Today in 1779: Thomas Jefferson elected Governor of Virginia

1 Jun

 

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg

On this day in 1779, the Virginia assembly elects Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, as Governor of Virginia.  He was thirty-six at the time.

During his first term, Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.  The bill was presented to the Virginia legislature in 1779, but did not pass until 1786, when Jefferson was U.S. Ambassador to France.

The capital city of Virginia moved during Jefferson’s governorship from Williamsburg to Richmond  in 1780 to better protect it from the British. In early 1781 however, the British under the command of Benedict Arnold led raids along the James River and eventually forced the legislature to evacuate Richmond. Cornwallis’s forces additionally moved against Charlottesville.  Jefferson himself was almost captured at Monticello, and the story of his last-minute escape on horseback was infamous throughout Virginia.  Much of the blame for the raiding and general lack of opposition to the British was laid at Jefferson’s feet — he was accused of cowardice and the legislature even tried to launch an inquiry into his behavior. He would later recount in a letter to James Monroe:

But in the meantime I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treason of the heart and not merely weakness of the head; and I felt that these injuries, for such they have been since acknowledged had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave. 

Of course, what anyone could have done to prevent the British from all but waltzing their way over Virginia is a question with no answer. Much of Virginia’s resources in men and money were deployed in the service of the Continental Army and George Washington. Nonetheless, he was in charge, and as with politics today, the man in charge is the man upon whom the blame is laid.

Jefferson was never particularly enamored with any of his public positions. In fact, from among his positions as Governor, member of the Continental Congress, Ambassador to France, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia, only one of his titles made the top three accomplishments of his life. You’ll note that his epitaph, which he wrote himself, reads:

Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute for Religious Freedom
and the Father of the University of Virginia.

While I’m inclined to be more forgiving of Jefferson’s public service than he himself was, I think it’s pretty easy to agree that laying the foundations of liberty ought to top the list anyway.

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3 Responses to “Today in 1779: Thomas Jefferson elected Governor of Virginia”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. This week: Adventures in Virginia | Adventures in Independence - 06/03/2013

    […] of these events I discussed in brief on Saturday, which was the 234th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s election as Governor of Virginia. […]

  2. Today in 1781: Jefferson and the Virginia legislature flee from the British | Adventures in Independence - 06/04/2013

    […] I mentioned on Saturday, 1781 wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s best year ever. He was in his first and only term as […]

  3. A Very Revolutionary Road Trip: Colonial Williamsburg, VA | Adventures in Independence - 06/06/2013

    […] Williamsburg, as I discussed earlier this week, became the capital of Virginia in the 1690′s after fire destroyed the Jamestown Statehouse for the third time.  It remained the capital until 1779 when Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislature moved to Richmond, which was considered a more defensible position (perhaps against the British, not so much). […]

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