Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

If your early education taught you something about Thomas Jefferson, it likely included facts on his part in authoring the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was an ideas man—a deep thinker. Well-educated in the classics at the College of William and Mary, he stayed out of the usual undergrad troubles by keeping at his studies and socializing with the professors while classmates spent their time drinking, gambling, and racing their horses through the streets. As historian Michael Kranish relates in Flight from Monticello, he made plenty of friends, but they were from the same landed gentry class as himself.

He first encountered an upstart farmer named Patrick Henry at a friend’s dinner party. Jefferson was not impressed by his dress, candid manners or frank speech, which drew a crowd of admirers. Not so much the classical scholar, Patrick Henry was already a practicing attorney while Jefferson was still in school.  While Jefferson carried on learned conversations with his professors, Henry was winning cases—not with references to Greek and Roman scholars but by spelling out the plain merits of the case and the rules of law. Jefferson found his courtroom arguments crude but admired his ability to turn a phrase and set a crowd on fire.
As anger towards the British Crown boiled over, each man took a place in his homeland’s preparation for war. Patrick Henry was named leader of the local militia, and Jefferson was made governor as Virginia prepared for war. The founding fathers are generally regarded as being men of marble—near perfect in their abilities, particularly as regards government. But theory of government and the practice of governing are two very different things
The truth of the matter was that Jefferson--that very model of a Virginia aristocrat--dithered. He neglected to set watches for the inevitable seaborne invasion. He neglected to effectively gather and deploy the troops or take unpopular steps to provide them with the equipment they so desperately needed. As an example, when the men needed horses and labor to support their battles, Jefferson was loathe to deprive his fellow gentry of their possessions even in a time of war.
As newly-minted British General Benedict Arnold, along with General Cornwallis and the infamous Colonel Banastre Tarleton, fought, set fire, and looted throughout Virginia, many held Jefferson accountable for his actions, or, rather his inactions. The new Virginia government was forced to flee from Williamsburg to the new town of Richmond and, as the enemy encroached yet again, still further west to Charlottesville, near Jefferson’s seat at Monticello. Tarleton’s troops routed them there as well, and finally Jefferson resigned the governorship, and the government regrouped in Staunton.
There were many complaints from fellow Virginians on Jefferson’s leadership, and a motion arose during the height of the war to bring him up on charges for dereliction of duty. Jefferson wrote a defense detailing his reasons for his actions—he mostly blamed other people, and he bitterly and wrongly blamed Patrick Henry for having set the charges against him. To the very end of his life—even after all of his successes—he would still be trying to change people’s perceptions of his leadership in the American Revolution.
When I first reserved Flight from Monticello, I assumed it would be a dull, scholarly reporting of the minute details surrounding Jefferson’s escape from Tarleton’s troops. I was wrong on the main count. Though scholarly in source material, the book is anything but dull. Michael Kranish has wisely chosen to stray from a single, laboriously-wrought academic theme and populates the pages with true accounts of these revolutionary leaders and their foes (Jefferson, Henry, Arnold, and the charming, determined and possibly traitorous Mary Willing Byrd) bringing their very human lives and the world in which they lived into sharper focus without resorting to either pedantry or mud-slinging.