Friday, March 26, 2010



By Michael Kranish

Oxford University Press

$27.95, 400 pages


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.

Despairing of any organized effort to halt the British, Jefferson and his wife and surviving children fled, first from Richmond, then from his mountainside home Monticello. Usually loquacious in his daily diary, Jefferson’s entry for the date stated simply: “June 4. British horse come to Monticello.” And indeed British cavalry arrived at the house barely five minutes after the family’s departure.

Mr. Kranish uses richer passages in Jefferson’s diary to describe his arduous flight to the south, fording rivers and scrambling up and down mountains. Refuge did not mean peace, for he soon learned of the legislators’ attempt to blame him for the British successes. He clearly believed that Henry was his chief tormentor - a charge never admitted, but one that Jefferson repeated for years.

In due course, as we know, the beleaguered Revolutionary army stood down Cornwallis, and Jefferson emerged to defend his name and his actions. Responding to the charges, he wrote that “suggestion and fact are different things.” In the book he wrote from his far-away cabin, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson asked how a ragtag militia “with a single armed boat” could be expected to fight the greatest army and navy in the world. He threw blame back at the legislature.

Once peace came, Jefferson returned to Monticello and won a seat in the House of Delegates “with a single object” - that of clearing his name, after which he would resign. Wisely, the legislature decided to let the matter drop.

Jefferson’s final vindication came in 1800, with his election to the presidency. Nonetheless, he spent the remainder of his life combating historical accounts that he considered “a stain on my honor.” To be sure, Jefferson’s flights from Richmond and Monticello “were the lowest points of his public life,” as Mr. Kranish writes. Capture, of course, would have meant the gallows, so he had ample reason to withdraw from a seemingly hopeless situation. But that he persevered says much about the character of Jefferson.

“Flight from Monticello” is a worthwhile read.

I cannot resist citing a riff by Mr. Kranish that will interest spy buffs: a covert action aimed at kidnapping the turncoat Benedict Arnold. Gen. Washington and aide General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee recruited a sergeant major named John Champe, from Loudoun County, for the mission. Champe, “full of bone and muscle,” faked desertion and hooked up with the British in New Jersey. As a presumed defector, he had an audience with Arnold, and plans were well under way for a capture when the sudden movement of the British army to the south spoiled things.

Champe’s story is a book waiting to be written.

Joseph C. Goulden is completing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail address is

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