Flight from Monticello: A book review by Bob Morris

Flight from MonticelloFlight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War
Thomas Kranish
Oxford University Press (2010)

Why Jefferson’s flights from Richmond and Monticello “were the lowest points of his public life”

Having just read and reviewed Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, I decided to re-read Michael Kranish’s account of events that occurred five years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. More specifically, events in Virginia hat involved Thomas Jefferson. On June 4, 1781, he and his family fled their home moments before the arrival of British troops. Three columns of them had invaded the state during the last six months of Jefferson’s term as governor. As Kranish explains, “One force was led by Benedict Arnold, a former spy turned traitor. The second was headed by Major General William Phillips, who until recently had been Jefferson’s favored guest at Monticello. A third general, Lord Cornwallis, arrived with a massive army and set up headquarters at another home owned by Jefferson.”

Once relocated to a small cabin at a remote plantation (Poplar Grove) in the southwestern hills of Virginia, Jefferson reflected on recent developments: The revolution that he had helped to ignite was now in great jeopardy, the state was overrun by British troops, he had vacated the governorship leaving Richmond in flames and the militia abandoned, slaves had dispersed, and his political career seemed ended. “Almost as stinging, Jefferson suspected that the man behind the inquiry [to determine whether or not he would be formally censured and punished by the Virginia legislature] was someone he had known since he was seventeen, and whose revolutionary fervor had inspired him: Patrick Henry.” They first met many years ago at a Christmas Party and thus begins the narrative.

Branish organizes his material within four parts: Williamsburg, Revolution, Invasion, and Flight from Monticello. These are among the questions to which he responds:

o When they first met, what was Jefferson’s opinion of Henry? Why?
o Over the subsequent years, to what extent did that opinion change? When? Why?
o What is Monticello’s unique significance in Jefferson’s life and what does it reveal about him?
o When and why did Jefferson begin to consider a complete break from Britain?
o By what specific process did he finally commit to it?
o What led to the “invasion” of Virginia?
o To what extent was Virginia prepared to oppose it?
o Who was Major General Frederick William von Steuben and what his special significance?
o What led to Jefferson’s flight from Richmond and then from Monticello?
o In all probability, what would have happened had he been apprehended?
o In all probability, what impact would that apprehension had on the course of the war?
o What role did Jefferson play, after his arrival at his Poplar Grove plantation?
o According to Kranish, why specifically were Jefferson’s flights from Richmond and Monticello “the lowest points of his public life”?
o How and why did “the events leading up to the disasters and victories of 1781 shape the political figure that Jefferson became”?

When concluding his book, Michael Kranish observes, “Ideas would be Jefferson’s epitaph. He decided that his tombstone would commemorate him as the ‘Author of the Declaration of Independence [and] of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.’ He saw no need to mention that he had been president, as is often noted. Another omission seems equally striking: that he had served as his state’s second governor.” Who was the first? Patrick Henry who took office on July 5, 1776 and served until June 1, 1779.

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