Jefferson was only thirty-six years old when he became governor, but he brought a diverse array of experience to the position. He had represented Albemarle County in the House of Burgesses between May 1769 and June 1775, writing a set of resolutions against the Intolerable Acts of 1774 that called for a day of fasting and prayer and a boycott of all British goods. He then served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, during which time he authored the Declaration of Independence, before returning to the newly constituted House of Delegates in Virginia in September 1776. Drawing on his legal training, Jefferson worked with his mentor, George Wythe, and Wythe’s great rival, Edmund Pendleton, to revise Virginia’s legal code thoroughly. (Jefferson introduced a bill establishing religious freedom in 1779; it would not be passed until 1786.) Significantly, however, Jefferson had next to no military experience—he had been appointed county lieutenant of Albemarle in 1770—and his work in the General Assembly and Congress at the start of the war prevented him from serving even in the state militia. He was the only wartime governor of Virginia who lacked that experience.
While Jefferson had been away serving in Congress, the Virginia Convention of 1776, meeting in Williamsburg, had hammered out a state constitution. Jefferson wanted desperately to be involved in the debate, believing that state governments were the crucial locus of power. He drafted a state constitution and sent it to the convention. Crucially, Jefferson was keen to curb and check the power of the new executive branch of government. His mistrust of the executive—whom he referred to in his draft constitution as the “Administrator”—likely stemmed from the Patriots’ long battle with the Crown.
Jefferson’s views were shared by those present at the Virginia Convention. The constitution they adopted, on June 29, 1776, while not weakening the executive quite as much as Jefferson’s had, nevertheless stripped away virtually all of the governor’s powers, including the ability to veto legislation, and required him to consult on nearly all matters with the Council of State (also called the Privy Council). The governor’s tenure also was restricted to a one-year term; he could be reelected twice, after which he could not serve again until out of office four years. Patrick Henry, who helped draft the constitution, still complained that without any power, and especially the power to veto laws, the governor would be a “mere phantom.” The convention nonetheless chose Henry to be the state’s first governor.
Henry served three terms, during which time the General Assembly in October 1776 gave wide but temporary powers to the governor and local justices of the peace to impress “rogues and vagabonds” into military service for Virginia. In May 1777 the assembly levied quotas on county militias for men to serve one-year enlistments in the Continental army, to be filled through a draft lottery to be held in February 1778. Such policies were unpopular, however, and the assembly eventually abandoned conscription and instead offered monetary rewards for enlistments. In the meantime, a British expeditionary force, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, landed in Georgia on December 23, 1778, and captured Savannah six days later.
In May 1779, less than a month before Jefferson took office, a fleet of about thirty British ships sailed from New York to Portsmouth, burning Suffolk and destroying or capturing massive amounts of property. That included between 500 and 1,500 enslaved African Americans, who either were taken or left voluntarily when the British withdrew two weeks later.
First Term (1779–1780)
The General Assembly, voting in joint ballot of both houses, elected Jefferson governor on June 1, 1779. On the first ballot, Jefferson received 55 votes; John Page, of Gloucester County, who was then lieutenant governor (i.e., president of the Council of State), received 38; and General Thomas Nelson Jr., of Yorktown, a militia commander and former delegate to the Second Continental Congress, received 32. Because no candidate had received a majority, a second ballot became necessary, and Jefferson defeated Page, his longtime friend, 67 to 61. The next day Jefferson’s thanks were recorded in the Journal of the House of Delegates: “In a virtuous and free state 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.”
Jefferson soon moved his family to the Governor’s Palace, in Williamsburg, even though the General Assembly on June 18 passed “An act for the removal of the seat of government,” under the capital would be moved upriver to Richmond. More centrally located, that city also would be better protected from British warships. After lengthy debate, Jefferson threw his support behind the move, which was completed by April 18, 1780. It not only made military sense but, Jefferson hoped, would offer him an opportunity to influence the new capital’s architecture. (He did, in fact, design the new State Capitol, in 1786.)
As governor, Jefferson maintained friendly relations with the General Assembly and the Council of State, which included Page and James Madison, who became a lifelong ally. While still largely lacking in power, Jefferson helped convince the assembly, in 1779, to create two executive departments—the Board of Trade and the Board of War—to assist him in matters of finance and defense.
Virginians, meanwhile, were divided in the face of the continuing British threat. Those who served either in the Continental Congress or in George Washington‘s army blamed those who remained in Virginia for not doing enough to further the war effort; members of the General Assembly complained of being asked to send troops out of state in the face of potential attack at home. At the same time, wealthy Patriots grumbled that laborers demanded excessive wages for their work, that common soldiers wanted payment for their service, and that farmers held back critical supplies. These wealthy men were met with complaints about the high prices of goods, unequal and unfair recruiting laws, and the constant requisitions of their time and goods.
Robert Honyman, a Hanover County physician, noted in his diary that the “lower class of people execrate their leaders, who have led them on by fine promises to utter ruin.” As British naval blockades made shortages more acute, some formerly ardent Patriots began to wonder whether independence was more important than peace.
Then, late in 1779, Sir Henry Clinton sailed south again, this time to South Carolina with almost 10,000 troops. He laid siege to Charleston and on May 12, 1780, the city surrendered, along with most of its 5,000 troops, including ten regiments of Virginians. Despite the increasing threats to their own state, Virginians remained split about how to respond. When, in its October 1779 session, the General Assembly authorized the governor and Council of State “to order any number of militia of this state, not exceeding fifteen hundred … to the assistance of the said state of South Carolina,” violent mutinies ensued in many counties among militia who were not keen to be sent out of the state. The Northern Neck also experienced riots and mutinies when officers there tried to recruit more soldiers for the Continental army. In the southwest corner of Virginia, conspiracies involving Loyalists and other disaffected residents also rocked several counties.
Second Term (June 1780–January 1781)
The General Assembly, this time convened in Richmond, reelected Jefferson for a second, one-year term as governor on June 2, 1780. (The Journal of the House of Delegates does not mention his opponents but reports only that a count “found a majority of votes in favor of Thomas Jefferson, Esq.”) Military threats to the state came from all directions. “While we are threatned with a formidable attack from the northward on our Ohio settlements,” Jefferson wrote to William Preston on June 15, “and from the southern indians on our frontiers convenient to them, our eastern country is exposed to invasion from the British army in Carolina.”
In fact, the British came directly to Virginia. In October 1780 Brigadier General Alexander Leslie landed 2,200 British troops at Portsmouth and Hampton, and within days they were on the march to Williamsburg. Jefferson attempted to counter Leslie by calling out the militia, but he seemed resigned to act only defensively. As he wrote to George Washington, on October 26, 1780, he worried that sending militia units eastward might lead to “dangerous convulsions”—i.e., Loyalist uprisings—in the western part of the state. The next day Jefferson wrote to the Virginia delegates in Congress of a “very dangerous Insurrection” discovered in Pittsylvania County and a line of unrest that stretched through Montgomery County all the way to the James River. Fortunately, General Leslie soon returned to South Carolina to set up winter camp.
The respite, however, was short-lived. In the closing days of 1780, the British began a series of devastating incursions into the state that would bring Virginia to its knees and forever tarnish Jefferson’s reputation. The former Patriot, now British brigadier general, Benedict Arnold led the first raid in January 1781 when he landed 800 troops at Westover, the plantation home of Mary Willing Byrd, the widow of William Byrd III and a first cousin of Arnold’s wife. Taking advantage of a slow response from Jefferson—he did not immediately call out the militia, although some units gathered of their own accord—the British marched thirty miles to Richmond, arriving on January 5.
Jefferson personally directed the removal of public stores and records across the James River to Manchester and left the capital that morning. British soldiers plundered Jefferson’s townhouse and much of the rest of the city, burning buildings, freeing enslaved African Americans, and blowing up a powder magazine and arms foundry at nearby Westham. Isaac Jefferson, then a Jefferson family slave, later recalled that the explosion sounded “like an earthquake.” Arnold soon retreated back down the James, later blaming Jefferson for the damage he had wrought because the governor had not responded to his offer to pay half price for merchandise or to accept hostages in exchange for lenience.
Second Term (January–May 1781)
With Arnold gone, Jefferson convened the General Assembly late in January 1781. He stressed the need to raise both money and men in order to counter the British and keep the militia in the field, a problem Jefferson blamed on “Mild Laws” and “a People not used to war and prompt obedience.” But the assembly seemed little interested in coercing its constituents. Instead, its members spent most of their time composing a letter—”a Battery,” in the words of Edmund Pendleton—to Congress complaining that the northern states had abandoned the South in its time of need. Jefferson sympathized, writing to Major General Horatio Gates on February 17 that if Congress “would repay us the arms we have lent them [for use outside of Virginia] we should give the enemy trouble tho’ abandoned to ourselves.”
General Washington wrote to Jefferson from New York on February 21, informing the governor that the state’s militia would be too weak to fend off further attacks, and that for that reason he had dispatched French forces under Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia’s aid. Lafayette responded to this new mission with a letter to Jefferson expressing “the Most Ardent Zeal to do Any thing in My Power Which May promote the Wishes of Your Excellency.”
Lafayette’s 1,200 men—whom Washington had described as a “respectable detachment”—arrived on March 16 but were no match for the British, who renewed their offensive at the end of the month. The day before, Patriot forces had been defeated at the Battle of Guilford Court House, in North Carolina, allowing the British commander, Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, to march his army north. Then, on March 26, Major General William Phillips arrived at Portsmouth with 2,200 reinforcements for Arnold. In mid-April, buoyed by obvious divisions within Virginia, the British began moving up the James River again and for the next two months ranged across the heart of Virginia. In mid-May, Cornwallis arrived from North Carolina and met Phillips and Arnold at Petersburg. There were almost 7,000 British troops now in the middle of the state. At the same time, the Royal Navy and many independent privateers began plundering plantations along the shores of the big rivers farther north.
In the midst of this crisis, Jefferson could do little. He had nominal authority over the 50,000 troops in the state and could order them out, but he had little power to enforce such calls. Indeed, in the face of the worst military crisis Virginia had experienced in the war, many citizens simply ignored or resisted Patriot authorities. Many refused to turn out when the governor called on the militia or deserted before their terms of service were over. Rather than enforce unpopular demands on their time, many militia officers either ignored orders or resigned their commissions. Many also refused to carry out orders to execute a new draft for Continental soldiers that had been reinstituted late in 1780. When others did carry out those orders, riots and uprisings broke out in a number of counties, even as the British roamed the state. Hundreds of Virginians went so far as to seek out the British to surrender themselves and obtain “paroles” that would exempt them from any further fighting on the Patriot side.
Many Virginians blamed Jefferson for the chaos, sensing him to be overwhelmed by the task at hand. Earlier in the year, the diarist Robert Honyman had noted that the governor and the Council of State were “universally and heavily censured for their neglect and supineness” in the face of the British invasions.
Jefferson’s Flight (May–June 1781)
In May 1781, as the British gathered their forces at Petersburg, antidraft riots rocked the state, and enslaved Virginians used the turmoil to escape, Jefferson called another session of the General Assembly—this time to meet at Charlottesville, near his home at Monticello, where he thought they would be safe from the British. He hoped the assembly would help him force the militia into action and even give him the power to declare martial law if necessary. The current laws, he informed the Speaker of the House of Delegates, on May 28, “seem scarcely coercive enough for a state of war.”
But Jefferson was uninterested in continuing to lead. Despite being eligible, he made it clear he would not seek a third term, and even appealed to Washington to return home to help defend the state as Virginia’s “dernier [i.e., last] resort in distress.” Though it is not clear what role Jefferson expected the general to assume, some legislators hoped he might take over for Jefferson as a kind of “dictator.”
Meeting in Charlottesville on May 29, the General Assembly scheduled a vote for governor on June 2, the last day of Jefferson’s term. At the last moment, the assembly delayed the election until June 4. But on that day word arrived from Jack Jouett, a militia captain who had ridden forty hard miles from Louisa County, that British cavalrymen under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton were on their way to Charlottesville. The legislators were taken by surprise and fled west over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Staunton. Jefferson galloped away from Monticello only about five minutes before Tarleton arrived, on June 4.
He did not go to Staunton, however. Rather than rejoin the assembly and resume, even on a temporary basis, his responsibilities as the state’s chief executive, Jefferson followed his family to Poplar Forest, in Bedford County. As a result, the state had no elected governor in the middle of one of its worst wartime crises.
On June 12, the General Assembly, meeting in Staunton, elected General Thomas Nelson governor and subsequently gave him the powers that Jefferson had himself asked for: to call out the militia, seize supplies, arrest or replace militia officers, and detain and try Loyalists. (William Fleming, as senior member present of the Council of State, had served as acting governor from June 4 to 12.) Also on June 12, the assembly resolved, probably at the instigation of Patrick Henry and George Nicholas, of Williamsburg, “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 committee was appointed to look into the matter but it had not reported when the body adjourned on June 23.
By the time the General Assembly considered the inquiry, during its autumn session, Washington’s forces had defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown and captured the British general’s entire army. The Revolution, for all intents and purposes, had been won. Jefferson, meanwhile, had been elected a delegate from Albemarle County and addressed the assembly regarding rumors that he had displayed cowardice as governor. On December 12 the committee reported that “said rumors were groundless” and passed a resolution thanking Jefferson for his service. Still, Jefferson was hurt by the accusations, writing to James Monroe on May 20, 1782, that he planned to retire from public life, the investigation having “inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.” He resigned his seat soon after.
Jefferson’s actions haunted him for the rest of his life and helped to tarnish his reputation. In particular, critics have pointed to the state’s general wartime unpreparedness, Jefferson’s delays in calling out the militia, especially during Arnold’s raid in January 1781, and his flight from Monticello as his term was expiring. As Jefferson entered federal politics in the 1790s, accusations of cowardice resurfaced, and he was forced to defend himself for the rest of his life.
Jefferson may have made an error of judgment in not responding immediately to initial reports of Arnold’s raid on Richmond, and his decision not to seek reelection as governor at such a critical moment will always reflect badly on him. But Jefferson had often insisted that someone with more military experience than he ought to have been in charge, especially after Virginia itself was invaded. Moreover, Jefferson’s powers as governor, by design, had been severely limited and the General Assembly also had been slow in responding to the challenges of wartime. Even in the face of military crisis, the members bent only to the will of the people. Jefferson’s reputation, meanwhile, proved to be a casualty of war.