Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden

A Foretaste of War

Early May hovered above the hills and valleys, and the green shadow of her wings lay softly upon the land. Monticello was bright with grasses and the fairylike leafage of springtime.

Jefferson was walking back and forth upon the lawn, a letter in his hand. Sometimes he held it behind him and marched steadily, his head down and his usually calm forehead wrinkled in thought; then, halting, he would flutter its leaves over to find some particular part and read it again, his lips pressed into an anxious line, Mrs. Jefferson came slowly from the house and linked her arm into his.

"Why, Thomas, something disturbs you!" she exclaimed. "What is it?"

He held out the letter.

"This has just come," he said, "a terrible bit of news from Massachusetts. I am afraid peace with England is no longer possible. This means war!"

"War! Oh, Thomas, not that! What has happened?"

He clasped the hand on his arm and the two walked on together.

"The people of Massachusetts have put the King's troops to flight," he explained briefly. "Governor Gage sent soldiers to capture or destroy the store of powder belonging to the people. The news of what he was doing got about, and the farmers—minute-men, they're called—gathered like swarming bees from every side. They chased the King's troops thirty miles! This letter reports that five hundred were left dead on Lexington road!"

Her eyes widened with horror. "Five hundred dead! Oh, Thomas, it can't be. You know how early reports always exaggerate! It can't be! But oh, I glory in the farmers of Massachusetts!"

"They chased the troops like seasoned veterans. Chased, mind you, Martha, chased  the King's own troops and shut them up in Boston!" His eyes sparkled. "'Twill teach Gage and his sort a lesson!"

"It's dreadful, Thomas. It makes one's heart fill with dread. If war has come—why, there comes a carriage! Perhaps it brings more news. Hurry! We'll go to meet it."

A traveling carriage was coming up the slope as rapidly as its four horses, urged by the efforts of a negro driver, could bring it. The Jeffersons walked forward to meet it. When it came to a standstill, a red-faced, elderly man whose white wig had become considerably rumpled and whose clothing was covered with travel stains, burst out of the vehicle like a ripe nut coming out of a burr. He came forward hastily, bowing.

"Mr. Thomas Jefferson?" he asked. "I thought so. My name is Thomas, Gabriel Thomas, sir, plain Gabriel Thomas, merchant of Williamsburg. Finding myself hereabouts, I called, sir, to pay my respects to your lady and yourself "

Jefferson extended his hand gravely, and Mrs. Jefferson smiled and bowed.

"I am glad to see you, Mr. Thomas. Will you come in and rest? I see you are travel worn and your carriage has been badly mired down."

The red-faced man bowed again.

"Thank you, sir, I shall be happy to do so," he said formally. "I was hoping to find a blacksmith somewhere about. That rear axle is going to break the next thing and—" "If you will just send the carriage around will have it seen to. One of my servants is an excellent blacksmith. Meanwhile, we shall be glad to have you refresh yourself."

The two men were soon seated in the comfortable library.

"I've just had very distressing news from the North," remarked Jefferson, when Mrs. Jefferson had left them. "A battle has been fought between the King's troops and the farmers about Lexington."

Gabriel Thomas held up his hand.

"It's the cause of my journey, sir. It means war and I've property I must look after. But it's only the first flash in the pan, Mr. Jefferson," he went on, impressively, "and Virginia—mark my words—Virginia will take fire next!"


"Listen." The visitor leaned forward, his red face earnest. "We have a Governor in Virginia who will arouse the people to open rebellion. What am I saying? Who has aroused the people to rebellion! I tell you, Mr. Jefferson, the fire of Virginia's wrath has already been kindled by Governor Lord Dunmore. They may talk, sir," he went on warmly, "they may talk about Gage's acts and his attempt to disarm the people of Massachusetts. What less has Dunmore done here—I ask you, sir?"

Jefferson's face was full of puzzled anxiety. "I see, Mr. Thomas, that you have later news than I have. Pray do not wait a moment to—"

"I have, sir," interrupted the other. "Governor Lord Dunmore has shown himself the enemy of the people of Virginia, sir, and he has tried to disarm them—"

Jefferson waved his hand.

"I beg of you, tell me the whole of it. I am in the dark and most anxious," he begged.

His guest settled back into his chair and squared his broad shoulders.

"Well, sir, I'll try to. But when I think of it all—Gad, sir! My blood boils! But I'll try to go back to the beginning. You remember the powder magazine, of course, in the public square in Williamsburg?"

"Yes," said Jefferson, nodding.

"Twenty barrels of gunpowder were stored there, the property, as you know, of the colony of Virginia. You know well why it was kept there. Danger from Indian warfare is always a possibility, and then, suppose Dunmore or others should try to raise the negroes! We must have a store of gunpowder ready. Our very lives may some day depend on it."

He paused to mop his forehead.

"And Lord Dunmore?" asked Jefferson, leaning forward.

"Stole it!" exploded the other, clenching his hand. "Stole it, I tell you, sir. Zounds! Sent a file of marines with a wagon in the middle of the night—April 20, it was—"

"But I thought the citizens guarded the powder!"

"We did, sir! We did! I was one of the guards. But we thought nothing was going to happen. Nothing had, and we'd patrolled around that powder magazine for nights, the same guard of us. So we went home about midnight."

Jefferson drew a sharp breath.

"You went home?" he asked unbelievingly. "Leaving the magazine—"

The other bowed his head.

"We did. I'm ashamed to say, sir, we did. And the Governor's marines came about one o'clock and—"

"But, could they get in?"

"The Governor's key, Mr. Jefferson, of course. Well, sir, they loaded on fifteen barrels of the powder—all the wagon would hold—and drove out of Williamsburg down to the James, seven miles, and put it on a British man-of-war. The rest of it, we found out later, they buried somewhere in the powder-house itself!"

His host got to his feet.

"You say Dunmore did that!" he exclaimed. "Why, man, that's the act of a tyrant! It's unbelievable he'd go so far—and yet—" He turned toward the window and looked out again, "he's never seemed over wise. What happened next? Are the people rising?"

"Rising?" Thomas puffed out his cheeks until they looked like two red apples. "Rising, sir? They've risen—and they've conquered!"

The exulting merchant threw himself back into his chair with a bounce.

"What?" Thomas Jefferson's long face lost color. "You don't mean they've risen against the King's governor?"

"Let me tell you, Mr. Jefferson," replied Gabriel Thomas, nodding his head, "Virginia has shown Lord Dunmore and, perhaps, George the Third what mettle is to be found in the colony." Up went one pudgy finger. "The first thing they did, after rushing about like a hive of bees that's been robbed by a bear, the first thing, I say, was to call together the mayor, aldermen and councilmen. Peyton Randolph, chairman of the Congress, and Mr. Nicholas got them to do it. Well, sir, what do the mayor and the others do but send a letter to His Excellency the Earl of Dunmore asking him very humbly why he took their powder." He brought down the fat finger into the palm of his hand. Jefferson waited.

"Second thing," up went another finger, "was to receive the Governor's answer, which was that he'd heard there was a rising or some such thing in a neighboring colony, and thought it was best to put the powder where it would be safe! Cock-and-bull story, sir. Ha, ha!"

"He said that?"

Thomas, still chuckling, nodded.

"He did, and also that if it were needed in Williamsburg he'd have it back in half an hour! Well, nobody believed him, and everybody knew then, and does now, that he was trying to disarm the colony of Virginia."

The two sat silent a moment, then Jefferson waved his hand.

"I fear so," he said. "Go on, Mr. Thomas. What has been done?"

"Well, Mr. Jefferson," went on his visitor, rubbing his hands, "the people of Virginia began to take what arms they could find and, in a day or two, fourteen companies of horsemen were ready at Fredericksburg to march the seventy miles on Williamsburg and Governor Lord Dunmore."

Jefferson threw up his hands. "War! War!" he exclaimed, clasping them together and bringing them down upon the arm of his chair.

"You may well say so, sir," Thomas nodded until his newly-tied stock seemed about to choke him. "But they didn't march after all."

"Not march? Why?"

"Well,—and this is the best part of the story—they heard—Peyton Randolph sent 'em word—that one man had scared His Excellency into paying for the powder—"

"One man? You astound me, Mr. Thomas. What man could—"

"Only one man in Virginia could do it, I believe, and that man's name is Patrick Henry!" he exclaimed. "Patrick Henry called together the men of Hanover County and started for Williamsburg at the head of 'em. On the way others joined him until he had over a hundred men, some say a hundred and fifty. Well, sir, we folks in Williamsburg heard that he was coming with five thousand red-hot horsemen at his back. And the Governor heard it, too." The narrator stopped to chuckle until his red face purpled with enjoyment.

"Patrick Henry! Go on, sir!"

"Well, when Henry and his men had got to within sixteen miles of us, they halted. Dunmore was in a fright. He sent his wife and daughters aboard a warship, and had the captain put marines into the palace to protect him. Gad, sir! That captain's a bad one. He threatened to fire on the town itself—the innocent to suffer along with the guilty—that sort of thing, sir. But Henry'd halted and everybody waited to see the outcome, all of us holding our breath, as you might say."

"And Dunmore? What did he do then?"

"Why, called his council together to talk things over, since he'd got 'em into such a mess by himself. You know John Page, sir, member of his council?"

"Yes, yes. An old college-mate. What about him, Mr. Thomas?"

"Advised the Governor to give up the powder. They say Dunmore was furious, but Page told him it was the only thing to do to quiet the people. And he was right, too, sir; he was right."

"John Page would be," remarked Jefferson quietly, a smile beginning to hover about his lips. "I wish I'd heard him! Well, well! Good old John! What followed?"

"What followed, sir, was that His Excellency finally sent a messenger to Patrick Henry with money to pay for the powder. I've talked with one of the men who saw Mr. Henry's receipt for the money—three hundred odd pounds it was—"

Jefferson breathed a sigh of relief.

"And things are quiet again?" he inquired anxiously.

"As quiet as you can expect," replied the visitor, rising as Mrs. Jefferson came softly into the room. His host arose also and pushed forward a chair for her. She stood with her hand on the back of it.

"No, I cannot sit down now, Thomas," she said. "I came in to give you this letter. A messenger has just left it. There is no bad news, I hope?" Her voice and eyes were full of anxiety. In these stirring times every letter was becoming a thing to be feared.

With a word of apology, Jefferson broke the seal and unwrapped the letter.

"My dear," he said, after glancing at it, "I find that I shall be called away to attend the Congress. Lord Dunmore has summoned the House of Burgesses, and Peyton Randolph will have to come from Philadelphia to act as speaker. In that event, as I told you, I was to go to Congress in Randolph's place. You see, Mr. Thomas," he went on, politely including his guest, who had turned away, in the conversation, "I find that I must go to Williamsburg to the House and from there on to the Congress at Philadelphia. I hope I may be of some little help in untying this terrible tangle. It is high time that something was being done. I want my share of the labor."

His visitor bowed. "A privilege, sir," he agreed gravely, "a privilege for any man. My carriage, I see, is at the door and I must go on.

"Why, Mr. Thomas," protested Mrs. Jefferson, with ready kindness, "you are not going on without at least a night's rest? We will be honored to have you stay. A room is now ready."

The stout merchant shook his head regretfully.

"I thank you, madam, but my time is not my own now," he explained. "Events in Massachusetts—like those in Virginia"—he smiled at Jefferson—"leave us no time to tarry, now-a-days."

He was right. Nearer and nearer, out from the unknown future into the daylight of the present came toward them the booming cannon, the march of soldiers, and the waving banners of the revolution. Every man in Virginia and in the entire country would be needed.