III. Depositions Taken in 1796 respecting Jefferson’s Conduct during Arnold’s Invasion
Archibald Blair’s Deposition
Being requested to state what I recollect of the circumstances which occasioned the loss of the public records in the year 1781, and the time Mr. Jefferson, the then Governor of Virginia, quitted Richmond upon the approach of the enemy,—I do well remember that Mr. Jefferson was extremely active in removing all public records from Richmond, and I have reason to believe that the Chief of their loss was owing to a mistake of the Waggoners conveying them to the foundery, instead of Westham where they were to have been thrown over the river, if pursued by the enemy. Mr. Jefferson desired me, as Clerk to the Council, to continue with him, and to take with me the public Seal and such papers as might be immediately wanted. I accordingly procured a Servant and horse to carry a small Trunk containing the papers, and, on the afternoon preceding Arnolds taking possession of Richmond, Mr. Jefferson desired me to proceed to Tuckahoe where he wou’d come to me. I sat out about sun-set, and left Mr. Jefferson busy in getting off the records.
Oct. 12. 1796
Daniel Hylton’s Deposition
I the subscriber an Inhabitant of the County of Henrico do hereby certifie that in January 1781 when Arnold invaded this Place, I was living very near the Foundery at West-Ham; That I was going out to Join the Militia to oppose the said Arnold, when I was stopt by Mr. Jefferson, then Governor of the state, and requested by him to attend to the removal of the Powder, ammunition, arms, and other Property belonging to the Public then in the magazine near West-Ham; That his orders were, to have every thing removed with all possible expedition across the River; That on the night preceeding the day of Arnolds arrival at the Foundery, Mr. Jefferson was at the subscribers House, as late as Eleven or twelve OClock at night, attending and giving directions about the Public Property; That he then said he should go up the River about 8 or 10 miles, cross the next morning and come down to Brittains Opposite west-Ham and that Carriages &ca, should be provided to take off the said Property; that this was done; that a very considerable quantity (I suppose about fifteen Tons) of Gun-Powder, and amunition with a number of arms, stores, &ca were transported as directed and thereby saved to the public; that the Enemy were so Close upon us that I was obliged to have about three Hundred stand of arms thrown into the River, the greater part of which were afterwards recovered; that in the night preceeding the day of Invasion, the waggons (driven by white men) employed to bring the Records, &ca, from Richmond, by mistake attempted to get to the magazine, instead of the Landing on the River, and near the magazine overset and broke some arms &ca, that in Consequence of this accident, the Packages, which I found afterwards contained Records, were Lodged at the magazine and carriages could not be procured in time for the Removal, as the alarm was so great and sudden, that almost every person in the neighbourhood was endeavouring to put some of his Property in a state of safety by removing it; That it then and ever since, has appeared to the subscriber, that the said Mr. Jefferson did every thing which the nature of the case and his situation would admit, for the Public Interest.
12th. October 1796.
Danl L. Hylton
The foregoing certificate was subscribed and sworn to, in due form, before me, a magistrate for the County aforesaid.
Given under my Hand this 12th. day of October 17.
James Currie’s Deposition
On application made to me, if I recollect any thing, in regard to the circumstances which led to the loss of the Publick records and other valuable papers in the year 1781 during the invasion of the British Army, when Mr. Jefferson was Governor, do well remember, that he appeard extremely anxious and very active, in having them removd from Richmond and deposited in a place of safety: and if possible entirely out of the reach of the enemy and for that and other duties of his office as chief magistrate did remain in Town fully as long as was either proper or prudent for him so to do; without manifest danger of becoming the prisoner of the invading Army, who were fast approaching the Seat of Government, without any efficient force that could at that time be brought against them, to stop their March, and that his conduct was then perfectly proper and that of a real patriot and friend of his country will be very fully evincd, by the concurrent voice of the Gentlemen who then acted with him in Council as well as the unanimous approving voice of the Virginia Legislature at the Subsequent meeting of the assembly of the State.
MSS (DLC); all three documents are presumably, but not certainly, in the hands of their respective signers. Currie’s deposition lacks a date but without doubt was taken down at about the same time with the others.
Though the precise circumstances evoking these statements in vindication of TJ’s conduct during Arnold’s raid have not been determined, it is clear that they were intended for publication as counterpropaganda to Federalist attacks on TJ during the presidential campaign of 1796. TJ’s personal responsibility for the loss of many of Virginia’s public records was a favorite charge of anti-Jeffersonian writers, and this was not the last time it was raised. For one so scrupulous as he was in preserving and disseminating public records, this must have been as peculiarly painful a charge as it was a false one.
To these depositions might well be added a communication to Fenno’s Gazette of the United States, 29 Oct. 1796, signed by “A Subscriber,” who was John Beckley, clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates. Beckley’s statement was in reply to “Phocion” (William Loughton Smith and Oliver Wolcott, Jr.), who had in the same paper accused TJ of having “abandoned his trust at the moment of invasion” and had raked up other well-worn charges against TJ’s conduct as governor. Beckley pointed out that TJ had not resigned until his term of office had expired, that his official conduct had been unanimously approved by the Delegates” resolution of 12 Dec. 1781, that he had personally superintended the removal of records and stores from Richmond before Arnold’s attack on that town, that he had returned to the capital the moment the enemy evacuated it, and that Tarleton’s force during his raid into Albemarle was “about 500 cavalry,” not (as “Phocion” alleged) “a few light horsemen.” To most of these events Beckley asserted that he was himself an eye-witness, as no doubt he was because of his official duties. Philip Marsh, in “Jefferson and the Invasion of Virginia,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography description ends , lvii (1949), 322–6, prints Beckley’s communication in full, with a commentary; Beckley’s acknowledgment of his authorship is in a letter, not noted by Marsh, to William Burwell, 28 June 1805 (DLC: TJ Papers).