A Wound on His Spirit: Thomas Jefferson's Disastrous Two Years as Governor of Virginia

Excerpts from "A Wound on His Spirit" by George T. Morrow II

That Jefferson was an unsuccessful, if not disastrously inept governor is not at issue. Even Dumas Malone, author of the definitive six-volume biography of Jefferson, had to concede that "there were other tasks which he liked to do, and did, a great deal better," seeking less to rebut criticism than to stifle it as beneath contempt. The point seemed to be that just as Monticello was above the clouds, so was Jefferson above censure; that leadership and executive ability were not worth having, even in a state under threat of invasion; and that if Jefferson was a disaster as a governor it was simply because he was too good for the job.

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His dislike for the job ran deep. Just fifteen days later, he told Richard Henry Lee that he had accepted the governorship solely out of a sense of duty: "In a virtuous government, and more especially in times like these, public offices are what they should be, burdens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor, and great private loss."18 He was certainly right to expect hard work. Nor was it likely that his salary would ever cover his expenses as governor. But in fact his inordinate sense of loss had less to do with expense and hard work than his estrangement from Monticello, with its gardens, walks and sweeping views of the valley below. As he wrote on June 18, "The hour of private retirement to which I am drawn by my nature with a propensity almost irresistible . . . will be the most welcome of my life." He had been Governor for only 21 days. Yet he was already convinced that executive office was contrary to his nature. This was not affectation. It was a feeling of real despair, driven by the "irresistible propensities" of his introverted nature.

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Henry Hamilton's long fight for justice from the man [Jefferson] said to have crafted "the best known fifty-eight words in American history," the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, in which all men are said to be endowed with "certain inalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," would continue until the last day of Jefferson's term as governor. 29 With help from his friend Gen. Phillips, Hamilton would eventually secure his release. But by then he would have given the lie to the fine-sounding words of Jefferson's Preamble, at least insofar as it was related to Lt. Gov. Hamilton's right to a fair trial...Hamilton's list of injustices reads like one of the Sage of Monticello's own meditations on due process: "we have not been informed of the cause of this treatment – we do not hear of our being . . . confronted by our accusers, we hear no mention of any public inquiry, we suffer without any trial . . . We understand that these proceedings are not agreeable to the Laws of this Province, or to any known rule of equity, that it is inconsistent with the tenor of [your] Governor's Oath, and breathes the genuine spirit of lettres de cachet* in the most arbitrary government." Nothing escaped Hamilton wrath, including Jefferson's monthly trips to Monticello for rest and relaxation...

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On October 25, the Gazette printed an account of the first wave of the British invasion.75 Led by Gen. Alexander Leslie, it was said to involve a "fleet of 54 ships, 25 of which are large, . . . 1,000 infantry [of an expected 5,000] and 100 horse." "The people in the neighborhood of the invasion," the writer of the information added encouragingly, "turn out with great alacrity and spirit."

Had he known that Leslie was coming to Virginia to secure a port for the army of Gen. Cornwallis, one of Great Britain's most gifted generals, and that he intended to lay waste to the country and seize the leaders of Virginia's government, Jefferson might have been more alarmed – but not necessarily any better prepared. In the event, he did what a man of his temperament and limited experience could do: he deployed his pen like a brass three-pounder, sending off salvo after salvo of elegant missives in search of men, guns and – of course – advice. Meanwhile, Leslie was marching into Hampton unopposed, declaring it too devastated to be worth the trouble of occupation, and marching back out (again unopposed).