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'Flight From Monticello': Writing a Fresh Take on Thomas Jefferson's Darkest Days

Five years after writing the Declaration of Independence that helped set the revolutionary war in motion, Jefferson was forced to flee Richmond when it was occupied by Arnold and his men.
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Books can spring from a single nugget of information. I was reading a revolutionary war history when I came across a brief reference to the traitor Benedict Arnold's invasion of Virginia while Thomas Jefferson was governor. Five years after writing the Declaration of Independence that helped set the revolutionary war in motion, Jefferson was forced to flee Richmond when it was occupied by Arnold and his men.

Eventually, after other British forces invaded the state, Jefferson took refuge in Charlottesville, only to have to take flight from Monticello. The wound inflicted during this period, Jefferson later wrote, would only be cured by the "all-healing grave."

I wanted to learn much more. How did Arnold undertake this invasion? How had Jefferson let himself be put in this terrible position? How had the events shaped the man and president that Jefferson became? While there are myriad biographies and histories of the revolutionary war in Virginia, there seemed to be much of the story yet to tell.

As a journalist for 30 years, I have always believed that if I am deeply curious about something, then so many readers will be, too. And, as a reporter who has covered the White House, I know that presidents are often defined by how they deal with their darkest days and take lessons from that experience. So it would be with Jefferson, I reasoned. Thus began the writing of "Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War" (Oxford University Press, February 2010).

The key would be finding a structure for this tale and discovering new insights from little-known sources.

The structure, in this case, worked by going backward in time. I knew what happened at the end of the story: Jefferson took flight from Monticello. The question was why and how this climactic moment was reached. I wanted to understand how the revolution developed in Virginia and how Jefferson interacted early on with key players. I learned that Jefferson once considered Arnold a "fine sailor." I also was fascinated to learn that another leader of an invasion force, British General William Phillips, had once been a prisoner of war in Charlottesville and had been entertained by Jefferson at his parlor in Monticello. Other key characters had also interacted with Jefferson.

In an effort to find new insights, I put on my cap as an investigative reporter and compiled a list of ships commanded by Arnold during the invasion. Using ship logs, I was able to find the names of some rather obscure officers, some of whom wrote vivid but little-known descriptions of the invasion.

After writing a chronology, I matched up the days with an invaluable diary written by a Hessian officer -- and not discovered until after World War II -- that provided fresh perspective on what happened. For example, Arnold wrote his superiors that there were many Loyalists in Virginia, who with "great joy" were eager to join the British. Arnold said 400 residents of Portsmouth pledged an oath of loyalty to the king.

But the Hessian officer, Johann Ewald, was also there, and he described the scene this way: As the Virginians promised loyalty, some made "wry faces, as though they would choke on it."

The Jefferson-versus-Arnold part of the story seemed particularly striking. Jefferson considered Arnold a "parricide," or one who murders a parent; in this case it was Arnold turning against his country. On two occasions, Jefferson backed plans to capture or kill Arnold, but both failed. Arnold easily had his way across Virginia, but he was detested by both Americans and his fellow officers on the British and Hessian side.

Jefferson was clearly ineffectual in his role as leader of Virginia when it came to preventing the invasions. He had been warned that a fleet of 27 ships was in the bay, but he did not fully call out the militia for several days. He vacated the governorship just before fleeing Monticello minutes ahead of a detachment sent by the British officer Banastre Tarleton. But this does not mean, as some have charged, that he was a coward. His letters and memorandum book make clear that he rode for days around Richmond trying to organize resistance while many others fled. He was deeply affected by the danger posed to his family, twice taking them to hiding places just ahead of the British.

Jefferson's letters provide the best way to see how he evolved at this crucial period.

Initially, Jefferson argued that he couldn't improve the turnout of militia, writing that "We can only be answerable for the orders we give and not for their execution. If they are disobeyed from obstinacy of spirit or coercion in the laws, it is not our fault." But eventually, as the state faced the very real threat of being overrun by the British, he learned of mutinous behavior by militiamen and exerted his executive power in a new light. "Go and take them out of their Beds, singly and without Noise," Jefferson wrote. If they were not found the first time, Jefferson continued, "go again and again so that they may never be able to remain in quiet at home."

It would be another 20 years before Jefferson would begin the first of two terms as president. But the dark days of the invasion had shaped him. He ran for president in part because he worried that Federalists, who favored a strong central government, would declare war unnecessarily. Jefferson used embargoes and treaties to avoid another clash with a European power. He established the military training academy at West Point. His terms were mostly peaceful.

The thinking behind these actions can be traced to his flights from Richmond and Monticello, when he was literally tested under fire. "I think one war," Jefferson wrote, "is enough for the life of one man."