Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13 Domesticity in Time of War

WHILE diligently engaged in the preparation of an entire corpus of laws for the permanent use of Virginia, Jefferson did nor neglect his immediate duties in the Assembly. The exigencies of war permitted no cloistered calm and the threat of British invasion was ever imminent.

The capital of Williamsburg was peculiarly exposed to sudden raids from the hovering fleet and the defenses were weak and inadequate. Accordingly, on October 14, 1776, Jefferson brought in a bill proposing the removal of government to the safe interior.1 But he had more in mind than a mere temporary displacement. He called for a permanent capital ar Richmond as approximating the geographic and population center of the state, arguing that thereby business could be facilitated and the convenience of the inhabitants consulted. What he failed to say was that thereby the influence of the Tidewater conservatives might also be diminished and that of the more radical upcountry stock enhanced.

The Tidewater delegates mustered sufficient strength to defeat the bill at the moment, and it was nor until May, 1779, when the British were actually converging on the exposed capital, that the reluctant lawgivers yielded and Richmond was designated as Virginia's seat of government.2

Jefferson was responsible for other abortive bills, such as an attempt to suspend executions for debt until the restoration of normal conditions, provided the defendant gave proper security for eventual payment.3 The reasoning was plain; in the desperate condition of the planters, any attempt at collection of their long-outstanding debts might be disastrous, and the planters had accordingly opposed any organization of the courts to prevent it. Jefferson hoped to allay their alarm with this compromise and at the same time permit legal processes to be reinstated. The planters refused to take the bait, and both went down to defeat.

The momentous session ended rather darkly for the ambitious architect of a brave new world. He had gained some resounding successes, notably in the abolition of entails and in the beginning at least of a far-reaching revision and codification of the laws. But the conservatives had rallied toward the end and consistently defeated, or delayed, other sections of his vast schemes of improvement. But he was willing to wait, realizing that dine was on his side and that the forces behind him were steadily growing in confidence and strength.

With a sigh of relief he returned to his beloved Monticello, to minister

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