On June 1, 1779, the General Assembly elected Thomas Jefferson as the second Governor of Virginia. Three candidates — Jefferson, John Page, and Thomas Nelson — each secured substantial support, with Jefferson earning election on the second ballot. Jefferson and his family would reside in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg for nearly a year, before the government permanently relocated to Richmond. There, from the spring of 1780, the Jeffersons would live in a rented house on Shockoe Hill.
To the General Assembly, Jefferson publicly expressed his thanks, writing that “no rewards can be so pleasing ... as those which include the approbation of our fellow citizens.” To Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson privately lamented that “public offices are, what they should be,” burdens that it would be wrong to decline, though “foreseen to bring with them intense labor and great private loss.”
Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry, who had occupied the executive office for three terms. The Virginia Constitution of 1776 provided that the governor would be elected for a one-year period and could be consecutively reelected no more than twice. In keeping with the revolutionary era, the governor’s executive powers were minimized. Eight men, elected by the General Assembly, formed a Council of State to assist in the administration of government. Jefferson understood that the advice of the council controlled the governor, allowing him to proceed on his own responsibility only when no advice was available. During the new governor’s early months in office, key members of the council included two long-time friends, John Page and John Walker. James Madison, destined to become Jefferson’s closest political ally, also served on the council. The full group met with the governor most every workday morning.
Jefferson had good reason to lament the burdens of public office in June 1779. For four years, the Revolutionary War had enveloped the new nation. The prosecution of war – and the constant demand for money, men, and supplies – dominated Virginia politics. As war governor, Jefferson maintained a steady correspondence with Samuel Huntington, President of the Continental Congress after 1779; George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; and Horatio Gates and Nathanael Greene, successive commanders of the patriots’ southern army.
Late in 1778, a British expeditionary force had landed in Georgia and began a southern campaign that would threaten Virginia throughout Jefferson’s executive tenure. Moreover, a British fleet had sailed into Hampton Roads in May 1779, seized Portsmouth, and plundered the Virginia countryside before returning to New York. The Virginia tidewater was defenseless, and another sea invasion was an ongoing danger. Meanwhile, Virginia’s western frontier — extending from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the distant Ohio country — was likewise vulnerable. Jefferson summed up the young state’s situation in a letter to William Preston, a colonel in the Virginia militia. The governor bluntly confessed that the state was threatened “with a formidable attack from the northward on our Ohio settlements and from the southern indians on our frontiers ... [while] our eastern country is exposed to invasion from the British army in Carolina.” The Continental army made pressing calls upon Virginia for trained soldiers, leaving defense at home in the hands of county militia, often untrained and inadequately armed.
In October 1779, the General Assembly empowered the governor, with the advice of his council, to order “any number of militia” and as many state troops as possible to the assistance of South Carolina. The executive was ready to respond but, reported Jefferson, “we find it very difficult to procure men.” The inadequacy of arms and other military supplies added to the state’s woes. General Gates chastised Jefferson for sending troops to the Carolinas that were “unequiped, and unprovided, with every thing that is necessary.”
The provision of soldiers and supplies required a financially strong government. Even before Jefferson assumed office, however, the shortage of specie, and “enormous sums” of paper currency in circulation, had put state finances in a desperate situation. Taxes paid in depreciated paper money did little to augment government revenues. The blockade of exports by enemy vessels further deepened Virginia’s monetary difficulties. Finances became even more dire in the autumn of 1779 after the “most unfavorable Harvest ever known Since the Settlement of this Country.”
Virginia was fortunate enough to escape further invasion during Jefferson’s first term, and the governor was reelected in June 1780. By September, Jefferson was longing for retirement. The demands and frustrations of office had become precisely the burdens that he had anticipated. The situation worsened in October when troops from a British fleet in Hampton Roads came ashore. The expedition proved to be short-lived, but would soon be followed by a more concerted effort on the part of the enemy.
On January 2, 1781, a British fleet landed along the James River southeast of Richmond, and the British then aimed for the capital. Governor Jefferson and the Council of State hastily ordered out the militia, and Jefferson himself spent two days on horseback, personally seeking to ensure the safety of records and supplies. Led by the traitorous Benedict Arnold, British troops marched into Richmond and briefly occupied the city. They successfully destroyed extensive military stores before retiring to an encampment near Portsmouth. With the enemy ensconced on Virginia soil, Washington ordered the Marquis de Lafayette and 1200 Continental troops to march south to the aid of Virginia. Lafayette responded to his new command with “Most Ardent Zeal,” and thereby launched his famous friendship with Thomas Jefferson.
Battles had continued throughout the Carolinas in 1779-1780. Lord Cornwallis, in command of Britain’s southern contingent, pushed through North Carolina and was ready to seek to conquer Virginia by the spring of 1781. His latest plan involved the conjunction of his own forces with those in Portsmouth under the leadership of Benedict Arnold.
On April 18, 1781, Jefferson received word that fourteen enemy vessels were ascending the James River toward Richmond. The Virginia General Assembly was scheduled to meet in Richmond in May, but decided instead to temporarily move the government to Charlottesville. On May 15, Jefferson left Richmond to regroup with state legislators in the Piedmont. He planned to work with his colleagues for only a few more days. His second term as governor was scheduled to end on June 2, and he had no intention of accepting a third term. He advised the legislature that, facing a British invasion, they should appoint a governor with military experience.
On May 28, the General Assembly held its first session in Charlottesville and agreed to vote for governor on June 2, the date that Jefferson expected to step down. When the day arrived, however, the vote was postponed for two days. On the morning of June 4, news arrived from Jack Jouett that the British were headed toward Charlottesville, intent on capturing the governor and assemblymen. The legislators met briefly, without electing a new governor, and then adjourned to Staunton, Virginia.
As British troops approached, Jefferson turned his attention to his family. He now considered himself a private citizen, free to retreat with his wife and children to Poplar Forest, their property in Bedford County, Virginia. There, the Jefferson family would be safe from harm.
On June 12, when the General Assembly met in Staunton, there was no governor. The members elected Thomas Nelson as the new governor and then, angry at British success and Jefferson's seeming abandonment of the legislature, passed a resolution for an inquiry into “the conduct of the executive for the last twelve months.” While the historic record is not perfectly clear, Jefferson blamed the former governor, Patrick henry, for the investigation. The assembly adjourned on June 23 without proceeding with the inquiry, but renewed the subject during the fall session.
On December 10, 1781, Jefferson addressed the General Assembly and answered the charges made against his government. Two days later, the assemblymen passed a resolution of thanks to Jefferson “for his impartial, upright, and attentive administration of the powers of the Executive” and declared a high opinion of Jefferson as Virginia’s chief magistrate. In thus publicly expressing themselves, the assemblymen declared their wish “to obviate all future, and to remove all former unmerited Censure.”
Although he was officially cleared of misconduct, Jefferson’s alleged “flight” would often be raised by political opponents.
Although he was officially cleared of misconduct, Jefferson's alleged "flight" would often be raised by political opponents. Jefferson harbored enduring resentment about the accusations made against him, writing on one occasion that “these injuries ... had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”
-Nancy Verell, 8/1/2015. Revised by John Ragosta, 10/4/2023
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