Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16 Aftermath

THUS abruptly, and most ingloriously, Jefferson ended his two years as Governor of Virginia. He handed in his resignation on June 1, 1781, which he conceived marked the legal date of termination of his office; on the next day he shook the dust of government from his shoes and departed for Monticello and home. Bitterness must have welled in him, and a sense of release. True, another Governor had yet to be elected, and an interregnum of eleven days elapsed, during which time--with the defection of both Governor and Council--no Executive existed in Virginia.

But what did it matter? If the truth were known, and Jefferson in his heart knew it, none had existed for some time. As far back as May 14th, Jefferson had practically thrown in the sponge. On that day he had candidly told Lafayette that it was vain to call out a militia that would not come. "I could perhaps do something," he added pathetically, "by Reprimands to the County Lieutenants by repeating and even increasing the Demands on them by way of penalty." And one of his last official letters to the Assembly repeated vaguely that something had to be done about the backward militia; though what, exactly, he failed to mention.1

He made one last desperate appeal to Washington to come down in person and save the state they both loved. By the time the reply came--for the moment, at least, in the negative--Jefferson had resigned. Nor could Washington's kindly accolade do much to relieve the burden of Jefferson's bitterness. "Give me leave . . ." wrote the commander, "to Express the obligations I am under for the readiness and Zeal with which you have always forwarded and supported every measure which I have had occasion to recommend thro' you."2

Jefferson was always to remain on the defensive with respect to his term as Governor; the very vehemence with which he defended himself discloses his uneasy feeling that he had not shone particularly in the office. He had been conscientious and had not spared himself. During the first invasion he had remained in the saddle until he had practically dropped from fatigue; he had maintained a stream of correspondence and orders that is amazing in its volume. Perhaps that was one of his failings--the belief that dispatching a letter could solve a given situation. Yet it must be confessed that as a civilian he could do little more. He had neither the military type of mind nor the flair for action that the times demanded; both of which his successor was finally to furnish. And the veneration which he paid to the legal limitations on his powers did not make the problem more easy. Not until much

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