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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If one plows through the biographies of his life, the one event that
Thomas Jefferson's biographers all agree he was least happy about was
his stint (in the late 1770s and early 1780s) as Governor of Virginia.
It is the one public post he held that he rarely liked to talk about.
The fact was that Jefferson was ill-equipped to be a wartime governor.
His service as a member of the Continental Congress had been quite
fruitful, culminating in his writing the Declaration of Independence.
His earlier work in the Virginia House of Burgesses had lead to an
impressive pamphlet about the rights of Americans and the limitations
of the powers of King and Parliament. After the period as Virginia's
governor (Jefferson resigned the office in 1781), he would serve as one
of the diplomatic team (with Franklin, Adams, Jay, and Laurens) that
got the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolution, and then spent most
of the 1780s as our Minister to France, and briefly Britain. Only the
governorship annoyed him.
He did not have the organizational skills to be a military planner or leader. He was not like Washington or Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln. There is a degree of ruthlessness in Jefferson as a political adversary that showed he was no easy push-over. But he lacked the interest to be involved in military planning. As Virginia Governor he demonstrated (unlike his predecessor Patrick Henry) a notable inability to organize to assist Washington's army or Nathaniel Greene's forces. He did not know more than how to discuss a problem, when the said problem was becoming threatening, such as British stirrings of Indian outrages in the Ohio Valley settlements. Had Virginia remained a real backwater (say like Delaware, which had few battles in it in the Revolution), this would not have mattered. But due to Lord Cornwallis' invasion of the South, and his subsequent advance up North from the Carolinas, Virginia ceased being a backwater. From 1781 to the final peace treaty Virginia was the center of military operations.
Cornwallis brought with him two men who demonstrated Jefferson's vast incapacity to be a wartime leader. One was a man the Earl despised, but had to work with, and the other a man the Earl respected, but who was widely hated for his ability to hurt Americans. They were newly appointed Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, and Cavalry Brigadier General Banastre Tarleton. Arnold led some very destructive raids into Richmond, destroying tons of war material. Tarleton led some raids of large patriot owned estates and farms.
One of the latter raids was into Charlottesville, Virginia in April 1781. Tarleton learned that Governor Jefferson was at his home (the predecessor of Monticello), and decided it would be fun to raid the Governor's estate, burn his property, and maybe capture him - possibly to hand him over to the authorities in London to explain all those nasty comments about King George III in that Declaration he wrote five years before.
Tarleton (who may have been a bully and a sadist, but was an effective British cavalry leader) hit Jefferson's home, and did a great deal of damage. But he was surprised to find the bird had flown - Jefferson had apparently been warned only half an hour before Tarleton showed up, and was fleeing down the mountain in back of his home as Tarleton was riding up the same mountain in front of the home. It was a close thing.
When one looks at Banastre Tarleton's career (he is the basis for the villain in Mel Gibson's "The Patriot", and Michael Caine played an actor portraying Tarleton in the movie in a movie in Alan Alda's "Sweet Liberty"), one finds actions that could be considered modern war crimes: his massacre of American revolutionaries at the Wraxall River in South Carolina in 1780 for instance bears comparison to Santa Anna's massacre of Fannin's men at Goliad in 1836! But his performance in the raid on Jefferson's home was (from a military point of view) almost flawless. He did not catch Governor Jefferson, but he rendered that man ridiculous in the eyes of his fellow Virginians. That was quite an achievement. Jefferson resigned the Governorship shortly afterward - and fortunately was sent to Europe soon after.
To us today it may seem a relatively unfortunate (but minor) event in Jefferson's illustrious career - and it really did not hurt him fully in the long run. But it did leave an impression of Jefferson as a trifle cowardly. There would be plenty of critics in his own lifetime (starting with Alexander Hamilton, who would distinguish himself at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia later in 1781) who would be critical of Jefferson's courage. Hamilton was not the only one. Towards the end of his career, Jefferson heard that a national hero was going to be in Virginia on a visit, and sent word through a friend that he was deeply impressed to have an opportunity to meet him. The meeting never occurred, as the hero heard with an ironic look that Jefferson appreciated the man's great victory in the largest land battle in the United States up to 1815. "I'm glad to hear that Mr. Jefferson was impressed by the events at New Orleans.", sneered Andrew Jackson. "It's nice to know that the old gentleman actually knows what a battle is!!"
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