Book review

A fresh take on Thomas Jefferson

By David Waldstreicher
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2010

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Here’s a Jefferson story few have heard. On June 29, 1826, he is on his deathbed, and he knows it. The son of the late Henry Lee, a political enemy, comes knocking at Monticello because he’s publishing an edition of his father’s memoirs, and wants to be fair to Jefferson, whom Lee had attacked for his record as Virginia’s wartime governor in 1780-81.

When young Lee, who like his father is named Henry, realizes Jefferson’s condition, he apologizes and offers to come back another time. But Jefferson won’t have it. He was expecting this visit and has spent many hours gathering the relevant papers - hours he might have spent on his own unfinished autobiography. They agree to put off the extensive interview. Still, he insists that Lee stay for dinner. Lee leaves smitten with the gracious old man. Score one more for the charmer of Albemarle County.

Stories like this make Michael Kranish’s “Flight From Monticello’’ a readable and surprisingly fresh take on Jefferson, the Revolutionary War, and Colonial Virginia. Kranish focuses on the controversial period during the war when Jefferson served as governor of Virginia. The British invaded the state, which had a weak militia, before regular Colonial forces could arrive, forcing the Legislature to flee and opening Jefferson to accusations of incompetence and cowardice.

A journalist by trade (for the Globe’s Washington bureau), Kranish allows himself a pinch or three of sensationalism to keep our attention. Patrick Henry is introduced as an early rival: Jefferson helped spread rumors of the patriot firebrand’s lack of military ability in 1775 when Henry led a volunteer militia unit and had been put forward as commander of Virginia’s forces. Did Henry later start the House of Burgesses’ investigation of Jefferson’s conduct when British soldiers ran rampant through Virginia in 1780, as Kranish first implies? Not really; others played a more important role.

Likewise, Jefferson’s flight on horseback down his mountain away from British raiders comes at the end of Kranish’s tale and was not the big deal the book’s title might suggest. The expert equestrian’s escape was neither frantic nor panic-stricken. He knew all along that all he had to do was ride through the woods and back roads to rendezvous with his wife and children. His moment of seeming cowardice was more a cool-headed response to a pending threat.

Nevertheless, this is solid, entertaining history that debunks some myths while conveying the fog of war. Virginia rarely seemed to have the right number or kinds of troops in the right place at the right time. But the British also committed tactical errors: General Lord Cornwallis devoted too many resources to a colony where Tories were too intimidated to continue the fight after the redcoats moved on. And the decision to put the turncoat Benedict Arnold at the head of an invading force alienated more patriots than it frightened.

In the end the British couldn’t control the largest colony for some of the same reasons Jefferson couldn’t run its defense effectively: People were making their own decisions. The enslavement of 40 percent of the population made things complicated for both sides. Property owners didn’t want to be drafted, or have their militia terms extended, but they didn’t want to be overrun either.

Like many journalists who write history, Kranish is content to tell us who did what, leaving questions about what it all means to readers. We are left to wonder what impact the war and its liberation of dozens of his slaves may have had on the future secretary of state and president. We do come away with respect for Jefferson’s effort in a difficult time. While some of his decisions may have been questionable, he had neither the powers nor the desire to run Virginia at war.

David Waldstreicher is the author of “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification’’ (Hill and Wang).

FLIGHT FROM MONTICELLO: Thomas Jefferson at War By Michael Kranish

Oxford University, 400 pp., $27.95