Thomas Jefferson Papers

Henry Young to William Davies, 9 June 1781

Henry Young to William Davies

Staunton 9th. June 1781.

Dr Sir

The Iron Chest that was put in your Waggon contains a number of Papers of consequence, you will be pleas’d to take it with you to this place. We have reason to apprehend that the Enemy are within twelve miles of Charlottesville. I apprehended two days ago a Desserter on suspicion of his being a spie. Circumstances are strong against him but no positive proof. He says that the Enemy will be hear in a day or two. Some confidence is repos’d in his opinion by many, for my part I give no credit to any thing that he says. Two days ago Mr. Nicholas gave notice that he shou’d this day move to have a Dictator appointed. Genl. Washington and Genl. Greene are talk’d of. I dare to say your knowledge of those worthy Gentlemen, will be sufficient to convince you that neither of them will or ought to except of such an appointment. Genl. Wayn join’d the Marquis yesterday with a very respectable Corps—perhaps it might be the day before, accounts differ. We have but a thin House of Delligates, but they are Zealous I think in the cause of Virtue.

I want to see you much. I think, this session of Assembly will be very strict.

I am Yr. unshaken frd.,

H Young

RC (Vi); addressed to Davies without indication of place; endorsed.

A dictator: If George Nicholas announced his intention to introduce a motion to this effect on 7 June (as reported by Young), he did so on the first day the House met at Staunton, whither they had adjourned on the approach of Tarleton’s troops to Charlottesville on 4 June, having already resolved “That during the present dangerous invasion, forty members be a sufficient number to compose a House to proceed upon business” (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , May 1781, 1828 edn., p. 10). Though the journal of this session contains no record of such a motion on the 9th or any other day, there is no doubt that the motion was made and that it touched off a bitter controversy. The fullest account is in a letter from Archibald Stuart to TJ, dated at Staunton, 8 Sep. 1818 (MH: Sparks Transcripts). Stuart was not a member of the House of Delegates, but he was a spectator of its proceedings at Staunton in June and stated that Nicholas spoke in favor of establishing “a Dictator … in this Commonwealth who should have the power of disposing of the lives and fortunes of the Citizens thereof without being subject to account.” Nicholas proposed George Washington for this post and “refered to the practice of the Romans on similar occasions. After Mr. Nicholas sat down Mr. Henry addressed the Chair; he observed it was immaterial to him whether the Officer proposed was called a Dictator or a Governor with enlarged powers or by any other name yet surely an Officer armed with such powers was necessary to restrain the unbridled fury of a licentious enemy and concluded by seconding the Motion.” The motion, Stuart continued, was opposed by Mann Page of Spotsylvania and others. “After a lengthy discussion the proposition was negatived,” and it was obvious that the proposal “was not relished by the people. … I communicated these facts to you,” Stuart concluded, “shortly after they took place.”

The information from Stuart (perhaps communicated orally in the summer of 1781) was no doubt the cause of TJ’s long and vigorous denunciation of attempts to establish dictatorships in Virginia in his Notes on Virginia at the conclusion of his answer to Query xiii (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed.,The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,“Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends iii, 231–5); he here replies directly to the arguments used by Nicholas and Henry and states that the dictatorship proposal “wanted a few votes only of being passed.” In a MS addition in his own copy (ViU) of the Stockdale edn. of Notes on Virginia, London, 1787, p. 207, TJ stated that the motion “was rejected by a majority of 6. only.” (This more precise statement, evidently based on later information, was included in a footnote in the Randolph edn. of the Notes, Charlottesville, 1853.) TJ’s bitterness on this subject was unquestionably owing to his conviction that Patrick Henry himself aspired to this post of unlimited power and that Henry’s initiative in the move to censure TJ’s administration (see under 12 June, below) was part of a concerted plan to gain that end. This is clear from the narrative of these proceedings by Girardin, who wrote under TJ’s eye and with his approval.

“At length,” wrote Girardin about 1814, “a powerful army under Cornwallis was poured into Virginia, which was only aided by an inconsiderable regular force under La Fayette; and the Assembly was driven by the enemy over the mountains to Staunton. At this juncture, some of its members turned their eyes towards a dictator; and measures for effecting the project were suddenly taken, with the zeal inspired by a belief that its execution was necessary to save the country. An individual, highly conspicuous for his talents and usefulness through the anterior scenes of the great revolutionary drama, was spoken of as the proper person to fill the contemplated office, to introduce which, it was necessary to place Mr. Jefferson hors de combat. For this purpose, the misfortunes of the period were ascribed to him; he was impeached in some loose way, and a day for some species of hearing, at the succeeding session of Assembly, was appointed. However this was, no evidence was ever offered to sustain the impeachment; no question was ever taken upon it, disclosing, on the part of the Assembly, any approbation of the measure; and the hearing was appointed by general consent for the purpose, as many members expressed themselves, to give Mr. Jefferson an opportunity of demonstrating the absurdity of the censure. But the impeachment, sour as was the temper of the Legislature, failed to produce the two ends it had in view, namely, to put down Mr. Jefferson, and to put up the project for a Dictator. The pulse of the Assembly was incidently felt in debates on the state of the Commonwealth, and, out of doors, by personal conversations. Out of these a ferment gradually arose, which foretold a violent opposition to any species of Dictatorship, and, as in a previous instance of a similar attempt, the apprehension of personal danger produced a relinquishment of the scheme” (Burk-Girardin, Hist. of Va., iv, Appendix, p. xi-xii).

Edmund Randolph, writing in 1809 or earlier, comments on TJ’s “great bitterness [in the Notes on Virginia] against those members of the assembly in the years 1776 and 1781, who espoused the creation of a dictator.” Randolph does not mention the name of any person proposed for this office; he attributes both moves to panic and declares that neither had the remotest chance of succeeding: “Let it be understood, that the power, which may have saved Rome, would have made Virginia revolt” (“Essay,” VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , xliv [1936], 314–15). William Wirt in his biography of Henry, first published in 1817, thought it “highly probable, that Mr. Henry was the character who was in view for that office,” but that “The project came from other quarters” than Henry himself (Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, Philadelphia, 1817, p. 231; see also Henry, Henry, ii, 145–8). What Henry’s own inner thoughts were on this subject—as on many others—will probably never be known. For what another prominent Virginian, not present at Staunton, was thinking on the question of a dictatorship, see R. H. Lee to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 12 June 1781, below.

Index Entries