One of Jeffersons most lasting reforms as a legislator was to introduce a workable balance of powers into the governmental structure. By establishing separate executive, judicial and legislative wings, Jefferson created a model later adopted in the Constitution of the United States (See the Constitution SparkNote). Though Jefferson was always more comfortable in a legislative position, his political skills repeatedly thrust him into executive roles. On the strength of his impressive record in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson was catapulted from legislator to chief executive when his colleagues elected him to a one-year term as governor on June 1, 1779.
Partly by Jeffersons own design, the executive was granted few powers in the overall structure of the Virginia government. Thus, upon promotion, Jeffersons hands were tied by virtue of his own decree. Such limitations were all the more frustrating in the face of the difficult war at hand.
The first years of the war had not gone entirely favorably for the Americans. Initially, they were sorely outnumbered by British forces. On the brink of defeat, George Washingtons brilliant crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 rallied the cause. The 1778 entry of the French into the war on behalf of the Americans also provided a much-needed military boost. But when the long winter of 1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania depleted Washingtons forces severely, he turned to Virginia to call up reserve forces.
Most of the early fighting had been done in Canada, New England, and New York, and when Jefferson assumed his governorship Virginia was still largely untouched by warfare. Still, Jefferson was hard-pressed when ordered to recruit within Virginia. The domestic force had already been thinned out by then-Governor Patrick Henrys ambitious foray into the Great Lakes region, where a task force of troops attempted to secure a hold on lands that had been claimed by Britain under the Quebec Act.
Under Jefferson, these efforts were redoubled. A secret expedition led by George Rogers Clark set out to re-conquer the disputed territory for keeps. Retreat came only in 1780 when Jefferson promised to cede the newly secured territory to the United States. Out of these lands, the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were formed.
Closer to home, Virginia suffered a setback when the British made a successful blockade of Chesapeake Bay in 1779, limiting trade severely and essentially paralyzing the economy. In an effort to revive flagging finances, Jefferson began a severe flurry of loyalist confiscations, claiming land and property of all citizens suspected of maintaining an alliance with British interests.
To combat the impending coastal threat, Jefferson made good on his long-standing plan to move the capital inland from Williamsburg to Richmond, where it remains to this day. While this change was ostensibly made to weaken the tactical advantage of Britains blockade, it also permanently altered the balance of power within Virginia, transferring significant political influence from the Tidewater aristocracy to the Piedmont frontiersmen in line with Jeffersons democratic agenda.
Toward the close of 1779, the British navy landed at Charleston, South Carolina, which they quickly seized. The southern wing of the continental army was left in shambles, and support for the loyalist cause began to mount. Sensing a positive swing in momentum, the British army began to push north through Georgia and the Carolinas.
In the midst of this threat, Jefferson was elected to a second one-year term as governor in the spring of 1780. Attempting to improve Virginias defenses, he called for the creation of an autonomous state army. However, his weak executive claim was rejected by the council of state, which distrusted this move toward a stronger centralization of government power. Again, this was partly by his own doing, and to his own philosophy, by which he viewed the establishment of a temporary dictator in time of emergency as fundamentally against the principles of democracy.
Because of this intensely democratic streak, when British forces led by turncoat Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis entered the Virginia interior in January of 1781, Jefferson and company were particularly powerless to defend themselves. Many of their ablest fighters had been sent elsewhere in the service of Washington. Due to the continued decentralization of government power , only a disorganized and inexperienced force remained to fight for the home cause. Thus, the British arrived unchecked at Richmond, and considerable damage was done to the area before Jefferson and his family were able to escape.
With the focus of the war shifting more squarely to the southern states, the Americans shifted its emphasis accordingly. Washington sent French reinforcements under the command of Marquis de Lafayette to help defend Virginia. Jefferson made fast friends with Lafayette, and the two maintained a transatlantic friendship throughout their lives. But while Jefferson was at home in the company of military masterminds, he himself was ill-equipped to negotiate the perils of war. Recognizing this fact, he stepped down as governor in June 1781 at the conclusion of his second term, out of deference to the sitting commander of the state militia, General Thomas Nelson.
Jeffersons nearest brush with war came mere days later, when British troops under Banastre Tarleton attacked Charlottesville. Jefferson, who was staying at one of his outlying estates, was warned of the attack just in time, and was able to disperse family and visitors to various shelters. He himself fled to safety just as the approaching British arrived within sight.
American fortunes took a dramatic swing for the better in the late summer and early autumn of 1781, as a force including three French troops to every American moved into Virginia waters and launched an amphibious assault upon the British forces stationed there. In unexpectedly swift fashion, Lord Cornwallis was brought to his knees by the onslaught, resulting in the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. The United States, with ample help from several European allies, had made its case for true independence, turning back the most powerful imperial force of the eighteenth century.
Unhappily, Jefferson shared no large part of the glory at the time. In fact, he was roundly criticized in Virginia for his fumbling administration and for the near-debacles that had almost led to his capture. A formal inquiry into his conduct as governor ensued, and although he was later cleared of all suspicion, the resulting stain on his integrity was significant. Jefferson, convinced that the inquiry had been precipitated by a jealous Patrick Henry, cut all ties with his former ally and resolved to be forever done with the trials of public office.
Thus, at the age of thirty-eight, Jefferson retired to Monticello with the intention of leaving political life permanently behind. Many of his smaller estates had been left in disarray by the ravages of war, and his crops and livestock had been uniformly destroyed. Among the ample property that had been stolen was a group of thirty slaves. So, with reputation tarnished and remaining holdings in shambles, Jefferson set out to attend to the care of his personal fortunes, which had been neglected so severely in his devotion to the cause of revolution.