Author: Michael A. McDonnell

associate professor of history at the University of Sydney.

Jefferson, Thomas as Governor of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson served as the second governor of Virginia under the Constitution of 1776, holding office for two terms, from June 2, 1779, until June 3, 1781. Jefferson already was a seasoned politician, having served in the House of Burgesses (1769–1776), the Second Continental Congress (1775–1776), and the House of Delegates (1776–1779). He had no military experience, though, and his tenure was dominated by repeated British invasions of Virginia during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Hampering his efforts to respond was the state constitution, which had relegated little power to the state’s chief executive. Faced with calls to provide the struggling Continental army with troops and the need to reinforce the militia against possible invasion, Jefferson presided over draft lotteries that were met with stiff resistance. Then, when the British general Benedict Arnold raided Richmond in January 1781, the governor was slow to call up the militia. By May, thousands of British troops had entered Virginia and many citizens were in near open revolt against the Patriot government. Jefferson was perceived as, and often felt himself to be, powerless to do anything. In June 1781 British cavalry chased the General Assembly out of Charlottesville and nearly captured Jefferson at Monticello. Having already decided not to run for a third term, he followed his family to Poplar Forest instead of going with the assembly to Staunton. For that reason Virginia went without an elected governor for eight days and Jefferson’s reputation was tarnished.