Thomas Jefferson was in his sanctuary of Monticello, gathering precious papers. The British charged up a mountain road, planning to capture him.
It was June 4, 1781, nearly five years after Jefferson had composed the Declaration of Independence. Yet independence was hardly won.
Months earlier, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson had abandoned the capital of Richmond, fleeing a 27-ship British armada carrying 1,600 troops up the James River, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold. Now another band of British were galloping up the mountain from Charlottesville.
Just hours earlier, Jefferson had refused to let the legislature select him for another term as governor, leaving the state without leadership at such a dark hour. The capture of Jefferson would have been an extraordinary prize.
It was a moment when the dream of separation from London seemed in gravest danger of becoming undone. The states feuded among themselves. Many Virginia militiamen refused to turn out, eager to protect their families. Jefferson, so fearful of centralized power, had failed to heed countless warnings that he should galvanize the military.
Yet, even as he was warned about the British threat, Jefferson puttered about Monticello, not wanting to leave. He remembered how his family had lost precious items when his childhood home burned down decades earlier. He gathered crucial documents for his saddlebag.
“In preparing for flight,” he wrote later, “I shoved in papers where I could.”
A local militia man, Jack Jouett, a 6-foot-4, 26-year-old, saw British troops pass by a tavern and determined they were on their way to Monticello. In a moonlit ride that should be as famous as that of Paul Revere, he mounted his horse, raced 40 miles on mountain trails and warned Jefferson that the British were coming. Jefferson calmly headed to a higher mountain called Montalto, spied the enemy troops through his telescope and determined how much time remained to gather the most important items.
Precious minutes passed as the British drew closer. Now a 23-year-old Virginia lieutenant, Christopher Hudson, concerned that Jefferson still remained at Monticello, raced toward the mansion. “I found Mr. Jefferson, perfectly tranquil, and undisturbed,” Hudson said later. Hudson found only one other man, a gardener, on the grounds. Like Jouett before him, Hudson beseeched Jefferson to leave.
Finally, Jefferson mounted his horse, a six-year-old stallion named Caractacus, and galloped through a forest of chestnut trees. A master horseman, familiar with the ribbons of trails near his home like no one else, Jefferson was confident he could elude the British even if he was only moments ahead. His confidence proved true. He reached his family’s carriage, which carried his wife, Martha, and their daughters, eight-year-old Patsy and two-year-old Maria, and sped with them to way stations.
Five minutes after Jefferson fled, the British arrived. An officer found a slave named Martin Hemings, cocked his gun and demanded to know where Jefferson was hiding. Hemings refused to answer, declaring, “Fire away, then.” The officer ordered his men to search the premises, seeking the prize of Jefferson for King George III, for this was the monarch’s 43rd birthday.
But Jefferson was gone, and soon, too, were the disappointed British. Remarkably, the enemy did not torch Monticello, in contrast to their destruction of another Jefferson property — perhaps because they remembered how he had once welcomed enemy officers to his parlor after they had been taken prisoner, and treated them kindly.
Jefferson and his family, however, still faced danger. British troops patrolled throughout the region. The fleeing entourage forded rivers and headed through mountain passes as they sought safety at Jefferson’s property near Lynchburg, at a plantation he called Poplar Forest. There, long before he built an octagonal home on the estate, he hid from the British in a caretaker’s cabin. He remained there during the Fourth of July and for weeks afterward, until he was sure it was safe to return to his beloved Monticello.
Jefferson’s flight made him a mockery. He was called a coward and worse. His political enemies began an investigation into his conduct and he faced the possibility of censure for leaving the state without leadership while looking out for his own interests. One legislator wrote that Jefferson’s flight left Virginia “in a most distressed condition from sea to the mountains.” Jefferson would later explain that he knew he was no military man; he was a planter and scientist and intellectual, not a warrior; it was best, he reasoned, to have a seasoned general take over. He knew his limitations. But he was tormented by the criticism.
“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 treasons of the heart and not merely weakness of the head,” Jefferson wrote. “I felt that these injuries … had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”
Jefferson rebutted his critics the way he knew best, with his writing. He was in the midst of composing chapters for his only full-length book, “Notes on the State of the Virginia,” which featured rhapsodic descriptions of the state’s natural beauty. He delivered his defense of his actions in a chapter about the Navy, which consisted of one paragraph. His point was that the state in effect didn’t have one and that it wasn’t his fault. Since the British invaded, he wrote, “I believe we are left with a single armed boat only.”
In the end, as federal troops poured into Virginia, the British had unwisely dispersed their forces too widely. They regrouped at a place called Yorktown, even more unwisely, enabling them to be surrounded by George Washington’s army and French allies. The Revolutionary War was effectively over, although the conflict dragged on elsewhere for months. The investigation into Jefferson’s conduct was dropped.
Jefferson swore his days of public service were over. He would return to Monticello and, he said, happily live a quiet planter’s life.
It was a promise he did not keep. In 1800, he won the presidency, defeating John Adams in what he called a second American Revolution, this one against federalists that he feared would return the country to a form of monarchy. He savaged his critics, writing, “The reign of witches is over.”
Jefferson, like the country he led, was a man of contradictions, none more vivid than his ownership of slaves even as he composed a Declaration of Independence that said “all men are created equal.” His life was far more complicated than can be summed up in platitudes or words on a statue. But no time may have better illustrated Jefferson’s struggles, or his ability to recover from them, than his flight from Monticello.
Michael Kranish is the author of “Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War,” published by Oxford University Press.
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