Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War


When Thomas Jefferson wrote his epitaph, he listed as his accomplishments his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia statute of religious freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia. He did not mention his presidency or that he was second governor of the state of Virginia, in the most trying hours of the Revolution. Dumas Malone, author of the epic six-volume biography, wrote that the events of this time explain Jefferson's "character as a man of action in a serious emergency." Joseph Ellis, author of American Sphinx, focuses on other parts of Jefferson's life but wrote that his actions as governor "toughened him on the inside." It is this period, when Jefferson was literally tested under fire, that Michael Kranish illuminates in Flight From Monticello. Filled with vivid, precisely observed scenes, this book is a sweeping narrative of clashing armies--of spies, intrigue, desperate moments, and harrowing battles. The story opens with the first murmurs of resistance to Britain, as the colonies struggled under an onerous tax burden and colonial leaders--including Jefferson--fomented opposition to British rule. Kranish captures the tumultuous outbreak of war, the local politics behind Jefferson's actions in the Continental Congress (and his famous Declaration), and his rise to the governorship. Jefferson's life-long belief in the corrupting influence of a powerful executive led him to advocate for a weak governorship, one that lacked the necessary powers to raise an army. Thus, Virginia was woefully unprepared for the invading British troops who sailed up the James under the direction of a recently turned Benedict Arnold. Facing rag-tag resistance, the British force took the colony with very little trouble. The legislature fled the capital, and Jefferson himself narrowly eluded capture twice. Kranish describes Jefferson's many stumbles as he struggled to respond to the invasion, and along the way, the author paints an intimate portrait of Jefferson, illuminating his quiet conversations, his family turmoil, and his private hours at Monticello. "Jefferson's record was both remarkable and unsatisfactory, filled with contradictions," writes Kranish. As a revolutionary leader who felt he was unqualified to conduct a war, Jefferson never resolved those contradictions--but, as Kranish shows, he did learn lessons during those dark hours that served him all his life.


On July 4, 1781, the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had retreated to the safety of a small cabin at a remote plantation in the southwestern foothills of Virginia. Three columns of British forces had invaded the state during the last six months of Jefferson’s term as governor. One force was led by Benedict Arnold, a former ally turned traitor. the second was headed by Major General William Phillips, who until recently had been Jefferson’s favored guest at Monticello. a third general, Lord Cornwallis, arrived with a massive army and set up headquarters at another home owned by Jefferson. the rebellion that Jefferson had helped set in motion seemed in danger of turning decisively to the British as thousands of enemy troops overran Virginia. the British had chased Governor Jefferson from the capital of Richmond and they had come within minutes of capturing him in his study at Monticello. Jefferson vacated the governorship, fled his beloved mountaintop, galloped through forests, forded rivers, and climbed through passes to reach the remote fields of his Poplar Forest plantation. There, in the overseer’s cramped home, Jefferson hoped he and his family were safe.

In his refuge, Jefferson received a letter blaming him for everything that had occurred since the British invaded Virginia in January 1781 and informing him that an inquiry would be made into his wartime conduct. He had failed to stop the intruders. He had fled as Richmond was set aflame. He had left the state militia in tatters. Patriots were on the run. the slaves were in flight. British troops were squeezing Virginians in a pincer that Jefferson should have anticipated.

If the worst was believed, Jefferson would be formally censured and punished by the Virginia legislature. His political career would be over, his legacy forever tarnished.

Almost as stinging, Jefferson suspected the man behind the inquiry was someone he had known since he was seventeen, and whose revolutionary fervor had inspired him: Patrick Henry. Henry’s cry of “Give me liberty or give . . .

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