Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The Great Virginia Triumvirate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010 • xiv, 250 pp. • $27.95
Reviewed by Mary Ferrari, associate professor of history at Radford University. She teaches Virginia and Revolutionary America history, and her current research interest concerns the coming of the Revolution in Charleston, South Carolina..
Given the vast historiography on Virginia's founding fathers, it is hard to imagine that a new book on these thoroughly studied people could provide a unique and compelling perspective, but John Kaminski's work does just that. His biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are based on primary source material from both the famous, including the men themselves, and the not so famous. These biographies are brief and interesting, but because of the sources, they are much more about the men and their habits, personalities, and insecurities than about their politics.
The biographies are written as separate entities, and the reader is left with the task of drawing parallels between the three. The topics discussed—such as their early challenges, daily routines, contemporaries' first impressions on meeting them, views toward slavery, and how they spent their retirement years—are roughly the same for all three. The descriptions of people's first impressions of the three were complicated and quite interesting. Washington seemed to have an immediate affect on most people; when people first met Madison, they were not impressed until they started listening to what he said. By focusing on rarely consulted sources, Kaminski offers a different perspective beyond the traditional political discussion. For example, instead of focusing on Washington's eagerness to become commander-in-chief, Kaminski finds sources from both Washington and his friends that show at first that he was worried about the position and the affect it would have on his
reputation. Rather than repeating well-covered material about Washington and the battles of the war, Kaminski discusses, for example, the psychological warfare Washington employed when he returned General Sir William Howe's stray dog. These are just a few examples of how, by looking at new sources, the author is able to offer new perspectives.
The section on Washington is the longest and hence most inclusive of the three. Much of his long public life is discussed. The section on James Madison gives more attention to his role in creating, ratifying, and implementing the Constitution than to his eight years in the White House. Madison's political philosophies are mentioned, but it is his and others' thoughts and impressions of the process that are emphasized. The section on Thomas Jefferson covers more traditional political interpretations, and his biography has more extensive block quotations than the other two. Sally Hemmings is dealt with briefly with a balanced view of the controversy.
The author states in the beginning that the audience for this book is the general public as well as students and teachers. The brief nature and quick movement from topic to topic of the three biographies certainly make it appropriate for the reader unfamiliar with this history. However, his sources are different and there are enough new tidbits that would make this an interesting read for experienced scholars. Although this book offers new perspectives on the Virginians' image and some aspects of their lives, none of the topics is discussed with enough depth that the book fully challenges existing interpretations. At all levels, it is certainly worth reading.