Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson was out for a morning stroll in his garden on New Year’s Day of 1781 when he got the news — a fleet of 27 ships, origins unknown, had sailed through the Virginia Capes.
Unsure whether the ships carried French reinforcements or British enemies, Jefferson waited two days for confirmation that the British were actually invading before calling out the militia. That decision, along with Virginia’s ill state of preparedness for war, haunted Jefferson’s two-term governorship, which is the subject of Boston Globe reporter Michael Kranish’s new book, “Flight From Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.”
For most readers, even those who consider themselves well-versed in American history, Kranish’s book paints a portrait of Jefferson that they have never seen before — a defensive and indecisive commander in chief who slowly lost the trust of the Virginians he served to lead.
To do that, Kranish spent years examining the thousands of letters that Jefferson wrote and received during the course of his lifetime and even spent a month living in a cottage near Monticello as a fellow for the International Center for Jefferson Studies. Yet it’s Kranish’s focus on outside accounts — from major players in the British invasion of Virginia to ordinary soldiers — that make the book unique.
“Oftentimes when you write a biography you feel compelled to see everything through that person’s eyes,” Kranish said in a phone interview. “I really wanted to give you a fuller sense of what was going on in Virginia and some sense of what the average citizen was going through.”
Much of that is accomplished through firsthand accounts from journals, diaries and ship logs that Kranish tracked down over the course of his research. In one instance, he used British ship logs to find the names of officers who were aboard the fleet invading Virginia and then located their diaries — some of which had never been used before.
With so many personalities, the book could have easily become cumbersome and confusing, but Kranish excels at briefly reminding readers of the significance of each character previously mentioned as they re-enter the action.
“At heart, I write every day for a general audience,” Kranish said. “I wanted to be sure it met the standard of scholarship, but also read as the story it is.”
The story, in fact, is what gave him the idea to write a book about Jefferson in the first place. Defector Benedict Arnold’s invasion of Virginia and Jefferson’s subsequent flight from Monticello came up tangentially in a book that Kranish was reading, sparking his interest since he knew little about that period of Jefferson’s life. Kranish started doing research and gradually pieced together what occurred, but he found no volume dealing specifically with the subject.
“At that point, I thought if I’m this interested, maybe others will be as well — and maybe there is more to the story,” Kranish said. “I saw it as both a very dramatic narrative and a moment that shaped history.”
Thus, Kranish begins his book by briefly tracing Jefferson back to his early days as a student, lawyer and member of the state House of Burgesses, but he leaves the heart of the narrative to Arnold’s surprise invasion of Virginia.
Readers watch as Jefferson carries on with his daily activities — including paying the midwife who had recently delivered his daughter — as he hesitates to call out the military until he receives confirmation that the incoming ships are indeed British. Just days later, Arnold’s troops are already approaching Virginia’s largely undefended capital and Jefferson hurriedly sends his wife and three daughters away to safety.
As the invasion continues, readers see Jefferson fleeing westward from Monticello and struggling to gather enough soldiers and arms for the Virginia militia and the Continental Army, burdened by the weak executive power that he had lobbied for. Kranish thoughtfully recounts each situation, neither overly revering the famous figure nor blaming all of Virginia’s obstacles on Jefferson’s blunders.
Eventually, a weary Jefferson announces that he will not serve a third term as governor, leaving Virginia without an executive in the midst of invasion and adding to his already controversial tenure.
It isn’t long before he faces a formal investigation into his conduct as governor, and readers watch as he anxiously prepares an extensive defense. The matter is later dropped, however, after American and French forces triumph over the British at Yorktown, essentially ending the war.
“If the war had turned out differently, he might have gone down with a very negative reputation,” Kranish said.
Because it didn’t, however, Kranish’s Jefferson is one that is mostly absent from American history classrooms. Though dense at times, his book provides a fresh look at one of America’s most revered historical leaders with an attention to drama that will keep readers trekking through to the very end.