Thomas Jefferson

The Revolutionary War 1776-1781

Summary The Revolutionary War 1776-1781

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.

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