Jefferson and Hamilton and Washington are trying to figure out how a republic can cohere, when you have so many different personalities, represented by these three men, in many ways. Kate, you wanna start with Hamilton, because he's the fun one?
Kate Brown: Hamilton is the fun one, and it took Lin Manuel Miranda to make everybody realize that. So Alexander Hamilton has the complete opposite backstory as a Thomas Jefferson or a George Washington. He does not grow up as part of the elite planter class of the thirteen North American colonies. He's stuck on a Caribbean island, but Hamilton is pretty brilliant and manages to make his way to the American colonies right before the revolution happens. He's able to meet and impress George Washington, and so by the time we get to 1790, when the fishing story takes place, Alexander Hamilton has arrived, but I think that there's always a little bit of a feeling of he has to keep impressing people because he knows that he doesn't come from that elite background. Probably Hamilton was pretty grating to have to spend a lot of time with if you weren't friends with him.
Jim Ambuske: By contrast, George Washington is not only president of the United States, he's also the preeminent Virginian. And like most Virginians of his social standing, he has a burning desire to ascend even higher into the social hierarchy of Virginia in the 18th century. And through inheriting Mount Vernon and then through his marriage to Martha Washington he comes into possession of, or at least legal control of, a vast amount of financial wealth.
I think with Jefferson, he's such an interesting figure in comparison to these two men, whereas Hamilton is very energetic and Washington is very reserved and has no real formal education past the age of 11, Jefferson is a highly educated individual. He is also very cosmopolitan in his thinking, as is evidence of Monticello itself and the architectural design of the place. He brings a worldly knowledge, I think, to his life that, in many ways, you might say Washington and Hamilton do not.
Kate Brown: I would add Jefferson learns to be a lawyer and he does practice a little bit, but I think, ultimately, Jefferson sort of always hovers above with his grand ideas, which are beautifully phrased and enduring across time. Hamilton is a practicing lawyer and so I think that that sort of different picture of Jefferson with the big ideas and Hamilton in the nitty gritty of how to actually execute the law, how to actually get it done, suggests differences about them that are fundamental in how they interact with this new national government that both of them are so instrumental in shaping.
Frank Cogliano: The traditional view is that they went off fishing for several days and came back, and that's been the accepted view for a long time. The Gazette of the United States reported on June 12th that the president, quote, "had returned from Sandy Hook and the fishing banks, where he has been for the benefit of the sea air and to amuse himself in the delightful recreating of fishing." The paper reported that Washington had caught great numbers of sea bass and blackfish. That seems to be the extent of our knowledge of this trip. I'm skeptical it took place.
Kate Brown: Washington tries to get his cabinet secretaries to do social functions, where we're not doing official business here, we are having a somewhat good time. I do think that there is a realm of possibility where Washington could have coaxed these two guys to get in a boat together. It's only 1790, so that bad feeling that develops between the two of them is not there yet. Jefferson maybe if he brought a book along, he would find it to be relaxing. I don't know of Hamilton being a big fisherman. So the only way I could imagine that Hamilton is there too is if he was like, okay, Washington, I'll be there because you want us to get to know each other but I'm bringing some work to do, because he is actively working during this period.
Jim Ambuske: He'd be like the teenager who's just sitting on his iPhone while the adults are talking the whole time.
Kate Brown: Yeah, except that he's actually getting the government's business done. He's not just playing a game, Jim, he's got important stuff to do.
Jim Ambuske: Exactly.
It's a wonderful story
Frank Cogliano: I want to pause for a moment and just consider why we think this is a wonderful story. We like the idea of these three men going out and fishing together. We also, I think, hope that some sort of political discussions went on and we can wonder about what they discussed, and did they talk about Hamilton's fiscal plans, for example.
This fishing trip took place several weeks before the famous dinner table bargain between Hamilton and James Madison, when, in Jefferson's dining room in New York, Hamilton and Madison supposedly worked out the deal so that Hamilton's plan for the federal government to assume state debts would go through in exchange for the movement of the capital, first from New York to Philadelphia, and then from Philadelphia to a site along the Potomac that became Washington DC. We wonder, were they talking about that when they were out fishing or did they not discuss politics at all?
Kate Brown: In the political world right now, it's 1790, and what's in the middle of happening on the ground in Congress is that Hamilton, as Treasury Secretary, has proposed a financial plan to help get us out of what is basically bankruptcy. The problem is that Hamilton proposes that the national government take responsibility for the roughly 25 million dollars of outstanding state debt that was accumulated during the Revolutionary War. That's the part of the financial plan that historians label "assumption," because Hamilton wants to assume the state's debt.
But a complicating factor is that not all states are equally in a position to need their debts assumed. Virginia, for example, has done a lot more than South Carolina to pay down their Revolutionary War debts. And so they sort of see this as, well, why should we pay all these taxes to pay down some other state's debts?
So there's this sort of inequity, also combined with suspicion about, is Hamilton trying to consolidate power in the national government? We already got rid of a monarchical tyranny. Are we trying to plant a new one? And so that sort of paranoia enters the picture, too. All of this results in James Madison blocking the assumption bill.
So June of 1790, when this fishing trip is about to happen, that problem has not been resolved. Jefferson comes up with this idea to broker the ultimate final deal on a Sunday night in June of 1790, two weeks later, after the fishing trip would've happened. So Hamilton gets his assumption plan effectively unblocked by Madison, and then Hamilton is able to lean on some friends in Congress to get them to vote to move the capital city to a permanent home on the Potomac River.
Jim Ambuske: Washington, he's not at this dinner, but he wants both of these things, because if you assume the state debt and you attach people to the federal government, you establish the nation on firmer footing, but then you get the Potomac site.
Kate Brown: Totally, and Washington will be the person who plans this new capital city. That becomes this big important project to him in the rest of the 1790s, which is the remainder of his life.
What really happened?
Frank Cogliano: It's an attractive story to think of the three of them out fishing together. But I'm skeptical it took place for the following reasons. First of all, Jefferson had been unwell. He was suffering from one of his periodic migraine headaches in that first week of June 1790. Jefferson had these throughout his life and they were quite debilitating. He wrote to his daughter Patsy on June 6th, 1790, "I am going tomorrow on a sailing party of three or four days with the president. Should we meet sea enough to make me sick, I shall hope it will carry off my headache."
Jefferson was not known for making jokes very often, but this is certainly a bitter irony that he was hoping that seasickness might make him forget about his migraine. But as his letter suggests, he intended to go on the trip. That statement in the letter is the strongest evidence that we have that Jefferson went fishing with George Washington.
However, secondly, Jefferson was a meticulous record keeper. We have a pretty good sense of where he was most days of his adult life. Jefferson recorded in his memorandum book on June 8th that he had seen a whippoorwill, and it's unlikely that he would have seen a whippoorwill at sea. He also recorded buying things in New York City, in Manhattan at the time. And he also noted that the first peas and strawberries of the season had arrived during that period. So it seems likely that Jefferson was shopping in Manhattan rather than fishing with the president.
The belief that Washington and Jefferson went fishing together, especially if they went with Hamilton, though, is very attractive to us because we know that Jefferson and Hamilton will become estranged in the very near future. We know that Jefferson and Washington will become estranged within about five years. And because of those future conflicts, we want to see the roots of those conflicts in the story of this fishing trip.
On the contrary, I think it was a totally normal human interaction that one would expect from two friends, right down to Jefferson declining to go on the trip, if I'm correct, that he wasn't feeling very well and he decided to stay in Manhattan and go buy strawberries and peas. You will decline going out with your friends if you're not feeling very well, and that doesn't end your friendship, necessarily. So to some extent, I think Jefferson's absence tells us more than his presence would.
Jim Ambuske: Jefferson, like Washington, is a meticulous record keeper. It's a wonder to historians, because the records that he's keeping allows us to open up a whole new world of the economy in this period, but also, especially importantly for the community here at Monticello, for the enslaved labor community that lives here and what their lives were like. We can use all of that information to tell a variety of complex stories.
Kate Brown: You're making me think of how for so long American history has been written from the perspective of politics. What is the government doing? What kind of laws are we passing?
And it is the day-to-day transactions of Jefferson getting strawberries and peas, the receipts that George Washington accumulates when he's traveling around the United States. It's not the big ideas about liberty, it's about, like, what did they eat? What kind of wine did they like? What kind of dishware were they buying? That's a fascinatingly new way to even experience early American history.
Jim Ambuske: And then Kate, as you say, we can, we can begin to ask, well, where did those plates come from that he purchased? Who made them? Where were the strawberries and peas grown? Are they native to North America or were they descended from seeds that came from elsewhere? What was the other side of that trade? Who were the people that made these things or grew these things? What were their lives like and how did they use the money that they received to support their livelihoods? What do we know about them within the larger economy that's taking place in this period? When we start to ask different questions of those sources, well then, whole new worlds of possibility open up.
Kate Brown: I actually think it's refreshing when we have these little moments where it's just common everyday occurrences. For so long, we have examined history in that political narrative, but most of life is not like that. How many hours do I spend doing nothing of real true significance? Well, same with Washington, same with Jefferson, same with every other American who lived in the late 18th century, and that history matters too. Understanding what life was like, just period, and not just focusing on the big events.
So I think it's refreshing to say, ah, this is what would've happened if two Virginia planters wanted to just kick back and shoot the breeze together, and if they wanted to invite a sort of high strung New Yorker to join the party, this is what the invitation would've looked like. That sort of information we gain about what leisure, what relaxation would be in the 18th century, that's valuable historical knowledge too.
Jim Ambuske: It also allows us to ask different questions too, assuming, for the sake of argument that it did happen, because it's not like, especially in Washington and Jefferson's case, they would've gone alone. They would've had enslaved and possibly free servants with them as well. Because it's not like they were going to dress themselves or, you know, prepare for the date by themselves. They were plantation owners. They owned hundreds of enslaved people. And so who were the men who were on the boat with them? There is a potential hidden history there, that we can begin to probe even deeper if we begin to ask different questions.
Kate Brown: historian can take an episode like this and connect it to something larger that is historically meaningful. That's what historians do, and that's interesting history as well.
Washington and Jefferson
Frank Cogliano: Jefferson and Washington knew each other for 30 years. In the early years, they weren't particularly close, although their lives kept intersecting during the pre-war resistance. They corresponded quite a bit during Jefferson's tenure as governor of Virginia, because Washington corresponded with the governors of all the states during the war.
At war's end, during the 1780s, their relationship really blossoms, in part because Jefferson's in France, and so the only way they can communicate is via letter. We see their relationship deepen, at least as measured by that correspondence, both the number of letters, but also the quality of the letters. This is what will lead Washington to look to Jefferson to become his first Secretary of State after he's elected president. He has to really kind of beg Jefferson to do it. Washington was a guy who was used to getting his way and not used to having to ask people to do things twice. He had to ask Jefferson several times to serve as his Secretary of State. All of this, in my reading, suggests they worked together more productively than many suspect, at least in the early days of the Washington administration.
The differences emerge over the Hamiltonian fiscal program and, more generally, how the United States should orient itself vis-a-vis both France and Britain. Eventually, Jefferson will resign from the Washington administration with effect from January 1st, 1794.
From 1794 until 1797, Jefferson is a private citizen. During that time, he wrote a letter to Filippo Mazzei, his Italian friend, with some language that was obliquely critical of Washington. He said, "You'd be very surprised to see how men who were Samsons in the field," that's a reference to Washington's tenure as the commander of the Continental Army, "have had their hair shorn by the harlot England." And what he means by this is that, as the biblical story goes, Samson was a warrior who had had his hair cut, and when he lost his hair he lost his power. This was because of what Jefferson perceived as Washington's pro-British policies.
Well, Mazzei shared this letter and it went from Italy to France, it was translated and re-translated, and then it's picked up by the newspapers in France, it's then picked up by newspapers in the United States and retranslated, and the translations are slightly garbled, and this letter that's critical of Washington appears in the press in the United States in 1797, when Jefferson is now Vice President of the United States and Washington is retired. And this caused a rift between Jefferson and Washington, which was never healed, because Washington's retirement was very short lived. He died in December of 1799.
As evidence for how deep this resentment went, Jefferson did visit Mount Vernon in early January of 1801, so about 13 months after Washington's death. Martha Washington said of Jefferson's visit that it was the second worst day of her life. The worst day of her life was the day that George died. The second worst day of her life was the day that Thomas Jefferson turned up to pay his respects to her and offer his condolences. That is a result of the bad blood that arose between Washington and Jefferson after the Mazzei letter was published.
Kate Brown: I think the problem with Jefferson in this episode is that Jefferson talks smack just like Hamilton does, but he's not honest about it. He always tries to make it seem like he's not behind it. He doesn't have these opinions.
Jim Ambuske: But essentially, Jefferson gets caught in the act and Washington responds to him. He writes, I know it was you, and then very coldly, in all the ways that only Washington could, he quickly shifts to, and so you asked me about agriculture and these new seeds and blah, blah, blah. And it's a great example of shutting someone down cold and then passive aggressively changing the subject.
Kate Brown: I agree with you. And Washington was very good at that, just sort of letting people know where they stand. I'm sure that that comes from the fact that Washington would know that Jefferson would feel ashamed that Washington knew that Jefferson was behind this, even though Jefferson wasn't sort of mature enough to admit it.
But it reminds me of the Real Housewives. The same dynamic happens all the time where there's like talking behind your back and no accountability. That's why Washington would be so angry that Martha Washington would be still kindling that fire so many years later, because it's kind of two-faced of Jefferson. Total Real Housewives.
Frank Cogliano: My argument is that we've misread the Jefferson-Washington relationship because of the way it ended. It ended so badly that we've tended to project that back in time. I want to confess, I wanted this story to be true because I wanted to begin the book with it, and it would've been great if the three of them had been out fishing together, but it doesn't seem to me that the evidence supports that. So I slightly misled you, dear listeners, when I said we're beginning with a fish story, cause we're really beginning with a non-fish story.
Jim Ambuske: Right now we are in a very particularly fractious time in our politics and so there are moments when a story like this can appeal to us, where three guys, who went through a revolutionary age together and had some different political opinions, went on a fishing trip and discussed what was threatening the survival of the new nation.
Kate Brown: I always feel hopeful because I think, oh my gosh, if during the 1790s, we could make it through that decade, and of course the 1850s later, then whatever our current political situation is, we have been here before and it didn't fall apart.
It is distressing to me, though, that rather than encouraging Americans today to look to the past to find hopeful moments like, hey, we've been in political disagreement before, even violent political disagreement, like dueling culture. It is very alarming that the path many are taking is to limit what kinds of history can be taught. We can keep informing Americans honestly about what the past was like in all of its messiness and all of its cruelty, but also in all of its hopefulness.
Jim Ambuske: I entirely agree. We're trying to tell a much more complicated story that helps us explain what actually happened.
Kate Brown: Honest history, warts and all, will set us free.
Jim Ambuske: Kate, it's always a delight. Thanks very much for being my teammate once again on this project, and thank you to Frank Cogliano for telling us an excellent tall fish tale.
Kate Brown: Thanks everyone for listening and join us next time.
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Narrated by Frank Cogliano
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn