FLIGHT FROM MONTICELLO:
THOMAS JEFFERSON AT WAR
By Michael Kranish
Oxford University Press
$27.95, 400 pages
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
The circumstances suggested the political doom of any official: a governor who flees his state capital that is under threat of seizure by the enemy, takes refuge in remote mountains and falls silent for weeks during the crisis.
To be sure, opprobrium was swift and biting. A legislator from the governor’s home county wondered whether his conduct was intended to enable the invader to wreak havoc across the state. In a gloriously tangled metaphor, a militia commander complained that “the root of Springs of Government is rotten.” [sic] An “inquiry” into the governor’s conduct was voted - and approval of the motion “was considered tantamount to a form of censure.”
The object of this fury was none other than Thomas Jefferson, one of the fathers of the American Revolution and author of the Declaration of Independence. The story of this seldom-told episode of our early history is dramatically told by Michael Kranish, who reports from Washington for the Boston Globe. Even people with broad knowledge of the Revolutionary period will gain from his diligent research, analytical insight and sparkling prose.
Although Jefferson commanded considerable respect in his native Virginia - he was elected as its second governor - he also evoked the enmity of many other ambitious men, and particularly Patrick Henry. Jefferson disliked him from their first meeting, recording that his manners had something of coarseness to them. Henry’s skill as an orator (“Give me liberty or give me death”) left Jefferson dubious, that Henry said “the strangest things in finest language, but without logic.” He considered him “avaritious [sic] and rotten-hearted.”
Henry, for his part, considered Jefferson to be of a set of wealthier Virginians who cared naught for small farmers or yeomen. And, indeed, such class rivalries bedeviled the Revolution for its entire course.
Matters became acute in Virginia in 1781, when the British burned Norfolk to the ground and severely damaged Richmond. With the army of Lord Cornwallis on the march, Jefferson complained that there was not “a shilling in the public coffers” to ensure the state’s safety. He pleaded with the legislature for authority to compel men to serve in the militia. Many refused to report for duty when ordered; some who did left “in defiance with their arms.”
But legislators were well aware of resistance to military service, especially in remote areas of Virginia, where men claimed they wished to protect their own families, and to guard against slave uprisings. They rejected Jefferson’s plea, 32-27. Nor would Northern states heed Virginia’s plea for federal troops (the number of which, to be sure, was limited).
To add to the Virginians’ chagrin, part of Cornwallis’ army was commanded by none other than Benedict Arnold, who had defected from Washington’s army because of perceived slights and thrown in his lot with the British. His troops wreaked havoc as they marched through Virginia; in one particular repugnant incident, soldiers raped a 9-year-old girl. That they were hanged did not lessen public anger.
And, at the height of the crisis, Jefferson’s daughter, aged 4 months, died, the third of his five children to die very young. His term as governor had expired several days earlier, and the dysfunctional legislature had done nothing to elect him to another term or pick a successor. So he was formally no longer governor.View Entire Story
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