Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2012-036
21 June 2012
Review by Jonathan D. Bratten, US Army National Guard
Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War
By Michael Kranish
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010. Pp. xii, 388. ISBN 978–0–19–537462–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 18th Century, Revolutionary War Print Version

Known principally as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was also the governor of Virginia during the turbulent years of the War for Independence, when he experienced two British invasions of his state, the unrest of a populace unwilling to submit to a centralized government, the death of family members, and the intrigues of state politics. Veteran journalist Michael Kranish[1] vividly recounts this tantalizing story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia that Jefferson so loved. He highlights his subject's personal relationships with political and military figures in Virginia, such as, for example, Patrick Henry.

Though this is Kranish's first purely historical book, he has written well researched biographies of presidential candidates John Kerry and Mitt Romney.[2] For the present work, he received a fellowship from the International Center for Jefferson Studies and enjoyed unrestricted access to the Jefferson archives at Monticello.

While Flight from Monticello may be categorized as a biography, it is also a useful resource for those interested in Revolutionary-era Virginia generally. Kranish has produced a comprehensive examination of Jefferson's wartime years (1776–81), as he tried to stave off British invasion while holding Virginia together despite its internal divisions. Jefferson was blamed for the calamities of the British invasion in 1781 and for the rest of his life sought to expunge that blot from his record.

The book comprises four sections, corresponding to specific phases of Jefferson's career: his political and personal development in Williamsburg, the road to Revolution, and both the first and the second British invasions. While the focus is, naturally, on Jefferson himself, the book also traces in detail the story of colonial and Revolutionary Virginia, beginning with the period between the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the first rumblings of dissent over the Stamp Act of 1765. Kranish astutely shows how the financial interests and geographic locations often dictated the loyalties of such prominent Virginians as the Byrds, Robinsons, and Randolphs.

From its outset, the book highlights Jefferson's intensely strong ties to the land of Virginia. He felt most free when he was working his land in the mountains, for which he always yearned during his time studying and later practicing law around Williamsburg. Kranish describes the lay of the land from the mountains to the coast through Jefferson's eyes, stressing all Virginians' deep connection to the very rivers and hills of the state.

Kranish next discusses Jefferson's education at the College of William and Mary and his slow conversion from loyal subject of the Crown to revolutionary, as he observed the abuses of the British government in Virginia. At the same time, he was beginning to realize that the institution of slavery did not fit his new worldview. Kranish stresses here the internal anguish Jefferson felt regarding slavery and his duties as a Christian.

As Jefferson's prestige grew in Virginia, he realized his dream of establishing a beautiful home at Monticello, to which he always escaped, either in his mind or in person, as a safe haven when the pressures of his work grew too heavy. However, Jefferson was often far from his beloved refuge as he developed his new stance toward the British government. In July 1774, he responded to the Crown's dissolution of the House of Burgesses by penning a shocking work that called the king of England a mere servant of the people.[3] This firmly established his credentials as a revolutionary. As the majority of Virginia's government joined the revolution, Jefferson became a member of the Continental Congress, leaving a divided Virginia behind him. But unlike many historians, Kranish insists that the violent events in Virginia preoccupied Jefferson as much as writing the Declaration of Independence. He remained forever mindful of what was happening in his home state and worried that the British would soon invade it. When Jefferson returned from Philadelphia, his fellow Virginians elected him governor as their state was rapidly collapsing from British raids and an empty treasury.

Lack of funds was a perennial problem for Jefferson as he tried to unite his countrymen to fight off British incursions. Though patriotic, Virginians were loath to take arms against the British for very long without being paid. Moreover, the state legislature, mistrustful of standing armies, refused to call up troops for extended service, preferring to rely on militiamen when threats arose. Jefferson faced both British invasions on the coast and loyalist and Indian attacks in the backcountry. Benedict Arnold led an invasion in 1781 to destroy Virginia's ability to make war and capture Jefferson himself, a story of intrigue and betrayal beautifully told by Kranish. After Jefferson escaped into the mountains, he was accused of having abandoned Virginia to the British in order to save himself. The citizens of Virginia refused to conscript troops and raise money through taxation even as British forces troops attacked at will throughout the state. Personally, Jefferson was faced with the death of his daughter. It was a dark period of his life.

During the summer of 1781, Continental forces concentrated on Virginia, finally responding to Jefferson's pleas for support. At long last, the government of Virginia approved measures to pay the militia. Though Jefferson was no longer governor, he was reproached for the failure to properly oppose the British invasion, a charge he always sought to refute thereafter. When Continental forces eventually forced the British to capitulate at Yorktown, Jefferson returned for a time to the genteel life he so loved. But, after the untimely death of his wife Martha in September 1782, he returned to public service as America's new ambassador to France. Kranish concludes by reiterating that the pall of the flight from Monticello always cast its shadow over Jefferson, affecting his relations with other patriots.

Kranish, impartially presenting the facts contained in the primary sources, sees Jefferson as a symbol of the American Revolutionary experience:

It would often be suggested that if Jefferson was wrong, America was wrong, but if he was right, America was right. That seems too absolute. Jefferson's record was both remarkable and unsatisfactory, filled with contradictions—such as the way he favored equality while also overseeing slavery, and his role as war leader while acknowledging that he was unqualified to practice the art of war. Jefferson once urged a grandson to absorb the wisdom of sages while avoiding the false attractions around him. Such judgments shaped a man. So it has been for Jefferson and his country—the sands of life shifted, his wisdoms absorbed, his faults better understood. (331)

Viewing Jefferson from such a perspective, Kranish has written a book that will enlighten both those interested in Jefferson and those seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the Revolutionary period. He avoids the rabbit-hole arguments about Sally Hemmings that have entrapped so many other authors by merely stating the facts and the possible conclusions to be drawn. As he states, whatever the nature of that relationship, it did not bear on Jefferson's war leadership, his main subject. Flight from Monticello successfully illuminates an often overlooked aspect of Jefferson's life story by integrating it into the larger picture of Virginia at war.

[1] He has over twenty years experience writing for The Boston Globe, currently as deputy chief of the paper's Washington Bureau.

[2] John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (NY: PublicAffairs, 2004), co-authored with Brian C. Mooney and Nina J. Easton; and The Real Mitt Romney (NY: Harper, 2012), co-authored with Scott Helman.

[3] "Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art. To give praise which is not due might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people"—A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

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