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Thomas Jefferson: Governor of Virginia, Part II

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Zeender, senior registrar in Exhibits at the National Archives in Washington, DC. This post continues the story of Jefferson as Governor, began in Part I.

Thomas Jefferson. Charcoal drawing. (59-PP-3)

Jefferson’s term as Governor ended on June 2, 1781, a dangerous and chaotic time for Virginia. General Cornwallis had heard of the General Assembly’s move to Charlottesville and quickly dispatched Lt. Col. Banastre Tarlton’s cavalry unit to capture members. Jefferson had already retired to nearby Monticello. In the confusion and disruption of normal government activity, the Assembly was unable to elect a new Governor, and so the state remained leaderless for almost a week.

When the Assembly did meet, it initiated an official inquiry into Governor Jefferson’s actions. Ultimately, the inquiry would go nowhere, but the criticism would shadow Jefferson for the rest of his life.

* * *

After Benedict Arnold’s attack on Richmond in January, Jefferson remained worried about the limited state resources and growing British threats.

He wrote to Congress: “The fatal want of arms puts it out of our power to bring a greater force into the field than will barely suffice to restrain the adventures of the pitiful body of men they have at Portsmouth. Should any others be added to them, this country will be perfectly open to them by land as well as by water.” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Huntington, February 8, 1781. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.)

In late April 1781, Jefferson and Virginia faced an uncertain future. The militia was proving difficult to organize, and so the British found little opposition. General Cornwallis received orders to move east and join Generals Phillips and Arnold’s force of 3,000 based at Portsmouth in southeast Virginia. Arnold moved toward Richmond on the south side of the James River. The British expected Richmond to be undefended as it had been in January, but the Marquis de Lafayette had raced his 1,200 soldiers from Alexandria to meet them.

On the evening of April 29, the two armies were separated only by the width of the James River. At dinner, an American soldier from Connecticut identified Phillips and Arnold, who were on the beach across the river surveying the landscape with a spyglass. Nearby Virginia riflemen saw them too and asked for Lafayette’s permission to fire at them. Lafayette refused, “declaring that he would meet the enemy openly in the field but would authorize nothing like assassination.”

Marquis de Lafayette. Engraving by George E. Perine (19-N-4581)

Jefferson wrote to Washington, reporting that the armies of Cornwallis and Arnold had come together. He pleaded with Washington for his “personal aid”:

We are too far removed from the other scenes of war, to say whether the main force of the Enemy be within this State, but I suppose they cannot any where spare so great an Army [together, Arnold and Cornwallis had about 7,000 troops] for the operations of the field: Were it possible for this Circumstance to justify in Your Excellency a determination to lend us Your personal aid, it is evident from the universal voice that the presence of their beloved Countryman, whose talents have been so long successfully employed in establishing the freedom of kindred States, to whose person they have still flattered themselves they retained some right, and have ever looked up as their dernier resort in distress, that your appearance among them I say would restore full confidence of salvation, and would render them equal to whatever is not impossible. Letter from Jefferson to George Washington, May 28, 1781. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers

While Jefferson was appealing to Washington to make a bold strategic move towards the south, Cornwallis had learned that the Virginia General Assembly had moved to Charlottesville and Jefferson had gone to Monticello. Cornwallis dispatched Lt. Colonel Tarleton’s cavalry on a secret expedition to capture Jefferson and members of the Assembly.

Fortunately for the Virginians, Jack Jouett of the militia thwarted the British plan by riding 40 miles through the night to give warning, allowing Jefferson and his family to escape to Poplar Forest. Only seven Assembly members were captured. The Assembly reconvened on June 7 in Staunton, VA.

Jefferson’s term had expired on June 2, but the Assembly had not yet had an opportunity to choose a replacement. Some members did not realize what had happened, and others felt that Jefferson should have stayed in place until his successor was named. Forced to move for the second time in a matter of weeks and with no defense ready to protect the state, many were upset, and Jefferson was an obvious target for  their anger.

On June 8, Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, who had been staying at Monticello at the time of Tarleton’s raid, wrote to Joseph Jones: “We have now no Executive in the State. For want of a Senate the governor will act no more, and the remainder of the council will not get together. I hope we shall set these matters right next week” (Letters of Joseph Jones, ed. W. C. Ford, 1889).  Four days later, the Assembly elected Gen. Thomas Nelson as the new Governor, a choice previously recommended by Jefferson.

At the urging of Jefferson’s former mentor and friend Patrick Henry, the young delegate George Nicholas introduced a resolution calling for “an inquiry be made into the conduct of the Executive of this State for the last twelve months.”

Henry and Jefferson had grown apart in recent years, and Nicholas had come under Henry’s influence. The Assembly voted for the resolution and sent notice to Jefferson at Poplar Forest.

During the summer, Lafayette delivered an appointment from the Continental Congress requesting that Jefferson travel to Paris to join the American peace commissioners John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. With regret, Jefferson turned down the appointment so he could prepare his defense to the Assembly.

Jefferson wrote 15 years later in his diary:

The nonsense which has been uttered on the coup de main of Tarlton on Charlottesville is really so ridiculous that it is almost ridiculous seriously to notice it . . . when a neighbor rode up full speed to inform me that a troop of horse was then ascending the hill to the house . . . , after a short delay . . . I mounted my horse, and I went thro’ the woods. . . . Would it be believed, were it not known, that this flight from a troop of horse . . . has been the subject, with party writers, of volumes of reproach on me, serious or sarcastic? That it has been sung in verse . . . forgetting the noble example of the hero of La Mancha, and his windmills, I declined a combat, singly against a troop, in which victory would have been so glorious? Forgetting, themselves, at the same time, that I was not provided with the enchanted arms of the knight, nor even with his helmet of Mambrino. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

In this account and others, Jefferson’s reaction to news of Tarleton’s troop was calm and deliberate. A neighbor, Christopher Hudson, notified Jefferson of the imminent arrival of the British cavalry at Monticello.

I immediately proceeded to Monticello, where I found Mr. Jefferson, perfectly tranquil, and undisturbed. At my earnest request he left his house; which was Surrounded in Ten Minutes at farthest by a troop of Light-horse. I was convinced his Situation was truly critical since there was only one Man (his gardener) upon the Spot. Deposition of Christopher Hudson respecting Tarleton’s Raid in June 1781, July 26, 1805.  Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Tarleton had a reputation for mistreating civilians and destroying property, but according to Jefferson, he hardly touched his Monticello home, though he did burn several barns.

Banastre Tarleton. Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ca. 1782. (148-GW619)

The attacks on his service as Governor upset Jefferson and haunted him throughout his political career and almost to his grave. While he waited for the day to defend himself before the Virginia Assembly, the Americans won the decisive victory at Yorktown, and any strong feelings against Jefferson dissolved. When the new Assembly convened, no one would speak against him. The former Governor chose instead to serve as prosecutor and defense attorney, posing charges that others had been alleged previously and answered the same.

In a more reflective moment, the Assembly chose to praise Jefferson instead of chastise him:

The Assembly wish . . . in the strongest manner to declare the high opinion which they entertain of Mr. Jefferson’s Ability, Rectitude, and Integrity as cheif Magistrate of this Commonwealth, and mean by thus publicly avowing their Opinion, to obviate all future, and to remove all former unmerited Censure. Resolution of the Virginia General Assembly, December 12, 1781. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Jefferson made mistakes as Governor, the most important being his departure from the Governor’s chair at the expiration of his second term before the Assembly had elected his replacement and while the state was in the midst of crisis. He admitted his shortcomings in military matters, so perhaps it was a mistake to even assume the office of Governor during a time of war.

On the other hand, the war had not reached Virginia when Jefferson was elected. The state’s resources were depleted to the war in the north for five years, and the militia system at home was vulnerable to an attack of British regulars. During that period, the war had been fought mostly in New York, New Jersey, the New England states, and Canada. As his efforts and writings (and those of others) show, Jefferson was neither an inactive nor inattentive Governor.

Further reading: Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War, by Michael Kranish, Oxford  University Press, 2010

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