Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Beckley, enclosing a Resolution of the House of Delegates, 12 June 1781

From John Beckley, enclosing a Resolution of the House of Delegates

Staunton 12th. June 1781.


I am directed by the House of Delegates to convey to you information respecting a Resolution of their House, of this Date, for an Enquirey into the Conduct of the Executive for the last twelve Months; I therefore, Sir, do myself the honour to inclose a Copy of that Resolution: And remain with great regard, Sir, Your obedient humble Servant,

John Beckley


 In the House of Delegates, the 12th. of June 1781.

Resolved that at the next Session of Assembly An enquirey be made into the Conduct of the Executive for the last twelve Months.

  Teste,     John Beckley C.h.d.
a Copy
    John Beckley C.h.d.

RC (DLC); addressed: “The Honourable Thomas Jefferson Esquire Albemarle”; endorsed by TJ: “recd Aug. 7. 1781.” Enclosure (DLC); also in Beckley’s hand. From the address and endorsement it seems probable that the letter went from Staunton to Charlottesville to Poplar Forest (near Lynchburg) and back to Monticello, where TJ had returned from Poplar Forest on 26 July. From TJ’s exchange with George Nicholas, 28 and 31 July, it is clear that he had received unofficial word of the proposed legislative inquiry long before receiving Beckley’s official communication; see Archibald Cary to TJ, 19 June 1781.

Among other items of business performed by the diminished General Assembly this day were the following, in this order: a committee of the House met with a committee from the Senate, examined the ballots cast for “a Governor or Chief Magistrate of the Commonwealth for the ensuing year … and found a majority of votes in favor of Thomas Nelson, jun. Esq.”; the House adopted the resolution printed above; the House and Senate jointly elected William Cabell, Samuel Hardy, and Samuel McDowell members of the Council “in the room of those who have resigned”; and the House resolved “That the Executive be desired to present to Captain John Jouett, an elegant sword and pair of pistols, as a memorial of the high sense which the General Assembly entertain of his activity and enterprize, in watching the motions of the enemy’s cavalry on their late incursion to Charlottesville, and conveying to the Assembly timely information of their approach, whereby the designs of the enemy were frustrated, and many valuable stores preserved” (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. 15). As Malone remarks, the proceedings of this day “marked the nadir of the entire public career of Thomas Jefferson” (Jefferson, i, 361). For a confidential account by a participant who strongly supported TJ, see Archibald Cary’s letter of 19 June, below. See also Randolph’s “Essay,” written in 1809 or earlier, which flatly states that “Colo. George Nicholas and Mr. Patrick Henry were those who censured Mr. Jefferson” (VMHB description begins Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1893- description ends , xliv [1936], 321).

Though this point was later lost sight of, the term the executive used in the resolution was clearly intended to embrace the members of the Council as well as the Governor; moreover, Nicholas himself (in his letter to TJ of 31 July) used the expression “persons entrusted with the administration.” So far as attending to duty is concerned, the inquiry would have been much more appropriately directed toward the conduct of the members of Council alone. During the first half of 1781 TJ could not obtain a full board (four members besides the Governor) between 4 and 19 Jan., 13 and 20 Feb., 25 Apr. and 10 May; the last full meeting of the Council during TJ’s governorship occurred on the last-mentioned date (Va. Council Jour., ii, 271–3, 292–6, 341–6). Two members of Council resigned during these hectic months (see Joseph Prentis to TJ, 8 Apr., and Dudley Digges to TJ, 14 May); and one person declined to serve (see John Tyler to TJ, 1 Apr.). After the junction of the British armies at Petersburg, the situation may be summed up in a phrase used by Betsy Ambler, daughter of Councilor Jacquelin Ambler: “everybody scampering.” Miss Ambler in this same letter found the Governor’s precipitate flight to Carter’s Mountain “laughable,” but her very next letter describes how her father slept in a coach guarded by a slave these nights and how the family were carried hither and yon at every rumor of the enemy’s approach (“An Old Virginia Correspondence,” Atlantic Monthly, lxxxiv [1899], 537–9). During these alarms and excursions the late president of the Council, Dudley Digges, was captured (R. H. Lee to Virginia Delegates in Congress, 12 June 1781, below); and the sole member present and active from 1 to 12 June was William Fleming, whom TJ on 13 May had urgently summoned to Charlottesville in order to “make a Board.”

By some remarkable oversight (perhaps indicating that the anti-Jefferson group were not really interested in attaching blame to anyone but the former Governor), the members of TJ’s executive board who had remained in office did not receive notice of the resolution of inquiry until the middle of July. (There had been a full board meeting on 20 June at Staunton, and on 23 June the Assembly had adjourned until October. The Council sat at Charlottesville from 2 July.) Under date of 16 July the following entry appears in Va. Council Jour., ii, 356:

“This day the following resolution of the House of Delegates, passed at Staunton, the 12th of June last was received under cover directed to David Jameson, William Fleming, Andrew Lewis, George Webb and Jaquelin Ambler esquires.

“’Resolved that at the next session of Assembly an inquiry be made into the conduct of the executive for the last twelve months.’

“The underwritten members, who till now were strangers to such a resolution having passed, think it their bounden duty to declare, that conscious of the rectitude of their intentions through the course of the most arduous and expensive attendance on public business, however unsuccessful their endeavours may have been, they are very ready and willing to have their public conduct enquired into with the most scrupulous exactness:—That as they cannot but feel most sensibly this implied censure on them, so they should not, from motives of delicasy alone, if there were no other, continue their attendance at the Board, at least till the result of the intended enquiry shall have convinced their fellow Citizens that their honest and best endeavors have not been wanting to serve their country, but that a secession of the members, to whom the fore-mentioned resolution was addressed would leave the State without a legal Executive at a time when the want of one may be productive of the most fatal consequences.

“Signed in the minutes by David Jameson Andrew Lewis and Jaquelin Ambler.” (George Webb and William Fleming did not sign because they were not present at this meeting of Council.)

With respect to TJ’s partners in the executive office during his governorship the matter of the inquiry seems to have ended here. They were never called upon to defend themselves, and TJ, who correctly judged himself to be the target of the critics in the legislature, did not feel it necessary to defend them.

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