Thomas Jefferson Papers

Charges Advanced by George Nicholas, with Jefferson’s Answers, [after 31 July 1781]

Charges Advanced by George Nicholas,
with Jefferson’s Answers

[After 31 July 1781]

Obj. That Genl. Washington’s information was that an embarkation was taking place destined for this state.

Ans. His information was, that it was destined for the Southward as was given out in N. York. Had similar informations from Genl. Washington and Congress been considered as sufficient ground at all times for calling the militia into the feild there would have been a standing army of militia kept up; because there has never been a time since the invasion expected in Dec. 1779, but what we have had those intimations hanging over our heads. The truth is that Genl. Washington always considered it as his duty to convey every rumor of an embarkation: but we (for some time past at least) never thought any thing but actual invasion should induce us to the expence1 of calling the militia into the feild; except in the case of Dec. 1779 when it was thought proper to do this in order to convince the French of our disposition to protect their ships. Inattention to this necessary ?conomy in the beginning went far towards that ruin of our finances which followed.

Where were the post riders established last summer?

Ans. They were established at Continental expence to convey speedy information to Congress of the arrival of the French fleet then expected here. When that arrived at Rhode island these expresses were discontinued. They were again established on the invasion of October, and discontinued when that ceased, and again on the first intimation of the invasion of Dec. But it will be asked, why were they not established on Genl. Washington’s letters? Because those letters were no more than we had received upon many former occasions, and would have led to a perpetual establishment of post riders.

Obj. If a proper number of men had been put into motion on Monday for the relief of the lower country and ordered to march to Wmsburg. that they would at least have been in the neighborhood of Richmond on Thursday.

Ans. The order could not be till Tuesday because we then received our first certain inform[ation].2 Half the militia of the counties round about Richmond were then ordered out, and the whole of them on the 4th,3 and ordered not to wait to come in a body but in detachments as they could assemble. Yet were there not on Friday4 more than 200 collected, and they were principally of the town of Richmond.

Obj. That we had not signals.

Ans. This tho’ a favorite plan of some gentlemen and perhaps a practicable one, has hitherto been thought too difficult.

Obj. That we had not look-outs.

Ans. There had been no cause to order lookouts more than has been ever existing. This is only in fact asking why we do not always keep lookouts.

Obj. That we had not heavy artillery on travelling carriages.

Ans. The gentlemen who acted as members of the B. of W. [Board of War] a twelvemonth can answer this question by giving the character of the artificers whom during that time they could never get to mount the heavy artillery. The same reason prevented their being mounted from May 1780 to December. We have even been unable to get those heavy cannon moved from Cumberland by the whole energy of government. A like difficulty which occurred in the removal of those at S. Quay in their day, will convince them of the possibility of this.

Obj. That there was not a body of militia thrown into Portsmouth, the Great bridge, Suffolk.

Ans. In the Summer of 1780, we asked the favor of Genl. Nelson to call together the County Lieutenants of the lower counties and concert the general measures which should be taken for instant opposition on any invasion until aid could be ordered by the Executive, and these county Lieutenants were ordered to obey his call. He did so. The first moment to wit on Sat. Dec. 31. 8. o’clock A.M.5 of our receiving information of the appearance of a fleet in the bay, we asked the favor of Genl. Nelson to go down, which he did, with full powers to call together the militia of any counties he thought proper, to call on the keepers of any public arms or stores, and to adopt for the instant such measures as exigencies required till we could be better informed.

Qu. Why were not Genl. Nelson and the brave officers with him particularly mentioned?

Ans. What should have been said of them? The enemy did not land nor give them an opportunity of doing what nobody doubts they would have done, that is, somewhat worthy of being minutely recited.

Qu. Why publish Arnold’s letter without Genl. Nelson’s answer?

Ans. Ask the printer. He got neither from the Executive.

‘As to the calling out a few militia and that not till late.’

Ans. It is denied that they were few or late. 4700 men (the number required by Baron Steuben) were called out the moment an invasion was known to have taken place; that is on Tuesday6 Jan. 2.

Obj. The abandonment of York and Portsmouth7 fortifications.

Ans. How can they be kept without regulars on the large scale on which they were formed? Would it be approved of to harrass the militia with garrisoning them?

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 6: 1014–15); without caption. From the handwriting and the presence of some interlined corrections it seems probable that this is the original statement drawn up by TJ in the summer or fall of 1781. Filed with it (DLC: TJ Papers, 6: 1011 and 1016) are two fair copies of the same paper in TJ’s hand, one of which is a polygraph copy of the other; these are identical in phrasing with the MS described above, but they differ from it in some spellings and are more carefully punctuated. Both fair copies originally had the same caption, but the caption of that at 6: 1016 contains a later insertion by TJ, enclosed in square brackets in the following transcription: “Heads of charges proposed by Mr. George Nicholas to be urged against Mr. Jefferson before the H. of Representatives of Virginia [obtained from Mr. Nicholas in writing <by a friend> and communicated by a friend] with the heads of answers proposed to be given by Mr. Jefferson.” The date when the fair copies were made has not been ascertained; it could not have been before June 1804, when TJ began regular use of the polygraph, and a plausible conjectural date would be 1805, when TJ prepared a statement on his conduct in 1781 (see notes and documents relating to the British invasions in 1781, Document I, printed above under date of 31 Dec. 1780). Still another text of the charges and answers is embedded in the enclosure in TJ’s letter to Joseph Delaplaine, 26 July 1816; this text is identical in substance with the others except for a single inserted phrase which is noted below.

TJ himself provided the best introductory comments on this paper, and they may be read in the several versions of his vindicatory statement printed above among the notes and documents relating to the British invasions in 1781, 31 Dec. 1780; see Vol. 4: 261–2, 264, 268, notes 15–16. But these by no means answer all the questions posed by this paper. The principal unanswered question is of course: What relation does the present paper have to the informal series of charges set forth in George Nicholas’ letter of 31 July, preceding? Nicholas there offered five matters for investigation, only the first and third of which relate to Arnold’s invasion in January; but the formal series of charges is eleven in number, and all bear directly on the January invasion. TJ himself says that the formal charges were “obtained from Mr. Nicholas in writing and communicated by a friend,” but no such paper by Nicholas has been found, the “friend” who communicated it has not been identified, and the time and circumstances of its being communicated are unknown. It is possible that the formal list of charges here given is the “Catalogue of omissions, and other Misconduct” mentioned by Cary (letter of 19 June, above); more probably this list was drawn up by the anti-Jeffersonian group after 1 Oct. when the Assembly met again, since the legislature had already adjourned when Nicholas received TJ’s letter of 28 July. It is unlikely that these charges were prepared by the committee of investigation appointed on 26 Nov. (see John Harvie to TJ, 27 Nov. 1781 and enclosure), since TJ obtained his list privately and since that committee had been instructed to convey “in writing, to the members which composed the Executive” any accusations brought before them. Besides, that committee never brought any charges on the floor of the House. (TJ himself voluntarily read these charges, with his answers, to the House on 12 Dec. 1781.)

Some of the questions asked and answered in this paper are puzzling in themselves. There had evidently been discussion during TJ’s term of office about signals (perhaps the use of flaming tar barrels), but that discussion is not on record. The question why were not genl. Nelson and the brave officers with him particularly mentioned raises the further questions: mentioned when and where? In his “communiqu” on the January invasion published in the Virginia Gazette for 13 Jan. (printed above, Vol. 4: 269–70), TJ does mention Nelson’s action. The question why publish Arnold’s letter without genl. Nelson’s answer is partly explicable, though the gaps in the file of the Virginia Gazette at this period make it impossible to state in what issue of that paper Arnold’s letter was published. The letter in question (now in NHi: Steuben Papers) is from Arnold “On Board his Majestys Ship Hope,” 2 Jan. 1781, to “The Officer commanding the forces on shore,” professing surprise at “the Hostil appearances of the Inhabitants under Arms on shore” and inquiring if they intend “to Offer a vain opposition to […] Troops under my command in their landing.” According to a letter to Steuben (same location) from James Fairlie, aide-de-camp, Williamsburg, same date, “Genl. Nelson sent his compliments back to Mr. Arnold, Viva Voce, appologising that he had not pen and Ink, that he would oppose him, as long as he has a Man to fight.”

See resolution of thanks to Jefferson by the Virginia General Assembly, 12–19 Dec. 1781.

1In the 1816 version of the charges and answers sent to Delaplaine, the phrase “and harrassment” was added here.

2This sentence is interlined in MS for the following, deleted: “The fact however was otherwise.”

3This passage is much corrected in MS, which reads, with interlineations and deletions, as follows: “Half the militia of the counties round about Richmond were then [preceding word interlined] ordered out <on> <Monday> <Tuesday>, and the whole of them on <Tuesday> <the next day> <Wednesday> the 4th.” This series of alterations shows that TJ’s memory of these events tended to be over-favorable to himself but that he corrected it by reference to records. See the Council’s proceedings for 1–4 Jan. 1781 (Va. Council Jour., ii, 268–72) and TJ’s letters to various county lieutenants, 2 and 4 Jan. 1781.

4Interlined in MS for “Thursday,” deleted.

5From the words “to wit” this passage is interlined in MS. The 31st was, however, a Sunday, not a Saturday.

6Interlined in MS for “Monday,” deleted.

7Interlined in MS for “Hampton,” deleted.

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