No man was ever more successful in moving with the spirit of his age than Jefferson, who, by way of reward, received all the honors his country could bestow and the veneration of successive generations of his countrymen. It seems hard to realize, then, that the great exemplar of democracy in the mid-channel of his career narrowly escaped shipwreck complete and utter. That he did escape and finally triumphed was due not to dexterity or power of will, but to his capacity for expressing the ideals of the age in which he lived. He survived, not so much because he was a skillful politician as because he was a vivid writer.
Thomas Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia on June 12, 1779, succeeding Patrick Henry, the first governor under the Commonwealth, who retired to the country in broken health. Jefferson had already succeeded Henry in something more important than the office itself - the leadership of the progressive or democratic party in Virginia. He had changed the Revolution from a struggle for external political liberty into a movement for social reform, and in so doing displaced Henry from his chieftainship. The orator had sunk into a secondary place, while Jefferson had grown to be the leading figure in the State. His election to the governorship was a tribute to his activity as a revolutionist and reformer, as well as his natural reward as the head of the victorious democratic party. At the moment of his election Jefferson wielded an influence such as 'no Virginian had ever possessed. He had carried out great reforms in spite of conservative opposition and had won the confidence and support of the great mass of poor and obscure men throughout Virginia. It is likely that the conservatives, who nominated John Page to oppose him, apprehended that his tenure of the executive chair would result in a further extension of his (to them) pernicious influence. "In a virtuous and free State," Jefferson said in his speech of acceptance, "no rewards can be so pleasing to sensible minds, as those which include the approbation of our fellow citizens. My great pain is, lest my poor endeavors should fall short of the kind expectations of my country."<a href="#1" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 1
Journal, House of Delegates (May, 1779), 31."> If there is a power which sometimes playfully inspires merely formal utterances, turning them into prophetic, that power lay behind these words. Never were the flattering apprehensions of a successful candidate on assuming office better justified. Within the short space of two years Jefferson, in the judgment of a majority of the people, had fallen signally short of their expectations and an investigation of his administration was formally proposed in the assembly.
This complete reversal of public opinion, which tumbled the democratic chieftain from his great position to the depths of apparent ruin, with impeachment in sight, resulted from the easy triumphs of the British arms in Virginia in the latter period of the war. In what measure the patriot disasters were due to circumstances that Jefferson could not be expected to control and to what extent to his own mistakes and weakness cannot be exactly estimated, but an examination of the evidence shows that he was certainly not free from blame. Jefferson was bitterly censured at the time. Hostile critics, both conservatives and progressives, did not hesitate to charge him with incapacity and neglect, leading us to believe that his own faults were at the bottom of the military collapse in Virginia in 1781. On the other hand, his worshipful admirers, such as his biographer, Randall, looking back at these events from the period of final triumph and apotheosis, insist that he was wholly the victim of circumstances, and not, in the least degree, at fault. And his conduct was viewed in a third light. In the later years of Jefferson's career, when the unsatisfactoriness of his administration in Virginia was remembered but remembered vaguely, party writers, seeking ammunition to fire at him from their failing guns, invented the legend of his cowardice, because of his enforced flight before the British army, a legend which that writer so skilled in misrepresentation, Goldwin Smith, was glad to rake up against his memory. "As governor of Virginia in the war he had shown lack of nerve if not of courage."<a href="#2" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 2
The United States, 136."> The accusation of cowardice was hardly contemporary and may be dismissed, but the charge of incompetence and neglect was so strongly urged and generally accepted in those dark days when Virginia lay at the mercy of every invasion of the enemy, that Jefferson came within a measurable distance of the end of his political career, since impressions gained in a moment of crisis, however unjust, are likely to be lasting. The question put is whether this criticism, that the governor failed to provide for the defense of the Commonwealth and allowed himself to be caught without means of resistance, was just in the main, or whether he had done all that a man could be reasonably expected to do, as his defenders allege, and merely earned the inevitable blame poured out on the ruling powers when a state suffers military disaster.
In the first place, it is necessary to note that the governor in the last years of the war had an exceptionally difficult position to fill. After three years of constant warfare, the resources of the State, which had been expended without reserve for Washington's army, the Southern department, and other military purposes, were greatly diminished. Specie was gone, paper almost worthless, and taxation bore heavily on the people, who by this time had lost most of their enthusiasm for liberty. The conditions for making a successful resistance to the British arms were, therefore, much less favorable in 1780 and 1781 than earlier, when it is probable that an advance on Williamsburg would have met with stout opposition. Besides, the government of Virginia, unaccustomed before the Revolution to violent strains, was so imperfectly organized that administration in all departments, and particularly in the military, was exceedingly inefficient. Furthermore, the constitutional limitations of the governor's authority greatly hampered his action in all crises which might happen to coincide with a vacation of the assembly, the one powerful branch of government. The constitution-makers, in providing safeguards against a tyranny, succeeded in furnishing the State with a weak executive to carry it through a doubtful and protracted war. Still another cause contributed to the helplessness of the State, giving the enemy a chance to march and plunder from one end to another absolutely undisturbed. In the earlier years of the war a respectable force of semi-regulars had been maintained in Virginia for local defense, but in 1778, owing to the losses sustained by the Virginia regiments in the Continental line, and also, possibly, to economy, the two State regiments were sent northward to complete the Continental quota; home defense was left largely to the militia.
When these potent facts are taken into consideration and given their full weight, it still certainly appears that Jefferson did not do all that an able and practical man might have done to prepare for invasion, for that was a calamity which might have been seen to be inevitable once the British began to operate on a large scale in the South. An earnest effort to conquer the South sooner or later must lead to an attack on the great Southern Commonwealth; the warning was ample and should have been heeded. When the enemy did come at last, they met no opposition worthy of the name. The whole country lay at their mercy.
Right here it is just to acquit Jefferson of neglect of duty. Few more conscientious and industrious executives ever lived; he was always engrossed in the details of his office, and if he erred, as it clearly seems he did, he erred from want of judgment and driving power rather than from any lack of zeal or labor. His failure to arrange an adequate defense of the State was apparently due in large part to two causes. Foremost came Jefferson's penchant for strict constitutionalism, for strict construction ideas did not originate with the Federal Constitution, but descended from the colonial period. The Revolutionary War was mainly a war of strict construction patriots against broad construction imperialists. It was this exaggerated respect for the Virginia constitution which prevented Jefferson from using strong means of doubtful legality at times when it is more expedient to go than to reflect upon the exact order of the going. The other reason for his failure to do his full duty lay in his inability to grasp the principles on which military operations are successfully conducted; to the last Jefferson was a man quite without military understanding, a deficiency even more unfortunate when he became President of the United States than it had been when he was governor of Virginia. Both of these failings arose from the fact that he was a doctrinaire and not a man of action; he was a shrewd and successful practical politician and political leader, but he was anything but a good administrator. In agitation the doctrinaire need not be a man of action, for doctrinaires keep the world alive, but in war, which is the conflict of brute force, the man of action is demanded. But as it happens Moses frequently occupies the place of Joshua.
Jefferson owed a great part of his success to his limitations, which, however, inevitably hampered him in other ways. His mind was exceedingly alert in the realm of special observation, but he formed his opinions on general questions early in life and seldom changed them. Thus, it is unlikely that the French Revolution shocked his serene faith in the ultimate truth of his political principles. Likewise, he came early to the belief that the proper defense of a free and virtuous people is in its militia rather than in trained soldiers, an idea which was somewhat shaken by his unhappy Revolutionary experience, but which seems to have survived in him until the time of his Presidency. The ideal of a people rising spontaneously to defend its hearthstones is one thing; the reality of a mob of untrained, half-armed farmers attempting to oppose regulars is sadly different. Jefferson never understood that efficiency in war, like efficiency in everything else, is only secured by preparation.
For the first year of his governorship the democratic chief had no very serious problem to face. He discharged the duties of his office faithfully, working with great zeal to support the American armies, North and South. The fragmentary records show him busy over the many matters within his sphere. They also illustrate his fundamental incapacity as an administrator in stormy times. The chief difficulty confronting the State in 1779 was that of raising money to meet the Continental requisitions and the expenses of the State government; heavy taxation was required. A scientifically managed government might have handled the agricultural resources at its disposal so as to remain in a more or less sound condition, though the feat would have been difficult. The Virginia treasury was in great confusion, and administration while honest was uneconomical; Virginia paper depreciated much more than was necessary, for the amount was not very great in comparison with the wealth of the State. In order to meet the emergency, various financial expedients were tried, among them the confiscation of the estates of royalists and the debts due British merchants. But in order to enforce land sales, vigorous governmental action was imperative. This was not forthcoming, as Jefferson's letter to the assembly in October, 1779, shows:
It becomes my duty to guard the Assembly against relying in their calculations for any great & immediate supplies from hence, facts have come to our notice which give great reason to believe that the traverse and other pleadings justly allowed by the law for saving the rights of those who have real or probable appearance of right is perverted to frustrate or delay the effects, by being put in on grounds either frivolous or false and by that means throwing the subject into a course of legal contestation which under the load of business now in the doquet of the general court, may not be terminated in the present age, in one instance we are certified by the clerk of the general Court that the estate is claimed by the Steward: tho' this very man undertook to act as Commissioner of the Estate under the sequestration law by our appointment, & has himself personally rendered annual accounts to us of the proceeds of the estate as the estate of a British subject; yet his claim, palpably false as it is, in order to obtain the ceremony of being adjudged so, is to go through all the formalities of regular litigation, before the estate can be exposed to sale .... I thought it my duty to guard the General Assembly against any deception in their expectations from these funds.<a href="#3" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 3
Executive communications, 1779.">
This letter is honorable to Jefferson in that it shows the republican magistrate determined to act with strict legality under all circumstances, but at the same time this fear of taking the initiative, this dependence upon the legislature for vigorous action in war-time had serious drawbacks. The governor could not or would not put pressure on the courts to proceed rapidly with the confiscation cases, and meantime the State went lacking a fund which must come to it eventually and which was badly needed at the moment. Nothing could better show Jefferson's passion for legality and his incapacity for swift and direct means.
The finances of the State were in bad condition. On May 20, 1780, sixteen counties of the sixty-odd had not paid the taxes due in the fall of 1779, and nine others had returned no assessments, but had paid in part, while eight more had neither returned assessments nor paid anything. In other words, thirty-three of the counties - half the State - had failed to meet their obligations, in spite of the fact that the demands made on Virginia for the support of the Northern army were now supplemented by calls to aid the South. So bad was the financial situation that the committee of ways and means of the House of Delegates, on November 27, 1779, proposed radical retrenchment:
The deranged state of the army, and the ruinous situation of the navy, hath greatly enhanced the expense of maintaining the one, & subtracted from that little defence which was expected to be derived from the other; whilst the accumulated charge of both, creates an article of expenditure which hath already reduced your finances to difficulty, and is too enormous to be supported.
The committee recommended a reduction of the number of ships in the navy, of commands in the army and of officers, without a reduction in the number of privates. Recruiting was to cease and the existing force was to continue at the least possible expense.<a href="#4" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 4
Executive communications, 1779.">
Jefferson was thus forced to struggle with an economizing legislature if he wished to increase or even save the Virginia military establishment. If he had so struggled and failed, the blame would not have been his, but the assembly's; as a matter of fact, he made no opposition, at least no recorded opposition, to this niggardly and suicidal folly. He either bowed before the assembly's will, or, as is likely, failed to realize the importance of building up the Virginia forces; or, as is possible, he believed that the American armies could not be supported while the local defense was strengthened. If so, he paid a great price for his mistake.
Yet it must be noted in justice to him that he did what he could without taking any action vigorous or aggressive enough to produce genuine results. He worked to raise and equip recruits for the South, now seriously threatened by the British, and also attempted to establish a gun-factory on the James River of a size sufficient to supply the great demand for arms. He proposed to the governors of North and South Carolina to divide the great Cherokee hinterland into three jurisdictions, in order effectually to suppress those troublesome Indians, a much more practical solution of frontier difficulties than the sending of expeditions by the individual States against the whole scattered nation. He wrote to the French minister assuring him that preparation would be made to receive and support a French detachment in Virginia. In a letter to Samuel Huntingdon he enumerated the difficulties of providing an adequate force even for the guarding of the Saratoga prisoners:
We have hitherto been unable to raise more than about the half of a Battalion of infantry for guarding the Convention Troops at the same Post. The deficiencies have been endeavored to be supplied with Militia. Congress have had too much experience of the radical defects and inconveniences of militia service to need any enumerating them. Our assembly, now sitting, have in contemplation to put the garrison regiment on such a footing as gives us hopes of filling it by the next summer. In the meantime a Battalion which we are raising for our immediate defence may be spared to do garrison duty this winter, and as but a small part of it is raised as yet, and not probable that it will be completed within any short time, we suppose that with Colo. Taylor's regiment it will not exceed the number required to guard the Troops.<a href="#5" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 5
Writings of Jeferson (Ford), ii 277.">
Furthermore, Jefferson, on November 30, 1779, anticipated his famous policy of later days by laying an embargo on provisions in order to avoid supplying the enemy and to secure food for the American armies.<a href="#6" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 6
Ibid., ii, 281."> This proclamation was in no wise a stretching of the gubernatorial authority, since the governor enjoyed a warrant from the assembly. In a letter to Congress about the same time he laid bare the pressing need of means of defense and apologized for retaining five thousand stands of arms intended for Congress, on the ground that they were sorely needed in Virginia, where the arsenal had no more than three thousand muskets on hand.
From this evidence it is apparent that Virginia was in a serious condition in 1779, both financially and from the point of view of military equipment, and while Jefferson zealously grappled with the great task to which he had been called, we lack in him any urgent realization of the dangers of the situation or knowledge of remedies. His messages to the assembly dealt with details, failing to convey what they should have accurately and forcefully done - an account of the weakness and unpreparedness of the State and proposals for drastic military measures. Jefferson enjoyed great influence with the legislature, which had elected him governor and looked to him for advice, and it probably would have extended his powers to meet the occasion or adopted effective means of raising money and supplies. Anyway, he should have pleaded for a stronger policy, and he did not do so.
Not only did the governor fail to understand the State's danger; he also failed to introduce order into the administration. It is true that the colonial system had been slack and that Patrick Henry had done nothing to inaugurate better accounting and administrative methods, but Henry was an orator and Jefferson a man of affairs with a liking for details. Confusion reigned in the government. Accounts were badly kept, taxes went unpaid if pressure were needed to secure payment and were clumsily and expensively collected at best, the currency was hopelessly depreciated, the troops and the navy ate large quantities of provisions and drank hogsheads of taffia without being of much service; an army of commissaries and recruiting officers supported themselves on the State by sheer plunder. Perhaps the evils were too great to be remedied; perhaps Jefferson believed that he lacked the legal right to bring order out of this chaos; at all events, he found out later to his cost that the people hold the executive responsible, however powerless the constitution may have endeavored to make him. It would have been a great, perhaps an impossible, task to provide an adequate defense for the State, but Jefferson seems not to have made the effort. A situation is bad when all men feel it to be so and all men felt the situation to be bad in 1780. For one thing, efficiency in the military department was made impossible by the division of administration among several branches of government - the governor and council, the board of war and the assembly, which last alone had the power to do anything effective. The board of war, although entrusted with important executive functions, consisted of an unpaid commission of three men. This body, aware of the growing criticism of military management, asked the House of Delegates in December, 1779, for pay and authority. Thereupon the legislature voted the board of war salaries and ordered it to report to the governor, which it had not done formerly. These changes do not seem to have resulted in any improvement, and the board was abolished at the most critical period of 1781. Finally, military affairs were turned over to an ex-line officer, William Davies, who conducted them with much more ability than had been the case before.
Board of war and governor were incapable alike in war administration. It never seems to have occurred to Jefferson that a small, well-drilled force would have been less expensive and also much more useful than militia; certainly he did not suggest the raising of such a body. He complained, indeed, of the difficulty of securing recruits, but made no mention in 1779 of draughting, a power which the assembly had every right to exercise if the governor did not. He seems to have thought no other military system possible except the old one of calling out crowds of the rawest militia when some action was imperative, supplying them with arms, which they usually failed to return, and supporting them by wasteful requisitioning. The militia called out for every alarm devoured quantities of food and rum which would have kept a small force permanently fed and in good-humor.
Jefferson's action in December, 1779, when a rumor of a projected British invasion reached him, explains both his weakness as an executive and the reason for the total surprise he suffered just a year later at the time of Arnold's descent. Speaking of the rumored raid he wrote to the Speaker of the House:
It is our duty to provide against every event and the Executive are accordingly engaged in concerting proper means of defence. Among others we think an immediate force from the militia to defend the post at York, and to take a proper post on the South side of James river, but the expence, the difficulties which attend a general call of militia into the field, the disgust it gives them more especially when they find no enemy in place, and the extreme rigor of the season, induce us to refer to the decision of the general assembly, whether we shall on the intelligence already received & now communicated to them, call a competent force of militia to oppose the numbers of the enemy spoken of; or whether we shall make ready all orders & prepare other circumstances, but omit actually issuing these orders till the enemy appear or we have further proof of their intentions? The Assembly will also please to determine whether, in case the enemy should make a lodgment in the country, it would be expedient to avail ourselves of the laudable zeal which may prevail on their first landing and inlist a sufficient number to oppose them & continue in service during the invasion or for any other term. Perhaps it may not be amiss to suggest to the assembly the tardiness of collecting even small numbers of men by divisions, that if any better method should occur to them they may prescribe it. The present state of the Treasury in more points than one, will no doubt be thought an absolute obstacle to every endeavor which may be necessary.<a href="#7" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 7
Ford, ii, 289.">
Here we have the executive asking the advice of the legislature as to proper war measures; it was a subject on which a body of politicians without military knowledge or experience was not likely to prove illuminating. In April, 1780, he wrote to Washington:-
The state of the recruiting business in this Country is as follows: There are some draughted soldiers in the different parts of the Country, but they are so far, so disposed, & enlisted for so short a time that we have not thought them worth the expense of gathering up.<a href="#8" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 8
Ford, ii, 301.">
This defenseless and hopeless condition would have been excusable if inescapable. But in 1779-80, Virginia, while much reduced by the war, still possessed large resources, as the immense damage soon after inflicted by the British showed. There was still much tobacco, flour, and beef in the country, which the legislature, in the absence of money, might have requisitioned and sent to France in payment for arms; the enemy maintained no very effective blockade, and intercourse between Virginia and Europe was fairly safe. Certainly it was suicidal to await events without making the effort to secure men and arms. The fall of Charleston brought the menace of invasion nearer and cost the State her only efficient troops, surrendered with the garrison. The assembly, realizing at last the critical condition of Virginia, passed vigorous acts; the cavalry regiments and the Continental quota were ordered filled by militia draughts, and the governor was given authority to call twenty thousand militia into the field - one half of the available number - in case the State should be invaded. He was also empowered to impress provisions and other articles, to lay an embargo and provide magazines and public stores in short, his powers were increased to such an extent that efficiency in the government might be hoped for. The assembly exacted still heavier taxes and ground out new emissions of paper money to swell the mass of worthless currency. For the encouraging of these efforts Washington sent one of his subordinates, Muhlenberg, from the Continental army. This officer, a man of some energy, exerted himself to collect recruits and is said to have first suggested a conscription law to the Virginia government,<a href="#9" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 9
H. A. Muhlenberg's Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg, 187."> which later adopted it. Chesterfield CourtHouse, the training-camp, soon contained a number of recruits of fairly good quality, though lacking supplies and clothing. The assembly decided to draught three thousand men, who were sorely needed after the fall of Charleston and the loss of the Virginia line.
Jefferson's correspondence through this period shows him to have been hard-working, zealous, and generally sensible, and his eagerness to pay Congressional requisitions was noteworthy. But his strict constitutionalism hampered his whole course. In spite of his enlarged powers, he thought that every measure of importance must have the sanction of the assembly, and the assembly could not be summoned every few weeks in special session in order to legalize his acts. "The time necessary for convening the legislature of such a State," he wrote, "adds to the tardiness of the remedy, and the measure itself is so oppressive on the members as to discourage the attempting it, but in the last emergencies." Untiring and honest as Jefferson was, he lacked the quality of assuming responsibility in a crisis; he needed outside initiative and bolstering up.
Gates's defeat at Camden in September, 1780, came as a heavy blow to the government; the Virginia militia was scattered to the winds with great loss of arms and equipment. The militia exhibited such agility in getting off the field that few of them, unfortunately, were killed. The Virginia magazine was practically stripped at this time, but Congress stepped into the breach with a loan of three thousand muskets. Shortly after the battle Jefferson wrote to Gates: "We shall exert every nerve to assist you in every way in our power, being as we are without any money in ye Treasury, or any prospect of more till the Assembly meets in Octr."<a href="#10" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 10
Ford, ii, 333."> Under such circumstances a called session might have been advisable, for the danger was pressing. Indeed, the government of Jefferson to be efficient demanded either a continuous session of the assembly, or a very great and definite increase in the governor's authority. A born executive would have demanded or assumed power, but Jefferson could not bring himself to this aggression. His constitutional scruples or a certain indecision of character prevented him.
In the middle of October, 1780, Virginia became a scene of invasion, when a British force landed at Portsmouth and advanced tentatively inland. Muhlenberg, with such recruits as he was able to collect, together with a militia command of about one thousand men under Thomas Nelson, Jr., headed the only defense of the State. The preacher-general, however, by energetic efforts succeeded at last in getting together a tolerably respectable array of several thousand men, sufficiently imposing in size to check the enemy, who appeared reluctant to leave their base very far in the rear. The moral of Muhlenberg's successful levy is that the people of Virginia, despite the disillusioning effects of prolonged war and the government's lack of force and character, were not actually averse from military service and could still be rallied to the standards in considerable numbers by popular and energetic officers, provided they were allowed abundance of time. But it was even more apparent that the Virginia militia could not be got into the field in time to check a quickly conducted raid into the interior. This lesson the British put into practice the following year.
The invader Leslie finally sailed away, giving the State a brief breathing-spell. Breathing-spell it could only be, for the intention of carrying the war into Virginia was so apparent that William Lee, writing from Europe, had warned Jefferson of it. But notwithstanding the fact that a return of the enemy was practically assured and might be looked for at any moment, nothing was done to provide a permanent force of troops; the whole militia gathering was allowed to go home. It must be added, though, that the difficulty of keeping militia in the field more than a few weeks was very great. This was largely due to an absolute want of understanding of war. Men called into the army nowadays go expecting to serve for some time; men in the Revolutionary days went out to shoot their blunderbusses and rifles at the enemy if there chanced to be an enemy and then expected to return home to get in the hay. Having no knowledge of war, they could not understand that it might be well to stay in service and learn something about it. As the militia could only be brought out with difficulty and after some time, and as the government had absolutely nothing else to depend on in case of need, a speedy courier service was essential; it must get intelligence of a raid at the earliest possible hour. This courier service was needed in only one line, from Hampton Roads to Richmond, because the enemy could not make a sudden descent except by Chesapeake Bay. A partial and imperfect intelligence system had existed earlier, but Jefferson discontinued it, so that the government had no other means of gaining information than what private patriotism might supply. The governor's attention was drawn, in the closing weeks of 1780, to a distant and, under the circumstances, impractical operation - George Rogers Clark's proposed expedition against Detroit. This was designed primarily as a defensive measure for the frontier, but the frontier, while harassed by the Indians, was in nothing like so much danger as the east, where an English army might appear at any moment.
The blow fell at last, taking Jefferson, as might have been expected, quite unawares. He received information that a fleet had been seen off Willoughby Point two days before.<a href="#11" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 11
Ford, ii, 392."> The news did not come directly to the governor, but to Thomas Nelson, who intermittently commanded the militia when it was in the field and lived quietly at home in the intervals. Jefferson, uncertain whether the fleet was French or British, procrastinated several days and failed to issue a militia call until January 2, when he got definite intelligence that the ships were hostile. If, as in October, 1780, the British had waited in the vicinity of Norfolk for a week or two and engaged in robbing near-by plantations, - which was probably what Jefferson expected, - there would have been time enough to raise a force of militia and give it a crude organization. But Benedict Arnold, who commanded the detachment, upset all calculations by moving up the James River with such celerity as to reveal the utter unpreparedness of Virginia. On January 4, 1781, the enemy neared Richmond, and now that it was too late Jefferson made hurried demands for the militia of whole counties, besides working hard to save the stores in town. He even had a horse fall under him from fatigue. The next day, January 5, the British reached the capital of Virginia, which they plundered for two days; when they had finished, they fell back down the James. Several thousand militia had at length gathered, a force which might have saved Richmond if raised a few days earlier, as Arnold's command was small and composed of inferior troops. The enemy, without meeting molestation, slowly withdrew to Portsmouth, where they encamped. They left behind them not only ruin, but bitter humiliation. Jefferson had, without doubt, done his best, but that was not all that a clearheaded man of action might have done. "For want of intelligence," he wrote, "may be ascribed a great part of, if not the whole of the Enemy's late successful incursions to this place."<a href="#12" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 12
Ford, ii, 417"> But, obviously, the government was at fault in not securing the means of gaining intelligence. In war the enemy does not come with letters of introduction.
To provide for the invasion the governor had ordered out militia from twenty-three counties, amounting on paper to nearly five thousand men, though arms were lacking for a large number. Baron Steuben had now superseded Muhlenberg as Continental commander in the State, but this was not an especially fortunate change; the foreign soldier did not understand the peculiarities of the native Virginian and was more of a drillmaster than general or administrator. Arnold had established himself at Portsmouth and was always to be feared; fortunately for the Americans, the British commander-in-chief preferred an arrogant, thickheaded regulation officer like Phillips to the brilliant traitor. Notwithstanding the grave danger threatening the State and the chaotic condition of things in Virginia, Jefferson wrote, on January 16, 1781: "It shall be my endeavor to suffer this invasion to divert as little as possible of our Supplies for the Southern Army."<a href="#13" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 13
Governor's Letter-Book (1781), 26."> This sentiment was eminently patriotic, but not equally practical. Indeed, one of the most trenchant criticisms passed on Jefferson was that he sacrificed the State for the sake of the Southern army, which was so far true that Virginia, after the junction of Arnold and Cornwallis, was in greater immediate danger than the South. The conquest of Virginia in 1781, with her resources, would probably have meant the downfall of the American cause. Overmastering circumstances compelled Jefferson to give first place to home needs, and on January 19 he directed the manager of the lead mines to send all the lead on hand to Richmond instead of one half to the South as he had previously ordered.<a href="#14" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 14
Ibid., 43."> Even in the crisis Jefferson the legalist showed forth. The assembly had passed an act for requisitioning food, clothing, and wagons within a certain time limit. This limit had expired when the governor, in disregard, wrote to the leading magistrates in the various counties directing the levying of the requisition in case the supplies had not yet been procured:
Could any legal scruples arise as to this there would be no doubt that the ensuing Assembly influenced by the necessity that induced them to press the Act would give their Sanction to its Execution though at a later Date than is prescribed .... The Time of doing this is a Circumstance only and the Principle is sound both in Law and Policy. Substance and Circumstance is to be regarded while we have so many Foes in our bowels and environing us on every Side. He is a bad citizen who can entertain a doubt whether the law will justify him in saving his Country or who will Scruple to risk himself in support of the spirit of a Law where unavoidable Accidents have prevented a literal compliance with it.
So far Jefferson would go in illegality, but no farther. On January 23, 1781, he ordered a meeting of the assembly for March 1, 1781, instead of the date to which it stood adjourned, with an explanation of the critical condition of affairs and the desperate need of money and troops.<a href="#15" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 15
Ford, ii, 434."> Some legislative aid, he declared, was necessary for the enforcement of the acts for securing recruits and supplies. Acts upon acts needed to enforce anything do not bespeak a strong administration.
He presently gave another illustration of his dependence on the assembly, which was more commendable in peace than in the midst of a war ever growing more doubtful and dangerous. The State's crying need was a regular military force, and efforts to fill this want, including conscription, had failed, partially because the government would do nothing harsh. A former officer in the Continental line, Alexander Spotswood, now came forward with a plan for raising a mixed command of infantry and cavalry for the State service under Continental regulations. This legion was to be called into the field for an indefinite period for instruction and in case of actual invasion, but should remain at home on furlough when not needed.<a href="#16" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 16
Executive communications, 1781."> The plan might not have worked, but it offered a great advantage over the militia system by providing a well-equipped force prepared to remain in service for a considerable length of time, and at least it deserved a trial in the absence of better suggestions. But Jefferson wrote Spotswood:
I received your favour containing a proposition for raising a Legion for the defence of the State: as there are several parts of it which are beyond the powers of the executive to stipulate I shall do myself the pleasure of laying it before the Genl. Assembly whom we have been obliged to convene on the first of March next.<a href="#17" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 17
Letter-Book (1781), 61.">
Thus was cold water thrown on a plan which might have furnished the State an organization of some value in the trying times soon to follow. Apparently Jefferson did not understand that a delay of a month or two in war-time may be a serious matter; he could not be unconstitutional in any emergency.
The following weeks were full of labor for him. Greene and Cornwallis steadily moved towards Virginia and it was evident that another and much more serious invasion was imminent. Jefferson made every exertion to strengthen Greener he summoned the militia in great numbers to join the latter and abandoned conscription for the Continental army in the mean while. The government supplied the levies with necessaries under an act imposing a tax levied in tobacco and provisions. At the same time the militia of the eastern counties was called to Williamsburg to cooperate with the French, who had put in their appearance in Chesapeake Bay. The executive message to the assembly when it met in March, 1781, outlined the situation, but made no pressing recommendations. The legislature quite failed to rise to the need, merely ordering the raising of two legions on Spotswood's plan and creating more paper money. Jefferson, who realized the danger little better than the lawmakers, seems to have been satisfied with this entirely inadequate provision. On March 3, 1781, he showed that he had failed to grasp the situation in a letter he wrote to the North Carolina assembly:
I assure you that we have been so very far from entertaining an idea of witholding succours from you on account of the invasion of our State that it had been determined that the regular Troops raised & not at that time marched should nevertheless proceed to your assistance & that we would oppose the Army in our own country with militia.<a href="#18" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 18
Ford, ii, 479.">
This policy, wise enough as long as Greene stood between Virginia and Cornwallis, became highly disadvantageous when Greene elected to march South and leave Virginia to the defense of the militia, which even Jefferson by this time had somewhat lost faith in.
The governor, aware that affairs were anything but right, did not know how to better them. He himself explained to Lafayette the weakness of his government when the latter was ordered to Virginia as the Continental commander there:
Mild Laws, a People not used to prompt obedience, a want of provisions of War & means of procuring them render our orders often ineffectual, oblige us to temporize & when we cannot accomplish our object in one way to attempt it in another.<a href="#19" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 19
Ibid, ii. 493">
"Oblige us to temporize!" This is a picture of the democratic leader afraid of sternness rather than of the strong executive who uses severe remedies for desperate diseases. As a matter of fact, the temper of the people until the beginning of 1781 was generally loyal, and sacrifices were often willingly made. Illustrating this is a statement of Jefferson's, made to Richard Henry Lee in connection with the power of requisitioning horses given a certain quartermaster:
He applied for militia to aid him in the execution of the powers. We knew that an armed force to impress horses was unnecessary as it was new. The fact has been, that our citizens, so far from requiring an armed force for this purpose, have parted from their horses too easily, by delivering them to every man who said he was riding on public business, and assumed a right of impressing.<a href="#20" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 20
Ford, ii, 495.">
And several months later, on May 30, 1781, Major John Nelson wrote Jefferson:
When in Carolina, I did myself the honor to write to you respecting the 4th Troop of Horse which was originally voted to be raised for my Corps, & afterwards disbanded; the Want of Cavalry at present induces me, once more, to request that it may now be recruited; which I will undertake to do in a little Time; as there never was a Period, since the Commencement of the War, that Men might be got with so much Ease.<a href="#21" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 21
Executive communications, 1781.">
The fact seems to be that the Virginia government might have raised a small force for indefinite service despite its straits for money, if it had gone about the thing systematically and energetically.
But the brief calm before the storm of genuine invasion was not utilized for any material strengthening of the defense, which continued to be the old hand-to-mouth, happygo-lucky method, effective only against a weak and inactive enemy. The custom was to call out a force of militia on the news of any movement of the British, supply them with arms and equipment, which were usually carried off at the end of the service and never seen again, pay them at the rate of Continental troops in treasury certificates, feed them by requisitioning provisions, and furnish transportation by impressing wagons and horses. When the enemy relapsed into quiescence, the militia went home and the horses and wagons returned to their owners. Any thought of keeping the militia in the field beyond the need of the moment and until they might become sufficiently trained to be of use for some known military purpose apparently never entered Jefferson's head. The militia system, which was bad enough at best, but defensible on the plea of necessity, was made more ineffective by want of intelligence on the part of the government in handling it. At times when a raid developed into an invasion, requiring the presence of soldiers in the field for a campaign, the levies first called out and becoming somewhat seasoned were discharged and replaced by raw recruits fresh from the plough. "The great length of Time which the Militia had been in the Field," Jefferson wrote on March 31, 1781, "who were first called on induced us in the Discontinuance of the Enterprize against Portsmouth immediately to call so many Militia as . . . with those lately called might make up a proper opposing Force. I state the whole in the Margin who are to be considered as Reliefs to the former Militia."<a href="#22" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 22
Letter-Book (1781), 223"> Jefferson fluctuated at this juncture between calling out large portions of the militia of certain counties, or requiring small draughts from the militia of all the counties to form a more permanent body. He should not have hesitated a moment; the superior efficiency of even small numbers of men having the character of a regular military force over hosts of militia is one of the commonest lessons of war, and the custom of calling out the militia of various counties in turn for short period service, called "tours of duty," was the worst that could be devised. Yet Jefferson clung to this mode of warfare, writing Muhlenberg, on April 3, 1781:
The Men under your Command who have been in the field from the beginning of the Invasion, having served a Tour of Duty unusually long, I am anxious to have them satisfied of the Accidents which have as yet prevented their relief .... I think myself particularly obliged to acknowledge the patient Service of those who have been so long from Home, and am anxious that they should know that this has not proceeded from any previous Intention of Government, but from the Circumstances before explained.
In spite of this unenlightened attitude of the government, which could not afford to be considerate in such a crisis, Steuben collected a considerable body of militia and conscripts and endeavored with much labor and many robust German oaths to beat them into some kind of shape. They were soon needed, for in the latter part of April, 1781, Phillips and Arnold, ascending the James River, took Petersburg and threatened Richmond. Steuben's imposing show of force along the Henrico Heights, aided by Lafayette's small command of Continentals just arrived, so impressed the British that they fell back down the river without making an attack. The relief was momentary. The full storm of invasion was about to burst on Virginia, for Cornwallis, who had advanced from, North Carolina, marched on Petersburg, where the minor army joined him. The united body then turned towards Richmond, and the assembly adjourned on May 10,1781, to meet in Charlottesville on May 24. Lafayette, who now commanded in Virginia, was obliged to retreat with his motley force of Continentals and militia before Cornwallis. He continually applied to Jefferson for reinforcements, but the governor could no longer supply them. The latter demanded troops from the counties in vain; the men would not respond. "If the calls on the latter," he wrote Lafayette, "do not produce Sufficient Reinforcements to you I shall candidly acknowledge that it is not in my power to do any Thing more than to represent to the General Assembly that unless they can provide more effectually for the Execution of the Laws it will be vain to call on Militia."<a href="#23" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 23
Ford, iii, 38">
True enough, the temper of the people, under the aggravation of invasion and the helplessness of the government to offer resistance, was becoming dangerous, and in Rockbridge there was a mutiny, which seems to have partly resulted from Jefferson's hesitation to enforce the conscription law. Samuel McDowell, the countylieutenant, reported to the governor on May 9, 1781:
The Act of October last, for raising this States quota of troops for the Continental Army, came to this County in due time the Districts were laid off, two or three of the Districts Procured their men for the War, a day was appointed for the Draft, but before the day came, your Excellencys letter allowing a suspension of that Act, in this County, came to hand, and before your Excellencys letter arrived, for taking off that Suspension, the day appointed for the Draft was Past. On Receiving your last letter, Some of the field officers were of opinion that Districts ought to be laid off a new, for some reasons; and a Day was appointed to meet to lay them off it was (in consideration) found necessary, the People in this Country, (hearing that they of Augusta had Prevented laying off the Districts there) met (to-wit) almost a hundred of them, and Seeing Colo Bowyer getting the lists from the Capts; of the Strength of their Companies, and Supposing it was to lay off the Districts anew, got into the Court House Seased the table, carried it off in a Riotous manner; and said no Districts should be laid off there, for that they would Serve as militia for three months and make up the Eighteen months that way, but would not be Drafted for Eighteen months and be regulars . . . they tore the Papers and after some time began to go off.<a href="#24" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 24
Executive communications, 1781.">
Similar outbreaks in other counties, west and east, showed that the spirit of obedience to authority was rapidly weakening throughout Virginia. The people had become more disheartened than at any period of the war and Jefferson's administration had lost all the influence and popularity it once possessed.
Apparently he was conscious that his management had proved a failure. Writing to Washington, on May 98, 1781, shortly before the expiration of his term of office, he said:
A few days will bring me that relief which the constitution has prepared for those oppressed with the labours of my office and a long declared resolution of relinquishing it to abler hands has prepared my way for retirement to a private station.<a href="#25" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 25
Ford, iii, 48.">
He had been zealous, conscientious, and exceedingly industrious, and so far was the picture of the republican magistrate as he loved to dream it, but still he had not succeeded in the difficult position of war executive, with its demands of clear insight and forcible action, and the weight of public opinion was against him. Or, as Jefferson put it in his memoirs:
From a belief that under the pressure of the invasion under which we were then laboring, the public would have more confidence in a military chief, and that the military commander, being invested with civil power also, both might be wielded with more energy, promptitude and effect for the defence of the State, I resigned the administration at the end of my second year.<a href="#26" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 26
Randall. i, 346.">
It was a confession of defeat. Jefferson retired at the height of invasion and in the face of a perfect storm of hostile contention; for the time being his influence was dead. The assembly, driven from Richmond by Cornwallis and from Charlottesville by Tarleton, hastened over the mountains to Staunton, endeavoring to find some way to save the State. The natural and obvious means suggesting itself was to strengthen the powers of the governor at the expense of the constitution, or to appoint a dictator, as some preferred to call it. Jefferson bitterly opposed this plan.
The very thought alone [he wrote] was treason against the people; was treason against mankind in general: as rivetting forever the chains which bow down their necks by giving to their oppressors a proof, which they would have trumpeted through the universe, of the imbecility of republican government, in times of pressing danger, to shield them from harm.<a href="#27" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 27
Ford, iii, 234.">
But the weakness of republican government in a crisis had already been displayed, or, more properly, the weakness of the Virginia constitution, and a temporary dictatorship was rather in the nature of a remedy than of a reversion. Henry was suggested as dictator, along with Washington and Greene and perhaps others, but the scheme failed. Jefferson states that it "wanted a few votes only of being passed," though the Journal shows no record of any kind on the subject. Possibly Jefferson was thinking of the committee of the whole rather than of the official action of the House of Delegates. It was to this dictatorship party that Randall credits the criticisms of Jefferson nearly ending in his impeachment: the biographer would have us believe that these criticisms were designed for the purpose of getting rid of Jefferson and making way for the dictator. Such a statement carries its own refutation. The fact that Virginia had been mercilessly raided by the enemy for a year without being able to make the least retaliation and was now in actual danger of subjugation amply explains the criticisms of the executive; it would have been extraordinary if he had not come in for wholesale condemnation.
To give point and shape to the attack on Mr. Jefferson [Randall goes on to say] to give it popular effect, charges were thrown out against his official conduct, on the floor, at the legislative meeting at Staunton, and an inquiry into his conduct was demanded. George Nicholas, one of the members from Mr. Jefferson's own county, a very honest, but at that time a very young and impulsive man, was the spokesman on this occasion.<a href="#28" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 28
Randall, i, 351.">
Nicholas, it should be noted, was not a conservative, but a man of democratic leanings, who later became one of the principal followers of Jefferson and Madison. What could be a stronger proof of the intense dissatisfaction with Jefferson's rule existing at the moment than that such a man should move an investigation? On June 12, 1781, the House of Delegates "Resolved, That at the next session of Assembly an inquiry be made into the conduct of the Executive of this State for the last twelve months."<a href="#29" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 29
Journal, House of Delegates (May, 1781), 15"> This extract from the Journal sounds brief and bald, but it is in reality of high importance. Jefferson then commanded in Virginia something of that idolatrous regard which he later received from the nation as a whole. The vote of censure, therefore, was vastly more significant in his case than it would have been in that of an ordinary official; it was the people turning against their tribune.
This was the low-water mark of Jefferson's career. With his admirers turning against him what might he hope for in the future? For the moment he was saved by a combination of circumstances. Few of the conservatives were present in this House of Delegates of less than sixty members; they were mostly at home in the east where the invasion raged. Again, the pressure of war made a lengthy investigation impossible just then and it was postponed to what was hoped would prove a more leisured season. Besides, Jefferson still had followers who were faithful to the death and they worked for him. Thus, the democratic chieftain escaped the danger immediately threatening him, but with prestige quite gone; for the time being the man who had been revered because he expressed the ideals of his age better than any other man suffered the imputation of lacking ordinary capacity in affairs. On the same day of the investigation motion, June 12, 1781, Jefferson's successor was elected. Randall and Girardin, both writing under Jefferson's inspiration years afterwards when the democrat had fully come into his own, labor to show that he might have been elected governor by the assembly for the third successive year allowed by the constitution if he had so desired-nay, more, that he was actually obliged to persuade delegates to vote against himself in order to obtain a majority for Thomas Nelson. Says Randall:
Jefferson's friends insisted on reelecting him. His confidential friends (those who understood his feelings and unalterable determinations) strenuously opposed this on the ground that he had patriotically divested himself of his office to heal divisions in the Legislature, and that he ought to be allowed to carry out his wishes; and that now, accusations having been brought against him and a hearing agreed upon, his honor required him to meet his assailants without the advantage of official position. These considerations induced a considerable body of his friends to vote for General Nelson, and it required their votes, in addition to those of the recent advocates of another man, to elect Mr. Jefferson's candidate over himself.<a href="#30" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 30
Randall, i, 352.">
This may be a partially truthful statement of the case, for no man ever inspired deeper devotion than Jefferson, but at best it is highly colored. It seems probable that the governor did not desire reelection; but it also appears almost certain that he could not have been reelected if he had. His open candidacy in all likelihood would have brought to a head the threatened investigation of his administration, from which, in the irritated and unjust state of the public mind, he must have emerged with small credit. With his customary adroitness he made the most of a trying situation by declaring that he gave way, or "resigned," as he afterwards expressed it, in favor of a man conversant with military affairs. Nevertheless, Jefferson received some votes in the senate, although Thomas Nelson, Jr., was easily elected governor to succeed him. Nelson's election was something in the nature of a revolution; for the first time since the establishment of the Commonwealth a conservative held the chief place. First Patrick Henry, then Jefferson, - and after him his favorites might have been expected to succeed, as later in the presidential succession, but his failure as an executive changed the course of politics. In the emergency the assembly chose an amateur soldier believed to be able to cope with the emergency without regard to his views on the rights of man. That Jefferson should have been replaced by one not his follower is the best evidence of the magnitude of his defeat. The leader retired to one of his farms, thoroughly discredited for the time and no doubt with gloomy thoughts as to the future. Nor was his decline a temporary affair, as the Jeffersonian hero worshipers maintain. He returned to Congress the fall after and went abroad as a minister for several years, thus cutting loose from Virginia politics while the humiliations the State had endured under his rule remained a matter of fresh remembrance.
The effect of his removal from Virginia was remarkable. The democratic party was for the time being overborne by the conservatives, now under the leadership of Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, who had parted company with Jefferson and abandoned progressive policies. The conservative Benjamin Harrison was elected governor to succeed Nelson, who resigned after Yorktown. Lee and Henry disputed the leadership of the assembly for two years, and then in 1784 joined hands in an attempt to stay the progress of liberalism by establishing state support of religion. The conservative party, which had revived in the reaction following Jefferson's overthrow, gave the programme hearty support and a most exciting and important political struggle followed. It, indeed, proved to be a turning-point in the history of Virginia. The conservatives failed, beaten by the spirit of the age rather than by the skill of their opponents. Jefferson, whose name was remembered as the first great advocate of social reform, returned from France to find his party more powerful than ever and his own failure as an administrator forgotten.
Strange - the logic of history. Thomas Nelson, Jefferson's successor, proved to be the man for the crisis. He was a commonplace planter of some small military knowledge, much energy and great devotion to duty, and further was not handicapped by any especial veneration for the constitution. Although the assembly at Staunton invested the governor with greatly enlarged powers, including the right to call out the State forces at pleasure, impress everything necessary for military purposes, control the quartermaster's department, banish disaffected persons and constitute special courts, it was felt that Nelson had exceeded his warrant. He had acted with rough vigor, getting into the field a large number of militia, and, what was of more importance, raising subsistence for the French-American army at the siege of Yorktown. Later in the fall, when the surrender of Cornwallis had removed the danger threatening the State, the assembly legalized Nelson's administration, which had plainly been unconstitutional.<a href="#31" class="toolTip" title="Footnote: 31
Hening, x, 478."> He had been in effect what some people wanted to make Patrick Henry in 1776 and again in 1781 - a military dictator. He had seized supplies and necessaries wherever he found them without regard to that constitutional check, the council, which Jefferson had always so scrupulously consulted in his acts; he had, in short, considered nothing but the immediate need of the hour. And he had been successful. On the other hand, Jefferson was associated with the greatest humiliation Virginia has ever known, and Virginians are proud. The State has suffered invasion and on a far greater scale than in 1781, but never again what it suffered then war without honor. The people grew indignant when they saw a small force of the enemy marching and plundering with absolute impunity, and the government flying from place to place before a troop of cavalry. Nelson had come into power at this time of depression and within a few months led the State forces in person to the glorious victory of Yorktown.
Military reputation is undoubtedly one of the greatest of American political assets. It would not have been wonderful then if Jefferson had fallen into obscurity and lived out his life in retirement and Nelson won lasting accession to office. Just the reverse happened. Nelson resigned the governorship late in 1781 and never appeared in the political field again. Jefferson returned to Virginia, a political prophet of unlimited' influence, and it was his predominance in Virginia which afterwards enabled him to become the founder of the Democratic Party and the third President. All his mistakes and disasters were forgotten, only his reforms recalled. He could afford to wait in France, far from his native heath, until the time came for him to return into his own. He had no need to fight his way back to power and popularity, for his earlier career worked for him.
It was not to his activity, not to his political acuteness, not to his services in Washington's government that the great democrat owed his rehabilitation and mastery, but to the "Zeitgeist." He was identified with one of the great movements of the human spirit, and this being so, his past failure, with all its gall, was put out of remembrance. For had he not written: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"?