We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. — George Orwell

Story of Thomas Jefferson - J. W. McSpadden




The New Governor

A sunny May day, in 1769, laid its blessing upon the little town of Williamsburg, whose long street, from the capitol with its portico and columns far out almost to the brick-built college was lined, bright and early, with every one of its inhabitants able to be out, to say nothing of the whites and blacks who had driven, ridden or trudged afoot into town from the country.

The crowd craned their necks. Down the street a gorgeous coach, carved and gilded, its footmen and coachmen in bright livery, preceded and followed by a guard of soldiers, rolled slowly along. Eight milk-white horses, in the gayest of trappings, with glossy coats and beribboned manes and tails, drew this wonderful vehicle, the gift, so it was said, of King George himself.

The new governor, Lord Botetourt, sent over by his majesty, was on his way to open the Virginia parliament.

The assembly chamber of the capitol was a long room with seats and desks arranged about the floor in orderly lines. Facing them were the platform and chair of the speaker. A little to one side stood a high reading-desk where the clerk of the House stood to call the roll.

Members of the House were standing about talking. Among them were Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, for our old friend Tom and the jolly youth of the "fiddlers' fair" had both been elected. Thomas Jefferson had not only become a lawyer, but a thoroughly well-read one. Colonel George Washington, too, tall, fine-looking and grave, stood talking with them.

A small man had taken his place before the members, after they had filed in to the hall, and they listened gravely to his message.

"Gentlemen, the Governor commands this House to attend His Excellency immediately in the council chamber."

Everybody arose forthwith. The House of Burgesses, followed by a few of the bolder among the spectators, filed through the doorway way and down the corridor. When they reached the council chamber, they formed themselves into a half-circle before the throne, where Governor Lord Botetourt sat waiting for them.

The ceremony was disappointingly short. The Governor greeted the members of the House formally and commanded them to return at once to their chamber and elect a speaker, or presiding officer. Then the same solemn procession passed along the corridor to the chamber of the House.

When the Burgesses had once more settled themselves in their places, a vote was taken, and Peyton Randolph elected their speaker. This done, two members were sent to tell the Governor that the House of Burgesses had obeyed his commands. After the members had returned and taken their seats, there was a short period of waiting and then the clerk arrived to give them the command of the Governor.

Such was the legislature of which Thomas Jefferson had become a member.

But all these polite ceremonies did not put down or conceal a feeling of uneasiness on the part of both Governor Lord Botetourt and the Virginia legislature. True, the English parliament had repealed the Stamp Act to which the Americans had so bitterly objected some three years before, that act by which it had tried to make the colonists pay taxes to England against their will; but, being determined to tax the people of the colonies somehow, it had declared that they should pay certain sums whenever they brought paper, tea, glass and some other things from across the Atlantic. This was called a tax on imports. It also seemed unjust to the colonists, who thought it did not seem right that, without their having a word to say in the matter, or the privilege of electing somebody to go to parliament for them, the English government could force them to pay taxes. It is true that the colonies of other nations were taxed by their mother countries, but the Americans were used to the "rights of Englishmen" and those rights they intended to keep.

The English laws compelling the colonies to do virtually all their foreign buying and selling with England alone, and those that forbade certain manufacturing in them were also the cause of a great deal of angry feeling. Many of the people of England sympathized with these ideas, even in the English parliament itself, but even such men as William Pitt, Edmund Burke, Conway and Fox could not turn back the King, with Lord North and his other supporters, from the path that was leading straight to the American revolution.

So it was that trouble was in the very air, even while the dignified Burgesses made their finest bows to the Royal Governor. This trouble was not long in making itself known. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the others were not the men to let a royal governor frighten them, or a king bribe their with sight of a gilded coach, into giving all the rights and liberties of loyal English subjects.

On the third day of the session, the Burgesses declared that they believed "taxation without representation" to be wrong, and that sending American colonists who were accused of treason across to England to be tried in English courts was unjust. They also stated that the colonies n4ikht very rightly stand by one another when things were going ill, in order to try to set them right again. A paper setting forth their views was ordered sent to each one of the other colonies.

This bold act caused a great deal of excitement. The next day after the Burgesses had expressed their opinions so independently, something quite unexpected happened. Governor Lord Botetourt summoned them before him.

His Lordship was not so smilingly polite, now. He sat frowning, his face very red, looking from the Speaker, who stood before him with easy dignity, to the other members as they ranged themselves in a half-circle.

"Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses," he said at length, clearing his, throat harshly. "I have heard of your resolves and augur ill of their effects. You have made it my duty to dissolve you, and you are hereby dissolved, accordingly!"

It was like a bombshell! Dissolved! That meant that when they left the presence of Lord Botetourt they were, according to the law of those days, no longer a legislature. The Royal Governor had sent them about their business with "a flea in the ear." So much for their bold resolutions of the day before!

"Well, Tom," laughed Patrick Henry, "you've been a legislator for just five days and are now a plain farmer again. How is that for speed?"

A rousing meeting, held by the members the next day in the old ballroom where, not so long ago, Jefferson had danced the minuet with Rebecca Burwell, rang with the burning words of Patrick Henry, now known to be a great orator, while the brief and weighty opinions of George Washington were listened to with respect, and the practical suggestions of young Thomas Jefferson met with the approval of the assembly. Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, Richard Randolph and others spoke as fearlessly.

It was agreed that so long as Great Britain taxed goods imported into the colonies, Americans would stop sending to England for them; would wear homespun clothing; drink no tea; and be so saving and industrious that they could raise enough in America to be independent of the English merchants and manufacturers. This agreement was written and eighty-eight of the dismissed legislators signed it.

After that, Thomas Jefferson returned to Shadwell. He found, when he got back into Albemarle County, that the people who had sent him were well satisfied with the part he had taken in affairs. When election time came again, they promptly re-elected him to act for, them in the next House of Burgesses.

Meanwhile, he busied himself with plans for a beautiful new home. Dabney Carr and Martha had made a home for themselves note many miles away. Jane, dearest of all the sisters that had filled the house at Shadwell, had lingered but a few months after their marriage. Some four years had passed since then. Thomas had set his heart on building a fine house on the summit of the little mountain where he and Dabney had loved to study.

He had workmen clear away a space, and others were now erecting the first part of what was one day to be one of the handsomest houses in America. He decided to call the place Monticello, or Little Mountain, an appropriate as well as a beautiful name. It was fortunate that he began this building when he did, for not long afterward the comfortable old house at Shadwell was burned to the ground.

At the next meeting of the legislature the young member from Albemarle County made an attempt which shows the kindness of his heart as well as the brave stand he was always ready to take for human freedom and justice. He asked the legislature to make a law which should do away with the old one forbidding a Virginian to free his slaves without sending them outside the colony. He wished to have the slaves given greater protection by the laws than they then enjoyed. But his ideas were too far in advance of the time, and the House of Burgesses angrily refused to pass his bill.

The session of 1773 brought him a great deal of work. He was appointed one of a group of members, with Patrick Henry, Dabney Carr, and others, that was given the important duty of writing to the same kind of committees in other colonies telling what Virginia was doing, and receiving the news from them of what was being accomplished in every one of them, from New Hampshire to Georgia. If we remember that the telegraph had not then been invented, to say nothing of the telephone, and that travel was only by horse or stage, in the interior, we shall realize how necessary this work was, in order to keep the colonies abreast of one another and united in their acts on matters of the greatest moment to American freedom.