Willard Sterne Randall’s “Thomas Jefferson Takes a Vacation,” in your July/ August issue, raises the old suspicion that Jefferson and Madison visited New York to engage in anti-Federalist “double-dealing” with Aaron Burr and Philip Freneau. There may be another explanation for such a get-together.
As Randall points out, the 1791 trip was Madison’s idea, and he made the arrangements. An alumnus of the class of 1771 at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Madison was dropping in on a ’71 classmate (Freneau) and a member of the class of ’72 (Burr). At a time when Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale remained essentially regional institutions, Princeton was the most national of American colleges and had recently conferred an honorary doctor of law on Madison. President John Witherspoon, himself a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the trustees and the faculty “were not barely willing but proud of the opportunity of paying some attention to and giving a testimony of their approbation of one of their own sons who had done them so much honor by his public service.”
In the spring of 1791 Madison (and Jefferson) could have been stopping to urge Freneau to found the National Gazette and thereby join Congressman Madison and the new Senator Burr in what would later become known as “Princeton in the nation’s service.” Freneau certainly did so and received a sinecure as a translator for the Department of State, whose secretary happened to be Madison’s traveling companion. On the other hand, Madison was the first president of Princeton’s alumni association, and if Jefferson was inventing the summer vacation, Madison may have been enjoying another popular activity of that time of year: the Princeton reunion. (By the way, this year would have been his 225th and also happens to be the university’s 250th anniversary.)