Biography: Thomas Jefferson Does His Worst

The flood of popular books about heroes of the American Revolution has not helped Thomas Jefferson. David McCullough's John Adams revived the reputation of one of Jefferson's political rivals. And the most prominent recent works have focused on Sally Hemings. In several books on Hamilton and Washington, Jefferson appears at a disadvantage.

Michael Kranish's Flight From Monticello focuses on one of the worst times in Jefferson's life. He became governor of Virginia in 1779 and had to face repeated invasions of his state by British forces. The most extensive, led initially by Benedict Arnold, routed the Virginia militia and the state's tiny Navy, chased the legislature from Williamsburg and Richmond, and pursued them all the way to Charlottesville. Then they went for Jefferson. He rode out of Monticello minutes before British cavalrymen invaded the place and ransacked his wine cellar (but spared the house).

As Kranish tells the story, Jefferson talked over and over to writers, biographers, and friends about those years, haunted by them, knowing his conduct was portrayed savagely by his political opponents. Kranish isn't such an opponent; he is fair, and he makes Jefferson seem no coward. But Jefferson does come off as ineffectual. The governor is told that an enormous war fleet is headed for his state, but he doesn't call out the militia; the fleet might be French. His powers are limited; when he belatedly calls for the militia, few come, and those who do have few weapons and little ammunition. Some civilian rulers are galvanized by a military threat to their land; Jefferson was not. Informed of the arrival of 27 ships, likely containing a British army, Jefferson wrote to the speaker of the House hoping the legislature would give "some advice to the executive on this subject."

One thinks of the contrast with Lincoln. Like Jefferson, the Civil War president was no military man; unlike Jefferson, Lincoln turned to the study of arms and constantly goaded his generals to action. Jefferson seems to have spent much of the campaign bemoaning his lack of soldiers and supplies and doing little to help procure any. Though he had read plenty of Roman history, he even exempted his and his friends' most valuable horses from military duty.

His opponents were led—fortunately for the Americans—by Arnold, who chose to spend much of his one command of a British force in the pursuit of prize money. Chasing Jefferson from Richmond and then from Monticello was the high point of the British invasion of Virginia. Jefferson's low point was not the flight from Monticello but his decision to quit the governorship at the end of a second one-year term. He left the state leaderless and astonished to be so during an invasion by a foreign army. Thomas Nelson, a heroic figure in Kranish's book, became governor, and the legislature gave him the additional powers Jefferson lacked. A landowner like Jefferson, Nelson had vowed to "make myself a soldier"—and he did. His militia aided Washington's soldiers and the French fleet in forcing Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown.

Kranish, a reporter for The Boston Globe, has published a campaign-year biography of John Kerry, but this is his first history book. Students of Jefferson's life will want to read it. The author's evenhanded, careful account is, on balance, helpful to Jefferson's reputation. He was not at his best, but his conduct was neither cowardly nor disgraceful, as his enemies charged. It was, truly, the low point of the future president's public life. His great mind and his persuasive powers, which made such a difference in the future of the country, were of little use against Arnold's British regulars and their Hessian collaborators. It wasn't his day; that would come.