Thomas Jefferson: Governor of Virginia

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Zeender,  senior registrar in Exhibits at the National Archives.

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Sully of Thomas Jefferson (ARC 532932)

This week, we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday—April 13, 1743—and look at one particular year in his life, 1781. That year did not begin auspiciously for Jefferson, and on April 13 he would have matters on his mind more weighty than his birthday.  He was in the second of his two terms as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The 10 months that preceded the great American victory at Yorktown were harrowing ones for the Governor, the General Assembly, and the rest of the Virginia government. Once in January and again in May, the British attacked and forced the evacuation of the new state capital at Richmond. To make matters worse, the initial British assault was led by none other than Benedict Arnold, the traitor who had escaped the Continental Army only months before, when his plan to turn over West Point to the British was discovered and foiled.

Before becoming Governor, Jefferson had spent 15 months in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he drafted the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. In September, he returned home and was elected to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Three years later, at the age of 36, Jefferson was elected governor. Jefferson was reelected in 1780.

During this period, Jefferson and the Assembly decided to move the government from Williamsburg to Richmond in the expectation that it would be safer from British invaders. Williamsburg was located between the James and York Rivers and easily reached from the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay, while Richmond was farther inland. They also battled the British and their Indian supporters in the state’s western counties, known today as the states of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

After fighting George Washington to a standstill in previous years in Canada and the Northeast, Sir Henry Clinton and British government leaders looked to the south for a decisive victory and an opportunity to divide the United States. British efforts in the north had not been decisive, and the British surrender at Saratoga in September 1778 had been a disaster. Gen. Charles Cornwallis was sent to South Carolina and then to North Carolina.

Cornwallis achieved mixed results in the south, with major victories at Charleston and Camden in South Carolina, but faced setbacks at Kings Mountain and Cowpens, South Carolina, and Guilford Court House, North Carolina. Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold escaped to British lines and asked Clinton for a command. He was assigned to lead a force to invade Virginia. Cornwallis began to move north and east and considered a union with Arnold’s army in southeast Virginia, where he would have access to the sea and potentially the protection of the British Navy.

Although Jefferson was skilled in many fields and had been in charge of the Virginia militia before becoming Governor, he was not a soldier or military strategist, a fact he readily acknowledged. However, as Governor, it was his duty to prepare Richmond and the entire state against invasion. He called out the militia and moved weapons, munitions, and military supplies to a foundry five miles outside of town. Arnold learned of the transfer and later captured the foundry and other stores of supplies. Jefferson delayed too long in raising a militia, but the blame was not all his. He received little support from the Assembly, but they had little to give.

This document is the appointment paper for Capt. Edward Worthington. It was signed by Thomas Jefferson and provides instructions to Worthington to proceed to recruit men for the infantry of his battalion. Specific information on the bounty paid and clothing provided, the land allotment each recruit is entitled to after the war, and pension provided for recruits disabled through their service, is also provided (ARC 601154).

Virginia’s treasure and young men had been sent north to fight with Washington or south to confront the British advancing from that direction. However, as the accounts below illustrate, Jefferson appreciated and understood the need for military intelligence. When the British came, he jumped on his horse not to escape or evade his obligations but to rally Virginia’s defense, as hopeless as that might have been.

Jefferson monitored British activity to the south to ascertain any plans for future movement. He reported to Washington: “I received advice that on the [November 22nd] instant the enemy’s fleet got all under way [from Charleston, South Carolina] and were standing towards the [Virginia] Capes. . . . This I hourly expected but it did not come till this evening, when I am informed they all got out to sea in the night of the 22d. What course they steered afterwards is not known.” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Gen. Washington, Nov. 26, 1780.  Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers).

In December 1780 and early January of 1781, Arnold led British ships and 1,600 British regulars in raids along the James River and found little organized opposition.  In Richmond, they forced government officials to flee the city and destroyed both private homes and government buildings.  British plans called for Cornwallis to march east to join forces with Arnold.

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after John Trumbull, published 1879 (ARC 532921)

For Jefferson, the invasion of Virginia began in earnest on the morning of New Year’s Eve, 1780. He would scarcely have time to be concerned with anything else for the next 10 days. The following entries come from Jefferson’s Diary of the Arnold Invasion and were written by Jefferson in the third person.

Sunday. Richmond. 1780. Dec. 31.

At 8. A.M. the Governor [Th: J.] receives the first intelligence that 27 sail of ships had entered Chesapeak bay, and were in the morning of the 29th. just below Willoughby’s point, the Southern cape of James river, their destination unknown.

[1]781. Jan. 2. Tuesday.

At 10. A.M. information is received that they had entered James river, their advance being at Warrasqueak bay. Orders were immediately given for calling in the militia, ¼ from some, and ½ from other counties. . . . The Governor directs the removal of the Records into the country, and the transportation of the military stores from Richmond to Westham, there to be carried across the river.

Thursd. Jan. 4.

The Governor . . . rode up to the Foundery, a mile below Westham, ordered Capts. Boush and Irish, and Mr. Hylton to continue all night waggoning to Westham the arms and stores still at the Foundery, to be thrown across the river at Westham; then proceeded to Westham, to press the transportation there across the river, and thence went to Tuckahoe [northwest of Richmond], to take care of his family, which he had sent that far in the course of the day. He arrived there at 1. aclock in the night.

Sat. Jan. [6.]

The Governor returned to Britton’s; had measures taken more effectually to secure the books and papers there. The enemy, having burnt some houses and stores, left Richmond, after 24. hours stay there, and encamped at Fourmile creek, 10. miles below; and the Governor went to look to his family at Fine creek.

Thursd. Jan. 11.

At 8. A.M. the wind due West and strong, [the enemy] make good their retreat down the river.

(Excerpts from the Diary of Thomas Jefferson, 1796.  Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.)

After this foray into central Virginia, British forces under Arnold and Phillips concentrated at Portsmouth, Virginia, along the Atlantic coast. Jefferson and the Assembly returned to Richmond and continued to build what little defense they could for Virginia.  Their resources overextended, they appealed to the penniless and powerless Continental Congress, to other Governors and states that stood no better, to the American commissioners in Europe, and  George Washington stationed with his Army near New York City.

Washington did send a small force of 1,000 under Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. He also consulted with General Rochambeau, Commander of the French Army, and they were in contact with Admiral de Grasse of the French Navy, hoping to find the right time and combination for a decisive victory, on sea or land.

Cornwallis and his underling—the infamous calvaryman Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton—received orders to move east.  They would lead the next attack on Richmond and the surrounding area, including the temporary capital at Charlottesville and Jefferson’s nearby Monticello. In the midst of the crisis, Jefferson’s second term came to an end.

In the next segment, we will continue the story of Jefferson’s last months as Governor.

One thought on “Thomas Jefferson: Governor of Virginia

  1. Thomas Jefferson was an amazing leader. One of Virginia’s greatest governors. He understood that if we dismantled our military that our enemies would have power over us. Leaders like him are very rare to find.

    Karen Falgore

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